US publication day – Sherlock Holmes: The Defaced Men

I was away on holiday when it was published in the UK, so failed to post about it here, but as today is the publication date for my Sherlock Holmes novel THE DEFACED MEN, I thought I’d take the opportunity to celebrate its release!

In this novel, Holmes’s new client is Eadweard Muybridge, the godfather of cinema, whose life is under threat. Holmes and Watson will need to draw on technology associated with cinema in order to solve a mystery that continues to grow and grow.

I had such fun incorporating my love of early cinema into a Holmes adventure! Hopefully it resulted in a satisfyingly knotty mystery, too. You can find more details about the novel here.

Open submission calls: July 2022

It’s that time again! Here are some of the most interesting open submission calls for SFF/horror writers that I’ve come across recently. As always, best of luck if you pursue any of these opportunities!

CloisterFox
This excellent new British weird-fiction mag launched last month after a successful Kickstarter. The first issue was terrific, and I have high hopes for this magazine in the longer term. The theme for Issue 2 is water.
Word count: 3000–4000 words
Payment: £30 plus copy
Deadline: 24 July 2022
https://cloisterfox.com/submissions/

Diabolical Plots
Well-established online mag featuring any science fiction, fantasy or horror with a speculative element. Open submissions last until 14 July, then from 24–31 July is a specific submission call themed around telepathy.
Word count: Up to 3500 words
Payment: 10 cents per word
Deadline: 14 July 2022 (open submissions) / 24–31 July (telepathy theme)
https://www.diabolicalplots.com/guidelines/

Augur / Tales and Feathers
Well-respected magazine featuring all types of SFF and horror, plus sister publication Tales and Feathers which specialises in ‘cozy slice-of-life fantasy’ stories.
Word count: Up to 5000 words (Augur) / Up to 2500 words (Tales and Feathers)
Payment: $0.11 cents (CAD) per word
Deadline: 31 July 2022
http://www.augurmag.com/submissions/

34 Orchard
Fairly new online literary journal looking for stories that are ‘scary, disturbing, unsettling, and sad’.
Word count: 1000–5000 words
Payment: $50
Deadline: 15 July 2022
https://34orchard.com/guidelines/

Little Blue Marble
Online zine featuring fiction that ‘examines humanity’s possible futures living with anthropogenic climate change’, mainly hopeful in tone.
Word count: Up to 2000 words
Payment: 11 cents (CAD) per word
Deadline: 31 July 2022
https://littlebluemarble.ca/submission-guidelines/

The Maul
New magazine that will feature stories that skew towards younger readers, with influences including Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Roald Dahl and Shirley Jackson.
Word count: 100–3000 words
Payment: 8 cents per word
Deadline: 31 July 2022
https://themaulmag.com/?page_id=31

Faber Imagined Futures prize
The prestigious publisher is seeking young adult novels or collections of short stories that can be (loosely) defined as science fiction. First prize is a worldwide publishing contract with a £15,000 advance.
Word count: First 10,000 words
Payment: Subject to contract and level of prize
Deadline: 9 September 2022
https://www.faber.co.uk/journal/imagined-futures-prize/

Favourite albums of the first half of 2022

I always look forward to compiling lists at the end of each year, taking stock of my favourite releases. Today I asked myself: Why wait? The fact that we’ve just passed the summer solstice makes this seem a reasonable enough moment to sum up my favourite albums of the first half of the year.

Modern composition

The most thrilling releases I’ve heard so far this year are California collective Wild Up’s treatments of the works of misunderstood but recently re-evaluated genius composer Julius Eastman. Vol. 1: Femenine is livelier than any other version of this incredible minimalist piece I’ve heard, and Vol. 2: Joy Boy (featuring pieces never performed before) is a revelation, culminating in a version of ‘Stay On It’ more frenzied and lunatic than ever before. Not only is this a huge recommendation, the collective has pledged that another five volumes are in the works! In comparison, Spiralis Aurea by Stefano Pilia is a far more soothing experience, but wonderful all the same. Ghosted, a spiky and playful piece by one of my favourite modern artists, Oren Ambarchi, continues his run of stellar albums.

 

Drone

The pipe-organ-heavy, doom-metal-without-metal, Kate Bush-esque Live at Montreux Jazz Festival is gloriously sludgy yet uplifting, and puts Anna von Hausswolff high on my list of live acts to see one day. Lucrecia Dalt’s gloomy original soundtrack for The Seed (a film I haven’t seen) is varied and, while drawing on familiar horror tropes, nevertheless satisfyingly original. The new version of Phill Niblock’s Four Walls Full Of Sound by Opening Performance Orchestra is almost as arresting as the Wild Up pieces, though you have to pick the right moment to expose yourself to such a wall of sound, and the same applies to Alvin Lucier and Jordan Dykstra’s extended-drone album Out Of Our Hands. The self-titled album by mysterious collective The pale faced family on the hill, featuring Oliver Coates, is aloof, but very good and often very surprising.

 

Weird / electronica

Mattering and Meaning by Dan Nicholls squelches loops of piano with field recordings, producing a mush of unclassifiable sound, and provides a great background to thought. Mux by drummer Julian Sartorius is more palatable than his recent collaboration with Matthew Herbert, yet his jittery pieces sound more electronic than ‘real’, but that’s no complaint.

 

Indie / rock / vocal

Actually, You Can proves that Deerhoof still actually can, and ‘Plant Thief’ has become one of my favourite Deerhoof tracks. The Voltarol Years by Half Man Half Biscuit is reliably good, and made me snort with laughter. Movietone’s collected Peel Sessions reveals a band that perhaps ought to have been bigger and more loved. Optimism by Jana Horn provides the low-key beauty missing from Aldous Harding’s most recent release; listening to this album is like falling asleep against the trunk of a tree in dappled sunlight.

 

Compilations / reissues

V4 Visions: Of Love & Androids is another superb compilation from Numero Group, featuring ‘lost’ tracks from a UK label that between 1990 and 1994 clashed American and Jamaican sounds with some pretty astounding results. Hallow Ground presents: Epiphanies is far slower affair featuring drones and tones, though often majestic. I Had the Craziest Dream: Modern Jazz and Hard-Bop in Post War London, Vol. 1 from Death Is Not The End is an amazing collection of exactly what the title describes, and almost all tracks are infectious fun. (Volume 2 didn’t quite live up to the first, though.) My favourite compilation so far this year is Music from Saharan WhatsApp from Sahel Sounds, certainly the most eye-opening release I’ve heard for months, and foot-tappingly catchy too.

Open submission calls: June 2022

Uncle Travelling Matt

Once again, I’ve trawled the web for SFF/horror open submission calls so you don’t have to. It’s a compulsion, I guess. Good luck if you decide to pursue any of these opportunities!

