Tag Archives: fiction

The lure of the dark side

What is it we find so irresistible about dark and twisted fiction?

I’ve wondered sometimes whether it’s just me: often when I relay to my husband the plot of one of my favourite books, or try to convince him to watch a film that’s caught my eye, he can’t quite understand why I would want to immerse myself in such torment.

It’s not so much horror I like, and certainly not gore, but rather the depths and depravity of human emotion at its worst.

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Since I first read it when I was about seventeen, my favourite book has been Ian McEwan’s ‘A Child in Time’ – a harrowing account of the impact losing a child has on her parents. He is still the person I come back to as my favourite author, the person whose body of work I most aspire to, and it is the strong element of macabre I think that lures me in most effectively.

More generally I find myself drawn to tales of loss, of death, of suffering and abandonment. Stories which explore the evil that humanity is capable of, and expose parts of the soul that you would never wish to encounter in real life. And I find them fascinating rather than depressing. There is definitely something cathartic about them – a place to play out my deepest fears which I can put to bed again simply by closing the book.

My most recent novel definitely strays into this territory. An examination of the horrible ways people can treat each other, with an antagonist who brings together some of the worst traits I have come across in my experiences and those of others. It was a little harder to switch off from that – there were days (and nights) when his consciousness seeped into my own and left me feeling distinctly unsettled. But still I found myself compelled to tell his story.

The short stories that I have written are even more twisted. I’m sort of playing around with the idea of putting together a collection, and in trying to identify the common thread which binds them together there is no escaping the darkness at their core. Obsession, murder, man-eating hermit crabs, psychosis, self-amputation: putting them all side by side is making me wonder a little exactly what it is that’s going on in my head!

But it seems that I am not alone in feeling the pull of the dark side. When I alluded recently to a short story I was working that was possibly too dark to share I wasn’t intentionally building up intrigue, but it seems that just that thought was enough to make people want to read it. It’s still sat on my hard drive, waiting for an appropriate outing, but it’s kind of good to know that I’m not the only one who likes to immerse myself in these shadowy worlds.

I’ve been working on another story this week, one inspired by the awesome story of a woman in Exminster placing a Gumtree ad for someone to help her test her home-made time machine. I was struggling for a hook at first, and of course when it did begin to emerge it was from those shadows.

I guess there is just a part of me that is fascinated by the more sinister workings of the human mind, and how they play out in interactions with other people. The seeds of those workings must be lying somewhere in the recesses of my mind, but by germinating them in the realm of fiction I am satisfying that desire for darkness whilst being able to focus my real life on altogether more pleasant pursuits.

And I suppose that is one of the many reasons why fiction is so important! Who knows what would happen to the world if our imaginations did not have that safe place to explore their darkest fears…

 

Muddled Manuscript

Bird by bird

This week, I finally got round to writing some fiction. I’ve been in something of an involuntary hiatus recently, talking myself into a bit of a corner where I was not writing, not very happy about it, and seemingly incapable of wrestling back control.

And then something caught my eye, a book I’d bought back in September which from its title alone had given me the nudge I’d needed to get on with the edit of While I’m Alone. I’d been generally trying to resist reading, thinking that might be one of the things stopping me from getting any words of my own down on paper, but seeing as it didn’t seem to be working I thought I might as well dip in and see what else it had to offer.

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I reminded me of a couple of things that I think I’d forgotten. How not every piece of fiction I write needs to (nor should be) part of some bigger purpose – be it working on a novel, or producing something for the blog, or moving closer to publication. How it’s ok (even important) just to let the words flow at first, without worrying that they seem a bit rubbish. How planning (which I have tended to rely on so far) is not the be all and end all, and actually starting to write something without any detailed ideas about where it’s headed has the potential to be even more powerful.

On one level this got me thinking again about the novel that’s been waiting patiently for months for me to get on and write it. One of the things that’s been holding me back is feeling the need to have a concrete idea of plot and structure before I begin to write, rather than just the key scenes and characters that have set up home in my mind so far. But actually I think just getting started might be a better option.

Having said that, with my world still full to bursting at the moment I’m not quite feeling in the right headspace to immerse myself in a whole new novel. So instead I turned to another idea I had scribbled down in the middle of a night some months ago…

I initially thought that too might have had pretensions to be a novel. But actually I realised, for now at least, it would make a much better short story. And so I wrote it as that.

I’m not going to share it here – it’s too long, and quite possibly a bit too dark… But I’ve written it, felt once again the pleasure of words rushing through my fingertips to create characters and emotions and tension, and that’s what’s important.

