Feel THE FEAR…and write it anyway

I did a little whoop of joy, followed by a nod of recognition when I received Gareth L. Powell’s guest post in my email inbox. The first because Mr. Powell is among Britain’s very best science fiction authors. The second because like every writer, I recognise THE FEAR that Gareth describes. You will no doubt recognise it also. Find Gareth L. Powell online at www.garethlpowell.com and on Twitter @garethlpowell

I’m always happy to feature guest posts from fellow writers and passionate readers. Find me on Twitter @damiengwalter

If you want to be a writer, then sooner or later you’ll have to face THE FEAR. However confident you may feel as you start to write your latest novel or story, at some point you’ll look at what you’ve written and hold your head in your hands.

“Give up,” a little voice will whisper in your head. And that little voice is THE FEAR.

THE FEAR will plant questions and doubts in your head. It will tell you that everything you’ve ever written is crap. It will tell you that you’re not a real writer, and that you should quit now before people find out what a talentless hack you really are and expose you as a fraud.

I have spoken about THE FEAR to other writers, and they all recognise it. They all have that inner demon whispering to them in their darkest moments, undercutting their confidence and self-belief. For some, those dark moments are at the beginning of a project, when they’re staring at a blank white page awaiting inspiration. For others, THE FEAR creeps up on them during the editing process, or just prior to submission.

For me, THE FEAR tends to manifest around the halfway point of a novel, when the end seems very far away, and it becomes almost impossible for me to objectively judge whether what I’m writing is any good or not. I start to worry that the characters are jabbering trolls gesticulating their way through a nonsensical plot, and that I’ll never reach the final chapter.

If you let it get hold of you, THE FEAR can paralyse you, leaving you unable to function. The only way I’ve found to fight back is to keep writing; to keep soldiering on until you stagger over the finish line. Only then will you be able to look back with anything resembling objective clarity.

But how do you keep going? How do you keep the motivation going when the voice in your head tells you that you’re wasting your time? You can blot out THE FEAR with alcohol, but that’s only a temporary solution; and most people find it hard to do their best work when they’re smashed.

The only practical way to prevail is to keep your goal in mind. Get in front of your keyboard every day and do the work. Tell yourself that you will finish what you have started. Listen to THE FEAR and learn to identify it. Don’t let it trick you. When it starts sowing its seeds, gather them up and lock them in a quiet corner of your mind. Tell yourself: “This is just THE FEAR talking.” And try to ignore it. Or, if you can’t ignore it, try turning it to your advantage. Harness the nervous energy to make you more productive. Surf that anxiety wave! Tell yourself that you are going to feel THE FEAR, and do it anyway. Keep your eyes on the prize, and keep buggering on until you get there!

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Is there any such thing as Realist Horror?

The latest guest post here on damiengwalter.com comes from Niki Valentine, author of psychological horror and literary fiction under an alternative pen name. But where do we draw the line between supernatural and realist horror? Niki Valentine may be one of the few authors who really knows the answer. Check out her novels and other writing at: The Niki Valentine Amazon page

I’m always happy to feature guest posts from fellow writers and passionate readers. Find me on Twitter @damiengwalter

When I wrote my first Niki Valentine novel, I originally described it as a supernatural thriller. Sadly, this adjective has been rather hijacked in recent years by stories about sparkling vampires and friendly werewolves, so that my publisher was keen to avoid the word. Instead, we called it psychological horror and it went on to the shelf in time for Halloween. Personally, I think this label is spot on. If you look at The Turn of the Screw on Wikipedia, that’s how this classic ghost story was described. I was very inspired by the Henry James story and it was one of the reasons I wanted to write the kind of ghost story I did.

There are some issues with the ‘horror’ label. It evokes a certain set of expectations in the reader about blood and gore, about monsters and zombies. My novels, The Haunted and Possessed, don’t really work that way. There is very little blood and gore, something I don’t find especially frightening and I think can tend towards being cartoonish if overused. And, although there is a haunting and a possession, as the titles might imply, it is a very subtle affair. Like the haunting in the classic James story, there are many ways to view it. Nothing happens that is so overtly supernatural that we can be sure about. In both, we’re deep inside the head of our protagonist and never know for sure how much she’s imagining. I make no apologies for any of this; it was exactly the kind of story I wanted to write.

