I dream a lot about watching strange organisms. They’re not large. Infestations. Algal mats. Microscopic activity in crustal basalt, detected only via byproduct, “perhaps the largest ecosystem on earth”. Not precisely animals. And most often, it has to be said, the kind of things that grow in layers in a drain. They’re soft and mushroom-coloured. I also dream of that wiry, fibrous stuff you get in a bad avocado. In this case it’s a dark red and it runs through everything.
Tag Archives: horror
The nightmare of the self: whatever you discover, it will never actually allow you to say anything about the foundation of things. Each discovery will only open up another scale, which, probed, will almost immediately begin to imply a further scale, a finer-grained space. The very small always has something smaller inside it. Whatever you find isn’t the end, it’s only ever the beginning of something else. Worse, the characteristic of these successive foundational states is that they’re composed increasingly of emptiness, of the gaps between things. Everything diffuses out into nothing. And the tools you develop operate only at the scale for which you develop them–though they have just enough sensitivity to alert you, as you push towards each outside edge, to the possiblility of the need for another, yet more subtle, toolset.
You suspect the whole cheap farrago of this grand house being bought “for the public” by some industrialist in the early 1900s. Even then it was a white elephant no one really wanted, except to turn a profit from. There’s a smell of furniture polish & old food. The floorboards are nice; also the way the light falls in: but every object here thanks you for not interacting with it. THANK YOU FOR NOT SITTING, labels on the chairs announce, & the tables & display cases thank you for not touching. If they could, the paintings, china & very short beds would say, THANK YOU FOR NOT LOOKING; & the guards with their hand-held radios would thank you for not coming. “I’ve got people on this floor,” one of the radios says. You know instantly what that means. “Can you hear me, over ?” It is 2012 & they are actually saying “over”. Outside a hot breeze moves the baskets of trailing flowers on the lamp posts in front of Fail Solicitors. It’s one of those mornings when the overcast distributes the light across the sky. The sun will never break through but you’ll feel it there all day, wrapped around you, until your eyes tire. A faded looking man in a red T shirt crosses the road near the bowel cancer charity. His smile is sarcastic & apologetic at the same time. “We both know what’s happened to me,” it says. “It’s happening to you, too. Over.”
Empty Space is published on July 19th 2012 by Gollancz. Here’s another chapter, less to whet the appetite than taunt it–
Last practitioner of a vanishing technique, with specialisms in diplomacy, military archeology and project development, R.I. Gaines–known to younger colleagues as Rig–had made his name as a partly affiliated information professional during one of EMC’s many small wars. He believed that while the organisation was fuelled by science, its motor ran in the regime of the imagination. ”Wrapped up in that metaphor,” he often told his team–a consciously mongrelised group of policy interns, ex-entradistas and science academics comfortable along a broad spectrum of disciplines– “you’ll always find politics. Action is political, whether it intends to be or not.”
Some projects require only an electronic presence. Others plead for some more passionate input. Today Gaines was in-country on Panamax IV, where the local rep Alyssia Fignall had uncovered dozens of what at first sight seemed like abandoned cities. Microchemical analysis of selected hotspots, however, had convinced her they were less conurbations than what she loosely termed “spiritual engines”: factories of sacrifice which, a hundred thousand years before the arrival of the boys from Earth, had hummed and roared day and night for a millenium or more, to bring about change–or, more likely, hold it off.
“Close to the Tract,” she said, “you find sites like these on every tenth planet. You can map the trauma front direct on to the astrophysics.”
There is no direct means of perceiving the real. Science can’t help. The whole of knowledge is like a deep layer of insulation between the individual & the real. No purposeful definition seems possible, only a forced engagement appalling & ecstatic by turns, a tense Lovecraftian psychodrama in which things are simply not what they seem & not very far down beneath it all everything is more chaotic, more undermining of the human construction of the world, than it’s possible to imagine. This kind of fiction is always an attempt to ambush the real, surprise it in the act of being what it actually is, while the real returns the favour & manifests as an intrusion. A thing on a stick. A network of veins seen in a wrong light. A condition of the vacuum. But the more clearly horrific the episode, the more it interposes itself between us & the very thing we’re trying not to hide.
