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New Ghost Stories II.

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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.

The Newcomer Prize received a fantastic selection of entries, touching on a variety of themes, ideas, and styles, and has therefore been exceptionally tough (and rewarding) to judge. But judged it has been, and I’m now delighted to announce the two winners of the 2015 Newcomer Prize.

The winners are:

First place (£500 prize): Mark Newman, for the story ‘Before There Were Houses, This Was All Fields’.

Second place (£250 prize): Tim Dunbar, for the story ‘David Bowie’.

The two winning stories will be published in our next anthology, due this spring. They’re both excellent stories, and I’m looking forward to sharing them with you.

We hadn’t originally planned on announcing a shortlist for the Newcomer Prize, but during the judging process it became clear that simply revealing the two winners wouldn’t do justice to the quality and variety of entries we received. We’ve therefore added a shortlist step, along with some small extra prizes.

The winners of the 2015 Newcomer Prize will be drawn from the following shortlist:

Adam Blampied: The Cobble Boys
Tim Dunbar: David Bowie
K M Elkes: Game Face
Uschi Gatward: On Margate Sands
Gerald R Gore: Memories of Balham
Cathie Hartigan: Cleaning Up
C G Menon: Spring Tides
Norman Miller: Jellymen
Mark Newman: Before There Were Houses, This Was All Fields
Miranda Prag: Under the Wheels
Catherine Simpson: The Little Golden Apple with the Tiny Golden Bite
Amy Smith Linton: Cleaning Up
A J Stirling: Property is Theft
Chloe Turner: The Bronze Garden
Barney Walsh: Free the Prisoners

All of the authors above will receive a year’s free paperback subscription to our anthology series.

We’ll be announcing the first and second prize winners — taken from the list above — on Monday 16th February. The two prizewinning stories will also appear in an upcoming Fiction Desk anthology.

Matt PlassHere’s Matt Plass to tell us about some of the ideas behind his story ‘Next to Godliness’, which appears in our anthology New Ghost Stories II.

To me, the most fascinating thing about ghosts is that they don’t exist.

In the song “God”, John Lennon lets us know that he doesn’t believe in (among other things) magic, I-Ching, tarot, Jesus, Buddha, mantra or Gita. To his list I would add sprites, spirits, faeries, ghouls, phantoms, spectres (at feasts or elsewhere), banshees, devil dogs, the undead, and of course ghosts.

I admit it’s a tragedy, not believing in visitors from beyond the veil. I know I’m missing out. I know my world is smaller than it could be. But that’s how belief works: you either believe in something or you don’t. And without belief, how do you approach the writing of a ghost story in a way that feels legitimate?

The answer, for me at least, is that you don’t.

There are, of course, countless examples of rational, well-adjusted, trustworthy and sober individuals convinced that they’ve encountered a spirit from beyond the grave. In fact, entire modern cultures believe that phantoms are as ‘real’ as the living. (Watch a Chinese martial arts movie—go on, I dare you!—and you’ll find that the human characters regularly bump into ghosts in the street, and converse with them as if such encounters are the most natural thing in the world.) I mustn’t forget, also, that many people—I’ll go out on a limb and suggest most people—believe in what Stephen King describes as ‘burnt toast’: when the bricks of a building retain a lingering memory of past deeds. It’s why you shiver in the murder house before you know it’s the murder house.

Despite all this, as a non-believer, I tend towards the view that a supernatural experience is essentially an aberration of the mind, a hallucination: drug-induced, psychotic, stress-related, or just the product of a virile and frustrated imagination. He imagined it. She saw it in a dream. Perhaps the subconscious likes to play tricks, conjuring our greatest desires or deepest fears as sights, sounds and feelings; our emotions made flesh. So the grieving widow sees the spirit of her lost husband weeding the forgotten rose garden. The man who abandoned his faith hears a scrape of cloven hooves from the attic overhead. The only-child passes two ghostly playmates each morning on the stairs as he hurries down to eat his cereal alone. Whatever the experience, the chances are it comes not from without but from within.

In ‘Next to Godliness’, a couple try to come to terms with the loss of a child. After a series of bizarre events, the mother starts to believe that their dear little girl is still with them in spirit. Look, she says to her husband, things are happening in this house that just cannot be explained. It’s her. It must be her! But what begins as a ghost story, develops into a psychological mystery. Because if it isn’t their daughter making things happen in the house, then who can it be..?