I saw a lot of slasher movies as a teenager in the 80s; they were in vogue. They made me feel sick from time to time but not scared. The most frightened and affected I ever felt was thanks to a Hitchcock film, screened on the BBC Tales of the Unexpected. A woman, determined to escape from prison, enlists the help of the prison undertaker. He agrees to bury her and dig her up later, telling her to climb into the coffin the next time the death bell tolls. She does so. She is buried. She waits and waits for her rescuer. Bored, she reaches for her matches and lights a flame. She sees the body beside her and it’s the man who was supposed to dig her up. The film ends with a view from above of the fresh mound of earth, her screams ringing out with no one to hear. It left me in a cold sweat and it took me weeks to get over. At a recent family barbeque my brother and I were discussing this. Neither of us had forgotten and we both agreed it was the most frightening film we’d ever seen.

The Hitchcock story left a lasting impression. It’s this kind of realist horror that I’m interested in as a writer, and a reader or viewer. In my novels, I like to allow the possibility of haunting and possession and other supernatural events but I also like to leave the reader unsure. For me, the title of the Henry James story sums up psychological horror as a genre. The screw turns until the protagonist can take so more. Depending on how you look at it, the metaphor can be about madness, or stress and pressure, or whatever other normal human experience you like, but it’s also about the way the supernatural manifests in reality. I’m not a complete sceptic and can’t decide myself if these manifestations are real but I do know they always leave us with room for doubt. So often people recounting these events say ‘I suppose I could have been imagining it.’

At a recent horror convention, I sat in on a panel about horror tropes. It was suggested during the discussion that stories like American Psycho and A Clockwork Orange were horror stories with alternative, realist tropes. I thought this was an interesting point. I write literary fiction in another name and my books have been compared to both of these novels, and more like it too. In fact, despite my earlier denial, my literary fiction is a real gore-fest at times. It was odd to realise this, and to understand that, in my own way, I’ve been writing realist horror from the very start.

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Star

First published in Universe #1

Star

by Damien Walter

Heinrich always volunteers for class activities. The last two study periods of Friday afternoon are put aside for a visit from a policeman. The students ask him why he does not wear a uniform. His answer makes everyone laugh. Criminals, he says, do not wear uniforms. The policeman asks for volunteers.

The icon is pinned to Heinrich’s shirt. The policeman explains that criminals can look like anyone. But they must use icons to recognise their own kind. The students must be vigilant for all icons, even if they do not know what they mean. The policeman makes the class play a game. Heinrich refuses to take his icon off, however loudly the other boys and girls shout at him.

Heinrich makes the icon late on Sunday evening. Heinrich’s family never pray at home, but attend church every Saturday morning. In the afternoon Heinrich and his younger brother attend cram classes in preparation for their Standard Assessment Tests, whilst his parents attend their monthly interview with the local panel of the Neighborhood Security Association. On Sunday morning Heinrich marches with his Youth Scout unit through Hyde Park to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Capitulation Day. In the afternoon Heinrich’s extended family share a roast dinner, before gathering around the television to watch the official celebrations until the state channel closes an hour before midnight. Alone in his room, Heinrich draws the icon on paper first, to be sure he has remembered it correctly.

On Monday morning Heinrich carries his school blazer over one arm, so that his mother will not see. The night before he cut the icon from the yellow cloth of his physical training t-shirt, and stitched it into place with needle and thread from his mother’s sewing box. It contrasts brightly with the charcoal grey blazer. At the school gate Heinrich pulls the blazer on over his shoulders.

The younger children notice him first. Heinrich sits on a wall, so that everyone can see. They come forward in groups and ask Heinrich; what is he doing? Does he have permission? Will he get in trouble? Groups of older girls point and laugh at the boy making a spectacle of himself. Before first bell, a squad of older boys surround Heinrich. They jostle and shoulder barge him as he walks to class. One is the son of a high-ranking officer. He stands in Heinrich’s way and then spits in his face. Heinrich walks around him.