Empty Space: I did my corrections in pencil on hard copy.
Today will probably be the last time in history that an author puts a manuscript in a plastic bag & lugs it across London in the piss wet rain to a publisher’s. At least I didn’t write it in longhand. Actual paper: actual sopping wet rain: a proud if defunct moment, rehearsing all that’s memorable about the hack life. If you see me on the tube, give me a smile. I’ll be the one with the confused semiotics. White beard & adolescent coat. There’ll be an air of the Seventies about me, as if the ghost of stagflation has picked an inopportune moment to call. Surprise, surprise. You won’t want me at your party, I can assure you of that. I’m a living message from one dystopia to another. I mean, honestly, haven’t you just looked up at the Shard & thought “comic book Babel” ? You look at that structure & you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It might as well have Ayn Rand Babel Doom written all over it. It might as well have every chapter of The Wind From Nowhere inscribed on every pane of glass. BASE jumping isn’t just the most interesting use it could be put to. It’s the only use.
(That should have been “from one dystopia to the next”. Much better.)
I heard an equivalence in tone between the words “the Leveson Inquiry” & Mark Danielewski’s phrase “the Navidson Record”. Instantly, Leveson fell whole into Danielewski’s arid self-flattering maze of layered & ultimately unproductive discourses; while in return the presiding void of House of Leaves gained for a second an authentic horror it hadn’t earned. Then the pair of them rustled, shifted & vanished into one another, cannibalising mutually as they went. Discourse space was empty again & I felt free.
Those who have failed to regulate the self. Those whose behaviours enact a medicating fiction. Those who flew to the Canary Islands on a cheap ticket in December 1991 & left the remains of their personality in the apartment hotel. Those who ran from everything in a zig-zag pattern, so fast they never found the transitional object. The unsoothed. The dysmorphic. The unconditional. Those who were naive enough to take what they needed & thus never got what they wanted & whose dreams are now severe. Those who were amazed by their own hand. The confused. The pliable. Those who look at the sea & immediately suffer a grief unconstrained but inarticulable. Gifco is coming. Gifco you are always with us. Gifco we are here!
Photo: the other Nick Royle.
This character wakes up with a sense of happiness, all that remains of a dream the content of which she has already forgotten. The dream repeats itself. Soon it’s a nightly event. The dreamer’s delight on waking is increasingly intense. But every so often, even as that intensification occurs, she wakes up a little sad or depressed. The narration speculates: “Some kind of life, or story, was being lived out in the dreams.” Increasingly, the dreamer wonders what that story might be. Because she can’t remember, she begins to invent it. Simultaneously, the dream reaches a pivot & tips over: moments of happiness decrease (though their intensity increases) & are replaced by depressions which become the norm. One day the dream ends. A morning of misery; a morning of joy: then nothing, ever again. The dream life has worked itself out without the dreamer–or the reader–ever knowing what it was.
I came late to this “Questionnaire of the Weird”, but here are my answers:
1: Write the first sentence of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
“It was a Saturday afternoon, about 2:19.”
2: Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
3: Look at your watch. What time is it?
4: How do you explain this—or these—discrepancy(ies) in time?
There is no dispcrepancy.
5: Do you believe in meteorological predictions?
I think it’s weird you would ask that. You don’t even know me.
6: Do you believe in astrological predictions?
No, I’m not fooled by all those false-colour images of gas clouds, & Prof. Brian Cox calling it the “You-in-Ee Verse”.
7: Do you gaze at the sky and stars by night?
Not in London.
8: What do you think of the sky and stars by night?
I think they’re the last place God made.
9: What were you looking at before starting this questionnaire?
