New Piece in Rituals & Declarations issue 4

I was delighted to be published in the 4th issue of Rituals and Declarations, Paul Watson’s limited-run zine (available here). The article was about my response to the London Road Stone Circle, a stunning piece of urban land art. I’ve heard from a few people who’ve recently set out to explore this work, some of whom had no idea it was there, even though they’d been stepping over it for years. So, that’s good.

I’m particularly pleased to be part of a magazine that has captured so well a community and a turbulent time. Other people published in this series include friends such as Sooxanne, Cat Vincent and Justin Hopper, as well as several people I admire but have yet to meet. Subjects have included Sooxanne writing on Perchta celebrations, a piece on the Burryman, and Allyson Shaw writing about the Maggie Wall memorial. My favourite so far was Dee Dee Chainey’s Covid Eve in the Northern Counties. Set in 2030, this described the events of the Covid Bank Holiday weekend, the Monday closest to March 23rd. It was soothing to see the trials of 2020 absorbed into folklore, and to look at a seemingly-inescapable present as simply more history.

The series has captured a mood among its readers and writers. The first issue came out just after the 2019 election. “These are not good times,” wrote Paul, with no idea what was to come. By issue 2, covid-19 was spreading. Issue 3 came out as the death toll hit 45,000 yet lockdown was easing, a strange and alienating time.

I particularly love how Paul has hosted this magazine. Paul sees Rituals and Declarations as a community, but he also insists on the need for a variety of communities, so that these networks are stronger and more resilient. To that end, Rituals and Declarations was intended to run for only four issues, making a space explicitly for more things to emerge into.

The new issue includes some amazing pieces, such as Jess Richter’s description of a ritual performed at an old family home. Also striking was Maria J. Pérez Cuervo’s essay on women and walking (to my shame, I did not know about Michelle Bernstein’s description of a feminist derive in her novel All the King’s Horses). I was particularly happy to be published alongside Cat Vincent, whose writing about magic is beautifully down-to-earth. His new piece Plastic Altars, Titanium Bones: A Declaration is a powerful description of his relationship to tradition.

Given the strange times, Paul has extended the run for a second volume, another four issues. Rituals and Declarations has been a good companion through dark times. I look forward to it being a companion as the world emerges from the darkness.

Ten-word short stories

Earlier in October was the prize giving for Shoreham Wordfest. I went along as I’d won two prizes for 10-word stories. You can read all three of my entries on the Shoreham Wordfest website.

It was the first time I’d been out since March, when I went to the Trope event at Phoenix Gallery. This event was very different, with rules almost as strict as an aeroplane flight. Everyone remained masked throughout the performances, and drinks were brought to our seats.

A very 2020 picture

It was great to see Katrina Quinn, who’d also read at that Trope event. She read Bittersweet, an account of a pilgrimage on the South Downs Way. Katrina had travelled through Cocking at around the same time as Katharine, Romi and I were there recently.

The prose prize was judged by Catherine Smith, who read her future-tense story When. Catherine spoke a little about flash and micro-fiction, talking about how the ten-word stories needed both a premise and change.

The competition involved submitting three ten-word stories. I wrote a brace of them and then rejected several for not coming down to the required word-length. Of the stories, two won prizes and one was highly-commended. The last of these, a clown story, was actually my favourite, but nobody else seems as impressed with my clown stories as I am.

1,001 Bucket Lists to Complete Before You Die

While I hate the idea of them, bucket lists fascinate me. It’s the way that they reduce life to a set of tasks to complete before the ultimate deadline.

It’s particularly creepy how the media promotes impersonal bucket lists, almost-arbitrary requirements to have lived a ‘complete’ life. There is a whole series of books based around things that you should do before you die, produced by Quintessence Editions. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. 1001 Natural Wonders You Must See Before You Die. 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die. And so on.

I know these books are not really intended to be completed, but I find the idea that you might try enthralling. I have to hold myself back from researching or writing about this, because it’s a black hole and I have too many distractions already.

But, I can imagine a book collecting these books – 1001 Bucket Lists to Complete Before you Die. I can see each one graded – difficulty, novelty, time to complete and so on.

Take the book of 1000 books to read before you die. If you managed 100 books a year, that is ten years of solid reading. I only manage 100 books on a good year, and one that involves a lot of travelling. 1,000 books will take even longer if you interrupt it with other books. 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die is, allowing for sleep, about 9 weeks. Then there are the ones requiring travel, such as 1001 restaurants You Must Experience Before You Die. Maybe you could combine that with another book requiring travel but even so… it’s a lot.

And so many others… 101 chillies to try before you die. 1001 TV Series to Watch (how many hours is each of these?). 101 Gins. 1001 plants you must grow before you die. Although I am quite tempted to browse 1001 Walks You must experience before you die. I doubt I could get even a tenth of the way through that in what remains of this lifetime.

