Archive for November, 2011

I have the final cover artwork for New World Fairy Tales. This is it. This is how my book is going to look when it goes out into the big, bad world.

There’s a comforting feeling of shared-experience about this moment. All published writers, anywhere, ever – the great ones and the terrible ones and the ones in between – have been where I am right now. We’ve all had that same feeling, the one that’s not as negative as fear and not as confident as excitement, knowing that for the very first time, our words are about to become a commercial object. A thing people will pick up in shops and buy. Something, in fact, that people are expected to pay money in order to own.

That’s the real test of whether your writing’s any good, I suppose; whether someone will actually pay money for it.

And everyone around me is so excited for me! I’d always secretly assumed this would be a private moment, with meaning only to me and maybe my immediate family. But as it turns out, all my friends and acquaintances are thrilled for me as well! Even relative strangers, overhearing discussions in the school playground or in supermarket queues, burst impetuously into the conversation – “You’ve got a book coming out? That’s so amazing! Congratulations! What’s it called? When is it published? What’s it about? And where did you get the idea?” And then, the lovely but sadly unlikely prediction; “You’ll be the next J K Rowling.”

Of course I won’t, and I know I won’t; but that’s okay. I’ve got my ambitions, but setting the bar at “I want to be the next Jo Rowling” is about as realistic as “I want to win the lottery five weeks in a row”. Here’s what I’d like to achieve. I very much want to live up to the three generations of published authors in my family who’ve gone before me.

My great-grandfather William May, who was a Methodist minister with a late-Victorian-size family to feed, wrote a seemingly endless series of didactic semi-tract-like books for use as study-guides in Sisterhood meetings. They were about a middle-aged unmarried woman called Mary-Martha (d’you see what he did there?), and the moral lessons which could be drawn from her life-experiences. Surprisingly, they’re much better than I’ve made them sound. Sometimes my brother and I hold late-night readings of them, and fall about laughing at our long-gone ancestor. Meanwhile our spouses look at us and then at each other, and eventually leave us to get on with it and find something less ludicrous to do instead. Of course, the Mary-Martha series is long out of print, but I still have a few of them, and they turn up in charity shops and on AbeBooks from time to time.

And once, in his heyday, William J May filled an entire shop-window. A whole window-display, just of his words! We have a photo of it somewhere. I never met you, William, which is probably a good thing, since I suspect that much about my life would scandalise you to your bones. But you set a good standard. You were a working writer. You found a niche, and you filled it. Your words made your family’s life far more comfortable than it ever could have been on a Minister’s stipend. In that sense, I’d like to follow in your footsteps.

My grandfather – not William May’s son, but my mother’s father, Jack Fyson – wrote short stories as a sideline from his life in the Merchant Navy, and then his second life in his family’s printing business. This was back in the days when newspapers printed short fiction, so his work was even more ephemeral than William May’s. All we have now are a few crumbling newspaper cuttings. But I’ve read and loved those stories, and I remember sitting on his knee and hearing him talk about writing, and wanting to do the same. Furthermore, Jack Fyson’s work was good enough for Leslie Charteris to refer to his short stories as a model in his book on the craft of writing.

Grandpa, you were a devout atheist, so I know that you – like me – firmly rejected the intellectually dubious comfort of believing that the dead watch over the living. But I wish, so very, very much, that you could have been here to see my short stories in print. If by any chance we’re both wrong and there is a part of us that goes on, I hope you’re watching me now.

Finally, my dad Jonathan May. Dad, you were brought up by two of the loudest, most opinionated matriarchs it’s ever been my privilege to know, in the shape of my grandmother Mildred and her older sister Anne. It’s no surprise to any of us that you grew up to be rather quiet, since you – like your father – can surely have never managed to get a word in edgeways. When you were working as a Rig Medic at the time of the Piper Alpha disaster, and you answered that desperate radio call for everyone with a smidgen of medical skill to get the hell over to Piper field right now, and you and so many others worked through the darkness and the smoke and the flames and the unspeakable horror to save the lives of sixty-one men, it didn’t surprise us that afterwards you only told us the bare facts of what it had been like. Instead, you stayed up late into the night for months and months, and wrote your story into a novel. When Carol Blake agented it and Hodder and Stoughton published it and we read it, we all cried. From your Amazon reviews, I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. One day, dad, I’d like to write something as moving as your account of what that night meant to you.

