The Great Unknown authors: Deborah Biancotti

The Great Unknown w blurbs small imageThis is the eleventh post published in conjunction with the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology. The Great Unknown is available from BooktopiaReadingsAvid ReaderFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Deborah Biancotti is a regular on genre fiction award lists, writing across a range of urban fantasy, horror, science fiction and steampunk. Her books include Bad Power and A Book of Endings. Today she answers some questions about writing ‘See-Saw’ for The Great Unknown.

What did you enjoy/find challenging about writing to this particular theme?

dbiancotti_v0202 201108 (2)I love unexplained stuff. Weird stuff, stuff that happens that doesn’t have any kind of logical explanation. I always wanted spontaneous combustion to be real, you know? Also reincarnation. And ghosts, I’d like ghosts to be real. Though not at my place, and not after dark. All those creepy photos of ghosts you see, right before they’re debunked by experts – I love those.

I like to think that the walls of reality could just fall the hell apart and we’ll be left with chaos. Something that would blow our minds into tiny, tiny pieces. And then I want to think that the ones who survive the end of reality will be the people like me, who’ve been reading and writing and living the weird since we were kids.

But, writing something that was inexplicable without being alienating, that was hard. Trying to fashion a world that felt coherent and yet pliable, trying to fit in events that were strange but convincing, trying to hold it all together, that turned my brain into a pretzel. This is where the writer relies on the smarts of the editor to help her fashion just the right balance to intrigue a reader without just, y’know, being annoying about it.

Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.

For some reason I went with a kind of French influence. In my story, ‘See-Saw’, I built a crowded little city and one loveable rogue of a protagonist, and then I said to myself, ‘well, what would be weird in this world? And what would be awesome?’ And I built something that was weird and awesome for my cigarette-smoking, lazy liar of a protag. I hope she enjoys it.

After all, there’s no telling if it will last.

What memories do you have of watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or of reading spooky/uncanny stories (or comics) as a kid? 

Some of those stories really stuck in my mind. Like the guy who sees the demon on the wing of the plane. And the guy who is challenged by the Devil while he’s trying to solve a maths problem. And the guy for whom all language falls apart when everyone around him starts to use the word ‘dinosaur’ when they mean ‘lunch’. Those weird, challenging ideas rolled around and around in my head for decades.

And then, oh man, there were the Creepshow movies. A part of my brain is still dedicated to memorising lines like ‘Thanks for the ride, lady!’

Despite her success as a writer of quality macabre and psychological thrillers, Patricia Highsmith was, to her great disappointment, never published in The New Yorker. Has anything changed? What thoughts do you have on the current status of writing genre fiction?

Patricia Highsmith was a consummate writer of believable, psychological horror. I hate to think she was disappointed by anything. Has anything changed? I think the states of reading and writing change so much, so often, that by the time I could fashion any kind of summary statement about it, the world will have turned upside-down and none of what I have to say will be relevant any longer.

Which is just the way I like it.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Chris FlynnHelen RichardsonA.S. PatricMarion HalliganGuy SalvidgeKathy CharlesAli AlizadehRyan O’NeillCarmel BirdRhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

The Great Unknown authors: Chris Flynn

The Great Unknown w blurbs small imageThis is the tenth post published in conjunction with the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology. The Great Unknown is available from BooktopiaReadingsAvid ReaderFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Chris Flynn is the author of A Tiger in Eden, and his second novel, The Glass Kingdom, will be out later this year. Here Flynn tells us about the impact the 1983 Twilight Zone film had on him, and introduces us to his story ‘Sealer’s Cove’.

chrisflynn_72 (2)Re-runs of The Twilight Zone played on late-night TV in Ireland and I watched them assiduously as a boy (my dad taped them for me) but one of my strongest memories of the show came with the release of the ill-fated 1983 film version. Remaking three classic episodes, the movie is a mixed bag. Spielberg’s version of episode ‘Kick the Can’ is overly sentimental and Joe Dante’s take on ‘It’s a Good Life’ is fairly nutty, but Aussie George Miller does a great job of remaking ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’, with John Lithgow in the role of the paranoid airline passenger who thinks he sees a creature fiddling with an engine during a storm. William Shatner memorably played the part in the original episode, one of the show’s best.

