The Stone Tide – Gareth E Rees

Another intriguing work from an excellent author, which is as much an exploration of himself as of Hastings and the limits of reality.

Rees and his wife and two kids move to a creaking old house in the town, and quickly his wife sets to doing up the house, and he begins his daily walks of the area, discovering its history and eccentrics like occultist Alistair Crowley and inventor John Baird.

There’s no particular structure to the book, which is a reflection of how Hastings unravels for Rees, and how he himself seems to be unravelling. Like much psychogeographic writing, it’s about the discovery of surprising things whilst on ‘derives’, or undirected walks, and this is where he stumbles across caves or old buildings and weirdnesses.

Like other psychogeographic writing, too, it blends the minutiae of place, the intricate historical details and people, with big questions. In some psychogeography its big political questions like the privatisation of space. In this book it is more the question of what reality is, and how our current reality is so thoroughly shaped by things that can’t be seen or touched, like history or magic or ghosts.

What elevates Rees’s writings, I think, though are its constant moves to fictionalisation and memoir.

The fictionalisation comes regularly through the book, with Rees essentially riffing on the real-life historical discoveries he makes and creating short stories – something he did regularly in his book Marshland too, but is more random and haphazard in The Stone Tide, so much that you don’t know where reality ends and fiction starts. The stories are often just a few pages along, and border on the surreal, though don’t maybe have the elements of horror and weird fiction that were more apparent in Marshland.

The memoir comes regularly too, and is probably the most captivating part of the book. There’s a few bits to it – his struggle to keep hold of reality and recognise what’s happening outside himself is a big part of it, and one that becomes increasingly important.

There was the death of his friend Mike twenty years earlier, in St Andrews, which continually haunts Rees as he explores the coast of Hastings; the sense that he hasn’t dealt with the death or what he thinks he ought to have done to prevent it happening, is really powerful and moving.

And there’s his relationship with his wife Emily, which gradually falls apart over the course of the book, in part because of obsessive wanderings and his focus on the ghosts of his life and Hastings.

As with Marshland, I’m not entirely sure whether this memoir is fictionalised or not, but that’s beside the point – in fact, the thin veil separating fiction and fact, history and the present, and life and death, are what this book is all about, and so it makes sense that its hard to know.

“My daily walking was essential. It was how I got my ideas and my sense of place. Without walking I was the blinking curser on a blank computer screen. A writer without a story. A father with nothing to tell his daughters. A husband who talked of taxes and efficient methods of dishwasher stacking while enduring a constant, silent worry about bacteria gnawing him to death from the genitals upwards.”

Gareth E Rees, The Stone Tide

The Snowman – Jo Nesbo

This is a classic work of Scandinavian crime fiction and an absolutely gripping page turner; the words, the events and twists pass at astonishing speed.

It features Harry Hole, the troubled and slightly narcissistic detective, who is on the pursuit of an apparent serial killer – ‘the snowman’ – who kills women around Norway and leaves a sinister snowman as a motif.

It sees Hole pursuing a series of leads that take him from suspect to suspect, as the murder count racks up. There are time jumps over long decades to help explain the motives of different people and their actions, and although the voice of the author doesn’t change it moves between characters very few pages – part of its gripping allure.

I won’t go into the plot other than to say that there are range of characters and suspects, including colleagues and people close to Harry – Katrine Blatt, Mathias, Arve Stopp among others. In fact, as is often the case in this genre, the gruesome ending involves the people closest to Harry, embodying that idea of the link between the serial killer and the star detective that is often mythologised in fiction, and of course in Harry’s mind.

The Snowman is a great read but something bugged me throughout, and it’s the portrayal of women. All the victims are women, they are accused of being whores, and the non-victim women are generally weak characters – interesting but without any real independence from their circumstances. It’s true that the men in the book are hardly beacons of autonomy but what they do generally have is some element of power over their own actions and over others; something which the female characters lack. So the book perpetuates exactly the stereotypes that we need to fight.

On the cover are comparisons to Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series, but precisely because of this treatment of women I think that’s wrong. Larsson’s books are all about the abuse that men do and the way women resist, whereas Nesbo lacks any portrayal of resistance. So, you know, a good book, a page turner, but too cliched to be more.

