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The cover picture for this collection of 49 short stories, flash fictions and monologues was the last photograph I took with my Olympus digital camera. It was taken on Lindisfarne, and after I’d taken it I put the camera in the pocket of my waterproof jacket, because, as you can see from the picture, it was threatening rain. The rain came, heavily, and the jacket was waterproof! So was the pocket.

But the zipper wasn’t and let the rain in. When I came to retrieve camera it was sitting in about an inch of cold water. So much for my Olympus; but at least the SD card came out with the pictures intact, and I thought this one might resonate with the story Haven, one of the flash fictions inside. It might even have nudged (rather than inspired) me towards the story.

The title story, full title, Eight Frames for Rosie Wreay, is one of those compilation stories, in this case of eight parts, which unwind in reverse order the life of the eponymous heroine. There are also two sets of ten flash fictions, grouped as Final Accounts, and Men. Readers of the blog might have picked up on the fact that I don’t view the ‘flash fiction’ as a particular type of story, but rather a story that just happens to fit into whatever word count has been decided on. These flashes, I think, all worked within a 500 word limit! Two of them marked a change point for me, in the way I tackled stories, though it might not show from a reader’s perspective!

Ten longer stories follow, comic ghosts stories, stories of isolation and reconciliation: stories I’m passing on rather than inventing, but many years after they came to me.

The collection also includes a half dozen Kowalski stories, but these, not in the old grump’s own voice, but those of his exasperated spouse, Mildred. Completing the collection are three separate tales under the heading, Anomalies, because I don’t know where else to put ’em!

OS&RW was published in 2016, the third in an ongoing series of collected short stories.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

 

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One of the pleasures of finding a writer of whom you’ve never heard is that you get to read them without prejudice, or at least without the prejudice of other’s opinions on them.

I had such good fortune at the weekend, picking up a copy of a short story collection, Among The Quiet Folks, by John Moore. Moore (1907-1967) was an English writer who achieved widespread publication and, well, fame, in his lifetime, but who has faded into obscurity in the forty years since his death. There are articles about him on the web though, by the Independent, Bloomsbury, and of course Wikipedia among others.

He was known as a writer of rural England, which for me, demands comparison with writers like Bates, Pritchard, and Mann. Among The Quiet Folks was first published in America in the year of his death, and seems to be a ‘catch-all’ collection, drawing on short stories published, and written over several decades of his writing life. It’s not given in the Wicki bibliography, but one of the stories within, is the title story of a 1953 collection. Other stories draw their ideas from WWI, and at least one story is set at a time when ‘even’ factory workers get ‘twelve pounds a week’ and have television… which must put it in the early sixties for a guess!

My uninfluenced first impressions were that the stories were good, but that his attitudes were quite reactionary, especially in respect of war, psychology, and, curiously enough, organics. Consistently though, reading about him, I was told not to think he was ‘nostalgic’, which hadn’t crossed my mind. He does have that survival of the reddest in tooth and claw, which isn’t the sort of ‘fittest’, I think, that Darwin actually meant, but which tars writers of rural England from time to time (and rural Britain, come to that).

Reddest and clawiest is the story Elehog, about an orphaned baby hedgehog that ‘reminded one somewhat of a miniature elephant’.  Brought up by the narrator, this innocent is spoiled, but not taught to look out for itself, with fatal consequences, which the same narrator (ignoring, or overlooking the lack of a hedgehoggy education) then uses as a metaphor for ‘the gentle creatures who practise the philosophy of live and let live’. Set towards the end of the collection, I wonder if this reflects the author’s view of the post-war Britain I grew up in? The very last story, Vive la Difference’ is a faux risqué tale about a prudish woman chopping off the relevant protuberances on two pieces of topiary, representing nudes, male and female, in her neighbour’s garden. Of all the stories, it seemed to me the most dated, a pale reflection of the swinging sixties, in which I presume it was written.

There is one story that I found strikingly good. This was that title story from the 1953 collection: Tiger, Tiger. Echoing Blake’s title, but not his spelling, it’s an epic, archetypal story, set in Andalusia, where a young boy, stolen by a gypsy almost at birth, is sent on a mission by a dying man. As an eight year old child, Emilio must cross the city to Baldomero’s wine-shop and buy the ageing and sick Jose a bottle of ‘his second best rioja’. He has never before left the security of the gypsy woman’s back yard, but feels bound to the old man, who has told him many stories of the Malayan jungle.

Emilio’s adventures – being robbed, beaten, put to work as a pimp by the girls in a brothel – lead to him eventually stealing a bottle, and surviving a political riot. The bottle turns out to be brandy, not Rioja, and revives the old storyteller. What makes this story more than just its events, is the way the boy’s adventures parallel, and are seen by him to parallel, the dangers of the jungle in the old man’s stories. The men, and women, in the story, he sees, are animals in a jungle of their own.

