It’s a privilege to be part of a double bill with HP Lovecraft over at Tales to Terrify, a podcast presented by Lawrence Santoro. Lawrence reads Lovecraft’s The Hound, followed by Gareth Stack’s performance of my story Once Seen.
In addition to stories written in recent years about an owl (The Owl) and a shrike (Slitten Gorge), as well as a novel born from the question: What if people behaved like insects? (The Unblemished), I’ve just finished some stories about a pike (The Pike) and a wolf – well, sort of – (Manners). I’m now at work on a story called The Fox, which is all about a badger. No, just kidding, it really is about a fox. I’m not sure what it is that keeps drawing me back to wild animals. I grew up in an industrial town in the north-west of England and apart from school visits to Chester zoo, the closest I ever came to tooth-and-claw was witnessing a hawk clutching a mouse on a neighbour’s fencepost. Sometimes there was a heron in Sankey Valley park. But nothing, you know, exotic. That changed when I went to live in France in 2003. We had bought a crumbling farmhouse near Cognac which had a resident barn owl and at least one snake, which liked to cool off in that year’s lethal summer by wriggling into the cracks in our stone walls. In the garden I once, thrillingly, found a praying mantis. The Owl was written, not in tribute to the barn owl living in one of the outbuildings, but another that had somehow found its way into the attic and become trapped and we found, desiccated near a window, when the estate agent was giving us a guided tour.
Horror writers, I suppose, are naturally drawn to that wild element that flickers within, whether it be in a predator or a human being prone to violence. I might be wrong, but the fox – despite its willingness to visit urban areas – is an animal that carries more than its fair share of wildness within it; an animal that surely could not be domesticated. On a visit to a forest zoo in France (Zoodyssee, just south of Niort), I came face-to-face with a fox in its den, albeit separated by a pane of glass. That I’ve never forgotten its stink, or its scream, or the flash of pure fury in its saccadic eyes when I got too close, or the V of its gaping mouth is probably why I felt the need to somehow capture its mercurial character in a story.
Related to dogs, yet solitary and cat-like in behaviour, the omnivorous fox is a clever – some might say calculated – animal. It can conceal its scent by leaping on to the backs of sheep or using its bushy tail to erase its own tracks. It can attract prey to it by imitating the bleats or yelps of a lost lamb or injured rabbit. Cunning indeed… (on that visit we also saw vultures fighting over whole, raw chickens, but that’s another story).
Next up, I’m planning to write about worms. Not quite the same thing, but still wild I suppose.
It’s nice to be invited to contribute a story to an anthology. It’s difficult to turn down such opportunities; you don’t know if the editor will ask you again. So you agree, thinking, ha, the deadline is months off, all will be neato mosquito…
It’s great (though rare) when you have an instant idea that you know will fit, or you find a promising fragment from your ideas folder that, with some persuasion, might match the brief you’ve been sent. What’s less great is being blocked, especially when you’ve emailed to say yes, thank you, I’d love to send you something. Weeks go by. That fluffy deadline making cow eyes at you becomes a Stygian pit ringed with teeth at the foot of a slippery incline that you are now standing on, wearing shoes fashioned from banana skins.
With great relief I’ve just submitted a story for an anthology*. The deadline was the start of September (the invitation came in April), but the editor made it clear he was running late and would be reading for the book throughout the rest of this month.
The story I sent was my ninth attempt.
The previous eight efforts came to nothing and total around 6000 words. The longest piece was around 4500 words, the shortest, just 28. I was close to admitting defeat and telling the editor that my muse just wouldn’t put out for me this time. I suppose I should be grateful that I recognised there was a problem and bailed, despite all the work. Anyway, I decided to give it one more try and finally produced something I’m happy with.