The Girl in the Spiders Web – David Lagercrantz

The fourth in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series, written by a different person, but as good if not better than the previous three. This is just great thriller writing.

It’s another complexly plotted story of espionage and secrecy that highlights the corrupt networks that span government, business and criminal enterprises.

The story kicks off with the murder of Frans Balder, an AI specialist who is apparently killed for what he knew about corruption at the heart of the machine. His son, August, witnesses it, but is a highly autistic savant who can’t speak but, it gradually transpires, can draw with a photographic memory as well as do ludicrously complex equations.

Cue Salander and Blomkvist to the rescue. Salander heroically saving and protecting the boy, coaxing him out of his silence. Blomkvist gradually unravelling the complex mix of Swedish and US intelligence agencies, tech firms and Russian gangsters to discover the truth.
We also get plenty more Salander back story, in particular her beautiful but dangerous sister Camilla who is heavily involved in the attacks on Balder, Salander and Zander, a young journalist at Millenium.

Despite being written by Lagercratz rather than Larsson it’s entirely in keeping with the original style – descriptive, matter of fact, with unbelievable but compelling characters. In fact, the style is sharper than the original, with the whole book written in short bursts of pages on each of the many, many characters in the novel, all of them gradually moving to the dramatic conclusion.

“The stores became more eccentric as you went in. There was a shop that sold soap shaped like celebrity torsos, a mapmaker peddling joke globes and plots of cities that didn’t exist, one that sold defective merchandise, and another that offered only models or reproductions of other commodities.”

Eric Lundgren, The Facades

“Imagine any record released in the last couple of years being beamed back in time to, say, 1995 and played on the radio. It’s hard to think that it will produce any jolt in the listeners. On the contrary , what would be likely to shock a 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds: would music really have changed so little in the next 17 years? Contrast this with the rapid turnover of sounds between the 1960s and 90s: play a jungle record from 1993 to someone in 1989 and it would have sounded like something so new that it would have challenged them to rethink what music was, or could be.”

Mark Fisher, ghosts of my life

The Complex – Michael Walters

This is an intriguing and quietly powerful book. A lot happens and nothing happens. It’s menacing and tense. The characters, though largely unlikeable, are oddly compelling. Above all it’s disturbing because everything that’s wrong in this world is never explained.

The set up for the story is pretty simple. Gabrielle and her husband Leo are heading out to a house in the middle of a forest to spend a holiday with Gabrielle’s client, Art, and his partner Polly and daughter Fleur.

Almost immediately the tension ramps up when they apparently hit a deer before they arrive, which they then think has actually been shot. The relationship between the two men, Art and Leo, is strained from the start too, when they challenge one another to a tennis match – a fantastic scene that really allows Walters to dig into their characters and the animosity between them.

Things get progressively worse [spoilers here]. Sexual feelings develop between Leo and Polly. Leo suspects that Gabrielle and Art are having an affair. Stefan falls for Fleur. Gabrielle gets completely lost and disorientated in the woods. Stefan gets charged by a deer. Leo gets lost in the basement tunnels of the building. And so on.

But the intrigue is really what’s not explained. What happens, but is unknown to the reader. 

The story is set in a near future where everything is connected to some kind of grid. They have travelled from The Areas to this remote location, though we don’t what that’s all about, only that they’ve left the grid behind and so risk losing connection and everything stopping working. Or that’s the implication.

VR is a common feature, and most of the characters spend some time in virtual reality, almost always a disturbing experience. Technology doesn’t come out of this book well, but neither does the wild of the countryside.

Art meanwhile supplies a cocktail of drugs to Gabrielle and I think Polly, apparently helping them but also controlling and trapping them, showing that patriarchy and power are just as strong in this future as now.

Nothing is fully clear. It’s not quite a dystopia, but the technology and drugs just hang menacingly, a sinister backdrop to the personal dramas playing out in the house.

Sleeping in flame – Jonathan Carroll

What an intriguing and in the end gripping read; part love story, part fairly tale, part fantasy horror.

Walker is an actor living a good life in Vienna, who meets Maris, a woman who is fleeing from her violent ex, Luc, and who Walker first helps protect and then falls in love with. Their relationship develops fast and we get a lot of their back stories in the first hundred pages or so. In fact for the the first third of this books it reads like a fairly conventional love story.