The sentiments expressed is similar to that of other stories, but the handling of them lifts the tale above the mere assertion of the author’s beliefs. Another story makes assertion of the narrator’s beliefs so strongly that I wonder if the author is gently satirizing him – and even on a second reading I’m not convinced he is! This is Non compost mentis, where the narrator rants about his late aunt’s obsession with compost, and ridicules her organic principles. Written at a time when the organic movement was seen as cranky, it’s hard to judge how we are meant to take it, but the story is funny enough either way. As is Mr Catesby Brings it Off, in which a country vet flirts with a client’s much younger partner, who has been passed off as his daughter, but finds himself being manoeuvred by the old man into marrying her (so that he can leave his estate to his actual daughter!). It’s a clever, convoluted little tale.

Stark, sparse and chillingly believable, though, is The Proof, where a woman under interrogation in a witch trial, is watched for the arrival of her ‘familiar’. She is innocent, but her cat has not been fed for hours, and hears her voice….

Many writers fall into obscurity after their deaths. Some are discovered decades later, and win fame (usually again), but I would be surprised if this happened to Moore, and, to be honest, disappointed. His stories are well written and quite readable, but so are many others not worth a third reading. It’s what he has to say, it seemed to me, that leaves this writer in obscurity. The Alan Sutton collection was reprinted in 1984, and 1986. Perhaps that was the attempt at his revival. That was a low point for short stories, I suspect, when even the concept of ‘story’ was being fashionably dismissed and stories were becoming, for the ‘ordinary’ – whatever that means – reader, as boring as poetry had become a little earlier. Now that the short story is booming again, Moore might catch our interest for a while, but the limits of his vision make me wonder if he will, or should, hold it.

Did you have the pleasure of watching, as I did, a little of the recent World Cup? On a day England was playing I was going to a party later, and felt I should take a look, so that I’d know whether it was likely to be a House Of Gloom, or otherwise.

I happened to switch on the TV as the second half started, and I stood watching for about twenty minutes. It looked a good game, but then the BBC commentator remarked that ‘anyone reading a book this afternoon should get a life’. I’ll repeat that, because yes, that was, as far as I can recall, his exact words:

 

‘anyone reading a book this afternoon should get a life’.

 

The word ‘jerk’ among others sprang to mind. The TV, by a whisker, survived. I went and got a book. The party, by the way, was in a House of Joy, though not solely because of a football result.

There’s a new essay by Me on Rudyard Kipling’s philosophical story The Eye Of Allah now showing on the Thresholds website.

 Other essays on short stories and their writers can be found here (or by clicking on the image).

Someone’s been reading A Portrait of the Artist on Radio4, in one of those sad, reflective, serious voices that out-Bennets Alan of that ilk.

To be sure, we Did the novel at school. Burton Upon Trent Boys Grammar School, which to my shame I didn’t even think of burning down at the time, let alone attempt!

I got the sense that our English teacher – who was one of the good guys – didn’t know what to make of the novel, and I recall that he said as much. But I came back from a summer holiday before the A levels reeking of William York Tyndall’s A Reader’s Guide To James Joyce (Thames & Hudson, 1959/1968 –still on my shelves, heavily taped, and annotated), which turned me from a blank bemused to a full-on enthusiast for this writer’s fiction.

Hence my 2000 mile bucket-list round trip in 2016 to see, but not be seen to see, the statue of that old artificer on the bridge over the Grand Canal in Trieste.

Hearing the mournful rendition of the story though, brought back my pre-Tyndall despair. What a tedious and sanctimonious book it can appear to be, taking itself too seriously, and being taken that way by readers, and perhaps by listeners too. Its charred predecessor, Stephen Hero, which Joyce put to the fire and somebody else had to rescue had an even more self-obsessed eponymous protagonist – and an author that had yet matured enough to recognise him for what he was.

A Portrait, though, is made of more ironic, and subtly comic stuff. It is James Joyce, not celebrating, but satirising the narcissistic youth he grew out of being.

I spend a lot of time teaching people about stories.  There is a long running debate – with strong opinions on both sides – about whether or not it’s possible to teach what we now refer to as ‘creative writing’. Sometimes, it seems to me, the people on opposite sides of it can be talking about two quite different concepts. Sidestepping the issue might help clarify: You can quite clearly teach someone to use a camera, without teaching them to be a good photographer. You can also show them what you think are good photographs, and perhaps also you can explain why. But when each photographer goes out, armed with his or her technologies and their techniques, it’ll still come down to what they point the camera at, and when they press the shutter release; it’ll come down to what they chose to show us, and from where they show it.

We’ll be talking about stories and how they work at my next Phil & Lit Society Workshop, on the evening of February 15th (7.00pm-9.00pm, Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Carlisle, England. Tickets from Darren Harper info@philandlit.org £10/£8 concession) In particular we’ll be looking at how particular stories work on us as individuals, and we’ll be finding out through a series of little experiments performed on actual texts – none of which will be injured in the process!

And stories do work on us as individuals. There’s not a one-story-fits-all, though we can all struggle into the same story, where some of us will find it too tight, and others way too loose.

You can read about how short stories have worked on BHDandMe, and how we think they’ve done it in the Readings For Writers series of books, available by clicking on the images, or here.

There is one name missing from Death of a Superhero. That’s Sara-Mae Tucson, Inktears’ ‘person Friday’ in the UK.