After refusing to remove the icon from his blazer, Heinrich is escorted to the office of the Head Teacher. Waiting with the Head Teacher is the policeman with no uniform. It is explained that last week’s exercise is over. Heinrich agrees that he will not wear the icon again. The policeman shakes his hand before he leaves.

Heinrich’s mother is frantic and this makes his father all the more angry. Heinrich retreats to his room as soon as he has calmed them. After their parents are sleeping, Heinrich’s brother, who knows him better, comes to his room and begs him not to continue. Heinrich tells him to go away.

One week later Heinrich draws the icon on his face with a permanent marker pen, watching the lines reversed in the mirror of the boy’s toilet. People stare as Heinrich walks through the playground. He is completely calm when he spits into the face of the high-ranking officer’s son.

The cuts and bruises on Heinrich’s body throb as he waits outside his father’s study. The policeman without a uniform speaks to Heinrich’s father for a long time. Afterwards Heinrich’s father is terrified and weak. He drags Heinrich to the kitchen and scrubs his face with near boiling water and detergent until Heinrich’s skin screams red and livid. Heinrich is locked in the empty spare room and given no comforts more than his health demands.

Heinrich is moved to a new school, but rumours follow and he is shunned by students and teachers alike. He sits alone in class and spends recess periods alone in a study room. At home Heinrich’s brother will no longer speak to him, and his parents do not know what to say to their son.

A teacher of mathematics takes pity on Heinrich and trusts the boy with minor responsibilities in an attempt to begin re-socialisation. Heinrich repays the teacher’s trust by producing photocopied batches of the icon. After a month he has enough for every student in the school. He hands them out on a Wednesday morning, thanking every one of his peers who accept the gift. Hundreds of students are decorated with the icon before Heinrich is caught.

Two uniformed police officers collect Heinrich directly from the school. He is held in a detention cell overnight then taken before the court. The judge, dressed in full military uniform, reviews the case notes in silence then passes sentence. There is no one to explain to Heinrich what is happening. He wants to see his parents, but the court session is closed.

Heinrich is marched down into the basement of the court through a series of security gates. Heinrich is strip-searched and his head is shaved to begin his processing. In a medical bay he is strapped to a padded chair by orderlies. A doctor enters followed by an official. The doctor methodically prepares a hypodermic needle.

Heinrich is very scared.

Heinrich squeezes his eyes closed tight as the doctor inserts the needle into his neck. When he opens them again the doctor is holding a scanner beside his neck. The official notes the details of Heinrich’s implanted serial number.

The small cell has no window and Heinrich does not know where the train is taking him. When the hatch in the cell door slides open he expects to be given food, but instead a face stares at him. He recognises the eyes of the policeman with no uniform.

‘You must learn your true name.’ The policeman says. ‘There are many to choose from.’

Through the hatch the policeman pushes a slim book, bound in black. The icon is embossed in silver on the cover. Heinrich turns the pages. One side of every page is in an alphabet he has never seen before, the other in the language they have taught him to speak. The policeman is right, there are many true names to chose from.

‘Read it as many times as your journey allows. I will take it away before they find it. There are more of us every day. You must learn to see the truth without icons. Understand?’

Heinrich nods. The hatch is closed. He begins to read.

Mythinterpretation

One of the maxims we’re all learning to live with in the early 21st century is that the extreme ends of any argument support each other’s existence. What would rightwing internet trolls do without leftwing reactionaries? How would al-Qaida go on, without neocon hatred fuelling its fire? And, of course, what would outraged atheists do without the attention-seeking antics of fundamentalist believers?

Read more @ Guardian books

Guest Post : A New Pulp think tank

Following on from our discussion What is New Pulp and why do we want one? , Andrez Bergen offers up a genuinely intriguing insight in to the varied definitions of New Pulp amongst a wave of writers all engaged in writing it. The excitement of pulp, its working class roots, and the digital revolution all play a part but the devil is, as always, in the detail. Andrez Bergen is a contributor to Pulp Ink 2 and the author of Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat and One Hundred Years of Viccissitude.

***

Once I tell you this I expect you will shoot me down in flames, and fair enough too.

I looked up the word ‘pulp’ online at The Free Dictionary and scrolled past the ‘moist part of fruit’ to the following definition:

“A publication, such as a magazine or book, containing lurid subject matter.”