Monstrous Futures
This anthology to be published by Dark Matter Ink follows a previous volume, Human Monsters. This volume will feature Black Mirror-esque ‘dark sci-fi with an emphasis on exploring our connection with technology and one another through speculative concepts and backdrops’.
Word count: 2000–4000 words
Payment: 8 cents per word
Deadline: 30 June 2022
https://darkmattermagazine.shop/pages/dark-matter-presents-monstrous-futures

Gollancz
The well-respected publisher of SF novels is allowing unagented novel submissions throughout June. Such a great opportunity for up-and-coming writers!
Word count: Full novel MS, plus synopsis and bio
Payment: TBD
Deadline: 30 June 2022
https://www.gollancz.co.uk/uncategorized/2022/05/04/gollancz-unagented-submissions-are-coming-soon/

Seize the Press
This new online zine is looking for ‘dark, transgressive speculative fiction. bleak sci-fi, dark fantasy and horror’. All the fun stuff.
Word count: Up to 2000 words
Payment: 6 pence per word
Deadline: Always open, it seems
https://www.seizethepress.com/submissions/

Dangerous Waters: Deadly Women of the Sea
Horror and dark fantasy anthology to be published by Brigids Gate Press, centred around ‘malevolent mermaids, sinister sirens, scary selkies, spirits, and other deadly and dangerous women of the sea’.
Word count: 500–3500 words
Payment: 8 cents per word
Deadline: 30 June 2022
https://brigidsgatepress.com/submissions

Fusion Fragment
Another online zine, this one twelve issues into its run and centred around ‘science fiction or SF-tinged literary fiction’.
Word count: 2000 to 15,000 words
Payment: 3.5 cents (CAD) per word
Deadline: Open 10–12 June 2022
https://www.fusionfragment.com/submissions/

Orion’s Belt
This online magazine seeks stories with ‘significant speculative elements’.
Word count: Up to 1200 words
Payment: 8 cents per word
Deadline: 1 September 2022
https://www.orions-belt.net/submissions

Apparition Lit
Quarterly magazine currently accepting speculative flash fiction based on a specific visual prompt which changes each month.
Word count: Up to 1000 words
Payment: $30
Deadline: Current call ends on 14 June 2022
https://apparitionlit.com/submissions/

Open Submission Calls: May 2022

It’s that time again… Here are some of the most tantalising open submission calls I’ve spotted this month. If you decide to go after any of these opportunities, good luck!

Science Fiction Debuts Prize
I normally post only about short story submissions, but this is a terrific opportunity for any up-and-coming SF novelists. To coincide with its forthcoming Science Fiction exhibition, the Science Museum has partnered with Hodder & Stoughton to launch a new writing prize for unpublished writers who aren’t yet represented by a literary agent.
Word count: Submit 10,000 words of a novel, plus synopsis
Payment: First prize is £4000, plus a full critique of your work, plus a Hodderscape mentoring programme, plus introduction to three agents. Other prizes for runners up.
Deadline: Open 4 June–30 September 2022
www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/science-fiction-debuts-writing-prize

Dracula Beyond Stoker
New journal entirely dedicated to Dracula-themed fiction. The first issue will (naturally enough) be themed around the character of Dracula himself, with the second issue revolving around Renfield.
Word count: 1500–5000 words
Payment: 5 cents per word
Deadline: 15 June 2022 (for first issue)
www.dbspress.com/submissions

Campfire Macabre: Volume 2
Cemetery Gates Media seeks flash horror fiction for the second volume in its Campfire Macabre series. Stories must match one theme from the following: ‘When We Were Getting High’, ‘My Last Trick ‘r Treat’, ‘Body Grotesquerie’, ‘Ominous Visitors From Deep Space’ or ‘Out in the Fields, Forests, and Lakes’.
Word count: 500–1500 words
Payment: 8 cents per word
Deadline: Open 1 June–15 August 2022
cemeterygatesmedia.com/submissions/

The Dread Machine
This newish magazine seeks futuristic dark fiction, speculative fiction, cyberpunk, slipstream, and science fiction.
Word count: Up to 5,500 words
Payment: 5 cents per word
Deadline: No deadline
www.thedreadmachine.com/submit/

The Consultations of Sherlock Holmes
Belanger Books is putting together an anthology of traditional Sherlock Holmes stories that demonstrate Holmes’s skills as “consulting detective” – that is, stories in which he solves the case without leaving Baker Street.
Word count: 5,000–10,000 words
Payment: $100 or $50 plus a percentage of the Kickstarter project profits (whichever is greater)
Deadline: 15 September 2022
horrortree.com/taking-submissions-the-consultations-of-sherlock-holmes/

Publication day: Shade of Stillthorpe

Shade of Stillthorpe

Book birthday! SHADE OF STILLTHORPE is published today by the excellent Black Shuck Books. It’s a lost-in-the-forest changeling story. A teen boy disappears during a camping trip & the person who reappears is entirely different – but only his father refuses to be taken in.

“A seemingly impossible premise becomes increasingly real in this inventive and heartbreaking tale of loss.” Lucie McKnight Hardy

“Parenthood is a forest of emotions, including jealousy, confusion and terror, in Shade of Stillthorpe. It’s a dark mystery that resonated deeply with me.” Aliya Whiteley

The novella’s available from all the usual places – but please do prioritise bookshops or buy direct from the publisher.

Finally, here’s a Spotify book soundtrack which acts nicely as a teaser to the story.

Shade of Stillthorpe

Book soundtrack: Shade of Stillthorpe

As I’ve explained in previous blog posts, I create soundtracks for most of my novels and longer fiction. My lost-in-the-forest changeling novella SHADE OF STILLTHORPE is steeped in music, and definitely required a soundtrack, which I created between drafts and which in turn shaped the narrative.

You can listen to the playlist via Spotify or via the widget below.

Here’s a track-by-track explanation of the selections:

1. The Earth With Her Crowns – Laura Cannell
This track represents the ‘opening credits’, for want of a better term. SHADE OF STILLTHORPE is partly a folk horror, and this sparse track evokes plenty of Blood on Satan’s Claw-esque foreboding, and it’s utterly beautiful too. And what a title! If you haven’t been listening to Laura Cannell these last few years, do.

2. The Geography – Belbury Poly
The protagonist, Key, has a relationship with the wild that’s primarily nostalgic, and this hauntological track from Belbury Poly evokes secondary-school textbooks as much as nature. I love the sampled final line – Look for this sign to show you’re on the right track – leading directly into the immediately more pessimistic ‘Get Lost’.

3. Get Lost – Tom Waits
A track that Key might well love, without recognising the implications. Here, the command to ‘get lost’ could be interpreted as an invitation to check out of normal, dull life… but after his camping expedition with his teenage son Andrew, Key will become lost in a far more profound sense.

4. Sirene – Machinefabriek & Anne Bakker
Another folk-horror-ish, hauntological track, its beauty increasingly interrupted by glitches and errors. No spoilers, but it’s all key to Key’s experience in the novella.

5. Kool Thing – Sonic Youth
The first of three diegetic tracks (that is, music that explicitly features in the story). Key loves Sonic Youth, but when his son professes a love for the band, it’s hardly reassuring. Who is this strange boy who insists that he’s Andrew?

6. Cat Claw – The Kills
Andrew – or Andy, as this unfamiliar boy calls himself – plays the simple riff from this song on the electric guitar, and not badly. Why does Key find that so unnerving?

7. The Titans / The Chamber / The Door – Bernard Hermann
Key, Alis and Andy watch Jason and the Argonauts together, partly to allow me to feature this snippet of Bernard Hermann’s score, which accompanies the discovery of the statue of Talos. It’s one of my earliest soundtrack memories, and still gives me shivers every time I hear it.

8. Tulpar – Galya Bisengalieva
This is the turning point, I suppose, when Key finally determines that he’s losing control over his environment. Galya Bisengalieva is leader of the London Contemporary Orchestra, and her first couple of EPs are outstanding, and subtly terrifying.

