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Our occasional ‘Stories behind Stories‘ series features our writers talking about the inspiration and ideas behind their work. Here, Alex Clark tell us how she came to write ‘Poor Billy’, which is featured in our current anthology Separations.

Alex ClarkGhosts, it seems, are usually attached to places. The haunted house, the haunted graveyard, the haunted wood: as Halloween approaches, you’ll see them adorning everything from boxes of biscuits to babygrows. A thousand horror films have at their centre the Bad Place, where no-one should go but we know they will: the place where the unquiet spirit waits, seeking justice or vengeance.

Give this a moment’s thought, and it’s a bit odd. Why don’t the ghosts go out wandering? Why don’t they go looking for the people who’ve done them wrong? Or try to correct whatever terrible mistake led them to be stuck in the real world? Of course, in some stories and in some other cultures, they do. The ghost in Western culture, though, is usually stuck on its home turf, acting out the same horrors over and over again.

With the dawn of spiritualism, in the Victorian and Edwardian period, it was inevitable that people would start investigating why this might be. Intelligent, rational people set out to investigate hauntings, feats of mediumship and black magic. For a glimpse of the true weirdness of this time I strongly recommend a visit to the Wikipedia page for Harry Price, amateur magician and psychical researcher of the early twentieth century, which features tales of talking mongooses, egg-white ectoplasm and boys transforming into goats.

The idea of seriously investigating these kinds of phenomena seems ludicrous to us now, yet many of the investigators were not fools. They knew that most of the supernatural claims were hoaxes, but they believed that it was possible they might find a tiny core of genuine paranormal activity. This activity could then be investigated, to find the mechanisms by which apparitions might appear to people in the everyday world.

New theories sprung up, theories distinct from previous religious, moral or superstitious understandings of what ‘ghosts’ might be. Victorian psychical researchers William Fletcher Barrett and Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, for instance, suggested that strong psychical energy could become imprinted upon materials such as wood or stone, remaining there and disturbing the minds of later visitors. In the mid twentieth century, Welsh philosopher H.H. Price expanded on this and suggested that ghosts might not be unquiet souls, but some kind of memory or recording, held in the matrix of the physical world. His theory of ‘place memory’ suggested that a strand of memory from a person’s mind might attach itself to the physical environment and lodge there, experienced by others as hallucination.

Later, in the 1960s, all these theories were gathered by parapsychologist Thomas Lethbridge to argue for ‘stone tape theory’, the idea that ghostly phenomena are recordings of historical events, stored in the stone and wood that witnessed those events. Ghosts, in this theory, are inanimate shadows, acting out a short loop of the past over and over and over.

Whilst I love the idea of stone tape theory, there are some big problems with it. The first of my objections is: why no happy ghosts? Or ghosts who have strong emotions, but about ridiculous things? If stone tape theory held true, then maternity units the world over would be plagued by endless replays of new-baby bliss, registry offices would be impossible to work in and the M25 would be infested by apparitions with road rage. Furthermore, why are almost all supposed ghosts dead people? Wouldn’t there be lots of recordings of living people?


And this is where Poor Billy started to take shape. Rather than wood or stone, concrete seemed the natural material on which to store a psychical recording. There are very few stone castles and timber-framed houses knocking around nowadays, but an awful lot of concrete tower blocks. Concrete has all of those properties that Billy talks about in the story: it’s great at absorbing sound and heat, so why not memory too? Why not a happy memory? When Maggie’s mum describes the ghost as ‘just a snatch of him,’ this is what I had in mind: a fragment of the past, like a radio station caught and lost again, or a TV channel flicked over.

I’ve written here before about my former career as an archaeologist, and it amuses me to note that many of the early psychical researchers were archaeologists before becoming paranormal investigators. Perhaps there’s something about studying the past, about wanting to know what life was like there, that draws the mind towards ghosts. I know myself that to pull an object out of the ground, to know that the human being who last touched it walked the world of the 1570s, is extraordinary. It is easy to think that the present is the only real time that there has ever been, and that the past looked like a film, or a tapestry, or an illuminated manuscript. It didn’t. The sun shone, the wind blew. 1570 was the only reality, and it was happening just where you’re sitting, reading this. Hundreds of millions of dramas and revelations and deaths have been acted out on every patch of this earth, and all of them are vanished. It seems inconceivable that those emotions left no trace. How appealing it is to imagine that they might have done, and that we might be able to replay those memories and see the past for ourselves.