John Landis directed the opening and closing segments of the film, and the first segment, ‘Time Out’, is based fairly loosely upon the 1961 episode, ‘A Quality of Mercy’. In the Landis version, a drunk, racist businessmen played by Hollywood veteran Vic Morrow rails against three different minority groups. Upon leaving the bar he is somehow thrown back in time and subsequently mistaken for the people he bemoans. In a sort of moral lesson against the dangers of prejudice, Morrow undergoes persecution by the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and American GI’s during the Vietnam War. He ends up in a train en route to a concentration camp, paying the ultimate price for his folly.

It’s an interesting idea, if a little heavy-handed. The segment and the overall reputation of the film as a whole were forever mythologized because Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen were killed during the final moments of filming when a helicopter crashed directly onto them. Morrow and seven year-old Myca were both decapitated by the rotor blades. The investigation into their deaths understandably overshadowed the film, and tainted the brand for many years to come. It marked me as a child because it seemed impossible that a leading man could be killed during the making of a movie. I don’t know that it has ever happened since.

Whilst my story ‘Sealer’s Cove’ is more light-hearted, the conceit of a man turning a corner and finding himself abruptly transported into the past is a nod to ‘Time Out’, a poignant thirty minutes of film that is terribly sad to watch. ‘Sealer’s Cove’ takes place in the middle of the night on a beach in Victoria’s Wilson’s Promontory, and like many works of fiction, contains elements based on real events. The parts that did not happen to me should be fairly obvious, although maybe not. We are, after all, treading the middle ground between light and shadow in this collection and entering a dimension of sight, of sound, and of the imagination, a frightening place that sometimes has no exit.

‘Sealer’s Cove’ is dedicated to Myca Dinh Le, Renee Shin-Yi Chen and Vic Morrow.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Helen RichardsonA.S. PatricMarion HalliganGuy SalvidgeKathy CharlesAli AlizadehRyan O’NeillCarmel BirdRhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

The Great Unknown authors: Helen Richardson

The Great Unknown w blurbs small imageThis is the ninth post published in conjunction with the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology. The Great Unknown is available from BooktopiaReadingsAvid ReaderFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Helen Richardson is a writer and editor who lives in the Blue Mountains. She was a finalist in the Carmel Bird Short Fiction competition. Her story, ‘Navigating’ is about a wayward sat nav that leads a family into unexpected territory… 

Helen_Richardson_pic (2)What did you enjoy/find challenging about writing to this particular theme?

I find it liberating to leave the restraints of the ‘real’ behind. It’s fun to play with an idea, twist it, and see where it goes.

Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.

My story, ‘Navigating’ is about a sat nav gone wrong. A while ago there was a plethora of stories in the media about cars being directed into rivers, or through ‘no entry’ signs etc. I took this idea and then thought, what if this wasn’t random; what if there was a ghost in the machine?

What memories do you have of watching shows like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits as a kid? Did these play any role in your developing imagination? Which films, TV shows, books etc provide that same sort of allure for you these days?

I was very young when The Twilight Zone was on but I remember being unsettled by it while later on it was viewed more ironically. But this show, and others such as The Invaders, The Prisoner and The Avengers instilled in me a lifelong love of speculative and supernatural fiction. Nowadays there’s a lot of this around for young readers in the form of vampires, angels and demons etc. but I can’t help thinking a lot of this is romance dressed up in the paranormal. There are some wonderful authors, though: Suzanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell—incredible!), Neil Gaiman, Susan Hill, Alice Hoffman, Sarah Waters’ masterpiece of ghost writing The Little Stranger and a lovely book of short fiction Women and Ghosts by Alison Lurie.

What are your thoughts on the current status of genre fiction?

