For those of you who have read my latest collection Spiderseed, here's a bit more background about each of the stories. Enjoy!
In my other fiction, I’ve been writing a lot of short stories about specific animals. This piece fell into that category, but unlike my other 3,000-4,000 word epics, this little tail refused to move much past 500 words. It happens sometimes.
I’ve been getting increasingly aggravated by our contradictory treatment of animals; “Some we love, some we hate, some we eat” is the phrase that best sums it up. Why do we love dogs and hate rats? Why do we fight to preserve tigers, but not certain species of spider? Who put the ‘s’ in ‘pest’? A pest is just an animal in the wrong place at the wrong time.
What is my least favourite animal? Which is the one I’m most repulsed by? And can I emancipate my repulsion through fiction? I picked slugs. There are barely any redeeming features about slugs, except perhaps one thing: they draw shapes with their trails wherever they go.
That was my way in, and it quickly became a crime-scene body outline, and the rest of the insect world slotted nicely into place. But it didn’t really gel until the victim of the crime became a dog instead of a human, and the accusation suddenly fell upon the narrator. Which made things all that more deliciously exciting.
I have quite vivid and often quite thrilling dreams; an element of my life I quietly cherish and frequently marvel in. Occasionally, the dreams will transmute into darker areas (although I’d very rarely call them full-blown nightmares) and once I did dream that my beloved partner (she of Twitchy Leg, see below) had died. I can’t remember the specifics now (and nor do I want to), but I remember the hazy, doze of lifting out of the sleep and sculpting the experience into tiny phrases. One of those was; ‘the dream clings to my brain like a limpet.’ It wasn’t such a big leap from there to the pick-axe itself.
Back in 2015 I was fortunate enough to be involved with a fantastic live literature event with First Draft Cabaret in the John Rylands Library on Deansgate in Manchester. The Rylands Library is a magnificent gothic structure in the heart of one of Manchester’s busiest streets and, at its centre, sits the cathedral-like Historic Reading Room complete with stained glass windows and secular statues of the gods of literature and science. It is the same room where the trailers for Spiderseed were filmed.
The Rylands Library houses the E.L. Burney collection of curios and artefacts that once belonged to Isabella Banks, the Victorian writer most famous for her novel The Manchester Man. Myself and some other creatives were granted access to the collection to inspire new performances for the First Draft event and this story, in an earlier form, became one part of the piece I read out in the Reading Room in one of my most favourite live events I’ve ever done.
One of the items in Isabella’s collection is a scrap of linen, supposedly from Napoleon Bonaparte’s first coffin, before he was exhumed and reinterred in Paris. This led me to research about Napoleon, about the fate of his penis (seriously; read this) and the execution of the Duc D’Engien.
The timetravelling library? I think I’d been watching too much Doctor Who.
Behind a lot of my flash fiction, lurks the spectre of the theatre. Last year I wrote a play version of my story Invader Guilt (see my previous collection, Threshold), a two-hander about a pregnant woman and her husband trying to survive the post-apocalypse of an alien invasion. Part way through, they open up an old Scrabble board and use the tiles to try and divine a name for their unborn child. My vision was that the actors would actually do this in every performance and get different, weird, random names each time, to much amusement.
The play never saw the light of day for various reasons, but that quirky little scene stuck with me and eventually became Trust the Tiles (see below). This, in turn, led me to thinking about other popular board games that could be easily incorporated into spoken word performances and it didn’t take me long to reach Jenga.
When I perform this piece, I do so very slowly, taking my time to bring out the tower, take a few bricks out and then populate it with soldiers. If I catch an audience at the right time, in the right room, it can really work. Everyone starts going ‘ooohh’ when the tower wobbles. To date, it has never fallen down.
This one of the stories I am most please with. Tight, economical, simple but weird. Although, I tussled a bit with the Farmville reference, which I fear will quickly get old…
From the Deepest Depth
On one of my frequent lazy trawls through twitter for the word ‘submission’, I spotted a call out for a competition jointly run by Live at LICA, Lancaster Litfest and The Museum of Water. It asked for responses to the touring Museum of Water exhibition; a remarkably simple concept of hundreds of donated bottles of water from various far-flung places and situations, each with its own little tale. I was intrigued by the concept and started to think, as I often do, in the extremes – where is the most extreme place to get a very small amount of water? The most impossible place: the bottom of the ocean at its deepest point. I only wish I’d donated the water I was drinking when I wrote the piece.
This had to be a story about the mysterious and overwhelming power of the most element forces of nature, which I edge towards in the weird ending. The beauty of flash fiction is that you only need to gently hint at things like this, before scurrying gleefully away. Pleasingly, the story won the competition and got myself a fistful of book vouchers (my favourite kind of currency). The story is still up on the Litfest website, but never made it to the Museum of Water website sadly, despite promises that it would. I believe it may have been swept away by the tides of time.
Another response to another call for submissions, this time from the Geek Syndicate podcast ‘Scrolls’. They asked for flash fictions that contained the words “Thrashing”, “Charged”, “Flag” and “Bone” and, after a brief wrestle with words, I came up with Trade. Happily, it won their first Flash Fiction challenge and was read out on the podcast, which is lovely.