It was perhaps because of my archaeologist’s training that I was unable to stop myself planting a small artefact in the story, an in-joke of my own. The architecture firm for which Billy works is named Sidgwick Barrett Price, a nod to the people whose ideas birthed stone tape theory. I think they would find it funny. If they don’t, I do hope they won’t come visiting.

— Alex Clark

Fiction Desk contributor Richard Smyth is in the process of crowdfunding his new novel Quays through publishing platform Unbound. Here he tells us about the novel, and its connections to his Fiction Desk story, Crying Just Like Anybody:

Richard has now added a new reward for supporters on his Unbound page. For £35, pledgers can choose to receive both a signed copy of Quays and a signed paperback of Crying Just Like Anybody. Visit his Unbound page and scroll down for details.

manhattan mapI had this map of Manhattan tacked up over my desk for a couple of years. It shows Manhattan Island in 1916, a century ago, just before the US entered the war. The Battery, on the tip of the island, is at the bottom; 110th street, north of Central Park and south of Harlem, is at the top. In the middle – “way out of the way in midtown”, to be exact – is where I set my story ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’. And it’s where Tom Quays, the hero of my new novel Quays, grew up.

Around here no-one calls anyone by their right name. There’s little Tomas Quis who’s Spanish but he’s called Tom Keys, and there’s my sister Jesca and the boys call her ‘Yes’ and make dirty jokes about it. At the repair shop Mr White is really Mr Weiss and then there’s Si Portman who works for the grocer and wears braces on his legs, and he’s just called Dumdum. Johnny ought to be Gianni really but everyone calls him Johnny. He doesn’t mind.

I’m not sure which Tom Quays – or Tom Keys, or Tomás Quis – came first; I have an idea that the Tom of Quays (then barely even a work in progress) strolled into the New York of ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’, but it could have been the other way around, and in any case these things are seldom clear-cut – all these little worlds bleed into one another.

Why New York? Why midtown Manhattan? Why there, and why then? In one sense, there’s a straightforward answer: books. In my early twenties I was led through urban America by a succession of library paperbacks: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, and, from after the war, John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer most of all. Non-fiction fleshed out the picture: Luc Sante’s Low Life, Anne Douglas’s Terrible Honesty.

I found that there was room in this world for the stories I wanted to tell. Of course, some of these stories – stories about love, death, war, sex – could have been told in any place at any time, but others played on themes that I picked out most clearly in the madly symphonic Manhattan of the early 20th century. These were stories of immigration and identity, of political radicalism, of literary fame, of escape, ambition and opportunity.

Crying Just LIke Anybody coverThe Fiction Desk chose to publish ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’ as the title story in its fourth short-fiction anthology in 2012. It remains one of the stories I’m most proud of; it’s certainly one of the stories I’m most fond of. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these streets: sending Tom Quays stumbling drunk along Broadway, or putting Dorothy Parker on Pearl Street at midnight, or letting Anna Moller look up at the stars from Coenties Slip. I know this place better than anywhere else I’ve never been.

If it’s possible to escape from the places you grew up (and I’m not at all sure that it is) then Tom, in Quays, does escape the crowding alleys of midtown: he goes to war, first of all, and then is plunged into the smoke and glitter of the Jazz Age literary scene. But his past – the grimy Manhattan of ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’ – won’t ever really let him be. He finds its shadows in an upstate mental asylum, in the offices of Metropolitan magazine, in the history of his city, in his own books and stories.

It’s been kind of like that for me. I spent a lot of time in this place – pretty much all of it without leaving my office chair – and it probably won’t ever really let me be, either.

People seemed to connect with ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’, with Anna and Johnny and the sorry-looking Martian they find in midtown Manhattan. I think they’ll connect with Quays, too: I think anyone who ever feels lost in a big city, or who has ever wanted to escape without quite knowing where from or where to, will get along with the novel (as will anyone who wants to read about Damon Runyon reporting from a WW1 shell-hole or a drunk novelist applying Freudian theory to the Dempsey-Tunney fight – it has something for everyone).

The Manhattan of Quays is my Manhattan; Unbound’s crowdfunding model means that it can stay like that, just as I dreamed it up, without creative compromises or focus-grouped revisions, all the way to the bookshop shelf. It’s a terrific place, and it’d be wonderful if you could read the excerpt, pledge to the book, and maybe (cue clink of cocktail shaker, hum of passing El train, opening bars of Rhapsody In Blue) join me there.