There is such a dearth of outlets in this country for short fiction in general, and genre short fiction, in particular. I think short, short literary fiction of the slice-of-life variety, is the only kind a reader is likely to encounter, possibly because literary magazines have continued to publish it (good on them but a tiny market) and because independent anthologies can still get financial support to publish ‘literary’ works. This is a pity because public transport commutes, new mobile technology, and today’s time squeeze, provides a space where the quick-grab of the genre story would absorb the reader perfectly for half an hour, or an hour.

As for recognition in mainstream outlets, genre has always been the poor cousin and where it is noticed, it is to lampoon the most egregious successes (Dan Brown, EL James) or because a ‘serious’ writer has crossed over—Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy.

Crime has managed to force itself into the literary pages but speculative, horror etc. is routinely ignored.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by A.S. PatricMarion HalliganGuy SalvidgeKathy CharlesAli AlizadehRyan O’NeillCarmel BirdRhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

The Great Unknown authors: A.S. Patric

The Great Unknown w blurbs small imageThis is the eighth post published in conjunction with the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology. The Great Unknown is available from BooktopiaReadingsAvid ReaderFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

A.S. Patrics excellent third book, Bruno Kramzer, was released by Finlay Lloyd last September. He is also the author of the collections Las Vegas for Vegans (Transit Lounge) and The Rattler & Other Stories (Spineless Wonders). Here he tells us about his dark and powerful story ‘Memories of Jane Doe’.

A.S. Patric (2)What did you enjoy/find challenging about writing to this particular brief or theme?

There’s a notion of separate categories, of the naturalistic and the fantastic, but I can’t slot ideas in that way when I’m working. An idea emerges before or even after you begin writing, but whenever it strikes your imagination alight, all you want to do (carefully, desperately) is kindle that illuminating energy. Trying to control how strange or realistic the emerging piece is, would kill it. I was just happy that my story ‘Memories of Jane Doe’ came along when it did and that it was welcomed into The Great Unknown.

Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.

I had a creative writing teacher who had spent years in jail. He told a story about battery hens which might have been more reflective of his prison experience than a actual phenomenon. This is the way he told his anecdote/fable: Battery hens are raised in a hectic, compressed world that gets worse as they grow. A relentless, ruthless trajectory from birth to death, but along the way they’re prone to a particular kind of murderous frenzy. A chicken within the cage can get nicked and display a spot of blood. The other birds in the cage see the spot of blood and begin to violently peck at it, until the chicken is dead. Other chickens get spots of blood and the process continues until the whole cage is filled with dead or dying birds. My story is about three people who all die because they don’t see that they are living within a similar cage/cell.

What memories do you have of watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or of reading spooky/uncanny stories as a kid? Did these play any role in your developing imagination? Which films, TV shows, books etc provide that same sort of allure for you these days?

There were a few episodes of The Twilight Zone that fired through my imagination so deeply that, even now, decades later, I find story shards rising up again to reflect on a particular thought or feeling. The best of these kinds of stories can function as a personal, elemental myth. Beyond that, it was being a kid, sitting on the carpet and as close to the television as possible, watching the opening credits of The Twilight Zone. In the next moment anything, literally anything might happen. That break from the mundane sequence of our daily lives is still what most people look for in books, films, shows, etc. A place where it is neither day nor night, where dreams enter the mind even though you are not sleeping. Writers that have that allure for me these days are Stephen Millhauser, Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Robert Walser, Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Edgar Allan Poe, Gerald Murnane, Ursula Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr, Etgar Keret, and I could go on.

Despite her success as a writer of quality macabre and psychological thrillers, Patricia Highsmith was, to her great disappointment, never published in The New Yorker. Has anything changed? What thoughts do you have on the current status of writing in this genre?

If you’re speaking specifically about The New Yorker then, yes, I think there have been some changes. Among other exciting writers, they publish George Saunders regularly, and his stories are often speculative fiction. ‘Escape from Spiderhead’ is an example. In fact, it’s a masterpiece very much in the vein of the science fiction classic, Flowers for Algernon.