So, now it’s my turn. My turn to wait for the presses to roll; my turn to wait for those precious author-copies to drop through the letterbox. My turn to wait and see if anyone actually buys my work, my turn to wait and see what they make of it when they do.

William, Jack and Jon, this is my ambition. I want to live up to you.

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We Still Have The Same Problem. But Now We Have It For A Different Reason.

Shoe-boxes are a major cause of cognitive dissonance for me. For years, I have held two parallel and perfectly opposing beliefs. Belief one: shoe-boxes are infinitely useful and can be used for all manner of amazing craft projects, ranging from the simple insertion of the soft toy du jour into the bottom and the confident statement, “Look! Now Pink Piggy has a bed!” to the feel-good manufacture of gift boxes for children in other countries. Belief two: shoe-boxes are BOXES and therefore should be disposed of at the earliest opportunity.

Not in my house. Also, not my house.

If Walt Whitman can contain multitudes, then so can I. I can throw away every shoe-box that comes into my house as soon as I lay eyes on it, and also sincerely lament the absence of shoe-boxes whenever a craft project comes along that requires one, and not once see the connection between Throwing All The Shoe-boxes Away, and Never Having A Shoe-box When We Need One.

But it’s only recently dawned on me that shoe-boxes have an entirely separate function, independent of any craft-based upcycling opportunities.

Apparently, you can never have enough pictures of cats in a blog post.

I’m not 100% sure why it took me so long to realise this, but I’m going to go ahead and blame my childhood. (I’ve always wanted to blame my childhood.) Like most kids of my generation, when I was growing up, shoes were a limited resource. You had school shoes, and trainers, and if you were fantastically posh or rich then you had party shoes, and that was pretty much it. At any given moment, if you weren’t actually in your shoes, you soon would be. Maximum period between wears was generally about forty-eight hours.

Also (and I’ll admit this part isn’t unique to just my generation), when you’re a kid, your feet grow. There is no real point in preserving your shoes. You’re going to grow out of them. And then they are going to be thrown away. “Getting the wear” is practically a childhood commandment.

And you thought they smelled bad on the outside.

Then you grow up. And your feet stop growing. (More or less. We’ll ignore that weird non-reversible size-larger thing that happens to your feet – and sometimes even your whole, entire body – during your first pregnancy.) And your shoe-occasions multiply. And you have disposable income. And you discover the ludicrous thrill of buying shoes purely for their utter, utter beauty, even though there’s no possible chance you’ll ever be able to actually walk anywhere in them. And before you know it, you’ve got a whole damn collection.

And if you (well, okay, me) are stupid enough to say to your husband one day, “You know, I just don’t know why men think all women are obsessed with shoes”, he will lead you to the hallway and show you why men think all women, even you (okay, me again), are obsessed with shoes.

Not actual game-play footage.

Decades later than the average, it has finally dawned on me that, while shoes have many fine properties, they do not tessellate well. Also, they like to sleep in heaps, like puppies. Left to themselves, they will form a vast shoe mountain in which the shoes you actually want to wear will be carefully shielded at the very bottom by all the other shoes you own, and will also have been separated for their own safety.

But if you keep them in their boxes, all these problems disappear. They stay in neatly-ordered pairs. They do not get crushed out of shape by the weight of all the other shoes on top of them. Instead of lying in a promiscuous heap in the middle of the hall, they can be tidied away into virtually any space you care to name. In short, shoe-boxes are absolutely brilliant for storing your shoes in.

Sadly, this discovery of mine hasn’t improved things for my children. We have moved from a state of having-no-shoe-boxes-for-crafting-because-mummy-threw-them-all-away, to having-no-shoe-boxes-because-mummy-needs-them-to-keep-her-shoes-in. But I’ve learned something useful and interesting, and that’s always important, I think.

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Of Course, This Could Also Be “by Susan Coolidge” In The Sense Of “by V. C. Andrews”. This Would Certainly Explain A Lot.

I don’t know if girls still read “What Katy Did”. In my younger teenage years my best friend and I were absolutely obsessed with them, having both privately conceived the belief that we were awful, and that redemption through the power of severe spinal injury was a realistic and desirable option. But while “Little Women” and the “Little House” books – with their heroines who actually work for a living and their no-holds-barred accounts of pig butchery – have aged pretty well, re-reading the “Katy” books does make me squirm a little bit. I don’t want my daughter to fall for the same trick I did, and spend her teenage years privately convinced that a widowed father putting his thirteen-year-old daughter in charge of running the household (following the tragic death of his domestically-enslaved sister) is a better solution than, say, letting one of the servants do it, or even springing for a freakin’ housekeeper or something.