9. Magic Doors (live) – Portishead
Another band that Key presumably loves, and another track that takes on new meaning in the context of his gradual unravelling. This live version is a little wilder and more frenetic than the album track, with a constant threat of the rhythm section racing ahead too fast and leaving Beth Gibbons behind.

10. 1req – Grischa Lichtenberger
Utterly terrifying, dry, relentless beats, with… what? Bat swoops? There’s no turning back now.

11. Something Big – Burt Bacharach
‘End credits’, and jarringly, deliriously upbeat. Draw your own conclusions.

You can stream the playlist via Spotify, or play it directly below.


See here for more information about SHADE OF STILLTHORPE, published by Black Shuck Books on 26 April 2022.

Open Submission Calls: April 2022

Linus writing

This post comes hot on the heels of the previous list of open submissions, as that one barely sneaked into March. Anyway, here are the most interesting current and upcoming calls for fiction submissions that I’ve spotted recently.  Good luck!

Luna Press
This excellent small press is seeking speculative, SF/F or dark fantasy novellas. But be quick about it – they’re only open this weekend!
Word count: Between 20,000 and 40,000 words
Payment: Not stated
Deadline: Open 8–9 April 2022
https://www.lunapresspublishing.com/submissions

The Other Stories
Podcast seeking stories on particular themes: the next three are Octopuses, Ageing, Faeries.
Word count: No limits stated
Payment: £15 per story
Deadline: 15 April 2022 (Octopuses), 1 May 2022 (Ageing), 15 May 2022 (Faeries)
https://theotherstories.net/submissions

The Fiends in the Furrows III: Final Harvest
Nosetouch Press is looking for folk horror stories for the third (and apparently final) volume of the popular anthology series.
Word count: 3500–7000 words
Payment: 6 cents per word
Deadline: Open 1 May–31 July 2022
https://www.nosetouchpress.com/call/

IZ Digital
Celebrated British SF/F magazine Interzone is launching a new digital imprint.
Word count: Up to 7000 words
Payment: 1.5 euro cents per word
Deadline: Always open, as far as I can tell
https://interzone.digital/submissions/

Space Fantasy
New online magazine seeking flash fiction adhering to the title theme, Is There Anybody Out There? They go on to say they mean ‘stories about unexpected encounters in isolated places’.
Word count: Up to 1250 words
Payment: 8 cents per word
Deadline: Open May 1–30 2022
https://spacefantasymag.com/submission-guidelines/

Announcement: Shade of Stillthorpe

New book news! My novella SHADE OF STILLTHORPE will be published by Black Shuck Books on 26th April 2022. It’s a weird changeling story about a teen boy who is lost in the woods and then returns looking entirely unrecognisable – to his father, at least.
It’s had some wonderful endorsements from writers whose work I love. Firstly, from Lucie McKnight Hardy: ‘A seemingly impossible premise becomes increasingly real in this inventive and heartbreaking tale of loss.’
And Aliya Whiteley said: ‘Parenthood is a forest of emotions, including jealousy, confusion and terror, in Shade of Stillthorpe. It’s a dark mystery that resonated deeply with me.’

Open submission calls: March 2022

Buster Keaton typing

Since I started out writing a decade ago, I’ve treated the submission (and rejection!) process for short stories as an important part of the gig. I still find myself scouring submissions calls almost daily, even though I respond to fewer of them each year (mainly because I’m writing fewer short stories and more novels). I thought I’d turn this habitual activity into something useful, and post the most interesting submission calls here. Good idea? Yes, I think so.

I should make clear that I’m not directly affiliated with any of these venues. These are simply the opportunities that have caught my eye.

Lightspeed
Currently open to SF/fantasy flash fiction
Word count: up to 1500 words
Payment: 8 cents per word
Deadline: 1 May 2022 at the earliest
https://adamant.moksha.io/publication/lightspeed

Flame Tree Press: Shared Stories anthology
Speculative, fantastic or folkloric stories ‘inspired by stories of the first peoples in Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas’ by writers with appropriate heritage
Word count: Ideally 2000–4000 words
Payment: 8 cents/6 pence per word for original stories, 6 cents/4 pence for reprints
Deadline: 11 April 2022
http://blog.flametreepublishing.com/fantasy-gothic/first-peoples-call-for-submissions-0

Weird Horror Magazine
Weird horror, obviously
Word count: 500–6000 words
Payment: 1.5 cents per word
Deadline: 31 March 2022
https://undertowpublications.com/weird-horror-magazine

The following calls aren’t open yet, but I figured that mentioning them now will give you a chance to write something to fit the requirements:

Shoreline of Infinity
Science fiction fairy tales for themed issue guest-edited by Teika Bellamy
Word count: up to 6000 words
Payment: £40 per 1000 words
Deadline: Open 4–14 April 2022
https://www.shorelineofinfinity.com/upcoming-submissions-call-science-fictional-fairy-tales/

Seaside Gothic
‘Seaside gothic literature’
Word count: Up to 1000 words
Payment: 1 pence per word
Deadline: Open 11–17 April 2022
https://seasidegothic.com/submissions/

Uncanny
SF/F novellas (‘We want intricate, experimental stories and poems with gorgeous prose, verve, and imagination that elicit strong emotions and challenge beliefs’)
Word count: 17,500–40,000 words
Payment: 10 cents per word
Deadline: Open 1–15 May 2022
https://uncannymagazine.com/submissions/

Announcement: Sherlock Holmes & The Twelve Thefts of Christmas

I’m very pleased to announce that my third Sherlock Holmes novel, and my second to be published by Titan Books in 2022, will be published in October. This one’s a bit of a ‘Christmas special’ (Irene Adler! Mrs Hudson! Mary Watson! Inspector Lestrade! Toby the dog!) called THE TWELVE THEFTS OF CHRISTMAS. Here’s a description:

Sherlock Holmes’s discovery of a mysterious musical score initiates a devious Christmas challenge set by Irene Adler, with clues that are all variations on the theme of ‘theft without theft’, such as a missing statue found hidden in the museum gallery from which it was taken.

In the snowy London lead-up to Christmas, Holmes’s preoccupation with the Adler Variations risks him neglecting the case of his new client, Norwegian arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who has received a series of threats in the form of animal carcasses left on his doorstep. Could they really be gifts from a strange spirit that has pursued Nansen since the completion of his expedition to cross Greenland? And might this case somehow be related to Irene Adler’s great game?

It’ll be published in hardback on 18th Oct 2022 by Titan Books. Here’s the cover:

Sherlock Holmes & The Twelve Thefts of Christmas

My Writing Year 2021

There’s certainly been a sense of things having come to a standstill in 2021. I’ve left the house a lot less than usual (even when it was allowed), and my starting point on that score was not much at all. However, in terms of my published work, I have to remind myself that things actually did happen, even though there was relatively little feedback when they did.

Sherlock Holmes: The Back to Front Murder

Despite having had no opportunity to speak to anybody in person about it, I published a novel this year: the Sherlock Holmes mystery The Back to Front Murder, which has gone across well, and seems to have satisfied Holmesians and casual readers alike, as far as I can tell. I’m particularly pleased that the consensus is that the novel captures Conan Doyle’s style and Watson’s voice, as this was the aspect I found most daunting, though it turned out to be the most satisfying to tackle.

Universal Language

And there was a novella, too: Universal Language is a locked-room mystery set on Mars, and I’m very proud of it. This is the publication that’s most suffered from the lack of conventions this year, and I hope it’ll find its way to more readers when things open up again.