(I do have an excuse. It seemed somehow appropriate to consult here instead of a respectable place like the Encyclopædia Britannica, since I knew I’d end up disagreeing with the description – easier to do when it’s not a respected source. Slapping round T.F.D. is more palatable that indulging in fisticuffs with the E.B.)

I grew up on pulp, and my definition is miles away from the one given in T.F.D.

In school, I spent my days consuming Robert E. Howard and the novelizations of Doctor Who yarns by Terrance Dicks, Bill Strutton and their mates, while in the wee hours Hammer flicks and the Roger Corman riffs on Edgar Allan Poe, starring Vincent Price, shaped my nightmares. Then there was Marvel. Comics sourced from my older half-brother’s ageing ‘60s collection by writers Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, and artists Jack Kirby, Barry Windsor-Smith, Jim Steranko and John Buscema.

By university, I moved on to Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick and Dashiell Hammett – but had already grown up with Chandler and Hammett, via movie versions of The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941) and The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946). They remain two of my favourite films.
As far as I’m concerned, these are varying degrees of pulp.

Cinema offered the most I consumed, be it noir, horror, hardboiled, sci-fi, adventure, whatever. I loved The Thing from Another World (1951), Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion handiwork in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes (1968) and The Omega Man (1971).

So it should come as no surprise that I like to explore pulp and its various offshoots with my own writing – and I have a story that blends noir with silly schlock horror in the new Pulp Ink 2 anthology, out now through Snubnose Press.

The other writers involved here are a cross-section of purveyors of pulp and its related offshoots, part of a collection hammered together by Chris Rhatigan and Nigel Bird.

“I like weird shit,” Rhatigan told me for this overview, attempting to explain away the focus. “Modern pulp often hangs out in the bizarre.”

“I can’t think of anything else I’d write,” admitted contributor R. Thomas Brown, the author of Hill Country. “It’s the voice in my head, the way stories feel.”

Veteran writer Patti Abbott, who additionally has stories in Beat to a Pulp and Pulp Modern, says “Even when I published stories in literary magazines, there was a dark undercurrent. I guess we all appreciate a story where stories happen. In pulp or noir, something happens – and then something else happens. And so on.”

Cindy Rosmus, who has moonlighted as the editor of Yellow Mama, feels that “The best part about writing pulp is no P.C. hounds to squash your sleazy prose, no watching your f**king language, and no happy endings.”

“Pulp readers aren’t afraid of the dark,” assessed Katherine Tomlinson, an editor of Astonishing Adventures magazine. “Pulp fiction is a quick, hard screw against a wall, literary fiction is a weekend in bed with coffee and a bagel and the New York Times. Both are nice, but who has time for the crossword puzzle these days?”

Richard Godwin (Mr. Glamour) suggests that this is “genre-defying”, something that “keeps reinventing itself, allowing non-linear narratives. You can cross-breed it, and its kid looks good.”

“What I like about pulp,” agrees James Everington of Penny Dreadnought fame, “is its adaptability.”
Heath Lowrance (author of The Bastard Hand) put it another way: “It’s the hot blood of literature. There’s a sense of wonder about the best pulp fiction.”

“Pulp is fun to read,” says Joe Clifford (Choice Cuts). “While The Sound and the Fury may be a breathtaking work of genius, I’d rather sit down with The Killer Inside Me or The Long Goodbye.”

A theme that Eric Beetner (Dig Two Graves) is willing to expand upon – in suitably minimalist fashion. “In pulp, words aren’t wasted. Character comes through action rather than inner dialogue. I think it has been, and always will be, working class fiction.”


“Pulp casts an unflinching spotlight,” said Court Merrigan, also a contributor to Noir Nation and Big Pulp. “The grace under pressure, the cowardice. What to do when the cement shoes are poured?”


What’s changed the playing field for contemporary pulp is “the strong and growing online community,” assesses Rhatigan, the co-editor of Pulp Ink 2. Writer Brown agrees. “I imagine it’s the ease of getting stuff out now – eBooks, print-on-demand, the volume of material sold online.” Beetner says “I think now, in the digital age, we’re seeing the Internet equivalent of Black Mask and Ten Cent Detective magazines, so there’s been a resurgence not viable in book form.”