This transition from ‘what external force is making this happen?’ to ‘which one of us is making this happen? is where the business of ghosts becomes fascinating from a storytelling perspective. If a sane and rational person is convinced they’ve encountered a ghost, and you know there to be no such thing, then what you’re left with is a psychological mystery. And for me, a good psycho-mystery trumps the supernatural every time.

All that said, I love a good ghost yarn and I enjoyed the stories in New Ghost Stories II immensely. Nevertheless, I’ll continue to believe that the most fascinating thing about ghosts is that there aren’t any—until the day a ghost chooses to visit with me, and takes time out from its haunting schedule to scare me to my senses.

Meanwhile, for what it’s worth, unlike John Lennon I do believe in Beatles.

P.S. For writers, the British magazine Fortean Times can be a fantastic source of inspiration. It’s crammed with bizarre stories from around the world: UFO sighting, ghostly visitations, paranormal and supernatural activity. Take as a starting point that you are dealing with a psychological mystery, and the story starts to write itself…

Matt Plass

A while ago the website Love Books Love Travel (then known as Buena Vista Book Club) made a film about James Benmore, in which he wanders around London, talking about his relationship with the city and its role in his novels about the continuing adventurs of Charles Dickens’ Artful Dodger.

The film is well done, and has been split into easily digestible chunks of about six minutes each. Here’s part one:

For the other two parts of the film, and to find our more about Love Books Love Travel, visit their website here.

You can also read James’s guest posts for us about the writing of Dodger: Part 1 & Part 2. And finally, James’s excellent short story ‘Jaggers & Crown’ appeared in our anthology All These Little Worlds.

mike-scott-thomsonHere’s Mike Scott Thomson on the story behind his story ‘I Say Papaya, You Say Pawpaw':

It seems every time I log into Twitter or Facebook, someone has posted another soundbite about what it means to be a writer. You know the sort of thing. They’re usually scrawled in a large calligraphic font, plastered all over a grainy JPEG of a writing desk, computer keyboard, ink quill or, for some not entirely clear reason, a mountain panorama. Many of these I often dismiss as trite, but one which I’ve frequently noticed, and which does stick out in my mind, reads as follows:

“Writers see the mundane in the magical, and the magical in the mundane.”

This one is memorable to me because, like the narrator in my latest Fiction Desk story about a supermarket checkout worker, when I did the same job part-time in my teenage years, all I managed to see was the mundane in the mundane.

My outlook began to change when I started using the cheque-signing pens and misappropriated receipt rolls to jot down my thoughts and observations. Some of these I drew upon, half a lifetime later, into my story. However, listed below are a few extra snippets, precisely how I scribbled them in my spidery handwriting, way back when:

  • Why is there never a J-cloth on your till when you need one? Yoghurt, strawberry juice, and olive oil cannot be cleaned up using your sleeve.
  • Why do customers stand bottles on their ends? Ten bottles falling over at once on a moving conveyer belt sounds like a herd of elephants. And when they fall over, what do the customers do? Stand them back up again!
  • Customer at checkout: “Excuse me, are you open?” This question is asked when the cashier is either a) doing sweet nothing in a particularly quiet period, or b) elbow deep in a litter bin, cloth in hand, bucket nearby, lights off, broom between legs.
  • Are plastic milk bottles made of some kind of strange, intergalactic plastic substance that actually makes the milk seep through? Why are milk bottles so milky on the outside?
  • Sorry, I don’t know what had happened to the Greek cheese with purple grape pips. I can only assume it has been taken off the shelves (wisely, by the sound of it).

Despite being gratified to now notice what must have been my first ever use of the Oxford comma, I can’t in all honesty say that some of my first written attempts at making sense of the world were all that articulate. Yet it was, of sorts, a start. Whilst I also can’t admit this dreary environment and monotonous job became in any way magical, in some small way things did become less mundane.

There Was Once a PlaceSeveral years later, the same supermarket is now opening a “local” branch in my home village. This was a contentious decision, and bitterly contested, centred mainly on the fact that there was no demand, or space, for it. Yet the numerous objections were to no avail. Now they’ve knocked down two old buildings, are constructing their own standardised affair, and will be launching shortly. Already in the high street is an award-winning grocer’s shop: vibrant, unique, and full of local character. I hope, as does the village, that the presence of this new retail giant won’t force it to go out of business. But it has made me wonder what happens to small retailers when, as so often happens, they are driven out. My Fiction Desk story is one such imagining.