It’s been a good year for short fiction, with fewer publications overall, but all stories I’m proud of having written, appearing in venues I really like and respect. They were:
– ‘The Andraiad’ in Interzone
– ‘The Living Museum’ in Shoreline of Infinity
– ‘Goodbye, Jonathan Tumbledown’ in Out of the Darkness (Unsung Stories)
– ‘The Cardboard Voice’ in Nightscript

While writing fiction has often seemed trivial compared to world events, I’ve done a lot of it in 2021 all the same. In fact, I wrote far more this year than I have in any other year to date – I’m honestly not quite sure how! I didn’t write at all in January due to lockdown and home-schooling, and all but gave it up during the summer holiday, too. Despite this, I spent more than 350 hours writing, and wrote more than 285,000 words. As always, I’m aware that quantity is relatively meaningless, and yet I’m proud that I’m dedicating so much time to my favourite activity.

The chart above shows my progress with longer projects. The dark red, dark blue and green data lines show three completed novels. One of these is my upcoming second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Defaced Men, which will be published in August 2022, one is a non-Holmesian Victorian mystery novel, and the third is a difficult-to-classify contemporary novel that’s currently with beta readers. The light blue line shows continued work on a huge, mad novel that I began during last year’s lockdown, which I’ll keep fiddling with in between other projects. The light red line shows the first 20k words of a commissioned novel I’m currently working on.

So, 2022 promises to be busy. After I complete the commissioned novel, I’ll return to the two other almost-finished novels to make changes before sending out to publishers, then perhaps I’ll return to the enormous novel that’s been running in the background for more than a year. After that, who knows? But it’s nice to know where I’m going for the time being. In terms of publications, there’ll be Sherlock Holmes: The Defaced Men in August, and my current project later in the year, plus a short story in an anthology I’m really excited about – in fact, getting to write this story is one of the most exciting things that’s happened to me as a writer so far, and one of the best Christmas presents I’ve had in adulthood. More details soon, I hope.

It’s a funny feeling, being quite glum about the future in wider terms, yet remaining so excited about writing and work. Perhaps we all need to be a bit introspective and self-centred in order to get by at the moment – is that fair to say? Either way, I anticipate having my head buried in work as much as possible next year.

Favourite albums of 2021

Drone

In the latter part of this year I’ve had HYbr:ID I by Alva Noto on near-constant rotation while writing; it’s the album that most consistently pushes me into a flow state, and because I’ve done so much writing this year, by default I suppose this is my favourite album of 2021. A close contender is 7.37/2.11 by Perila, similarly ghostlike and similarly impossible to describe when not actually listening to it. My other favourite drone albums of the year are Rakka II by Vladislav Delay and Fringe by Felisha Ledesma, and my favourite field recordings are on dawn, always new, often superb, inaugurates the return of the everyday by the always excellent Kate Carr.           

Modern composition

Two unexpected delights of this year were also two revisitations of favourites from previous years. Teenage Lontano by Marina Rosenfeld features teenagers singing acapella RnB, snippets of which were previously featured on the wonderful Plastic Materials in 2009. Oren Ambarchi’s Live Hubris is, fairly obviously, a live version of 2016’s Hubris, which was among my favourite albums of that year. I loved The Changing Account by G.S. Schray, which evokes both Tortoise and Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. Other favourites this year include Harmattan by Klein, Wild Up’s rendition of Julius Eastman’s Femenine, Cracks by Bendik Giske as well as Giske’s untitled collaboration with Pavel Milyakov, both of which stood in nicely for the absence of new Colin Stetson material other than his soundtrack work, and Dog Mountain by Laurin Huber and Antiphonals by the ever-reliable Sarah Davachi.

Weird / electronica / hip hop

One of the most notably weird albums this year was Deep England by Gazelle Twin & NYX, which is at once pagan, folk-horror and decidedly modern. It also features ‘Fire Leap’ from The Wicker Man, which gets extra points. A lot of my favourite electronica seems to be inspired by Dean Blunt’s and Inga Copeland’s muttered, hazy quasi-hip-hop productions dating all the way back to Black is Beautiful in 2012 – from Dean Blunt’s own BLACK METAL 2 to Fast Fashion by Lolina (aka Inga Copeland herself) to the tonally similar SHILOH: Lost For Words by John Glacier, the marvellous Blue Hills by Jonnine, and Equal Amounts Afraid by LA Timpa. Finally, What Is Normal Today? by Not Waving is a total departure from their recent downbeat style, instead dizzying, queasy and propulsive techno.            

Indie / rock

At this stage in their long career, it seems unreasonable to expect new things of Low, and yet they seem increasingly intent on burying their angelic voices beneath distortion and sheer noise. I’m happy to say that HEY WHAT is all the better for it, and contains some of my favourite moments of any album this year, and is almost up to the standard of the incredible Double Negative from 2018. Henki by Richard Dawson & Circle came in almost too late to feature on this list, but it’s quickly risen to become an album I can’t stop playing, particular the later songs which indulge Dawson’s hitherto-unknown liking for metal. I returned often to three excellent post-rock albums this year: Bright Green Field by Squid, Cavalcade by black midi and For the first time by Black Country, New Road, all of which owe a debt to other, better bands (notably Slint), but since when did all music have to be entirely original? Another indie album with clear influences was Anything Can’t Happen by Dorothea Paas, at her best when channelling Joni Mitchell jamming with Crazy Horse. My favourite afrobeat albums were Afrique Victime by Mdou Moctar and Kologo by Alostmen. Other notable releases I enjoyed were Half Mirror by Chorusing and CHUCKLE by Alpha Maid.

Pop / vocal

Reason to Live by Lou Barlow is probably his most accessible album, and perhaps sometimes mawkish, but still terrific. If I’d spent more time driving this year, I’m pretty sure I’d have listened to Daddy’s Home by St. Vincent a lot more. Flock by Jane Weaver channels Stereolab pleasingly, Rhinestones by HTRK is an utter joy and was my favourite music for relaxing this year, along with the divine Hanazono by Satomimagae.   

Compilations / reissues

My favourite compilation by a country mile was Rocksteady Got Soul from Soul Jazz. Then, in order of preference: Cameroon Garage Funk (Analog Africa), A Little Night Music: Aural Apparitions from the Geographic North (Geographic North) and Two Synths A Guitar (And) A Drum Machine: Post Punk Dance Vol.1 (Soul Jazz). As for reissues, the standouts for me were Kid A Mnesia by Radiohead and Radar of Small Dogs by Stephen.

Favourite fiction of 2021

Films

I did go to the cinema once this year, a Tuesday matinee with my wife to avoid the crowd. We saw No Time to Die and it was fine. Far better recent films I saw at home this year were The Green Knight (David Lowery), especially the middle sequences with wandering giants, Mogul Mowgli (Bassam Tariq) featuring an amazing performance by Riz Ahmed, Black Bear (Lawrence Michael Levine) for its bloody-mindedness, Under the Tree (Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson) for its bleak comedy and Call Me By Your Name, which secures Luca Guadagnino as one of my favourite contemporary directors.

I watched a lot of older films in the first part of the year, probably as a means of keeping sane in the January lockdown. Since then, barely anything – who knows why. My most exciting discoveries were the wonderfully tense The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1961) and Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960), the excellent double-bill of carnival horrors The Unholy Three (Tod Browning, 1925) and He Who Gets Slapped (Victor Sjöström, 1924), the stone-cold classic Orphée (Jean Cocteau, 1950), the deeply subversive duo of Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) and The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller, 1964) and the surprisingly affecting South Pole expedition documentary The Great White Silence (Herbert Ponting, 1924).