It was she who organised and hosted the excellent launch party in London’s Theatreland pub, The Sun, on Drury Lane, on Saturday 16th December. Being launched were two Inktears’ anthologies of short stories: Death of a Superhero & How to Begin a Wonderful Life. Each beautifully produced hardback volume – they are so smart they have ribbons so you can mark your place! – showcases the work of four writers.

BHD has nine stories included in Death of a Superhero, drawn from writing that stretches back over almost a decade, and their final published form, in several cases, is thanks to the sensitive editorial input of Sara-Mae. Two of them have even been given new (and considerably more fitting) titles! So thanks, Sara-Mae, from BHDandMe, for your editing skills, your general support, and your enthusiastic encouragement at all stages of the process. Thanks too, of course, to Anthony Howcroft, founder and CEO of Inktears, without whom none of it would have been possible! Click on the image, or here, to go to where you can buy copies.

 

A.M.Howcroft on BHD: ‘…a writer with a very distinctive voice and a rich vein of humour….. a certain wry, engaging tone…. a high concept for a theme….I always imagine his stories filmed in grainy black and white, peopled with fascinating, flawed characters.’

Facets of Fiction: Writing the Short Story

– a short course by Mike Smith, devised for Darren Harper’s Carlisle Phil and Lit Society.

Thursdays, 1.00pm-3.00pm, 11th January to 15th March 2018. Room 8, Fisher Street, Carlisle.

£70 (£49 over 60/ £14 in receipt of benefits)

This 10 week Facets of Fiction course examines the short story elements: Beginnings, Endings, Middles, Locations in time and place, Ambience, Character, and Narrative voice. Short stories are short, sharp, subtle, and to be taken ‘at a sitting’. Includes sessions that take published short stories and examine how they have used those facets.

  1. Cut Up Exercise – Reconstructing stories reveals our grasp of the genre.
  2. Beginnings – What are they for? What must they do?
  3. Endings – The point of a story: the view it takes us to.
  4. Dialogue – how much, and where, and why? And how to do it…
  5. Character & Situation – Characters create situations, and are caught in them.
  6. Location – Stories take place, and time, and are made by them
  7. Ambience – every story has a mood, which might deepen, dissipate, or change.
  8. Narrators – Who is telling the story, and why, and to whom?
  9. Editing & Redrafting – exercises with prepared stories (c1000 words).
  10. Publication: How and Why? Options to consider.

Suggested Reading:

The Poetic Impulse by Mike Smith. Explores the ideas from which the course was constructed. Available on Amazon (or from the author).  Mike Smith, M.Litt (Glasgow) -aka Brindley Hallam Dennis- has won many prizes and awards for his writing.

Story by Robert McKee. Intended for Screenwriters, but useful for any story constructor!

Aristotle’s Poetics – An ancient overview of how tragedy works (even today!). Various translations (over the past centuries) are available. (McKee’s book draws heavily on it!)

Darren Harper, founder of Carlisle (England)’s new Phil & Lit society, invite BHDandMe to talk to him about short stories. Here’s the first instalment of what got asked, and what got answered. 

 

 

 

Some of the ideas touched on in the interview are examined in The Poetic Impulse, by Mike Smith.

I’m going to share with you something that cost me five thousand pounds.

It’s about what I want my stories (and other types of writing) to do. I want them to haunt you, or even stalk you. I want them to ambush you with laughter, or surprise, long after you’ve finished reading them. I want them to come back at you like bad pennies, dishonoured cheques, and badly digested meals, or the shock of unexpected sexual encounters.

Because that’s some of the ways that stories stick in my mind, and is why I like them a lot!

One of the ideas that I picked up whilst taking my M.Litt at Glasgow University’s Crichton campus in Dumfries, was that you have to read to be able to write. I picked it up like it needed putting in a plastic bag and dumping in a bin. It wasn’t an idea I was looking for. It disturbed my equilibrium, threatened my equanimity.

Of course, reading won’t make you a good writer. The relationship is more complicated than that. Writing, in fact, is more likely to make you a good reader. It is likely to make you into a reader who reads like a writer, and reading like a writer might just help you to become a better writer than you have been.

A lot of the value in that five grand was in a simple idea, one that I should have had without needing to have it shoved into my head like a nine foot pike staff. It was the simple idea that when you’re reading, and something makes you reel – or any other of a number of imaginable metaphors – it’s worth stopping your reading, and going back and looking at exactly how that happened.

Because, sure as eggs are erfs, the only thing that can have made it happen is the words printed or written on the page (or heard from the lips of the person reading or telling you the story).  Because that’s all there is. And when you isolate those words, you can begin to get an idea of what it was about them that created the effect.

Partly that will be just exactly what those specific words signify in the lexicon of your brain: something that has been created for you alone, by the events of your life, and the way that the words you have encountered have interacted with them. But partly too, it will have been the way that those words have interacted with the words that have preceded them in whatever you are reading, and with the way that they have interacted with each other in the cluster that has sparked your reaction.

Language is the thorns that prick the skin of your subconscious. Reading like a writer is a matter of pulling them out, and taking a close look at where they came from, and why they hurt. And that just might help you when it comes to sticking them into someone else.