If you’re speaking more generally about the acceptance of the same story elements in literature, I’d say that mainstream literature is itself a genre. In Australia we are dominated by rural locations written in a naturalistic mode. Think of it as a restaurant franchise: the menu remains the same year after year and apparently it comforts the general patron to see the same faces managing our dining experience and the same names in the kitchen preparing the expected meals. There are exceptions and some allowances are made, but they go on the specials board. The era of franchise restaurants might soon end. It doesn’t really matter though—there are all kinds of places now to find more interesting culinary/literary options for appetites bored by the usual fare.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Marion HalliganGuy SalvidgeKathy CharlesAli AlizadehRyan O’NeillCarmel BirdRhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

The Great Unknown authors: Marion Halligan

The Great Unknown w blurbs small imageThis is the seventh post published in conjunction with the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology, and give you an idea of what to expect (and, I hope, look forward to). The Great Unknown is available from BooktopiaReadings, Avid ReaderFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Marion Halligan is an award-winning Australian novelist and short story writer. Her books include Lovers’ Knots: A Hundred-Year NovelThe Golden Dress, The Fog Garden and Valley of Grace. Here she talks about writing her elegant story ‘Her Dress Was a Pale Glimmer’, about an unexpected dinner guest, for The Great Unknown.

Marion Halligan (2)I love writing short stories, and I enjoy fitting what I want to write to someone else’s brief. The idea of The Great Unknown was exciting, but I cannot say I have ever spent a lot of time reading or watching the supernatural. Though recently I had great fun with a collection of Montague James’ brilliant ghost stories, edited by Ruth Rendell. They had the charm for me of an unexplored genre. So when Angela asked me to submit a piece for this anthology I didn’t say yes straightaway but that I would think about it.

Then one morning, in that lovely half-waking half-sleeping time when one is so cosy not getting up out of bed, I had a dream. I didn’t remember it as well as I would have liked, but it gave me the story. I am not entirely sure what it is about, it is quite a mystery to me, which is a good thing because it will be mysterious to the reader too. That is the wonderful thing about a short story, it doesn’t need to be all worked out. I enjoyed writing from my narrator’s point of view, a young girl, intelligent certainly, but perhaps not knowing a lot, not being as sophisticated as she thinks she is. I couldn’t have written her story in the third person, and one of the other characters would have told quite a different tale. I liked the title too, it doesn’t give anything way, it’s a small statement of fact but it doesn’t actually mean much, though it is nicely poetic, ‘glimmer’ always is.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Guy SalvidgeKathy CharlesAli AlizadehRyan O’NeillCarmel BirdRhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

The Great Unknown authors: Guy Salvidge

The Great Unknown w blurbs small imageThis is the sixth post published in conjunction with the release of The Great Unknown this month, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology, and give you an idea of what to expect (and, I hope, look forward to). The Great Unknown is available to pre-order from BooktopiaReadingsFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Guy Salvidge’s speculative neo-noir story ‘A Void’ was shortlisted for the Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award. Salvidge’s latest novel is Yellowcake Summer and he has a great blog: Wrapped up in Books.

What did you enjoy/find challenging about writing to this particular theme?

guysalvidge (2)As soon as I saw the guidelines for this competition, I was determined to enter. I often struggle to write stories for specific themes, but this one appealed to me for a number of reasons. Short fiction competitions often have very stringent word limits of 3000 words or less, which is a stricture I often struggle with, but I (just) managed to cram what I wanted to cram into 4000 words here. While no aficionado of The Twilight Zone (see below), I am a longtime reader and writer of speculative and slipstream fiction and thus I was well within my comfort zone in writing for this theme. I also enjoy writing about Melbourne, a city I’ve visited many times but never lived in, and so I enjoyed deploying some of my favourite places in Melbourne in ‘A Void’.

Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.