Does it, as the intro notes to my story suggest, end with a flash of optimism, or a descent into Orwellian darkness? I can certainly say I had no dystopian imagery when I was writing it. But it’s interesting to note that 1984 is one of my favourite books, and that I would have read it for the first time not long before starting my supermarket job. So, could it have influenced me? I guess in my story, the main character uses, in his own way, a variety of doublethink to adjust to the new reality in which he finds himself. But, is it acceptance? Is it compromise? Those are, I think, questions best answered by the reader.

Personally, the following minutiae particularly intrigues me. Did I really not know until a few moments ago that the chestnut (as per the “spreading chestnut tree” in the closing lines of 1984), is actually a fruit? When I started work on my story, did I ever anticipate examining, more closely than perhaps prudent, the trays of papaya in the local supermarkets? And did I also imagine studying, surreptitiously and with said fruit at the forefront of my mind, the backs of motor vehicles? (This was, I hasten to point out, purely in the name of hypothetical research, and I never actually did what transpired in the story.)

What I do know is that there is no vocation, other than being a writer, which can personally inspire me to look at the world so askew. It’s not quite putting the magical in the mundane… but I surely owe some thanks to those incalculable hours I spent on checkout number eleven, all those years ago.

— Mike Scott Thomson

Read ‘I Say Papaya, You Say Pawpaw’ in our anthology There Was Once a Place, out now in paperback and ebook editions.

Ghost story competitionHot on the heels of our Writer’s Award announcement, it’s time to reveal the winners of the 2014 Fiction Desk Ghost Story competition.

This year, we have one first prize winner and ten runners-up.

All of the stories listed below will appear in our autumn anthology.

The runners-up, who will each receive £100, are:

  • Alice Adams, for ‘Watching Kate & Gustav’
  • Die Booth, for ‘Twice a Day with Water’
  • Lucinda Bromfield, for ‘The Time of Your Life’
  • Bernie Deehan, for ‘Hell for Leather’
  • Tamsin Hopkins, for ‘The Table’
  • Matthew Licht, for ‘The Bear Got Me’
  • Amanda Mason, for ‘Incomers’
  • Miha Mazzini, for ‘Armies’
  • Matt Plass, for ‘Next to Godliness’
  • Melanie Whipman, for ‘End of the Rope’

And the winner of the £500 first prize is:

  • Jane Alexander, for ‘In Yon Green Hill To Dwell’

Congratulations to all of the above. It was another great year for the ghost story competition, and once again we’ve found ourselves handing out more prizes than expected.

We’ll be sharing more news about the autumn anthology over the coming weeks. Next month will also see the launch of a new competition (one we’ve not run before), so keep your eyes out for that.

There Was Once a PlaceToday we’ll be announcing the results of not one but two competitions.

Later, we’ll be revealing the winner and runners-up of our 2014 ghost story competition. But we’re starting with the Writer’s Award.

The Fiction Desk Writer’s Award is given for the best story in each of our anthologies. It’s judged by the contributors themselves, who each get two votes.

The votes for There Was Once a Place ended in a draw, with Alex Clark‘s ‘The Stamp Works’ and Chris Fryer‘s ‘The Loop’ both in first place. Last time this happened, we called in The Asylum’s John Self to decide the winner. For this volume, our special guest tie-breaking judge is none other than author (and Fiction Desk contributor) Charles Lambert, whose new novel With a Zero at Its Heart is one of 2014’s must-reads. So over to Charles:

It’s a tough decision, because the stories are so different and have such different aims, so that what it comes down to is, finally, a question of personal choice. There’s much to admire in ‘The Loop’ – it’s inventive, intelligent, thought-provoking — but I’d choose Alex Clark’s story. It’s cleanly written, beautifully handled — the risk with this kind of tale is always to over-egg the cake with one special effect too many, and she resists that admirably. It’s rooted in believable detail and surprisingly moving. I liked it a lot.

So it’s congratulations and £100 to Alex Clark, winner of the Fiction Desk Writer’s Award for her story ‘The Stamp Works’. And it’s thanks to Charles Lambert for taking the time to break our tie.

You can read ‘The Stamp Works’, along with Chris Fryer’s excellent story and all the others, in There Was Once a Place. And don’t forget to check out Charles Lambert’s With a Zero at Its Heart too. Both books are out now in all the usual paperback and ebook formats.