“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit; then my friend S’s face, in dark, impasto-looking tones on Skype, which made her resemble a Munch madonna. Munch’s madonnas are, as someone once put it to me, “the Anima on a stick” & a great deal weirder than anything wilfully weird.
10: What do cathedrals, churches, mosques, shrines, synagogues, and other religious monuments inspire in you?
“Inspire” is a bit like “gaze” to me, the way you’ve used it in Question 7 above. I don’t really get it.
11: What would you have “seen” if you’d been blind?
I don’t know. But there are plenty of things I would have missed seeing. Dogs. A girder. Two or three larks going up & down like elevators over some upland landscape. Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site. Windmills, linocuts, bees. A bus. A wrist. The list is endless.
12: What would you want to see if you were blind?
To start with, at least, I would want to see some indication that I wasn’t seeing: so, darkness, maybe, or like that. Weirdly enough, my cat went blind not long ago.
13: Are you afraid?
I have deep & constant anxiety.
14: What of?
I was afraid of the dark until I started night-running on moors & hills in the late 1970s. Once you become anxious about putting your foot down a hole in the dark & breaking your ankle, you stop being anxious about just the dark; the vague & generalised is replaced by the actual & practical. Now I’m afraid of the usual things, loneliness, pain, death.
15: What is the last weird film you’ve seen?
Scorcese, No Direction Home.
16: Whom are you afraid of?
I am afraid of everyone.
17: Have you ever been lost?
See answer to Question 9, but also I am an expert at it (see answer to Question 14). At least as much of an expert as Rebecca Solnit, although she is a great deal more articulate about it than me.
18: Do you believe in ghosts?
19: What is a ghost?
A ghost is content. It is subject matter, or grist to your mill.
20: At this very moment, what sound(s) can you here, apart from the computer?
Quite complex tinitus, left ear. A high-pitched whine, like the one you hear after a loud gig. Under that, a sort of hiss such as you might have heard from a valve radio knocked off-station in 1953. Behind that, quite a long way back, various bangs & rumbles I take to be the circulation of the blood, or perhaps a small unacknowledged war taking place a mile or two off in East Sheen.
21: What is the most terrifying sound you’ve ever heard: for example, “the night was like the cry of a wolf”?
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced terror. Certainly not from a sound. But I have a well-honed startle reflex, see answer to Question 13, & any high-attack sound will stimulate it.
22: Have you done something weird today or in the last few days?
No. But I have done uncanny things.
23: Have you ever been to confession?
24: You’re at confession, so confess the unspeakable.
“Weird” is a word for a kind of content or subject matter I often visit, though I have no personal relationship with the weird now except to make metaphors. I went through a period when I couldn’t have HP Lovecraft on my shelves. If I had him on my shelves I would read him. If I read him I wouldn’t be able to sleep. The same was true of Arthur Machen, although it was never true of Robert Aickman because by the time I got to Aickman my life had steadied me down a little. In a sense, he’s too clever to be frightening; in another sense, something like “The Swords” is so uncanny that you know you are probably avoiding the issue so as to remain calm.
25: Without cheating: what is a “cabinet of curiosities”?
Perhaps it’s a cabinet in which you keep curiosities. Have you read “The Hare with Amber Eyes” ? It’s the history of 264 netsuke, displayed for part of their life in a cabinet in Vienna to show off the taste of their owner–to make their owner interesting by association. It’s been quite a bestseller but I found it, in the end, to be a sort of bland imitation of WG Sebald. Anyway, perhaps that’s what a cabinet of curiosities is: a place to keep the things which make you look interesting by association. Or comparison.
26: Do you believe in redemption?
I do, but I don’t know why. For me, redemption is like some aspects of the sublime: I try not to revisit or acknowledge them, in case I taint them with the anti-sublime.
27: Have you dreamed tonight?
I believe so.
28: Do you remember your dreams?
29: What was your last dream?
I don’t remember.
30: What does fog make you think of?