But then something strange starts to happen: Walker begins to have premonitions of things to come, he discovers the grave of someone identical to him who has been dead thirty years, and gradually he learns he can perform magic.

He begins to explore this with the help of a cynical and thoroughly modern LA shaman, Venasque, who shows Walker that he is the reincarnation of many lives that his dreams are allowing him to remember.

Eventually, after Maris and Venasque are put in danger, he learns why: echoing the horrors of Rumpelstiltskin, his father from hundreds of years ago wants Walker to return to him and threatens everything he loves in order to make that happen.

It’s a gripping read, the characters are strong, and it’s quite hard to characterise this book – it’s thoughtful about so many of aspects of modern life, as well as showing how our past is weaved into our present to create who we are.

What’s most impressive, though, is the gradual shift from an apparently conventional novel to a work of fantasy, one that takes place over a couple of hundred pages until the end when you’re in a world of pure imagination, and it feels right and brilliant.

On the beach – Nevil Shute

In a time of climate emergency and fear of global pandemics, On the beach is an unsettling and understated read.
Written early in the Cold War it portrays the world after a nuclear war has taken place. Human life in the  northern hemisphere has been destroyed and radiation sickness is gradually creeping across the rest of the world. There are only months left for the those who remain.
The story is set in Australia and centres on a few people. Dwight is the last US naval captain, his boat now based in Australia. His family is back in America, all dead we can only assume, but he talks longingly of getting back to them, buying them presents while away, while knowing there’s no hope.
Peter and Mary, and their daughter Jennifer, are Australians. Peter ends up working with Dwight. And like him, they continue their lives as if they have decades ahead of them, planning their daughter’s future and planting the garden.
Moira is a single woman who befriends Dwight. A heavy brandy drinker (obviously), she’s also kind and great at making things happen for herself and others. She lives a life of leisure but chooses to work on her family’s farm as well as party regularly.
John Osbourne is a scientist who works with Dwight and Peter. He becomes obsessed with a Ferrari. Fuel supplies are short, people don’t drive any more, but a race is organised. He joins tens of other amateur racers in a Grand Prix in one of the most intriguing and disturbing scenes – a race in which most of the competitors crash and die because they are novices, but do it willingly because they only have weeks to live anyway.
With the background of worldwide nuclear destruction we get the minutiae of their lives, and how their stifled lives and relationships are changed – or not – by their imminent death. It’s the wanting to carry on as normal, to pretend they have their lives ahead of them, that is most insightful and, ultimately, sad.
There’s an odd treatment of women in this book – Mary is portrayed as a helpless housewife unable to face reality without her husband and Moira the independently wealthy, bolshy younger woman. In this respect the book is very much of its time.
But in others – it’s portrayal of nuclear holocaust, the details of what that means for everyday life, the emotional responses people have – it was very much ahead of its time.

“It’s not the end of the world at all,” he said. “It’s only the end of us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”

Nevil Shute, talking about nuclear holocaust but channelling climate dystopia in On the Beach

Autumn – Ali Smith

Ali Smith has the most remarkable ability to write in an easy, readable style – a style that is full of joy when dealing with the most difficult issues, like death and prejudice, and even Brexit. 
Autumn covers all of this in Smith’s subtle and often surprising way, her story centring in two people – the nearly 100 year old Daniel and the thirty-something Elisabeth. 
Through long flashbacks that constitute half of the book, we get the story of how they were neighbours when Elisabeth was in her early teens, and the two became good friends, spending long chunks of time together talking about ideas and books and imagination and art. Daniel gives her an education whilst also being her friend. 
Elisabeth loves him, platonically, and the contemporary part of the book sees her visiting him in his old people’s home, often as he sleeps in his chair, something her Mum finds slightly inexplicable and the carers can only think of as a familial relationship.
And it’s their relationship which is most interesting in this book. It breaks the boundaries of what we think a relationship between an old man and a young girl can be in our (often understandably) cynical times, hinting that connection and love across great divides of era and age are possible.
The other bit of the story is Elisabeth’s research into a forgotten female Brit Pop artist, Pauline Boty. She investigated the artist at university, after being put onto her by Daniel, finding a woman that transgressed boundaries and borders like Daniel and Elisabeth do.
Like many of Smith’s books, it’s the characters and the style that pull you along, not the plot, and it’s only at the end, after a little reflection, that it all hangs together, making an impression in a way many novels don’t.