June’s round-up didn’t even come close to listing all the new books coming out from The Fiction Desk’s authors this year. So here are some more:

Matthew Licht: Justine, Joe, and the Zen Garbageman

Matthew Licht: Justine, Joe, and the Zen GarbagemanOver the years Matthew Licht has become one of The Fiction Desk’s regulars, with stories appearing in Various Authors, Crying Just Like Anybody, and New Ghost Stories. His new book is out now from Salt, who have this to say:

Justine’s a famous poet. Joe’s a self-styled Private Investigator without a clue. The Garbageman has cleaned his mind through immersion in filth. What he has to offer his clients, and even his enemies, is serenity. Three characters in search of a reader: you.

Jon Wallace: Barricade

Barricade by Jon WallaceJon Wallace‘s story ‘Rex’ appeared in our first anthology, Various Authors, back in 2011. His debut novel, a road thriller set in a post-apocalyptic future, was released this summer by Golancz. Here’s what they have to say:

Kenstibec was genetically engineered to build a new world, but the apocalypse forced a career change. These days he drives a taxi instead.

A fast-paced, droll and disturbing novel, BARRICADE is a savage road trip across the dystopian landscape of post-apocalypse Britain; narrated by the cold-blooded yet magnetic antihero, Kenstibec.

Kenstibec is a member of the ‘Ficial’ race, a breed of merciless super-humans. Their war on humanity has left Britain a wasteland, where Ficials hide in barricaded cities, besieged by tribes of human survivors. Originally optimised for construction, Kenstibec earns his keep as a taxi driver, running any Ficial who will pay from one surrounded city to another.

The trips are always eventful, but this will be his toughest yet. His fare is a narcissistic journalist who’s touchy about her luggage. His human guide is constantly plotting to kill him. And that’s just the start of his troubles.

On his journey he encounters ten-foot killer rats, a mutant king with a TV fixation, a drug-crazed army, and even the creator of the Ficial race. He also finds time to uncover a terrible plot to destroy his species for good – and humanity too.

Danny Rhodes: Fan

Fan by Danny RhodesDanny Rhodes is another author who helped launch our anthology series with his story ‘A Covering of Leaves’ in Various Authors. His third novel, Fan, is out now from Arcadia Books. Here’s the blurb:

In 1989, eighteen-year-old John Finch spends his Saturdays following Nottingham Forest up and down the country and the rest of the week trudging the streets of his hometown as a postal worker. 2004 sees Finch spending his days teaching in a southern secondary school, delaying the inevitable onslaught of parenthood. Leading inexorably towards the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, the worst sporting disaster in British history, Fan glides between 1989 and 2004 when the true impact of this tragic day becomes evident. A book of personal and collective tragedy; it s about growing up and not growing up, about manhood and about what makes a man, and above all about football s role in reflecting a society that is never more than a stone s throw away from shattering point.

Jonathan Pinnock: Take it Cool

Take it Cool by Jonathan PinnockJonathan Pinnock is a relative newcomer to The Fiction Desk: his story ‘A Whole Bloody Century’ appeared in New Ghost Stories. His new book, Take it Cool, is out now from Two Ravens Press, who have this to say about it:

If you’re born with the name Pinnock, you are just two consonants away from disaster, and that proximity pretty much wipes out any chance you have of being cool. Jonathan Pinnock knows this. He has never been cool. The word “Pinnock” is printed through his every bone like Brighton rock.

But then one day he finds out about Dennis Pinnock. That’s Dennis Pinnock, the reggae singer. The reggae singer who recorded over twenty singles on a dozen different labels but never made it to a full-length album, despite working with some of the biggest names in black British music.

So who is this Dennis Pinnock guy? Is he still alive? Is he a big star somewhere? What is a black man of West Indian origin doing with that daft surname? And what in God’s name is a white, middle-class, middle-aged bloke doing on a quest like this anyway?

In the course of the search for Dennis Pinnock, Jonathan digs up some long-forgotten cuts of reggae music, tries to re-inter one or two others, marvels at some unfeasibly shiny suits and encounters some unpalatable truths about how his surname might have crossed the race boundary.

Alex ClarkIn our latest ‘Stories behind Stories’ post, here’s Alex Clark on her experiences as an industrial archaeologist, and how they inspired her spooky tale ‘The Stamp Works’.

Somewhere in Sheffield, some time around 2005, I walked across the charred floor of the Stamp Works.