I haven’t seen any really high class fog for a long time. The kind that, if it’s in a city, sets everything at one remove and makes it so interesting again; or the kind that, if it’s on a moor, you think: shit, which direction was I going in before this happened, see answer to Question 9 ?
31: Do you believe in animals that don’t exist?
Do you mean made-up animals ? Why would I believe or not believe in them ?
32: What do you see on the walls of the room where you are?
Skull Radio & Mexican Death TV.
33: If you became a magician, what would be the first thing you’d do?
I haven’t any idea.
34: What is a madman?
One of the people in charge of the asylum.
35: Are you mad?
All I’m sure of today is that I’m not in charge of the asylum.
36: Do you believe in the existence of secret societies?
It isn’t really necessary to believe in the existence of secret societies for them to exist.
37: What was the last weird book you read?
“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit.
38: Would you like to live in a castle?
Yes. I would also like to live in a beach hut.
39: Have you seen something weird today?
I haven’t. But I keep wanting to call you “darling”. For instance, in answer to Question 54 below, What goes on in tunnels ?, I wanted to reply, “I don’t know, darling. I’m so rarely in one.” Isn’t that odd ? I find it odd.
40: What is the weirdest film you’ve ever seen?
Do you mean weird ? Or do you mean Weird ? Anyway, I will always have a soft spot for the Brothers Quay’s Institute Benjamenta. I several times tried to watch it with a girlfriend when it first came out on DVD, but we kept having sex halfway through & I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the end. But it certainly looked weird.
41: Would you like to live in an abandoned train station?
Curiously enough, I addressed this question a year or two ago, here.
42: Can you see the future?
I can, yes, & it works.
43: Have you considered living abroad?
Once or twice.
Because they are warmer & more human than London.
46: What is the weirdest film you’ve ever owned?
47: Would you liked to have lived in a vicarage?
48: What is the weirdest book you’ve ever read?
“The Flight from the Enchanter”, Iris Murdoch.
49: Which do you like better, globes or hourglasses?
I wouldn’t have any use for either. I don’t know what the weird has to do with the mildly bizarre or whimsical.
50: Which do you like better, antique magnifying glasses or bladed weapons?
I’d rather have a new magnifying glass if I needed one. I own an entry-level survival knife. I would like an ESEE-3MIL with a carbon steel blade & a sharpened back edge. But my favourite knife of mine is a 465 Puma Backpacker, circa 1980, which I have managed not to lose all those years. I climbed with a guy called Jeremy who used to be a butcher, so he sharpened everyone’s knives for them. Worried by a certain vagueness he sensed in me, he kept mine blunt.
51: What, in all likelihood, lies in the depths of Loch Ness?
A layer of very cold water.
52: Do you like taxidermied animals?
Sometimes. But I don’t find them weird, & I don’t find myself weird for liking them. Generally I try not to associate myself with things as a way of gaining some of their presumed eros, see answer to Question 25.
53: Do you like walking in the rain?
I don’t dislike it.
54: What goes on in tunnels?
I don’t know, I’m so rarely in one.
55: What do you look at when you look away from this questionnaire?
Mexican Death TV.
56: What does this famous line inspire in you: “And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.”?
57: Without cheating: where is that famous line from?
Is it famous ? How inappropriate of me not to remember.
58: Do you like walking in graveyards or the woods by night?
Apart from Pere Lachaise, and the really unheimlich two-level cemetery on the A628 outside Tintwhistle, Greater Manchester, I can take or leave graveyards. Running in woods at night can be as entertaining as running on moors at night, especially in the snow. Although I have to admit I haven’t done it for a couple of years. Some woodland is almost ludicrously Aickmanesque: that patch under Rhinog Fawr, for instance, into which you descend if you follow the Roman Steps path all the way east.
58: Write the last line of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
“I wish I’d kept those old clothes.”
59: Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
60: Look at your watch. What time is it?
It’s always 2:19 in here.