This, or enslavement for one of your children. It's a tough decision.

However, as I said, at fourteen I was obsessed with the “Katy” books. I made my friends play that mad Blind-Man’s-Buff-In-The-Dark game at my birthday party (just like the Carrs, we got into terrible trouble and were banned from ever doing so again). I tried to make them play strangely literary paper-games, SSUC-style, only they rebelled and insisted we experiment with make-up instead. (In hindsight, they were right to do this.) I even wondered if my hair, like Amy Ashe’s, might grow back curly if it ever had to be cut off because of fever. (Maybe one day I’ll try this and see.)

What I didn’t know at the time was that there were not one, but two sequels, which have been out of print for years (it may rapidly become clear why), but have now been re-issued as FREE KINDLE EDITIONS. Seriously. All you have to do is give Amazon £111 and your immortal soul, and you can have “Clover”, which I’ve reviewed below, and “In The High Valley” which I’ll get to next time, FOR FREE. How could you not?

Well, I couldn’t not, anyway. I have both of them, and I have to say I really do sort of love them. However, in the interests of fairness, I must say I love them in the same way I love Fan Fiction. They’re dreadful, but in a strangely endearing way. Also like Fan Fiction, they give the impression of having been written by a completely different author.

“Clover” begins where “What Katy Did” left off, with the preparations for Katy’s wedding. Despite the fact that Katy is qualified for absolutely no other life whatsoever (except possibly following in Aunt Izzie’s footsteps and becoming the harassed domestic slave of some widowed family member), all of her family are weirdly jealous of her impending marriage, and clearly feel that Katy Leaving Home is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime disaster on a scale no family should suffer more than once. Which is a nice festive note to open on. Katy, meanwhile, is making her own wedding-dress out of her mother’s old shawl (srsly) and a sash Aunt Izzy gave her.

This one was made from upcycled baby-blankets and pieces of toilet-paper.

Incidentally, during the wedding-dress conversation, Clover claims in passing that she can hardly remember Aunt Izzie. It’s not a big thing and it doesn’t matter to the plot, but when Aunt Izzie died, Clover was twelve. Unless Clover has some unusual sort of amnesia going on, that seems like a bit of a mistake to me. The kind of mistake you make when, say, you’re not working with your own material and are not entirely on top of the details. Just saying.

At this point it also becomes clear that Whoever Wrote This Book, Could Have Been Susan Coolidge For All I Know, But Anyway, Whoever Wrote It, they have a massive downer on Ned Worthington. When we last saw him, Ned was the prize hunk Katy snatched from beneath her cousin Lily’s nose. These days, he feels like a trial and a nuisance, and an encumbrance to the plot. If it’s possible to have a wedding without a groom, Katy’s wedding is it.

First, the congratulatory letters start to pour in. We get the text of everyone else’s letters, from Rose Red to Miss Jane; but not Ned Worthington’s letters. Clearly, they’re not worth our time. Maybe he just sent crayoned drawings of his boat, with a big arrow pointing to the stick-man in the prow and a label – “THiS iS MEEE”. Then, all the guests arrive, and so does Ned. We hear a lot from Rose Red, a little bit from Cousin Helen, more than anyone would ever want to from Rose Red’s sickening daughter Roslein, and, and – and practically nothing from Ned. He gets one line of dialogue. It is not spoken to Katy. Just saying.

Oh, and Clarence – remember Clarence? Lily’s horrid younger brother who was hated by everyone but Clover, including his parents? – is apparently in Colorado. This will be important later.

Katy gets married, disappears with Ned, and spends six months gadding about various ports in his wake (incidentally, these six months take about a quarter of one chapter to describe. Seriously, a lot of passive-aggressive ignoring of Ned going on here). Then Ned is recalled to duty, so he brings Katy back home and leaves her with her family while he clears off to China for a year and a half. From this point on, Ned practically disappears from the narrative and is never seen in person again. My personal belief is that he died and was buried quietly at sea, and no-one liked to own up.

Goodbye, Ned.

Incidentally, when Katy gets back, she has stopped being plain. Remember how even Ned Nice-But-Dim Worthington told his sister that he didn’t find her beautiful, because “I’m not as far gone as all that”, just before he proposed to her? Well, now she is beautiful. “Better-looking than ever”, in fact. Incidental detail, but, you know, JUST SAYING.