It wasn’t called that, of course. I’ll pretend I won’t name it for legal reasons, although actually it’s because I’ve forgotten its name. It was a typical site, a derelict factory complex. I was there with three other archaeologists, sent to record the works before it was demolished.

The room in question was on the first storey. We had come to it on our way through the site which, like most factories of its age, had developed organically until it was a jumbled labyrinth of sheds, offices and workshops. In order to enter the next set of buildings we needed to climb a set of stairs, cross a room, and descend the other side.

The problem was the floor. It was a sagging timber funnel centred on a black hole. Joist stumps stuck out of the edges of the break where the fire had come through. At the weight of a footfall, the whole thing bounced like a boat in choppy water.

The two senior members of our team, experienced in this kind of situation, weighed it up and decided we’d walk round the edge of the room, sticking to the walls where the joists were most secure. The first time I did this was very, very scary. By the end of a week on site, however, I wouldn’t think twice about nipping back over the same floor to pick up another roll of film. In my story, it’s fear that leads the narrator into a dangerous situation. In real life, it’s familiarity that’s the real hazard.

I worked for five years as an historic buildings archaeologist. Almost all of the buildings I worked on were industrial, from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Forget Time Team: what most archaeologists in the country do is work commercially, which means they’re paid by developers to fulfil the legal obligation to record remains before they’re destroyed or altered.

When it comes to buildings, those remains are rarely anything very pretty. They’ve probably not been in use for ten or twenty years, often longer. The pigeons will have moved in. If you’re unlucky the squatters will have found a way in too. Like ghosts, they flit through the buildings, following complex routes (out through a first-floor window, across a lean-to roof, into a yard) which have nothing to do with the shuttered doors.

Once, in the middle of an entire block of abandoned houses in a blighted Lancashire town, I left my rucksack in the next room and returned to find my bank cards stolen. For four streets there was nothing but wasteland, and yet we were not alone. On the same site, I was busy drawing inside a vacant shop when my partner came running in, alarmed. ‘Did you see him?’ she said. I’d seen no-one. Whoever he was, he had walked behind me and out of the back of the building. We didn’t know where he came from. We didn’t know where he went. He was leading a parallel life to ours, seeing a different world, walking invisibly along secret paths. And what is that if not a haunting?

There Was Once a PlaceIt was as a result of all of this that I conceived the idea of writing a ghost story set in an abandoned factory. As a keen fan of MR James, I loved stories of uncanny places with supernatural guardians. The old works I had seen seemed like the natural modern location for a slightly old-fashioned chilling ghost story: monumental, decaying, full of Gothic horror and adventure. It was a few years before I got round to actually getting it down on paper, but the result was ‘The Stamp Works’.

The description of the works itself came quickly: I’ve been to all of it. Not in the same place, or at the same time, but it’s all real. The stories that the narrator tells, too, are all real. They really did used to hang wallpaper with animal glue, and when the rain gets in, the resultant mushrooms really are a perfect yellow. In fact, the only thing in the Stamp Works that I’ve never encountered is the ghost.

When I came to write it, the story emerged rapidly, almost fully formed. I suspect that it had been sitting in my subconscious, incubating, for a few years. Though I didn’t direct its development – I certainly don’t recall plotting it – I can pinpoint the moment when I first thought of the idea of a ghost in a decaying factory.

The site was an old cutlery works. There were two of us sent to record it. It was a tortuous place, with only one entrance at the very end of a long, meandering series of boarded workshops. The doors were offset, so that within a few rooms of the entrance we totally lost sight of daylight. We picked our way through the dust, debris and bird corpses, lighting our way with a single torch, until my partner stopped abruptly and made an annoyed noise.

‘What’s up?’ I said.

‘I forgot the extension cable,’ he said. ‘If you stay here I’ll head back and get it now.’
He turned and wound his way back across the workshop, the bobbing light of the torch receding until, abruptly, it passed through a doorway and was extinguished.

I stood rooted to the spot, trying to stay calm. It was five minutes to the entrance, so ten at least until he came back. The darkness was complete. To the left of me, I heard a stealthy rustling, just on the edge of audibility.

‘It’s just birds,’ I said to myself, as I strained my eyes for the returning light. ‘Just birds.’

— Alex Clark

Read ‘The Stamp Works’ in our anthology There Was Once a Place, out now in paperback and ebook editions.

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