Books

In terms of recent novels, my favourite isn’t available or even announced yet, as I read it as a beta reader. I’d hope it’ll be snapped up by a publisher soon and you can all enjoy it. My favourite recently-actually-published novels were the dazzling The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel and Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. I also loved Hello Friend We Missed You by Richard Owain Roberts. My favourite recent SF novels were Amatka by Karin Tidbeck and The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn. The two collections I most enjoyed were both published in 2021 and were written by two of my favourite modern novelists: The Art of Space Travel, and other stories by Nina Allan and From the Neck Up, and other stories by Aliya Whiteley. Most of my non-fiction reading was related to my own projects, but of the others my favourite was Writing the Uncanny, a series of entertaining essays by some of the best current writers of the weird, edited by Dan Coxon.

Going back a little further, this year I discovered the work of Tom McCarthy, beginning with the incredible Remainder (2005) and then, neatly tying to having introduced my own children to Tintin, his non-fiction Tintin and the Secret of Literature (2006). The other 21st-century novel I most enjoyed was The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (2000), an absolute triumph in structural terms.

I read a lot of locked-room mysteries this year – odd, given that we were all in lockdown ourselves – my favourites being The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr (1941), The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne (1922) and An English Murder by Cyril Hare (1951).

I also read a fair amount of 19th-century fiction, including lots of Robert Louis Stevenson, kicking off with the wonderful anthology of his work selected by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Jorge Luis Borges in the 1960s. This led me to Stevenson’s Fables (1896), now one of my favourite story collections.

Other novels I loved this year were the heartless Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov (1932), the far more humane Cold Spring Harbor by Richard Yates (1986) and the wonderfully overflowing What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe (1994).

My favourite non-fiction book I read this year was also the book I most enjoyed overall: The Quest for Corvo by AJA Symons (1934), detailing the life of an unscrupulous author but structured like a detective novel, and one of the least classifiable and most compelling books I’ve ever read.

TV

Was there good TV in 2021? I’m sure there was, but for the most part, the tension in the real world left my wife and I unable to face anything particularly gritty, or suspenseful, or long. We watched a lot of Taskmaster. I loved the third series of Stath Lets Flats. I thought that Together was a necessary and uncompromising overview of the early lockdown. I liked Lupin and Call My Agent! and His Dark Materials and This Time… with Alan Partridge and Frank of Ireland. The best TV show was obviously Succession, one of the funniest TV programmes this century.

Games

In gaming terms, this year has been characterised by compulsive playing in order to block out the world. The games that achieved this most successfully for me were both roguelikes: deck-builder Slay the Spire, and the hard-as-nails sidescroller Dead Cells, though Civilization VI has threatened to topple them both since I started playing it this month. Both Her Story and Orwell provided a sense of almost-real surveillance, and while I was terrible at it, Return of the Obra Dinn provided the most satisfying actual deduction. The most immersive storytelling was in the astounding Disco Elysium, which I’ve played through twice. I surprised myself by getting back into platform gaming via Ori and the Blind Forest and Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and thoroughly enjoyed playing Creaks with my sons. Two of my favourite puzzle games were Hexcells and Escape Simulator, the former satisfyingly clean and abstract, the latter almost capturing the feel of real-life escape rooms, with a thriving community scene creating new levels all the time.

Announcement: Sherlock Holmes – The Defaced Men

I’m very pleased to say that in 2022 Titan Books will publish my second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Defaced Men, almost exactly one year after my first, The Back to Front Murder. I’ve had so much fun writing Holmes and Watson, and completing this second novel has been just as enjoyable as the first.

Here’s the description:

A white-haired, bearded client arrives at Baker Street and is recognised immediately by Holmes. This client is being threatened by someone unknown to him through curious means: doctored lecture slides, and Watson realises this is Eadweard Muybridge, pioneer of animal and human locomotion photographs, who presents his motion-study animations to interested parties through his zoopraxiscope device. When the two attend one of his lectures they find disturbing alterations to Muybridge’s slides he swears he did not put there and as they investigate further, discover murder and conspiracy with the fledgeling arts of photography and cinema at its heart…

I’m fascinated by early cinema, so writing about Muybridge was a gift, and I’ve had great fun showing Holmes and Watson encountering the new medium of film for the first time.

And here’s the cover!

Sherlock Holmes: The Defaced Men

Sherlock Holmes: The Defaced Men will be published by Titan Books on 23rd August 2022.

Sherlock Holmes: The Back to Front Murder Published

My Sherlock Holmes novel, The Back to Front Murder, was published by Titan Books in the UK this week, and will be available in the USA a few days from now. Holmes’s client is a mystery author whose latest murder plot has been enacted in real life… before her novel has been written.

Sherlock Holmes: The Back to Front Murder

I’ve had a such a good time writing Holmes and Watson – particularly the latter; there’s a lot in this novel about Watson as an author, and I think I’ve projected a lot of my imposter syndrome onto him.

Another thing I’ve discovered this week is that it’s a relief to have written a novel that’s easily categorised. Do you like Sherlock Holmes novels? Then maybe you’d like this Sherlock Holmes novel.

As well as (positive!) reviews, a couple of articles relating to The Back to Front Murder appeared online this week: CrimeReads hosted my article titled ‘The Joys and Difficulties of Writing a Faithful Sherlock Holmes Novel’ and Trans-Scribe conducted a really good Q&A covering the challenges of channelling Arthur Conan Doyle, Watson as narrator, female characters in the canon and favourite Holmes stories. More articles will be appearing soon.

Other than that, visit this page to find out more details about the book.

Universal Language Launched

This week, my Martian murder-mystery novella, UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE, was published by the excellent NewCon Press. It’s available in paperback, ebook and the very fine signed hardback edition shown in the image above. It’s satisfyingly chunky; the word count actually edges it into short novel rather than novella categorisation.

I wrote several articles to introduce the book, including:

Also, Runalong the Shelves provided the first review, and – phew! – they liked it:

“…a fascinating mystery to solve while we are in the hands of a unique investigator and then get into a wider tale exploring humanity itself… a mixture of The Doctor and Columbo, [detective Abbey Oma] is a six-foot three private investigator who loves banter, often has to resist the urge to hug people and is very perceptive at working through the evidence and witnesses… a very successful novella mystery and also a great piece of science fiction.”

And, if you’ve read the novella or are contemplating doing so, you might be interested in the book soundtrack, available on Spotify:

(And here’s a blog post explaining the track choices.)

For more information and purchase links, head on over to the dedicated page for the novella.

Out of the Darkness – update

The Kickstarter campaign for the anthology OUT OF THE DARKNESS, which features horror and dark fantasy authors’ stories related to mental health issues, ended yesterday, and it was massively successful – more than 300% funded, with all stretch goals met! This is particularly welcome news, as all royalties, as well as editor Dan Coxon’s fees, will go to charity Together for Mental Wellbeing.

Over the course of the campaign Dan did a terrific job of raising awareness, and, along with other authors involved in the anthology, I contributed to a few articles:

Plus, here’s Dan speaking about the aims of the anthology in general, at Runalong the Shelves.