‘A Void’ is the third in an ongoing series of stories featuring Tyler Bramble, an alcoholic and sometimes suicidal detective (or Seeker) living in a near future Melbourne. The first of these stories, ‘The Dying Rain’, was written at the request of Andrez Bergen, who was putting together a spin-off anthology set in the universe of his debut novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat. I ended up co-editing that anthology with Andrez, and the book, The Tobacco-Stained Sky, has recently been released by US publisher Another Sky Press. I enjoying writing ‘The Dying Rain’ so much that I wrote a second Tyler Bramble mystery, ‘Blue Swirls’, which appeared earlier this year in the first issue of Tincture Journal. Here, in Tyler’s third adventure, he must contend with the unintended side effects of the drug ‘Void’ and a frigid Melbourne day that starts poorly and goes downhill from there.

What memories do you have of watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or of reading spooky/uncanny stories (or comics) as a kid? Did these play any role in your developing imagination? Which films, TV shows, books etc provide that same sort of allure for you these days?

Confession time: I’ve never watched an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits! I didn’t let that dissuade me, however. As a (somewhat disturbed) child I used to watch The X-Files and the ‘true story’ show The Extraordinary that followed directly after. At that age (twelve or thirteen) I was obsessed with cheerful topics like nuclear fallout and the prophecies of Nostradamus. From the age of eighteen, I fell in love with the work of American SF writer Philip K. Dick, who charted territory in novels like Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch similar to that that I’ve explored in ‘A Void’. J. G. Ballard is another major influence. His stories, such as ‘The Voices of Time’, as well as novels like The Atrocity Exhibition and The Unlimited Dream Company, helped to expand my own mental horizons as both a reader and writer.

What thoughts do you have on the current status of genre fiction?

I do think that certain genres are considered more prestigious and highbrow than others. For most of my life I have been writing some mutant variant of science fiction that is a recognisable descendant of the works of writers like Dick and Ballard. I have realised lately, however, that science fiction novels are very much a niche market in today’s publishing landscape. In response to this, I have quite consciously decided to change genres (in my case to crime fiction) to potentially reach a larger audience. This is a pity, because while I do enjoy reading and writing crime (such as the novels of Raymond Chandler, Megan Abbott and Daniel Woodrell)  my first love is for fantastical fiction by writers like William S. Burroughs, John Crowley and Ursula Le Guin.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Kathy CharlesAli AlizadehRyan O’NeillCarmel BirdRhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

The Great Unknown authors: Kathy Charles

The Great Unknown w blurbs small imageThis is the fifth post published in conjunction with the release of The Great Unknown this month, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology, and give you an idea of what to expect (and, I hope, look forward to). The Great Unknown is available to pre-order from BooktopiaReadingsFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Kathy Charles captures the voice of a hard-done-by bloke perfectly in her eerie (and funny) story ‘Baby’s First Words’. Charles is the author of John Belushi is Dead (first published as Hollywood Ending). Today she shares with us the effect that one spooky show had on her imagination as a child…

Kathy_Charles (2)One early summer evening when I was around six years old, I was sitting on the seagrass matting of my bedroom floor, playing with my Barbie dolls and occasionally glancing up at the small black and white TV with the coat hanger antenna, when I became enraptured by the story playing out on the screen. Even at that young age I remember being chilled by it, as if even though the concepts were not entirely clear to me, the tone of what I was witnessing meant for me to be frightened, and boy, was I frightened. The story I saw on that small black and white TV screen was about a lady who was driving in a car across the American countryside, and every time she stopped for gas or turned an abrupt corner, she would see the same man hitchhiking at the side of the road, as if he were unconstrained by time and space. At the end of the episode the woman discovers (SPOILER ALERT) that she has in fact died in a car accident, and the man in an angel charged with taking her to heaven. It was, of course, a particularly harrowing episode of The Twilight Zone, and it still haunts me to this day. No matter how many times I see it, ‘The Hitch-hiker’ still has the ability to make my blood run cold. It was, I believe, one of my first introductions to the great unknown that is death, especially the inherent mystery of it. It was both devastating and exhilarating to watch, and I am certain that my first experience with The Twilight Zone, glimpsed as a child growing up in suburban Victoria, has influenced my writing ever since.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Ali AlizadehRyan O’NeillCarmel BirdRhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.