Never give up is the message, I guess. Plough that seemingly barren field because you might just unearth a delicious potato. And those 6000 words will somehow not be a waste, even if I never actually use them for anything else…
*Of course, there’s no guarantee the story will be accepted…
He struck into the fish and the immediate resistance of it corded his forearms; it was a big bastard, maybe twenty-plus pounds. The far bank, the factory, the wedges of leaden cloud rising on the horizon, all of this receded until his focus took in only the tip of his rod and the boiling surface of the canal just beyond it. It was in such moments, when the world mostly went away and he was blindly connected to the animal on his hook, that he felt anything like alive. His mind stopped harking back to a time when he wished he might have been happier. It did not pick at the scab of his grandfather or mope over the decay that drove his parents apart. His skin was just a dull sack that contained him, rather than a complex structure that was degrading, conspiring to pull him apart. There was a single, pure thought. How to deliver something from one element into another.
From Born with Teeth, out soon from PS Publishing.
I know little about Josef Hochman, other than he illustrated an edition of Treasure Island that was produced in Czechoslovakia and published as a beautiful hardback in this country by Paul Hamlyn in 1967. My father bought a copy and gave it to me in May 1971. His inscription reads:
About six or seven years too soon. I’m sure you will appreciate a marvellous story.
I was two at the time… but I did get around to reading the book when I was older. I’m not sure how deeply Stevenson’s tale would have influenced me had I read a version illustrated by a different artist, or containing no pictures at all. Doubtless it is an incredibly exciting story in itself, but Hochman’s eerie, grotesque paintings – imbued with a strange marine tinge, as if he had included seawater on his palette – contained a power all of their own and made a huge impact on me, even before I could read the accompanying words.
How that personage haunted my dreams, I need scarcely tell you. On stormy nights, when the wind shook the four walls of the house, and the surf roared along the cove and up the cliffs, I would see him in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions. Now the leg would be cut off at the knee, now at the hip; now he was a monstrous kind of a creature who had never had but the one leg, and that in the middle of his body. To see him leap and run and pursue me over hedge and ditch was the worst of nightmares…
The internet provides a few pages that present more of Hochman’s Treasure Island illustrations but I’ve yet to unearth much in the way of biographical data. I found a site written in Czech that suggests he was involved in a book written by the writer and artist Josef Čapek (the man credited with inventing the word ‘robot’) published in 1946, a year after Čapek’s death. Another site lists Hochman’s work but makes no mention of Treasure Island, remarking that he was born in 1913 and died in 1999.
His illustrations are weighted with dread, and treated with bruise colours. Whoever decided Hochman’s work would fit well with Stevenson’s story made an excellent choice. There’s something of Expressionism in these paintings, and it also reminds me of the nightmarish vision of his fellow countryman (I say that, but I have no idea as to where Hochman was born) Jan Švankmajer, the animator, who, coincidentally, has been working recently on a project based on a play by Josef Čapek’s brother, Karel.
He was plainly blind, for he tapped before him with a stick, and wore a great green shade over his eyes and nose; and he was hunched, as if with age or weakness, and wore a huge old tattered sea-cloak with a hood, that made him appear positively deformed. I never saw in my life a more dreadful looking figure.
I’d be interested in learning more about Josef Hochman, and would be grateful for any information about his life, or his other works. Do, please, get in touch if you can help.
Conrad’s new collection from PS Publishing, Born with Teeth, is at the printers. Though not available until October, copies will be on sale at Fantasycon in Brighton at the end of this month. It is available in two versions; a hardback for £19.99 and a limited edition (100 copies only) signed, jacketed hardback for £39.99. The cover art is by Caniglia.
The collection contains a selection of Conrad’s stories from the past ten years, including Tight Wrappers, a story featured in the Best New Horror series, the British Fantasy Award-nominated The Veteran and a brand new story – The Pike – written especially for the book.
Conrad will be reading from his novels Blonde on a Stick and Loss of Separation at the Alderley Edge Book Festival at 12pm on the 15th September. The festival carries on to the 16th and features such writers as Nicholas Royle, Erica James, Livi Michael, Zoe Lambert, Elizabeth Baines, Sherry Ashworth and Melvin Burgess. Conrad follows on directly from festival opener Edwina Currie who will be revealing, from her diaries, further juicy reasons as to why she should never have been elected to office.
The Festival will feature storytelling sessions to entertain younger readers and sales of donated books. Visitors will also be treated to live music and refreshments will be available.
There will be a £1 Festival admission charge. Some events will be ticketed.
See you at the Festival Hall, Talbot Road, Alderley Edge on the 15th!