The anthology will be published by the wonderful Unsung Stories in August 2021, with the following tantalising lineup:

  • Nocturia – Nicholas Royle 
  • The Note – Jenn Ashworth 
  • Lonely Souls in Quiet Houses – Laura Mauro 
  • Seabound – Alison Moore 
  • Goodbye, Jonathan Tumbledown – Tim Major 
  • The Chorus – Aliya Whiteley 
  • Meet on the Edge – Gareth E. Rees
  • The Forlorn Hope – Verity Holloway 
  • Oblio – Richard V. Hirst 
  • Still She Visits – Eugen Bacon 
  • Bloodybones Jones – Sam Thompson 
  • Flotsam and Jetsam – Malcolm Devlin 
  • The Lightness of their Hearts – Georgina Bruce 
  • The Residential – Gary Budden 
  • Replacement Bus Service – Ashley Stokes 
  • Temple – Anna Vaught 
  • The Hungry Dark – Simon Bestwick

Book soundtrack: Universal Language

Universal Language

My Martian murder-mystery novella, Universal Language, will be published on 6th April. It’s a classic locked-room mystery with a twist (besides being set on Mars, that is): the body of scientist Jerem Ferrer is discovered in an airlocked room, and the sole suspect is a robot whose Asimovian behaviour protocols mean it can’t actually commit murder. Private-eye ‘Optic’ Abbey Oma is on the case, soon joined by puppyish Franck Treadgold, investigating the political, commercial and criminal networks of the Mars colony to determine who killed Jerem Ferrer.

Recently I’ve written a bunch of blog posts to introduce different aspects of the novella – I’ll post links to them as they appear on venues around the web. This post is about an aspect that I suspect is more important to me than any potential readers: a book soundtrack. Still, I think it may act as much as an effective primer to the novella as a consolidation for readers who’ve already completed it.

I’ve played this game of creating a book soundtrack for each of my novels and novellas. It doesn’t so much reflect the music I’ve written to, but rather a soundtrack to a hypothetical film adaptation. Having begun to put together a soundtrack after the first draft, the tracks often begin to ‘infect’ scenes on a second or third pass, informing tone, pace or, in some circumstances, characterisation. By the time the manuscript is complete, the soundtrack is (in my mind) inseparable from the book.

Click here to listen to the Universal Language book soundtrack on Spotify. And here’s my reasoning behind the choices:

1. Space Is the Place / We Travel the Spaceways – Sun Ra & His Arkestra
I can’t remember when I decided that my intergalactic private detective, Optic Abbey Oma, would be a fan of free jazz. Quite possibly, it was when I first put my mind to soundtrack choices, after the first draft. I loved the thought of hurtling across the Martian wastes in a rover, blasting Sun Ra from her suit’s in-built speakers. ‘Space is the Place’ is rather on the nose, but I still feel it’s perfect, and this live version performed at Inter-Media Arts in 1991 is raw and raucous, and features a grandstanding outro that would appeal to Abbey’s own ego.

2. I Will Try – Holy Motors
Abbey in detective mode. Despite her bravado and callous exterior, she’s astute and thoughtful. And judging by this song choice, she’s as smooth and idiosyncratic an investigator as Chris Isaak’s Agent Desmond in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Did I mention yet that Abbey Oma would be played by Gwendoline Christie in a film adaptation, if I had any say in the matter?

3. Very Special – Duke Ellington
The wildest of bop. Any of several tracks from Ellington’s album Money Jungle would have fitted. Ideally, this track would play every time Abbey begins to follow a new lead.

4. Price to Pay – Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement
As much as anything, I find a John Peel-ish joy in following Duke Ellington with Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement, though I stand by this segue. Despite her façade, Abbey Oma is prone to deflation, and this track evokes that mood as much as her concentration on the task at hand.

5. Terrain – Julia Kent
Another handily literal track title, as this is music to evoke the Martian landscape. The colonists complain of shared dreams of storms which, I think, would sound like this.

6. Nina Simone – Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter
Abbey Oma’s self-professed ‘theme song’, with lyrics that resonate with her professional attitude: ‘Clean up your rap, your story’s getting dusty / Wash out your mouth, your lies are getting rusty’. Within the novella, this track is notable for making even mild-mannered Franck whoop and thump the steering wheel.

7. Why Spend the Dark Night With You – Moondog
I love that Abbey loves Moondog. I think they’d get on well, this spacefaring private eye and the busking ‘Viking of 6th Avenue’. This brief, beautiful track is whistled by Abbey twice in the novella, one time while levelling a pistol at Franck.

8. My Little Grass Shack – The Polynesians
Variety is important in both a work of fiction and a book soundtrack. This kitsch Hawaiian ditty represents a turning point in the plot, and, oddly enough given its cheeriness, Abbey’s lowest moment.

9. For Murder – Teresa Winter
A murky mirror image of the Moondog track, featuring the repeated lyric, ‘I’ll show you what the night is for’. I won’t spoil what the night is for.

10. Galaxy Around Oludumare – Alice Coltrane
Another fairly blunt selection, I suppose, but Abbey would love this as much as I do. The entirety of Coltrane’s incredible album World Galaxy suggests off-kilter otherworldliness, the orchestral arrangement at the start of this track is peerless, and the swirling electronica presaging the insane saxophone ‘melody’ is utterly disorienting.

11. Listen to Bach (The Earth) – Eduard Artemyev
Another slight cheat, as this is taken from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris. But I think it does a wonderful job of evoking the burgeoning religious influence within the Martian community in Universal Language, and it’s insanely beautiful to boot.

12. Sunset – Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids
End credits music, I suppose. After all that woozy free jazz, this is far more grounded and light. I rarely write happy endings, but the ending to Universal Language makes me smile. I hope one day I’ll get to write more about Abbey and Franck’s continuing cases. They’re a lovely team.

Click here to access the soundtrack playlist via Spotify.

Find out more about Universal Language here.

Out of the Darkness

Out of the DarknessI’m really proud to be involved in this anthology: OUT OF THE DARKNESS, edited by Dan Coxon and published by the always amazing Unsung Stories. Fifteen horror and dark fantasy authors present stories related to mental health issues, and all royalties will go to charity Together for Mental Wellbeing. As Dan says in his introductory video, this project is ever more meaningful after a year of Covid lockdowns and subdued panic – and I’m certain this’ll be a terrific anthology, featuring as it does some of my favourite writers.

The Kickstarter rewards are pretty immense too, such as MS critiques by Dan, or a £40 bundle featuring FOUR frankly outstanding books by Aliya Whiteley along with the anthology.

Head over to Kickstarter and take a look!

Announcement: Sherlock Holmes – The Back-to-Front Murder

Holmes and Watson

Publication news! I’m happy to say that my Sherlock Holmes novel THE BACK-TO-FRONT MURDER will be published by Titan Books in August. In fact, it’s the first of two, with the second due out at the same time next year, both classic tales in the Conan Doyle style. Here’s the blurb for this first one:

May 1898. A new client arrives at Baker Street – Abigail Moone, a wealthy, independent writer of successful mystery stories under a male pseudonym. She presents an unusual problem. Abigail claims that she devised a man’s death that was reported in that morning’s newspaper: that is, she planned his murder as an event to be included in one of her mystery stories. Following real people and imagining how she might murder them and get away with it is how Abigail comes up with her plots, but this victim has actually died, apparently of the poison method she meticulously planned in her notebook. Someone is trying to frame Abigail for his death, but with the evidence stacking up against her, she turns to Holmes to prove her innocence.