Super Cannes – JG Ballard

A gripping and – of course – disturbing mystery, Ballard’s analysis of corporate capitalism shows us that some desires always need excluding or repressing to create an apparently perfect order.

Paul Sinclair is travelling to live for six months in Eden Olympia, an executive business park outside Cannes where multinationals are relocating, bringing their top executives to work and live in a gated and guarded community where everything they could ever need is provided.

He is travelling with his young wife, Jane, who has a six month contract as a doctor after the previous one, David Greenwood, apparently went off the rails in a mass shooting at Eden Olympia.

It doesn’t take long for things to unravel. Eden Olympia it turns out is the brain child of psychologist Penrose who recognises that business people can work productively in this environment, where work is all, but that all the monotony of this world needs an outlet. So he organises outings into Cannes for these managers to go out and beat up immigrants and attack prostitutes, all in the name of corporate success. Everyone in the complex is involved, but nobody speaks of it.

Gradually Paul, who is an outsider in many ways, becomes obsessed with why Greenwood – an apparently kind and gentle doctor – went crazy. He talks and is used by various people, the head of security, Penrose an Frances Baring who he has a relationship with.

Jane meanwhile is fully incorporated into Eden Olympia, she self-medicates and engages in strange and dangerous sexual relationships with some of the most powerful people in Eden Olympia.

It’s a good Ballard novel, not always a pleasure to read, but interesting, full of insight and ideas, and often surprising – though it bears a strong resemblance to Cocain Nights.

More than anything, and most effectively, it entertainingly explores the psychoanalytic insight of displacement. That when something is foreclosed desire will emerge in unruly and uncontrollable ways. At Eden Olympia the lives of the executives are thoroughly smoothed out – their lives are busy and fulfilled with work, their homes are beautiful, nothing outside of the complex’s control impinges on their lives. They are even developing a way to predict health problems so they are addressed before they happen.

But Penrose knows that this level of order can’t be maintained – people need disorder and rage and despair in their lives, and so he engineers for this to happen outside of their utopia, so the executives can expunge their base desires and maintain their order.

Politically, Super Cannes is similar to the theoretical writings of the likes of Chantal Mouffe, who argues the perfect ordered society is impossible – there will always be radical differences that cannot be assimilated and need to excluded or oppressed. What Penrose is doing is creating a gated utopia where the unruliness is allowed to be manifest outside to maintain order inside.

“The city makes a thousand simultaneous promises. Choose everything. Enjoy it whenever and wherever you like. It is no longer necessary to choose a particular thing and forgo what was not chosen. Save while you spend without regrets. Lose weight whilst eating. Choose your custom trip today.”

– Antonio Munoz Molina, Office of Lost Moments, in Granta magazine, 149

Water shall refuse them – Lucie McKnight Hardy

This is an intriguing and suspenseful  read, a dark coming of age story that toys with the traditions of folk horror.
It centres on young teenager, Nif, and her family who have moved out of the city to a small village in Wales after the death of Nif’s four year old sister, Petra, who drowned in the bath when her Mum went to answer the phone.
The Mum is in a state of shock and withdrawal from the world, the Dad struggling to keep his family happy, and Nif is left looking after Lorry, Petra’s twin brother.
The local people are hostile and even violent towards them as outsiders, and she quickly sees strange goings on among the churchgoers.
But the core of the story is Nif’s relationship with another outsider, Mally and his often drunk Mum. She gradually reveals the strange beliefs she’s developed since Petra’s death  – the Creed – which requires her to collect skulls and bird parts, and to cancel out an ill-doing with another.
Mally and Nif become closer, striking up a physical relationship and bonding over their outsider status and sense of the macabre and stories of Mally’s ancestors who were accused of bringing the plague to the village – and surviving it because they were witches.
Mally’s Mum, Janet, meanwhile is coming on to Nif’s Dad and treating her Mum with herbs and potions reminiscent of witchcraft.
Throughout, Nif is trying to remember something suppressed within her, something that will allow her to recollect why Petra drowned – why her Mum let her drown – and as the story rolls on her awareness, like her relationship with Mally, gradually gets darker until there’s a final revelation.
In the end this is an intriguing mix. There are strong hints at witchcraft, mysterious coincidences and the supernatural, and the themes of folk horror – isolation, rural and a hostile community – are constant. But actually the supernatural remains beyond reach and it’s the violence of real life and family and young adulthood that is the real horror here.