I wish I had time before I die to review 1001 of these volumes. I think it would make quite a book.

New story: If Vampires were real

On Sunday, a story of mine was published on Paragraph Planet: If Vampires Were Real. Paragraph Planet is a long-running flash-fiction site, which publishes a 75-word story each day.

If Vampires Were Real was written as part of the Not for the Faint-Hearted sessions, which I have been running online most Saturdays since lockdown begun. We write 8 or 9 stories each session, which means I’ve written about 100 tiny stories during the pandemic. Most of them I throw away, but a few are worth polishing-up.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve also been writing 500-word stories as part of the Writer’s HQ Flash-Face-Off. I’ve written four pieces so far. None of them have taken a long time to write, but I am fairly happy with how they’ve turned out. All four are going to find a way into my South Downs Way project.

The stories I produce quickly to prompts seems to work better than the pieces I labour with. Lockdown is giving me an opportunity to play with my writing, and I am still learning new things.

Lovecraft in Brighton

For the last six months I’ve been working on my South Downs Way project, a large project made out of short stories. It’s not the only such project I have ongoing. Since 2014, I’ve been working on a slow-burning project called Lovecraft in Brighton. It’s a collection about an alcoholic who is haunted by the ghost of HP Lovecraft: basically Kitchen-Sink Cosmic Horror.

The booklet has been for sale on my online store. Every time someone buys a copy, I write a new story and the price goes up by 10p. When I finish the volume, it will be compiled into an e-book and sent to all the people who have bought it.

As bad as I am at self-promotion, people rarely see the store and buy a copy. But someone recently bought one so I had to write a new horror story. Which took ages. Writing doomy horror is a lot less fun in the current situation.

I’ve taken it off sale for the time being, but will re-add it when I feel more in the mood. This is a long-running project, and I am alright with that. Once I’ve done a few more volumes of the South Downs Way I will put it back on sale. At this rate, I will probably finish this in my 50s. And that’s OK.

How I Fell in Love with Microfiction

One of the greatest horror stories ever written is Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s A Woman Alone with her Soul. The story in its entirety is 26 words:

A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world: every other living thing is dead. The doorbell rings.

The power of this story comes from being so short. We could expand it, maybe name the main character – we could even give them a backstory. But those twenty-six words are enough to raise questions – and I think the questions are more interesting than the answers would be. There is a space for us to imagine: what has happened to the world? how does the woman know she is the last one left? what has destroyed “every other living thing”, and how come she is sitting alone in her house? What is going on here?

I encountered Splatterpunk before I heard the Sex Pistols, before I had any idea what punk meant. It’s a strange genre, desperate to shock, to transgress as much as possible. In the 1990 anthology there is one story by Richard Christian Matheson, called Red. It’s so short that it’s almost dwarfed by the introduction.
(Something I miss from short story anthologies is those long, indulgent intros, because they made the writers seem much larger than life). Red outshines every other story in the collection in little more than a page. The horror of the scene builds and is released. There are gaps in this story too, the same ones the characters ask: how can this be allowed?

But the tiny horror stories I love most are the microfictions in Harlan Ellison’s A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet. It’s a collection of twenty-six short horror stories, some of which were written as a stunt in a book shop window. A couple of them were quoted in Stephen King’s book Danse Macabre. They were short, strange pieces, and probably stand as my introduction to flash.

I’ve read long novels that have vanished from my mind within hours. But Red and A Woman Alone with her Soul have stuck with me for years. And I think much of their strength comes from their brevity.

Secret Knots

One of the things I’m doing on lockdown is to start consolidating the writing I’ve done over the years. I’m compiling a list of my publications and there’s a lot to add. There are also a few things that I’ve forgotten and neglected.

One of these is Secret Knots. It’s a weird zine I wrote about a business trip I made to LA in 2017. The only place it’s mentioned online is in a message I sent to my mailing list. I sent a few copies out by post and forgot all about it.

Secret Knots is about tourism, business travel and the way my life felt at that point. It’s a strange piece, and doesn’t fit comfortably in any particular genre, but I think it works as a zine and I enjoyed re-reading it.

I was reminded about this when a German academic asked me about any walking zines I’ve done. I’ve re-printed a few copies, so email me if you would like one.

New Story-Zine: Cows Don’t Believe in Slaughterhouses

I’ve just got the copies back of a new story-zine called Cows Don’t Believe in Slaughterhouses. The zine contains 12 stories, from 50 words to 1,800 words, most written in the last year, but a couple of them dating back much further.

If you want a copy of this, give me a shout (if you don’t have my email, then leave a message in the comments – I won’t publish your address!). There are 35 copies of this print run, and I have a pile of stamps and envelopes ready to send them off.