Richard Smyth

— Richard Smyth

Richard Smyth’s prize-winning stories have been published in The Fiction Desk, Structo, The Stinging Fly, Riptide, Minor Literature[s], The Stockholm Review, Foxhole, The Lonely Crowd, Haverthorn, Firewords Quarterly, Vintage Script, The Nightwatchman, Cent and anthologies from Arachne Press and Ink Lines.

His first novel, ‘Wild Ink’, was published in 2014; he also writes for the TLS, The Guardian, The New Statesman and a few others.

You can pledge to buy his new novel ‘Quays’ – and pick up rewards including one-to-one writing mentorship – at:


Our tenth anthology, titled Separations, is out on September 19th.

Copies will be sent out to subscribers and pre-orderers as soon as they’re back from the printers, usually a few days earlier.

Speaking of which, to pre-order your copy, or to read full details of the new anthology, go over here.

Ghost story competitionIt’s time to announce the winners of the 2016 Ghost Story Competition.

Since our ghost story competition first launched in 2013, it has become an increasingly important part of our anthology series. As well as providing much of the material for two volumes of ghost stories, it has introduced us (and our readers) to some great new voices in short fiction. Perhaps it has also helped us to find our editorial identity, which might be said to lie somewhere in the curious territory between supernatural fiction and realism. (It might also be said to lie entirely elsewhere, of course: like readers, publishers shouldn’t try to define their tastes too rigidly.)

Today, though, we’re dealing firmly with the supernatural, and we have first, second, and third prizes to be awarded within a shortlist of fifteen stories. The three winners will receive £500, £250, or £100, while all fifteen shortlistees will receive a three-volume subscription to our anthology series.

Let’s start then with the shortlisted stories, whose authors will be receiving our next three anthologies in the mail:

  • Sean Baker: Grantchester Meadows in the Summer at Dawn
  • Kate van der Borgh: For Those Who Love
  • Bethan Hutt: Jack and Me
  • Jerry Ibbotson: The Intruder
  • Seth Marlin: The Dead Lie Dreaming
  • Amanda Mason: Apotropaic
  • David McVey: Last Bus to Carnshee
  • Karyn Millar: The Key to all Mythologies
  • Dan Purdue: A Simple Favour
  • Guy Russell: Beneath the Skin
  • Andrea Stephenson: The Last Bus Home
  • Ailsa Thom: A Rational Explanation
  • Josie Turner: 27 Exposures
  • Barney Walsh: The Crypt beneath the Library
  • David Webb: The Charm

And now the winners:

  • In first place (£500 prize): Barney Walsh: The Crypt beneath the Library
  • In second place (£250 prize): Jerry Ibbotson: The Intruder
  • In third place (£100 prize): Seth Marlin: The Dead Lie Dreaming

Congratulations to all of the above writers. I’ll be getting in touch with you over the next week or so to arrange prizes and discuss publication of the three winning entries, which will appear in our autumn anthology, the third volume in our New Ghost Stories series.

The next edition of our ghost story competition will open for entries on 1st November 2016. Keep an eye on the competition page for more details over the next few months.

Long Grey Beard and Glittering EyeIt’s time to present the Fiction Desk Writer’s Award for our latest anthology, Long Grey Beard and Glittering Eye.

If you’re not familiar with the Writer’s Award, this is a a special £100 prize awarded to the best story in each of our anthologies, as judged by our contributors. Each writer with a story in the volume casts two equally weighted votes, which are then totalled up to reveal the winner.

This time, we had two stories tie for the award: Mark Newman’s ‘Before There Were Houses, This Was All Fields’, and Adam Blampied’s ‘The Cobble Boys’. In cases like this, we invite a guest judge to break the tie. As both stories have something to do with our relationship with the built environment, the obvious choice was Alex Clark, whose own story ’The Stamp Works’ won the Writer’s Award for There Was Once a Place.

Here’s what Alex had to say:

“I was gripped by ‘Before There Were Houses…’, and I loved the analogy between the construction of landscape and the construction of the human heart. The writing is multi-layered and packed with elegant metaphors. It’s such an engaging read. In the end, though, I’ve chosen ‘The Cobble Boys’. It’s so assured that I believed completely in its world. It’s vivid, brutal and authentic, and has some important things to say about the weight of history. It’s left a lasting impression on my mind.”

So it’s congratulations to Adam Blampied for winning the Fiction Desk Writer’s Award for his story ‘The Cobble Boys’, and to Mark Newman for giving him such a close race.

Look out for Alex Clark’s new story, ‘Poor Billy’, coming in our next anthology.