I really enjoy little challenges like this; letting my brain spin off from a few arbitrary fixed points and seeing where it lands. In Trade, it came crashing down in the midst of this weird, dystopian marketplace where ‘genuine’ human bones are used as currency. Here, the narrator has gone to extremes in order to get Sasha, his dog, back. A lot of people don’t realise it’s a dog and think it is his wife, or sister, or daughter. For me it’s weirdly important that it’s his dog, although not important enough for me to spell it out evidently. I have no say in reader interpretation.
Inspired by this picture:
…which was posted as a challenge on Friday Flash!, a website I occasionally tried my hand at when I had some spare Friday time.
The oldest story in the collection, this one goes way, way back in origins. In 2009, after graduating from university, where I had discovered a real love for story writing, I started my first ever blog. On the blog I wrote a new short story every week for a year. Often rushed and sometimes late, I managed it and, one year later, I had a gangly collection of 52 stories of low to middling quality, but stuffed full of lovely ideas and experimentation. I look back on that year with great fondness; I was properly grafting, properly trying and actually coming up with some surprisingly workable and fun results. Unicorn Logistics was one of the more successful pieces and has pretty much stayed the same ever since, with just a few tweaks here and there.
Often it’s the shortest pieces I get most satisfaction out of. This one was re-published a year later on The Pygmy Giant and the blog went onto come runner-up in the Best Writing on a Blog category at the 2009 Manchester Blog Awards. Clippety-clop.
The most personal story in the collection, Fly is my first tentative step towards writing about autism. My sister Jenny is autistic and here I'm consciously exploring the theme of responsibility - both in a personal and political sense. The narrator has to take responsibility of his older sister, and the administrators of the afterlife world have to take responsibility of the situation - which they don't do particularly well, as is often the way.
It felt quite natural to go supernatural here. When dealing with autism you are tackling a sensibility which is at odds with the 'normal' world and yet still tied very closely to it. This the frustration of autism. It manifests itself just on the edge of accepted normality; a silent child, obsessions with order and pattern, wild talents within a socially un-able person. This often creates the impression that the autism is a shell which traps the real person underneath whereas the opposite is perhaps closer to the truth; the expectation of 'normality' becomes the shell which attempts to encase the autism, the latter being the true core, the real person.
Fly barely scratches the surface of these issues, but there's something in the use of the supernatural, particularly ghosts (which are also there and not-there), that allows for a more vibrant and honest exploration of autism beyond the (now boring) implications it has for the non-autistic (just one of my many problems with the BBC's current drama 'The A Word'). In the afterlife, rules can be quirked, new formations of 'normality' can be made, and the world an be adjusted to suit the autistic individual, rather than the other way around.
I have quiet plans afoot to return to Fly's world in a much, much bigger project.
I used to work at the Manchester Opera House as an usher and on a couple of occasions had to suffer through entire shows of the now-deceased spirit medium Colin Fry. I remember standing in the shadows of the auditorium silently fuming as Fry ruthlessly and coldly manipulated the fragile members of sell-out audience. It is, ironically, one of the most soulless occupations; predatory and dangerous, insipid and utterly immoral. It pains me to see so many people spend so much money and energy in desperate support of it. And they do – every time Fry came around, his shows were always completely sold out. Of course, I’m a big fan of the supernatural in fiction, but much less so in real life.
So while this centrally-placed story may feel comical and throw-away (and in many ways it is, and I play it as such in performance), there is a really serious point at heart. Spirit mediums are masturbatory; they serve no-one but themselves.
Another story triggered by specific submission prompts. This time, three words offered by the Mash Stories website for one of their massive competitions. The words were "Blow-dryer" "Cockpit" "Honesty" and each word had to appear in the story. Pulse began from this point but soon whipped up a miasma of fragments in my head: I'd been reading about the upcoming video game No Man's Sky which is where the cockpit came from, and I'd witnessed a 3D printer - a device proving particularly fruitful for new near-future scifi stories. I wasn't worried about 'Honesty' - a word easily slipped into dialogue - but Blow-dryer was snagging me. A very particular, and very domestic item with fairly specific connotations.
Eventually I believed it all clicked into place when I was drying my hair and looking at the device as if the snout were a mouth and the handle were a neck. And the hot air a voice with only two settings. And in that instant the pulse struck in my brain and I became suddenly aware of the sockets, wires, circuit boards, screens that surround us and dominate our lives and bodies.
The story was shortlisted and recorded, but didn't win. I am rather fond of it, and brother-of-mine did a lovely job making some music based on it for the launch night. It has also been re-published on Holdfast Magazine.
Like Trails, this story grew out of my recent obsession with writing about animals, and I’d been on the hunt for something to trigger a fish-based story for a while. I found it while driving into the Trafford Centre car-park in Manchester as we passed a poster for their new Sea Life centre. It was a picture of a grinning manta ray, swimming diagonally up past an excited and delighted child. There was another poster soon after which showed a turtle from underneath, which also appeared to be smiling. The single-word caption on this one was ‘Touching’, which sent a little shiver down the old spine.