Things we lost in the fire – Mariana Enriquez

What a chilling collection of stories this is, infused with powerful women and misogyny and insanity and fear and the weird.
Many of the stories feature women who are driven to despair or anger or drugs or madness because of their crappy husbands or the wider patriarchy they live in – like the women in the story that gives the collection its title, where a trend emerges in which women reclaim horrific attacks by men by setting themselves alight, disfiguring themselves with fire, signifying power and honour and sexism in one act.
A fair number of the stories feature a merging of madness and the supernatural, like the social worker in The Neighbour’s Courtyard who sees what might or might not be an imprisoned child next door – it might be her past experiences haunting her, as her patronising and unsympathetic husband thinks, or there might be more to it. It’s a powerful theme – that the unknown and unknowable might be outside the world or it might be inside ourselves, and that itself is unknowable.
There’s a real sense, too, that horror comes from wider social and political circumstances. The protagonists are almost all trapped in poverty, or brush up against it everyday, and it’s this that often leads people to their desperate situations – kids uncared for, teenagers on drugs, women in terrible marriages – who are then open to the real or imaginary allure of the supernatural.
The stand-out stories in this collection for me are: 

The dirty kid – a middle class woman lives in a rough neighbourhood, and learns that a homeless child she sees everyday is found murdered, sacrificed maybe.

The Inn – two girls go out to a locked up resort at night and experience an attack no one believes or can see evidence of.
The intoxicated years – three young girls spend their summers getting out of it, anaesthetising themselves to what’s going on around them, even the death of one of their boyfriends.
Adele’s house – three kids break into an old locked-up house, and one of them mysteriously disappears while in there, never to return.
Spiderweb – a woman takes a trip with her cousin and her mistake-of-a-husband, from which the husband inexplicably does not return.
End of Term – a girl watches as a less popular girl at school begins to mutate herself saying she’s being controlled by some unseen man at school.
The neighbour’s courtyard – a former social worker moves into a new apartment and sees what appears to be a grimy, enslaved child next door
Things we lost in the fire – after some incidents in which women are set on fire by men, women reclaim it and a new trend of self-burning emerges. 

Applied Ballardianism – Simon Sellars

What an incredible read this is – like a drug-addled romp through critical theory, cultural theory, memoir, fiction all haunted by the continual presence of JG Ballard’s indictment of our hypercapitalist era as an already-present dystopia.
It seems to be the memoir of the actual book’s author, Sellars, detailing his descent from a young PhD student studying Ballard, to someone clinging onto reality as he takes Ballard’s call to action more and more seriously, trying to go beyond the madness of motorways and malls to push and push until he can feel something.
He gets a gig as a travel writer, travelling around distant islands before moving back to Australia and hooking up with various fellow travellers to explore alternate worlds, edgelands, motorway networks, surveillance and all the hallmarks of Ballard’s take on the modern city.
Like the characters in Ballard’s Crash or Cocaine Nights or High Rise, he seems to have realised that everything is possible today, and so novelty and originality require people to embrace violence. On the other hand he is also on the edge of becoming – or wanting to become – like the main figure in Concrete Island, someone who becomes trapped in a space in a motorway network and retreats entirely from the modern world.
The book is part of a series from the publisher called ‘adventures in theory-fiction’. And as you read on the author / protagonist gets more and more embroiled in ludicrous and often horrific scenarios to the point that you are wondering if this is true or not, whether this is a memoir or a piece of fiction. But actually that’s the Ballardian point – what’s real and what’s not breaks down in this world of CCTV and clones and machines. 
It’s like Marshland by Gareth E Rees, where the stories meld biography and fantasy and you don’t know which is which. Ballard would delight in that. Sellars’s world is messy, funny, violent, haunted by ghosts from different dimensions, and most of all packed with Ballardian insights into our world now, where nothing is real yet everything is real.

Why are dystopian films so popular?