Then Phil goes skating, gets wet and gets ill. And nearly dies. But doesn’t die. All in the space of one paragraph. Which makes this feel less like a real thing that really happened to real characters in a real story, and more like a plot device to allow the entire story to make a dramatic shift in direction, which is as follows. Phil’s weak chest means he has to be sent away somewhere with Good Air (okay, I’ll actually buy this. This genuinely was cutting-edge medical thinking at the time) so he can get better. After reading every quack pamphlet he can lay his hands on, Dr Carr decides that Phil will go to St Helen’s, in Colorado.

He can send me to Colorado any time. That sounded funnier in my head.

Hang on. Didn’t we read something about Colorado a few pages ago? Oh yes, Horrid Cousin Clarence is out there in Colorado already. Still, unless this Fan Fiction is going to be a Slashfic (my very favourite kind), which seems unlikely for the late nineteenth century, something tells me we won’t be seeing any –

Oh, no, no, no no nonononononononoNO! Apparently Phil can’t go out to Colorado on his own. Clover’s going with him. And that means – that means –

Oh please Father Christmas, don’t make Clover marry Horrid Cousin Clarence.

From this point on, the book begins to feel like it was actually written by the Colorado Marketing Board. Let me say at once that within about five chapters or so, I really, really wanted to go to Colorado, because it sounds beautiful. What I can’t quite get my head around, however, is why – after three hefty wedges of New-England gentility and ladylike manners – the books suddenly take this dramatic swerve into Pioneer Country. What’s this all about, then? Why have we suddenly departed from the canned oysters of Burnet and the cake-stands of Hillsover, and come out West to Cowboy Country? It’s almost as if it was written by somebody entirely different who just happened to enjoy the first few books but thought they could do something much more interesting with the characters, isn’t it? JUST SAYING.

The strapline of the Colorado Tourism Board is, "A world of scenic wonders awaits...in a land called COLORADO."

From the moment Phil and Clover set off aboard the Dayton’s private railroad car –

Incidentally, can I just point out that we have never met the Daytons before, and never will again? Which is seriously sloppy craftsmanship from Someone Who Might Or Might Not Be Susan Coolidge. If the Daytons had been replaced with the sentence “And then Dr Carr got heinously drunk one night and played a fantastically successful poker-game in which he managed to win a private railroad car, which he deployed to send Phil and Clover out to Colorado”, the book would make just as much sense. Literally the Dayton’s only function is to own a railroad car and take Phil and Clover to Colorado in it. This sentence has now been entirely taken over by its subordinate clause. Let’s start again, shall we?

From the moment Phil and Clover set off aboard the Dayton’s private railroad car, then, the entire book morphs into an extended love-in for the American West. The scenery is epic, the mountains are ace, the flowers are Heidi’s-mountain-meadow gorgeous, the people are charming, the air is elastic (no, I don’t know either). On the downside, we have to endure Mrs Watson. The simplest way to describe Mrs Watson is to say that Coolidge(???) has clearly just read “Emma” and taken a real shine to Miss Bates. However, she doesn’t have Austen’s immaculate ear for dialogue (indeed, who does?), which makes every scene with Mrs Watson in it very, very annoying. Why would one successful writer steal from another so blatantly? And why steal such a famous and instantly recognisable character? Unless maybe the person who wrote this book was already stealing from a famous and recognisable author, and thought that one more little theft wouldn’t make them any more morally bankrupt than they already were…just – you know – just saying…anyway…

I am aware of the irony.

Having settled into a boarding-house, made her room look nice by covering it with towels and fallen in love with Cheyenne Mountain (not a metaphor), Clover inevitably runs into Horrid Cousin Clarence, who has a cattle-ranch. Because, with the whole of the American West to choose from, it’s still practically inevitable that they will both end up living in the same small town in Colorado. Well, if Captain Kirk can be marooned on the exact right part of the giant frozen ice-world that happens to contain an aged out-of-time Mr Spock, I suppose I can let this one go.

Clarence has two partners in his cattle-ranch. Bert Talcott comes from New York, lives in New Mexico, and, in Clarence’s words “does not count”. (Brilliant.) Geoffrey Templestowe comes from “Devonshire” [sic] in England, and, presumably, does count. Guess where this story is going. (Hint: she doesn’t marry Clarence.)