Of course, as with most animal-entrapment scenarios, I’m not a big fan of the Sea Life Centre, particularly the shallow pools which encourage touching. There’s no gloomier sight than a giant tank stuffed with all manner of creatures circling and circling around, never able to swim out the many hundreds of miles they would naturally do in the real sea. But as long as the smiles of the fish appear to be as wide as the smiles of the children, it’s all good yeah?
My years as a film student taught me to deconstruct imagery within an inch of its life, and a large part of that was to render the camera un-invisible again. This makes you think about the person behind it – whether that’s a director or cinematographer. So the protagonist here easily became the photographer charged with capturing the smiles and, as soon as he was dunked into a large volume of water, there was nowhere to go but weird.
Inspired by this image:
…from the excellent ‘What I See When I Look At’ project, for their collection ‘Re-Imaginings’. The project take pictures of urban environments and doctor them as if viewed through a child’s eyes. Thus, CCTV cameras shoot lasers, TV aerials become machine guns, and towers become robots. In this image, the spiders seem to be growing out of the tree. As if from a seed, for spiders. Voila.
This, from the off, was an obvious choice as the title story for me. It catches the eye, it snags the brain, and it’s the right side of weird to suggest the strangeness within. It also meant I could have a spider on the cover, one of the most eye-catching of all the icons.
An idle thought occurred to me on the way home from watching The Theory of Everything, which had started after watching The Imitation Game not long before. These lovely films about important scientists give us a lot of love and triumph, but hardly any real science. Such is the Hollywood way, but what effect does that have on how we perceive science and our expectations of it? In this story, I don’t ask that question. In fact, I actively avoid it. See what I did there?
Flipping ages ago, a friend put me in touch with Salford musician Aka Hige who was on the verge of releasing his first progressive electronica album ‘Opening’ and wanted writers to write stories or poems based on the tracks of the album. I was given track 11 ‘Conviction’ and, after a few repeated listens, this is what came together.
Near the start of the track there’s a nice whooshing tone which reminded me of Vangelis’ timeless score for Blade Runner and immediately put me into near-future, urban sprawl mode. This fused with another idea I’d been toying with; the thought that, given human expansion, there could soon be no single place on the planet (or, more realistically, in a country like Britain) where you could stand, open your eyes, and see not a single man-made thing. No spires, no wires, no fences or anything; just sprawling nature. This led me to an overcrowded world, like the one in Soylent Green, and the drastic measures that may be introduced to try and curb the population. I soon found the idea of writing from the point-of-view of an elderly lady too exciting to pass by, and treated it as the challenge it was.
The launch of Aka Hige’s album was a lovely affair in a random warehouse room in the guts of Manchester, with lots of dry-ice and enigmatic lighting and good beer. I’ve never seen Aka Hige since. Hope he’s doing ok, and still twiddling the knobs.
This was a last minute addition to the collection, added as something of an after-thought. It has since become one of the more popular pieces among early readers, and most of it sits on the back-page as a teaser.
These little surprises delight me – I don’t think I’d really taken this story seriously before. I can’t for the life of me remember where it came from. Probably an idle moment on my daily commute to work.
Trust the Tiles
The history of this piece is noted under Tower Defence above. This is another story I was really happy with from the off, and I really enjoy performing it because I can pull a little sleight-of-hand trick on the audience.
There’s a lovely moment in performance when people click into the joke of the word, which usually comes on the reveal of either the ‘p’ or the ‘o’. It’s moments like that which marry spoken word to theatre, and it’s a match made in heaven. I’m a great advocate for props in spoken word.
But there’s something else going on in this tale I think. Something to do with the ultimate reverence we put on the process of having children, which is absolutely fine in most cases, but can have quite damaging consequences elsewhere. It is far too easy to have babies, and the aura around the magic of it can mask other problems, which subsequently exacerbate those same problems. I’m not against babies, not by any stretch, but perhaps we need a touch less mystical joy and a touch more caution. Sometimes.
This is one of those stories that was dragged from my brain from a single image, which seemingly appeared from nowhere: an upside-down dreamcatcher. Would it do the opposite? Would it put the caught dreams back into the sleeper’s head? What if a dreamcatcher became clogged? Who would be able to clean it, and how? Is that a process which could go wrong?
My fiancé has Restless Legs Syndrome, where one of her legs spasms when she gets tired. Some nights its worse than others, and occasionally it will spoil our sleeps somewhat. But it’s part of her, and anything that’s part of her I love just as much as the rest.
Another response to a submission call out. This time from American small press Haunted Waters Press for their ‘From the Depths’ magazine. The call out was for stories or poems based on the Super Moon (when the moon is closest to the Earth and looks massive), and this picture of autumn leaves on a beach hut wall. I went softly apocalyptic, faint echoes of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in my mind I think.
I like this one sitting at the end. It has a different tone to it, unusual for me; melancholic, reflective, grand in scale, small in scope. And, like my favourite of my stories, it offers no real explanation of anything.