From The Road to Hunger Games to the Batman franchise, dystopian films are often the biggest movie blockbusters. I guess I’ve always thought their popularity lies in what they tell us about our world.
I’ve just watched Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Talking about a similar theme, he explains why this is the case. Zizek draws on the critical theorist Walter Benjamin who says that we don’t perceive what is going on in the world, our place in history, until we see bits of our world that are crumbling or falling into ruin.
That’s precisely what dystopian films do – they show the ruins of our world, overtaken by environmental catastrophe or hyper-capitalism or authoritarianism. There remain the fragments, remnants of our world, which allow us to see what we’re doing and where we’re headed – an insight that really helps explain the popularity of dystopian movies and fiction.

Under the Dome – Stephen King

This epic boxset-like novel features a huge cast of characters and dissects, like little else, the intricacies of small town politics – and the dangers we face as the world’s resources become more limited.

It begins when a mysterious see-through dome descends on the small town of Chester’s Mill, killing birds, animals and humans as it does so, and trapping the town’s population. The US government begins looking into the causes and possible solutions, but it’s clear very quickly that the dome dwellers are on their own.
We meet an array of Chester’s Mill residents. Rennie, a small time politician who sees this as his chance to hold power, finally. He engineers situations – like a food riot at the supermarket – to justify more police and greater police violence, eventually recruiting some of the most horrible twenty-somethings to police the town. It turns out he’s a big time criminal who is brewing crystal meth, and is in fact stealing the dwindling town supplies of propane to keep the meth factory going.
We meet his unstable and ill son, Rennie Jr, who is in the midst of a horrific killing spree, which would have happened regardless of the dome, but whose mental and physical ill health is exacerbated by the the dome.
We meet Barbie, an army veteran cooking in the town diner, who is in fact leaving town when the dome comes down following a run-in with Rennie Jr and his pals. Blocked by the dome, an army official from the outside – Colonel Cox – asks him to lead the town, a suggestion that Rennie does everything in his power to stop.
And we meet Julia, the local paper’s editor who is intent on speaking truth to power, not least to Rennie and his gang of thugs, even as her paper and her life are constantly threatened by Rennie.
From here ensues hundreds of pages about the politics, intrigue and terror of a small town population trapped in a confined space with limited resources and growing despair about being freed, as a small few try to turn the situation to their advantage.
In short bursts of 3 or 4 pages, King takes us through the lives and emotions of probably nearly a hundred people – and it’s truly gripping. You start to connect to loads of them. Andy Sanders who turns from a naive politician to a gun-toting meth addict after his family dies. Sam Bushy who is horrifically raped by the new police recruits and kills plenty of them in return. Rusty, a medical assistant who becomes the town’s surgeon after the only qualified surgeon dies.
And as the story goes on, gradually there are less and less of them – very few in fact. So few that the apparent hero at the start – Barbie – appears far from that by the end, not because he’s turned away from heroic but because events conspire against him and the other good guys almost entirely.
I can’t help feeling that the final 100 or so pages, where King tries to bring a supernatural explanation and finale to the dome, are a bit of a let down. It’s the townspeople, their relationships, the insight into how terrified and cornered people behave, that are so mesmerising. You can’t help making the jump from this story to the impact of climate change, and thinking it does not bode well for us.

Normal People – Sally Rooney

 This is an astounding novel, with its stripped back insight into relationships and growing up.

It’s a simple story about the on-off relationship between Connell and Marianne. He’s working class, she’s posh. At school he’s popular, she’s an outsider. At university this reverses; Marianne is arty and unconventional, Connell struggles to find a place for himself.
Money and class and abuse and death are constantly impinging on the protagonist’s lives. But it’s their relationship with one another that is the centre-piece of the book. In particular it’s their love for one another, despite their differences and young age, and their inability to express how they feel to one another. Time and again they squander moments of joy or possibilities for happiness by not saying what they feel, or not understanding what they feel until it’s too late. 
They are young. They lack self-understanding and understanding of others, as everyone does. Just because they love one another doesn’t mean it’s easy or they can necessarily make it work. 

“At first nothing crossed his mind. He was in that mostly empty-headed state of grace which is sometimes fertile soil: it’s the ground from which our brightest dreams and biggest ideas (both the good and the spectacularly bad) suddenly burst forth, often full-blown. Yet there is always a chain of association.”

Stephen King, Under the Dome