It’s time to reveal the winners and shortlist of the 2016 Fiction Desk Newcomer Prize.

This year, there’s a shortlist of twelve stories, including the two winners. All shortlisted writers will receive a year’s subscription to our anthology series, and there’s £500 for the first place, and £250 for the second. Let’s start with the shortlist:

  • Positional Asphyxia by Lucy Apps
  • The History Lesson by Kate van der Borgh
  • Gardening Leave by Dan Brotzel
  • Stay by David Frankel
  • An Internship by Todd Van Horn
  • The Song of Stephen by Frances Knight
  • Watching a Girl You Might Have Loved Get Dressed to Work the Bars by Elias Lindert
  • Two Pounds, Six Ounces by Hannah Mathewson
  • Renaissance Man by James Mitchell
  • Memento Mori by Richard Newton
  • Splitting Miles by Claire Parkin
  • Slice by Imogen West-Knights

And the winners are:

  • In first place: Renaissance Man by James Mitchell
  • In second place: Splitting Miles by Claire Parkin

Congratulations to all of the above winners, and thank you again to everybody who took part in the competition. I’ll be contacting the winners and shortlistees over the next two weeks to arrange prizes, and the two winning stories will appear in the next Fiction Desk anthology.

The Newcomer Prize will open again for entries towards the end of the year. Our annual ghost story competition is open now, and you’ll find more details of that one here.

It’s time to announce the winners of our 2015 Flash Fiction Competition.

Once again, the high standard of entries means that we’re announcing a shortlist. All shortlisted authors will receive a three-volume subscription to our anthology series, starting with volume 9 (coming in August).

The three winners will also receive cash prizes, and their stories will appear in an anthology later this year.

Let’s start with the complete shortlist. There are ten stories, presented here in alphabetical order by author:

  • The Last Day – S E Craythorne
  • Wood – Tracy Fells
  • Nuclear Family – Jenny Harding
  • Two-Timer – F J Morris
  • Five Toes, and So On – Dan Purdue
  • The Trouble With Men – Andy Shearer
  • Memories – Ian Shine
  • Beat the Brainbox – Mike Scott Thomson
  • That Buzzing Inside My Head – Ren Watson
  • Youth – Liz Xifaras

And now for the winners…

The third prize (£50) goes to:

  • Freya Morris, for Two-Timer

The second prize (£100) goes to:

  • Mike Scott Thomson, for Beat the Brainbox

And the first prize (£300) goes to:

  • Ren Watson, for That Buzzing Inside My Head

Congratulations to all of the authors listed above, and thank you to all of you who took part in our flash fiction competition this year. I’ll be getting in touch in the next couple of weeks to arrange subscriptions and prizes.

The Flash Fiction Competition will open again in spring 2016. The Newcomer Prize for short stories opens for entries next week.

Ghost story competitionIt feels slightly strange to be doing this in the spring, with the sun shining and everything feeling so lively and pleasant, but it’s time to announce the winners of our 2015 Ghost Story Competition.

We received a great batch of entries this year, and to acknowledge this we’re going to announce a shortlist as well as our three winners. All of the shortlisted writers will receive a year’s subscription to our anthology series, and the three winners will appear in an upcoming Fiction Desk anthology.

Let’s start with the complete list of shortlisted stories:

My Body Upstairs by Frank Babics
Poor Billy by Alex Clark
One Green Bottle by Leah Eades
Mrs Dabrowski by Gilli Fryzer
Things in the Dead Space by Jo Gatford
Soup — Condensed by Anabel Graff
Laptops and Coffin Lids by Sara Kellow
Every Ghost Story is a Love Story by Vera Kurian
A Rooted Sorrow by Norma Levinson
Sing Me No Sad Songs by Amanda Mason
Home Solutions for Mould by S R Mastrantone
Jonathan by Louis Rakovich
The Fowling Piece by Stephanie Shaw

And now for the winners, in reverse order:

In third place (£100): Poor Billy by Alex Clark

In second place (£250): Home Solutions for Mould by S R Mastrantone

And the winner of the 2015 Fiction Desk ghost story competition, in first place (£500): Soup — Condensed by Anabel Graff

Congratulations to all of the above, and thank you all for sending in such great stories and making my job very difficult. I’ll be getting in touch over the coming weeks to arrange the shortlistees’ subscriptions and winners’ prizes.