We are then treated to a lot of Colorado propaganda. Clover walks the earth having adventures, being amazed by how much good stuff they have in the shops, being asked to nice social occasions and meeting people who tell her how splendid Colorado is in every possible way. Clover’s brainwashing clearly goes well, since she’s soon capable of inanities like these:

“It’s very superior, of course, to have rains; but then at the East we sometimes don’t have rain when we want it, and the grass gets dreadfully yellow.”

Um, yeah. Because a consistently low annual rainfall is nothing like as annoying as grass that goes a bit yellow sometimes.

Infinitely preferable to a sub-standard lawn.

Also, all the young men start falling for Clover and sending her flowers. Well, of course they do.

There is then a simply brilliant episode in which Clarence invites Clover and Phil up to stay with him and Geoffrey-from-Devonshire in their ranch-house. This feels weirdly like Clover and Geoff moving in together before getting married, only with less sex, more housework and an audience. Clover and her chaperone have a jolly good laugh at the pathetic men’s pathetic attempts at housekeeping (I especially like the floor strewn with Fox and Coyote skins), before taking over and doing it themselves. Or rather, Clover sweeps the floor and cooks the dinner and arranges flowers and makes soft furnishings, and Mrs Hope puts on pretty dresses and pours the coffee. There’s never any doubt about whose audition this actually is.

Geoff also had a Three Wolf Moon t-shirt.

Finally we get to the proposals. Clarence goes first, and is turned down. (Thank God. He’s an idiot.) Next, it’s Christmas, and Geoffrey-from-Devonshire sends Clover a wagon-load of wood as a Christmas present, which Clover is delighted by. Well, I suppose it’s better than an ironing-board. Thurber Wade – who I haven’t mentioned before because it’s an entirely correct reflection of how much he’s featured in the book up until now – proposes off-screen, is turned down, and leaves the area without ever breaking his record of No Direct Speech Whatsoever. Clover, displaying a worrying lack of self-knowledge, mopes around the house wondering why she is so sad to be leaving Colorado when she should be thrilled. After all, as the oldest unmarried daughter, she will soon go back home and become her family’s latest resident domestic slave for ever and ever and ever, hoorah!

Then, on the last day before she leaves, Geoffrey-from-Devonshire rides in to the rescue. He asks Clover to marry him, because she makes excellent soft furnishings and knows how to arrange Mariposa lilies in vases. Also, he loves her. But the soft furnishings and the Mariposa lilies also seem pretty important to him. Clover is going to live in Colorado, hooray! Like there was ever any doubt. Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth from her family at the loss of another domestic slave daughter to the vile institution of marriage. (Seriously, Dr Carr, if it bothers you that much you could have helped them get educated for a career or something, right?) The end.

But no, I hear you cry! This can’t be the end! There are so many unresolved questions! Who will Elsie marry? Who will Clarence marry? Who will John marry? Who will Dorry marry? Will Dr Carr ever retire and where will he live? Was Lily’s marriage a success? What did Geoffrey’s family back in England think of Clover? Will we ever see Ned Worthington alive again?

Okay, clearly I can’t hear you cry that, because nobody sane would be interested. Nonetheless, there are answers. The sequel, “In the High Valley” covers all this and more, and is even more like Fan Fiction than its predecessor. However, I’ve already gone on for far too long about this, so in order to avoid everyone here losing the will to live, I’ll just answer the two questions that genuinely are important. One, is this book worth reading? and Two, is it or is it not the work of Mary Chauncey Woolsey, p.k.a. Susan Coolidge?

Can not take me to Colorado any time.

Oh, you know what? I know perfectly well that the question of who wrote it it doesn’t matter really. It was a long time ago, and I’m probably the only person who cares any more. I might have discovered some sort of discreet publishing fraud (although since “Susan Coolidge” was a pseudonym, I suppose even that’s open to question); or I might just have noticed that sometimes, we forget the exact details of stuff we wrote between four and sixteen years before.

Onto the last question; is it worth your time reading it? Here’s a little test.

1. Do you know the rules to the game “Kikeri”?
2. In your teenage years, did you ever secretly fantasise about achieving domestic sainthood after a severe and disabling accident?
3. Did you ever beg your mother to make you Beef Tea?
4. Can you recite the words to any of the poems in the “Katy” books from memory?
5. Have you got a Kindle?

If the answer to three or more of these questions is yes, then congratulations! You, like me, are a closet What Katy did Superfan, and are highly likely to enjoy this literary curiosity.