I’ve had so much fun writing as Watson and attempting to channel Conan Doyle. Completing this novel has been one of the most straightforwardly happy writing experiences I’ve had (though the plot is anything but straightforward, of course), and I hope it shows.

My writing year 2020

It comes as something as a surprise to discover that I’ve written more this year than during any year to date. How I found time to put down 215,000 words, despite long weeks of being unable to write anything at all due to coronavirus-panic paralysis, self-doubt and the requirement of homeschooling two young children for six entire months, I really can’t explain. Still, that’s what happened, and I must have put in intense sessions during the weeks in which I did write, as this was also the year I spent most time at my desk: 290 hours in all.

This year, I wrote:

  • An as-yet-unannounced commissioned novel, 70,000 words
  • Shade of Stillthorpe – a 30,000-word novella, a mishmash of folk horror and Patricia Highsmith-esque ‘wrong man’ thriller
  • 70,000 words of a novel begun as a response to lockdown – it’s likely to be huge, with three separate strands in different genres and more than thirty characters
  • ‘The Cardboard Voice’ – horror short story, 5000 words
  • ‘The Marshalls of Mars’ – SF short story, 7600 words
  • ‘The Andraiad’ – horror SF short story, 7000 words

BSFA Tim MajorAnd this is what I published in 2020:

  • Hope Island – my horror novel about creepy children, parental fears and sound was published by Titan Books in June (unfortunately, at a point when bookshops were still closed), but which went down well with reviewers – you can read reviews and find out more here
  • ‘The Pea’ – fairytale horror story (850 words), Fudoki, Jan 2020
  • ‘Red Sky at Morning’ – horror short story set on a lighthouse (2900 words), Unsung Stories, May 2020
  • ‘Simulation’ – horror short story set on a plane (2300 words), Strange Days anthology (Midnight Street Press), May 2020
  • ‘Praying To Her Thumbs’ – horror short story (2700 words) STORGY, Jun 2020
  • ‘The Slow King’ – folk horror short story set on a folk horror film set (5000 words), The Fiends in the Furrows II anthology (Nosetouch Press), Aug 2020, then featured as an audio reading on Pseudopod podcast, Dec 2020
  • ‘Into the Wound’ – YA SF short story (3000 words), Voyage, Oct 2020
  • ‘Dear Will’ – ETA Hoffman-esque horror short story (3000 words), Vastarien Vol 3, Issue 2, Dec 2020
  • Also, two stories were reprinted in year’s-best collections: ‘O Cul-de-Sac!’ in The Best of British Fantasy 2019 and ‘Concerning the Deprivation of Sleep’ in Best of British Science Fiction 2019 (both NewCon Press)

Next year, the certainties are the publication of a short story in an anthology I’m really excited about, plus the first of two commissioned tie-in novels and a Martian murder mystery novella, Universal Language, which will be published by NewCon Press. In terms of writing, I’ll be plugging away at my enormous lockdown manuscript, which may yet turn out to be an actual novel, and I’ll be completing a much saner second commissioned novel.

Favourite albums of 2020

Drone / modern composition

Anna HauswolffSarah Davachi

 

 

 

After last year’s stunning album The Sacrificial Code by Kali Malone, it’s now becoming clear – and I realise how unlikely this may sound to some – that there’s something unexpectedly interesting going on in the realm of modern organ music. My two favourite albums of 2020 are performed almost exclusively on instrument. On All Thoughts Fly, Anna von Hausswolff abandons her gothic pop sensibilities and produces incredible textures using pipe organs that seem to rear above you like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cantus, Descant by Sarah Davachi is a less terrifying affair, but no less overwhelming. It features six different organs in the US and Europe from reed to pipe organ, and despite running at 80 minutes, doesn’t outstay its welcome even considering the accompanying live release Figures In Open Air, with its two central hour-long performances in Chicago and Berlin. Galya Bisengalieva of the London Contemporary Orchestra manages to fulfil the promise of her 2019 Eps while also being utterly surprising with Aralkum, an instrumental concept album apparently concerning the shrinking Aral Sea, and evoking her textures for Actress. There’s a similar tone on Oliver Coates’ performance of John Luther Adams’ Canticles of the Sky / Three High Places, the patient, accumulating layers on Harbors by Ellen Fullman and Theresa Wong, and in the outstanding analogue drones of Music for Cello and Humming by Judith Hamann, which also features Sarah Hennies.

In terms of less readily identifiable drones, Finnish techno prodigy Vladislav Delay comes up with the annual goods with Rakka, and also a wonderful, doomy dub collaboration with Sly & Robbie entitled 500 Push-Up. My final two favourite drone albums are Double Bind by Geneva Skeen, and the surprisingly organic Oehoe by Machinefabriek, featuring Anne Bakker on (wordless) vocals and violin.

Folk / primitive / field

Gwenifer RaymondLaura CannellGwenifer Raymond’s take on Fahey-esque primitive Americana is heightened by the knowledge that her melodies in Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain are inspired by the Welsh valleys and folklore. Laura Cannell continues a terrific run of form with the distinctly folk-horror collection The Earth With Her Crowns. Beholder by Julia Reidy offers dizzying, ringing guitar textures in which I can lose myself for hours, and similarly the more fragile improvisations on Welsh harp on Telyn Rawn by Rhodri Davies. Dirty Three drummer Jim White, along with Marisa Anderson, provides more immediately digestible melodies in The Quickening, though still as complex as his best work. Kate Carr proves herself to be one of the most interesting current field recordings artists with no less than three releases this year, the pick of which are the stunning Fabulations and The Thing Itself and Not the Myth.

Weird / psychedelic / hip hop

The TotemistOlan MonkThis year, all of my psychedelia needs unrelated to Sun Ra were catered for The Totemist by Ak’chamel, The Giver Of Illness, which sounds like Sunburned Hand of the Man with heatstroke. Love/Dead by Olan Monk defies easy categorisation, though I suppose it’s much minimal techno as anything, though so dark and strange that it’s as if all the lights go out as soon as it begins, and equally so with Metal Preyers by Metal Preyers, which Boomkat describes as ‘chopped & screwed gristle meets ballistic singeli and mutant electro-acholi’, which, though baffling, is presumably accurate. Visions of Bodies Being Burned by clipping. is as hallucinatory as hip hop gets. Finally, Scis by Oval is a more enjoyable album than the new Autechre, for me, and certainly more frantic.

Vocal / pop / indie

Baxter DuryHunteressThe Night Chancers by Baxter Dury may not make me as deliriously happy as his earlier Happy Soup, but it’s still chock-full of his self-deprecating wit, and contains some of my favourite lyrics of the year: Carla’s got a boyfriend / He’s got horrible trousers / And a small car … Carla’s got a boyfriend / I might take care of him, to be honest. Similarly, Pillowland by Jam City doesn’t quite hit the heights of their earlier Dream a Garden, but prods the same hauntological parts of the mind, so that you could convince yourself not only that you’ve heard each track before, but also that each was in fact a key part of the soundtrack to your childhood. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately by Perfume Genius features soaring melodies and straightforwardly brilliant songwriting. Shades by Good Sad Happy Bad is rough and enthusiastic, and a useful reminder that Mica Levi was already excellent within Micachu and the Stripes before she became Britain’s best composer of film scores. Magic Oneohtrix Point Never by Oneohtrix Point Never is surprisingly direct, melodic and memorable, featuring plenty of guest artists and vocals. Finally, Laura Cannell makes another (very different) appearance in this list under the name Hunteress, playing around with synth pop on The Unshackling, and succeeding wildly.