A new decade is a good time for new starts. After trying lots of things with my writing that didn’t really work out, I’ve become increasingly excited about writing short fiction again. I’m bursting with new ideas, inspired by rage at the world around me, and hoping to get another new zine out soon.

I’m not sure how big the reach of this is going to be, given I have no social media now, and very few people are on the blog or the newsletter. But, one thing I’ve learned from the slash community is that the enthusiasm of an audience is far more important than how large it is. And it’s more fun sending out a few zines than none at all.

I’m also planning another mailout soon from the newsletter, which is also a good place for updates about the future zines.

Looking back at my blog

I recently re-read my whole blog archive. 12 years is a long time, and the word count was the same as three average-sized novels. The review was more fun than I expected. There was a playfulness to blogging when I started, which has now moved over to Twitter and Facebook. These days, a lot of people seem to use blogging mostly for Really Big Thoughts, which are then linked to from the streams. Which make sense, as few people are following blogs these days, but I miss having both those modes.

When I first started blogging, around 2000, I decided not to be negative in my posts. While I was far from happy for parts of the 2007-19 period, the memories I’d recorded were positive ones, and the bad vibes were lost. Looking back, being reminded of capers and shows and friends was a lovely feeling.

The biggest surprise was seeing my writing take shape over a longer period. There was a feeling of potential, which I seem to have lost recently. That’s not in the sense of having losing or wasting potential – I mean that I used to approach my writing in a more open and enthusiastic manner. I was excited by so many things: new journalism, live performance, reality hunger, new aesthetic, networked realism. It was good to be reminded of this. That passion and potential has gotten lost along the way, which might be why I’ve had so much trouble with writing recently. More play, less planning.

And You’re not my Babylon, released in 1994 and posted about in 2012, is still one of the greatest songs ever written.

(Technical note – turning the WordPress XML archive into a Kindle file was more of a faff than I planned. I used to be pretty good at XSLT but, in the end, I googled for a script someone else had made. Then, rather than build the .mobi file from scratch, I loaded the HTML into word to produce a doc I could transmit with the send-to-kindle app. I wonder if simple tasks like ‘read my blog on my kindle’ will always be a drag?)

The Money-Burner’s Tale

Jon Harris, aka the Money-Burner, recently published an account of the Cerne2CERN pilgrimage, Barefoot in Bollingen. It’s a great essay, threading together a number of themes.

The pilgrimage was a strange and significant event for me, and one I don’t yet understand; but I’m OK with taking a long time to absorb what happened. Those few days were like nothing I’ve done before. I’m taking my time to interpret and understand the events, and seeing the writings and responses from other pilgrims is a part of this.

One of the many aims of the pilgrimage was as an action to eliminate ‘story as we know it‘, an idea raised in Daisy Campbell’s show Pigspurt’s Daughter. But there were a lot of other aims, and whole networks of meanings and correspondences. To quote Jon quoting Daisy quoting Bill Drummond, ‘As to why, if we knew why, we wouldn’t be doing it’.

Jon’s essay explains why we went barefoot in the final part of the journey to Jung’s garden; it was related to the procession of the Crown of Thorns into Paris. The essay also talks a lot about ritual, something I’ve been thinking a lot about, particularly in relation to the Loops performance. I was particularly taken by the idea that ritual should be about more than producing an effect:

In my own Rituals I’ve found that the more I can let go of the idea that a Ritual has a function — that it is for something — the more powerful it is. What I mean by ‘powerful’ is that it sits more solidly on its own fixed point and so exerts a greater pull on the vortex of synchronicities that surround it. It pulls them into being.

There are other things I love about the essay. I love the glimpses of the pilgrimage’s logistics –  as someone who’s worked as a project manager, I learned a lot from seeing Jon and Daisy work. I have no doubt that those lessons will emerge in upcoming IT projects. But, swerving from the essay to talking  about myself, the piece also made me rethink my writing.

Story tends to be focused on in a lot of writing, even in non-fiction works. The first creative writing course I did focused on literary fiction and we were taught to fold everything into a plot. But story can be unsatisfying – particularly when all of it is based around a limited range of models. For example, Save the Cat dictated the plot of many recent Hollywood films. Jon’s piece made me realise that the writing I’ve loved most over the past few years is not about telling a story as such. Indeed, while it is ‘about’ the pilgrimage, that’s more in the sense of ‘writing around’ than telling its story.

Reading this particular essay made me realise how much I love writing that builds networks of ideas. These sorts of symbolic connections seem to particularly emerge in writing informed by magic, manufacturing (revealing?) meaning in the connections. As specific examples, I’m thinking of John Higgs’ book on the KLF,Cosmic Trigger or Promethea. There are more interesting ways of writing than telling stories.