“Clover” is available from Amazon as a free Kindle download. If you haven’t yet sold your soul to The Man (but do have an e-reader of some description) you can also get it from Project Gutenberg. This is probably much better for your Karma, and will help preserve the world from total cultural domination by Amazon thanks to idiot Kindle-owners like me.

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1. Because their staff are caring and dedicated
2. Because their facilities are superb
3. Because they’re conveniently located
4. ….nope, I’m out. Anyone else want to have a go?

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In the car are Becky, Ben and me. We are playing a seemingly endless game of “What Animal Am I?”

BECKY: Are you a mammal?
ME: Yes.
BEN: Are you friendly?
ME: Reasonably friendly, yes.
BECKY: Do you live in this country?
ME: Yes.
BEN: Do you live in a zoo?
ME: Not usually, no.

BECKY: Are you furry?
ME: Erm, maybe more hairy than furry, but definitely sort of furry, yes.
BEN: Are you bigger than Matey the dog?
ME: Yes.
BECKY: Are you some sort of farm animal?
ME: Good question! – Yes, I’m some sort of farm animal.

BEN: Do you make something that humans can use?
ME (convinced we’re on the home straight now): Yes! Yes!

(long silence)

BECKY: Are you…are you a Meerkat?

ME: Erm, no. Meerkats only live in zoos.
BEN: Are you…an Armadillo?
ME: No, Armadillos only live in zoos too!

BECKY: Can we have a clue?
ME: Really? Oh, for God’s sake – okay then…mmmmmoooOOOOOooooo.
BEN: (excited gasp) Zombie!!!

I don’t know why Ben thought something that’s mammalian, furry, lives on a farm, makes something humans can use and is larger than our childminder’s black labrador is more like a Zombie than it is like a Cow.

But it’s good to see he’s prepared for the worst.

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Thanks to a sustained century-long effort at making the absolute most of one scene in “Dracula”, Whitby has firmly established itself as the Horror-themed East-coast seaside destination of choice. Like most seaside towns in the region, it also likes to cultivate a wistful aura of post-Victorian shabbiness, which is permanently on the cusp of tipping over into plain old urban decay.

Maybe that’s the explanation for this anthropomorphic chip-cone:

See how it leers and chomps maniacally on one single, solitary chip seemingly plucked from its own head, gamely trying to pretend everything will be wonderful if you only purchase deep-fried potato fingers from this establishment. One eyelid droops like a stroke victim’s; one damaged thumb is held jauntily aloft in a desperate attempt at jollity. It’s like the eyes of Dr T J Eckleburg, only without the divine symbolism, and also more horrible.

The accompanying large woman in the purple coat was pure serendipity. But it’s her expression of hostile resignation that really makes this picture for me, I think.

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My short story “Edin-Burrow” has just been published online by the fantastic literary magazine, “The View From Here”. Hooray!

“Edin-Burrow” evolved from an extended version of a game of Consequences with a very dear friend in America. At the time, I was mostly interested in learning to speak American as part of the “New World Fairy Tales” project, and he just wanted to write cheerful Kick-Ass-type nonsense with a friend. So we took it in turns to write episodes of a ridiculous comic-fantasy story that began in the wall of the hero’s house and ended up in a pitched battle involving vampires and massive birds (that’s birds as in “really big avian creatures”, not “large British females”). Unsurprisingly, as of the time of writing this piece of magnificence remains unpublished.

As I recall, we spent most of this story just massively showing off to each other, deliberately leaving impossible cliff-hangers that the other one then had to resolve, implying an increasingly complicated and often contradictory back-story for the hero and introducing ever more outrageously stupid characters.

And then, about halfway through, I suddenly had one of those inexplicable moments where somebody else leans over your shoulder, takes hold of the end of your pen and forces you to write something entirely different. For no reason I could ever get to the bottom of, our smiling-idiot hero turned to camera and poured out a dark, tortured story about the time in his life he was most ashamed of.

It had so very little to do with anything else in the story that I nearly didn’t send it, but in the end I just wrote, “Erm, don’t know where this came from but, erm, here it is. I think there might be something wrong with me, actually” and pressed ‘send’.

The response was kind and lovely*, and encouraged me to work Jack’s unexpected sidetrack into a finished short piece. I decided to make him a stand-up comic because I’m fascinated by the disturbingly close connection between stand-up comedy and personal trauma. I once saw an interview with Sarah Millican where she said she became a comic after her personal therapist said to her at the end of a session, “You do know this is actually a stand-up comedy routine, right?” I’m very, very glad Millican has taken up comedy as a profession, because she’s brilliant. On the other hand, I can’t imagine how it must feel to know that even your therapist is laughing at the traumatic ending of your marriage. That uncomfortable tension between comedy and confession felt like exactly the right kind of space for Jack to share his story.