Compilations

Beverly Glenn-CopelandField WorksThe artist I’m most grateful to have discovered this year is Beverly Glenn-Copeland, whose compilation Transmissions: The Music Of Beverly Glenn-Copeland I found staggering – a bizarre array of styles, equal parts inspirational and mawkish, and an odd sort of forward-hauntology in which e.g. Massive Attack tracks are evoked ahead of time, and a sense that the songs alter each time I listen to them. Other than that, I loved Temporary Residence’s anthology Field Works: Ultrasonic featuring Felicia Atkinson, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Machinefabriek.

Favourite fiction of 2020

Films

The Lighthouse

Like everyone else this year, I saw very little at the cinema in 2020. My favourite of the few films I saw was the wild, disturbing ride The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers), partly because it’s been my lingering memory of what it’s like to watch a great film in the cinema, booming foghorns and all – and I loved the alienating square aspect ratio. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma) was no less an intense depiction of people trapped together, and, equally, Parasite (Bong Joon Ho) contained foreshadowing of lockdown and a lack of fresh air. Steve McQueen’s films from his Small Axe TV anthology series were no less rich and rewarding than his cinema fare. The first two, Mangrove and Lovers Rock, were outstanding – particularly the dazzling choreography and soundtrack of the latter. On a similar note, the short film Strasbourg 1518 (Jonathan Glazer) is entirely choreographed dance, and was the most alarming film of 2020 that I saw.

The SouvenirOf more recent films (i.e. from the last decade), my absolute favourite was The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019), which I couldn’t stop thinking about for all sorts of reasons, and the knowledge that there’s an upcoming second part is tantalising. Bait (Mark Jenkin, 2019) was delightful in all respects, the best film about film that I’ve seen for a while. I found Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodovar, 2019) surprisingly affecting, particularly Antonio Banderas’ performance. The Personal History of David Copperfield (Armando Iannucci,  2019) was the most fun I’ve had with a recent film, in part due to the pleasure of spotting favourite TV character actors. I loved Aniara (Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja, 2018) – exactly my sort of setup, about a Mars migration that turns into an endless voyage – the intertitles signalling greater and greater timescales alone were powerful. And though I loved A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino, 2015) in every respect, Ralph Fiennes’ creepy dancing remains its most memorable moment.

High and LowI watched a lot of classic films this year, partly as a response to lockdown, but also partly because I’ve developed new habits: I no longer fret about not finishing a film in a single session, and I’ve been watching them via BFI Player and MUBI on my (admittedly large-screened) phone, often starting at 5.30am after being woken by my youngest son. Watching films like this, with chunky headphones, in bed in the dark, has been the closest simulation of a cinema setting.

One of my biggest ‘discoveries’ this year was the wider work on Akira Kurosawa, in particular The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961) and High and Low (1963), all of which rank as some of the best films I’ve seen this year. I finally watched, and loved, the long version of Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982), but surprised myself by enjoying Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955) equally as much. Other classic films I watched for the first time and adored included La Strada (Federico Fellini, 1954), Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945) and The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966), all stunning. I was blown away by Tartuffe (F. W. Murnau, 1925), particularly its framing story and metatextual elements. Two of my favourite finds were Cairo Station (Youssef Chahine, 1958) and Intimate Lighting (Ivan Passer, 1965), and I adored the ‘fake news’ docudramas Punishment Park (Peter Watkins, 1971) and the lesser-known Alternative 3 (Christopher Miles, 1977). For tense pulp thrills, my favourite films were the incomparable Night Tide (Curtis Harrington, 1961), the near-perfect thriller Breakdown (Jonathan Mostow, 1997) and the fantastical short film Quest (Saul Bass, 1984), included on the recent Phase IV bluray. My favourite horror film this year was the woozy masterpiece The White Reindeer (Erik Blomberg, 1952).

Books

The Easter ParadeMy immediate response to the announcement of the first lockdown was to panic-read substantial classic novels I’d always intended to read. Middlemarch (George Eliot, 1872) worked as intended: I found it totally absorbing and entirely reassuring. I suspect that Candide (Voltaire, 1759), Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925) and Lanark (Alasdair Gray, 1981) and The Third Policeman (Flann O’Brien, 1967) will each be influential on my own writing in the coming years. My favourite horror novel was Thérèse Raquin (Émile Zola, 1867), which packed a punch partly because I didn’t realise it was going to be a horror novel. My most important reading discoveries in 2020 were the novels of Richard Yates, my favourites so far being The Easter Parade (1976) and Revolutionary Road (1961), the latter being as great a Great American Novel as The Great Gatsby. My most exciting discovery of 2020 was the Jorge Luis Borges-endorsed, proto-SF novella The Invention of Morel (Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1940).

A Cosmology of MonstersIn terms of more recent works, my favourites were A Cosmology of Monsters (Shaun Hamill, 2019), which has one of the most absorbing first chapters of any book I’ve read, Annihilation (Jeff VanderMeer, 2014) which I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to reading, and The Wall (John Lanchester, 2019) which made me seethe with envy. I read a lot of non-fiction for writing research purposes, but the factual books I enjoyed most for ‘fun’ were High Static, Dead Lines: Sonic Spectres & the Object Hereafter by Kristen Gallerneaux (2018) and Deep Fakes and the Infocalypse: What You Urgently Need To Know (Nina Schick, 2020).

TV

SuccessionIt’s been a great year for TV drama. My wife and I binged both series of the hysterical (in all senses) Succession, I was entirely won over by the calm pace of Normal People, and the decidedly more frenetic I May Destroy You seemed to redefine the possibilities of TV drama with every episode. Staged was an impressively comprehensive and complex response to the first coronavirus lockdown, and was very funny to boot. Upright was the TV show that most upset me, offset by all the tremendous joy, and was probably my favourite TV show of the year. Armando Iannucci’s space workplace comedy Avenue 5 turned out to be far better than expected, and I hope there’ll be more to come. The most exhilarating TV I saw this year was World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, closely followed by the meticulous, gorgeous and subversive Anaïs Nin adaptation Little Birds. And, likeeveryone else, I thought The Queen’s Gambit was staggeringly good all round.

Games

FirewatchAfter around eight years without videogames, purchasing a half-decent laptop this autumn has allowed me to dabble in games I’ve missed in the interim period, though anything particularly open-world or particularly recent stutters like crazy – for which I’m grateful, as I’m terrified of losing too much time to gaming at the expense of work. Still, I managed to work through Portal-esque puzzle game The Talos Principle (2014), Tomb Raider (2013) and Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015) (the latter better than the first in the new trilogy but representing an almost unsurmountable graphical challenge for my PC). I enjoyed Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments (2014) far more than expected, appreciating the slow pace. I admired a huge amount of What Remains of Edith Finch (2017), which as well as providing a compelling story, acted as a showcase for the possibilities of videogames – particularly the scene involving slicing the heads off fish on a production line whilst simultaneously guiding a prince around a kingdom whilst also learning about the fragile mental health of the factory worker in question. But the only game that I truly loved was Firewatch (2016), in which the player fulfils a patient role as a lookout in a Wyoming forest, whilst developing a relationship with your supervisor over walkie-talkie. The landscape is stunning, the nudges along the path of the narrative subtle, and the story is deeply affecting, perhaps partly because the game is over within three hours or so.

Tim Major – author

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