So, what is it about pulp?

For me, the depthcharging variety is integral, along with wild plots, cutting wisecracks, and the sheer bravado that ensues when poetry is conjured up out of the apparently mundane. It’s the knack of producing twists, turns, and cutting characters on a shoestring budget, of tossing formula out the window and dissing traditional genre structures.

“This supposedly inferior literary alleyway contains gems that are far superior to many of the things we are told we should read,” assessed another Pulp Ink 2 collaborator, Christopher Black, “especially amongst modern literary fiction – which is in danger of disappearing up its own plotless, witless arse.”

Clifford and Tomlinson see the revival in mildly opposing terms.

“Life is tough right now,” said Tomlinson. “Reading a pulp story allays those anxieties – who doesn’t enjoy that kind of vacation from reality?”

Clifford: “There’s no denying pulp’s bleaker world view speaks to the current troubles in modern society. Pulp is about the cynicism, or more specifically trying to do the right thing in the face of that cynicism… Pulp is tawdry and dark, but strangely comforting because you realize you’re not alone.”

Yes, pulp is impossible to characterize—bending as it does to suit new circumstances—but it’s been with us for decades in comics, movies, TV, pin-ups and dime-store novels, and now online. I’d call it a state of mind, except that someone like Philip Marlowe would shake his head in dismay. Call it instead a drink, an alcoholic beverage to be consumed with wild abandon. Pulp Ink 2 is, therefore, just the first round.

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What is the New Pulp and why do we want one?

Some weeks back I penned a column on the phenomenon of the New Pulp, and since then I’ve enjoyed watching the term continue to emerge as a zeitgeist from the group mind of genre fiction.

David Barnett, author of the upcoming Gideon Smith novels, talks here about the Nu Pulp.

Geek Syndicate provide a nice round-up of New Pulp discussions and resources.

New Pulp Fiction has much to say on the issue.

What is New Pulp? That was the question I found being asked again and again after the Guardian column published. I’m going to give my answer here. But first I think it’s worth saying that, in common with all creative movements, New Pulp is at its most interesting in this early phase where that question has not yet been answered. It’s human nature to try and find solid answers to such question. It’s the skill of the artist to leave them floating open, and to study the many different perspectives that are magnetically drawn to them.

New Pulp Fiction provides one possible answer to our question:

What is New Pulp?  Well, as far as my definition goes, the explanation is fairly simple.  New Pulp is fiction written with the same sensibilities, linear storytelling, pattern of conflict, and creative use of words and phrases of original Pulp, but crafted by modern writers, artists, and publishers.

To me this is the most obvious and least interesting answer. Because really this is just genre fiction by another name, and nothing new. Genre was born in pulp, and has continued uninterrupted from then until now. And it’s an answer rooted in nostalgia, the sense that something has been lost and needs to be regained. For me, these answers don’t begin to explain why New Pulp is interesting.

Instead I’m drawn to thinking about New Pulp in the context of other creative movements in genre fiction. New Wave. New Weird. Steps in the long journey genre fiction has made to stretch itself in to being MORE than just entertainment, MORE than just pulp fiction. Is New Pulp a step backwards on that path, something essentially conservative and retrospective, or is it a step forwards that has something new to bring to the party?

My gut says it has the potential to be the latter.

Perhaps a better question than ‘What is New Pulp?’ is ‘Why do we want one?’ Creativity is cyclical. Genre SF & Fantasy had an amazing burst of creativity in the late 90’s and early 00’s. But through the later years of that decade they fell in to a period of relative conservatism, driven partly by the declining economy and partly by changes within publishing. But post 2010 these genres have once again started to show signs of intense creative energy.  Now they seem ready to burst in to life again, fuelled in part by the potential of ebooks and indie publishing, which is where of course much of the energy of the New Pulp is being displayed. We, the creators in the field, are hungry for a focus for our creativity. And the aesthetic of the New Pulp has the potential to provide that focus.

So you tell me. What is the New Pulp? Or maybe more usefully, what could the New Pulp be?