One of the things I love about “The View From Here” is that they illustrate the fiction they publish. Like most writers, there’s nothing I love more than knowing that someone out there understands what I was trying to do. Having a stranger quietly choose exactly the right images to highlight the key moments of your story is an incredible feeling.

So, yeah; that’s “Edin-Burrow”. I’d love to know what you think of it. As far as I can tell there isn’t a feedback mechanic on “The View From Here”, but if you’ve got any thoughts you’d like to share, please feel free to leave a comment on here instead. And do check out the rest of their published pieces as well. I’m in some fantastic company.

*Like his response isn’t engraved on my memory. What he actually said was, “Holy shit, you are a genius and I am not worthy”. Clearly not true. But that’s the kind of feedback that stays with you.

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It’s a strange and lovely fact that “Regency Steampunk Monster Mash-up” is now an official genre

When was the last time you actually, properly LOLed? Like the word “literally” in the hands of footballers, the phrase “laughed out loud” has become a debased metaphor for mild amusement. Lots of things make me smile. Few things make me actually laugh out loud. And virtually nothing will make me laugh out loud, in an airport, at six o’clock in the morning, on the Oilman flight going up to Aberdeen, where absolutely every other passenger on the flight is a man who clearly thinks I don’t belong there, and when one of them has just loudly expressed the opinion that “women should know their place”*.

“Mrs Darcy vs The Aliens”, however, made me laugh so loudly that everyone else in the terminal, even Neanderthal Man, stopped what they were doing for a moment to stare at me. This is not some sort of internet I-spat-coffee-over-my-keyboard exaggeration; it really, genuinely happened. This book is brilliantly, exuberantly funny, and at the risk of spoiling it utterly by giving you the heads-up on all the best bits, I shall now try and explain why.

Onto the plot. The story begins a couple of years after the close of “Pride and Prejudice”. While Elizabeth and Darcy make tentative plans for the conception of the future heir of Pemberley (the wearing of a wet shirt is given pleasing prominence), Mr Wickham pursues the lonely path of the misunderstood Alien Investigator. His wife Lydia is missing, presumed Probed, and dreadful things are happening to the ladies of negotiable virtue in Whitechapel. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s marriage to Mr Collins is on the rocks, Jane and Bingley are blithely fulfilling Mr Bennett’s darkest predictions for their financial future and Lady Catherine de Bourgh is acting even more strangely than usual…

Having read, and been thoroughly disappointed by, the inaugural book in the genre “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (hereafter “P&P&Z”), it was an absolute delight to read “Mrs Darcy vs The Aliens”. While “P&P&Z” just charmlessly gloms the conventions of the Zombie genre onto Austen’s original text, “Mrs Darcy vs the Aliens” picks up where the original book leaves off, adds an outrageous premise and creates something that’s fresh and funny, flowing effortlessly from the original story. The original characters are still precisely themelves, but because they’re in a totally new (and utterly ridiculous) situation, we see new and delightful aspects of their personalities.

Elizabeth is a delight – tough-minded, determined and clever, dealing with everything life and the aliens throw at her with aplomb. Mr Darcy is considerably less smouldering and masterful, and a lot more amnesiac and silly, than he is in the more traditional Austen sequels such as “Mr Darcy Takes A Wife”** (possibly because most Austen sequels are written by women with a crush on Colin Firth). But personally, I think it makes a marvellous change to see Mr Darcy being laughed at a little bit. Elizabeth got away with it, after all.

I was initially sceptical about the foregrounding of Wickham versus Darcy, just because Wickham is such an utter bastard in the original novel – but Pinnock’s re-imagining is so utterly god-damned charming that it’s impossible to resist. How could anyone not be won over by a misunderstood hero who nobly allows his reputation to be trampled in pursuit of the Alien Menace? By about, oh, page fifteen, maybe? – I had completely revised my original Wickham-is-irredeemable position and begun secretly hoping that the simmering sexual tension between him and Elizabeth might go somewhere. (It doesn’t, by the way. But hey, I can wait. A novel this good has got to have a sequel.)