Now a little bad news (or good news, depending on your tastes): we won’t be doing a dedicated ghost story anthology this year. Thanks to our slightly erratic “when it’s ready” publication schedule, we’ve swung quite heavily in the direction of supernatural fiction lately, with two of our last three anthologies being dedicated to it, and we do need to rebalance that a little. It also strikes me that it’s a bit odd to try breaking down genre barriers by bringing in ghost stories, only to then segregate them into their own volumes.

As a result, the above three winners will be appearing in one of our regular, mixed-genre anthologies, which should benefit both the volume they grace, and those among our subscribers who prefer their ghosts as part of a more balanced literary diet.

The Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition will reopen for entries at the end of this year. Our Flash Fiction Competition is open now, and runs until the end of May.

8-ngsii-3d-coverIt’s time to announce the Writer’s Award for our latest anthology, New Ghost Stories II.

The Writer’s Award is one of my favourite things about running The Fiction Desk. The Award is given for each anthology that we publish, and is judged by the contributors themselves: each contributor votes for what they think are the two best stories, and the writer of the winning story gets £100.

The votes for New Ghost Stories II are in, and the winner this time is…

… Tamsin Hopkins, for her short story ‘The Table’.

Congratulations, Tamsin! The virtual cheque is in the digital post.

You can read the winning story (well, all the stories) in New Ghost Stories II, out now in paperback and Kindle editions: see here for details.

Jane Alexander won the 2014 Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition with ‘In Yon Green Hill to Dwell’. In the latest of our ‘Stories behind Stories‘ posts, here she is to tell us how she came to write it…

As so often happens, this story was formed from the coming-together of what I’d thought were two separate ideas.

I’d been trying for some time to write a story that jumped off from the 18th-century Border ballad ‘Tam Lin’. I’d first come across ‘Tam Lin’ as a teenager, when I read Dianna Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock – a young adult novel that relocates the ballad to a contemporary setting. The women in 18th-century Scots ballads tend not to have a great time of it, often ending up murdered or executed – but ‘Tam Lin’ stands out for its protagonist: a woman who knew what she wanted, and took it. Though it’s named after the young man claimed by the Faerie Queen, the story it tells is that of his sweetheart Janet. It’s Janet who takes control of her destiny; who does as she pleases, goes where her father has forbidden her to go. It’s bold, steadfast Janet who rescues Tam from being sacrificed to the Devil. At the end of the ballad, it seems like happy ever after for Janet and Tam. But the end is also the beginning of the young couple’s life together, and I couldn’t help wondering what happens next. What happens when the adventure is over, and all the responsibilities of motherhood kick in?

I knew I wanted to write about this; but I kept getting stuck, abandoning draft after draft. I didn’t yet know what, exactly, I was writing about.

At around the same time I’d seen a call for submissions of stories inspired by particular songs, and I was trying to write about an old Billie Holiday track, ‘You’ve Changed’. Or rather, the song I wanted to write about was a cover by the Afghan Whigs. It’s a much darker version than Holliday’s. The singer reproaches his sweetheart for changing, growing indifferent to him – you’re bored of me in every way – but his voice gives him away: lazy, unfeeling, revelling in his own indifference; like there’s a chip of ice in his heart. What’s really changed, I think, is the singer’s impossibly romantic perception of his lover as a perfect angel. He’s blaming his partner for his own failings, and for being a flawed, ordinary human.

I listened to the song on repeat; wrote drafts and scrapped them, on repeat.

So what changed? One day, I sat down at my desk and realised that the two stories I was wrestling with might actually be a single story. In ‘Tam Lin’, Tam is literally changed, over and over again, transformed from a snake to a lion to a burning coal. He’s saved by Janet holding him fast: by her faith that he’ll change back to his human self. But fast forward seven years, and I imagined Janet playing that song to herself. You’re not the angel I once knew… Does she feel cheated because Tam is no longer the charismatic poet she fell for? Does she want him to change back into the man she first met? Is that even possible: to recover our younger selves, and the excitement, the thrill, of first falling in love, or in lust? Is it Janet, not Tam, who needs to change – or who already has?

Suddenly, the theme came into focus. And since short stories are always more potent when they’re as distilled, as concentrated as possible, compressing two stories into one made sense.

Pretty soon I knew how the whole thing would unfold, right up to Janet’s confrontation with the Faerie Queen. I knew she’d beg the Faerie Queen to change Tam one last time, change him back into the man who’d captured her heart. At least, I thought I knew. In the end, though, she did something completely different. Somehow, that singer’s chip of ice had ended up in my Janet’s heart.

— Jane Alexander

Read Jane’s story in New Ghost Stories II, out now in paperback and Kindle.

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