The minor characters are treated in a similarly brilliant fashion. The Bingleys (as predicted by Mr Bennett at the end of P&P) are idioting their way into financial ruin; their descent into bankruptcy is outlined off-stage, in Jane’s correspondence with Lizzy. Charlotte Collins has been taking laudanum to distract herself from having to shag her husband on a regular basis (her conversation with Lizzy on this subject was one of the many moments that made me laugh like a hyena). Mr Collins, suckup arselicker that he is, is working on behalf of the aliens in the hope that they will shower him with largesse when they take over the earth. I can’t tell you exactly what Lydia or Lady Catherine de Bourgh are up to, but trust me, it’s perfect. Also: Lord Byron. He’s in it. And it’s glorious.

The book is crammed with hilarious cameos plucked from the British cultural landscape. I don’t know how accessible these are to anyone who didn’t spend their formative years endlessly repeating “Ooh! Ooh! Suits you, sir!”, or who doesn’t know the correct arm-movements for “Prince Charming”. But if you (like me) can remember the music of the eighties, and have seen all of the Bond movies, and still think Fox Mulder is hotter than hot even though he’s an utter loon, and know Andrew Davies’ P&P screenplay inside out, and watched the collapse of key North-of-England-based financial institutions with incredulous horror, and love steam-punk and Romantic poets, and think Glastonbury town is the funniest place on the planet, and spent entire days at university where nobody said anything that someone on “The Fast Show” hadn’t said first, then you need to be prepared to actually, properly cry with laughter.

(Even if you don’t have all these cultural milestones in place, don’t be put off – you’ll probably still love it, because it’s extremely well-written. But if you’re a late-born British Generation-X-er, it’ll be right in your comic sweet-spot.)

“Mrs Darcy” was originally written as an online episodic novel, and – like many episodic novels (I’m looking at you, Mr Thackeray) – there are times when the plot loses direction a little. But in general, the pacing is rapid and fluent enough to maintain a kind of joyous, free-wheeling momentum. All the essential elements of the steampunk genre are there. We’re taken to Whitechapel. We get a trip in a dirigible. We visit a British spa-town. We get velvet frock-coats and clunky gadgets that don’t quite work and scientists with silly hair. Unlike the infuriating smugness of P&P&Z – “Hey, look guys! Here’s our big set-piece zombie over-run!” – each episode is well-crafted and handled with huge aplomb.

Pinnock also finds a lovely and believable balance between the fantastic and the mundane. As well as worrying about the big stuff (aliens, missing family members, gruesome murders) the inhabitants of “Mrs Darcy vs the Aliens” also find time to worry about the little things (whether they’re getting gruel or porridge for supper, whether their frock is suitable for the occasion, the local conditions on Mars). Faced with the almost incomprehensible fact of invading aliens passing for human, Pinnock’s characters sigh, take a deep breath and soldier valiantly on, gamely making the best of a ridiculous situation, and never losing sight of the minutiae that collectively add up to the truly important things in life. In capturing this, Pinnock reminds me of no-one so much as Terry Pratchett – that wise chronicler of what it means to be human, even if you’re made of rock, Undead or spend every full moon raiding local chicken houses.

This book is one of those you desperately want to share with your friends so you can talk about it in the pub. It’s the kind of book that you want everyone to memorise little bits of, so you can trade snippets of dialogue between yourselves and laugh until you’re sick and / or until everyone around you demands that you stop it or leave. Plus, it has the very bestest tag-line ever; “The truth is out there, but has not yet been universally acknowledged.”

I never thought I would have occasion to use the phrase “The Regency Steam-Punk Monster Mash-Up Novel has finally come of age”, but wouldn’t life be boring if you never found yourself doing something unexpected? The Regency Steam-Punk Monster Mash-Up novel has finally come of age. “Mrs Darcy vs the Aliens” is brilliant.

All it needs now is a sequel.

“Mrs Darcy vs the Aliens” is available from Amazon as both a Kindle edition and a real live book. But why not do your bit to ensure a vibrant future for independent publishing and buy it directly from Salt’s website instead?

But whatever you do, don’t buy “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”. It’s really not worth it.

* This is really true. I wish it wasn’t, but it was. I also wish I had challenged him on it with an incredibly well-argued piece of feminist polemic. But I didn’t. Sorry.

**I really have read quite a lot of Austen follow-ups, haven’t I? Damn. Would it be really insecure to state for the record that I have a Master’s degree in English Literature and my dissertation was on the works of Jane Austen? Because, um, I do. And it was.

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Does anyone else think the team at DFS are just a little bit too into this?

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