 

Writing Bubble

The gift

Pencils

She sat on the sofa, knees drawn up to her chest and arms stretched out in front of them holding her masterpiece proudly. It looked so much like him. It wasn’t just the physical features, although her graphite lines perfectly moulded the contours of his stately nose, those deep, dancing eyes, the lips turned tantalisingly upwards at their ends in a constant almost-smile.

More than that, she’d captured something of his very essence. It would be easy to sympathise with those who were afraid that a photograph might steal something of their soul if you saw just how uncanny the resemblance of this drawing was to her love.

She sighed and placed it carefully down on the coffee table. He would be home soon, and she couldn’t wait to give him his present.

She padded through to the kitchen to pour herself a glass of wine, hearing the insistent buzz of her phone as she returned.

Birthday drinks with Rob. Back by eight I promise. Love you. 

A cloud of irritation enveloped her, and she immediately chastised herself for being so unreasonable. It was his birthday, right? If he wanted to go for drinks she could hardly stop him. Besides, it would be eight in just over an hour.

She settled back down on the sofa and flicked on the TV.

An hour passed, and then another. The wine had definitely begun to go to her head, dulling her senses though it did nothing to dampen her annoyance. She’d texted him twice now, but of course she’d had no reply.

He stared up at her from the heavy sheet of cartridge paper that held his likeness. It had been the most expensive she could find, a dream to work with. As she stared back at him she realised that something was not quite right. It was hard to put her finger on exactly what: a shadow on his cheekbone, or maybe the angle of the underlying structure itself.

She stood and retrieved her tin of pencils from the bookcase by the window, pausing for a moment to check that he was not about to surprise her. The street below was busy as it always was on a Thursday night, but of him there was no sign.

Even as she made the very first line on the paper she knew it was a mistake. She was way too drunk for this. Yet once she’d started she had no choice but to continue.

She began gently, evening out the opposite side of his face to conceal her error, then adding weight to the lines around his mouth and eyes. Her anger seeped through her fingers, into the lead of the pencil and onto the page. She was angry with him, both the real him and this edifice that would not stop looking at her. But more than that she was angry at herself – for being an idiot once again, for having too much trust in him and none at all in her own judgement.

The solidity of the paper was satisfying as she scrawled deeper and deeper into it. He became monstrous, a parody of himself on his darkest days. His almost-smile became a leer, his nose a beak, the inviting pools of his eyes turning into terrifying caverns of infinite darkness.

She stopped before she had obliterated his features completely, investing the last of her rage into a tightly cross-hatched canvas to amplify the horror of what she had done.

The lead of her pencil snapped, finally giving in, and it brought her back to herself, to their flat and his imminent arrival home. Her hands were shaking as she stood, and as a final gesture she toppled her half-empty wine glass, spilling its blood-red contents across the remains of his gift.

It was then that she heard his key in the lock. He staggered slightly as he opened the door, taking three deliberate steps into the room before closing it behind him.

“Sorry I’m late.”

She didn’t know what she could possibly say, so instead she said nothing.

He didn’t seem to notice, pausing to kiss her clumsily as he stumbled to the sofa. He picked up the ruined drawing that lay in front of him, squinted at it slightly, and broke into a smile.

“This is really good!”

“Are you taking the piss?”

She couldn’t be doing with this now. A row she could handle, but she didn’t have the patience for his insidious sarcasm.

“Seriously, I mean it. Can I take it to the gallery tomorrow?”

Her mouth twisted in on itself, the only outward sign of the scream that was threatening to explode her chest.

“Goodnight. Oh, and happy birthday.”

He was gone by the time she woke up the next day. She figured he must’ve slept on the sofa. The portrait was gone too, and in its place was a note.

Really sorry about last night. I’ll make it up to you I promise. Love you.

She was too hungover to be angry, and just felt really stupid. All that hard work, those hours and hours of meticulous draughtmanship, and for what?

She fired up the computer before heading into the kitchen to make a coffee. There were too many deadlines to be met today for her to be able to afford another minute mired in regret.

It was just after three when the email came in.

It was from the gallery where he worked, but not from him. She recognised the email address as one which had borne news of many a rejection when she’d submitted her drawings in the past. This time though the mood was rather different.

Original, they said. So fresh and exciting. A total departure from her previous work. They were sorry not to have identified it before but she clearly had a real talent, a gift. They would be honoured if she would consider selling this piece for inclusion in their collection.

She had to read it four or five times before the words began to make sense.

Maybe she could forgive him after all.

 

mumturnedmom
Nikki Young Writes

 

Writing dreams

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Many people would say that you shouldn’t, ever. That including dream sequences in a novel is mere inches away from the cardinal sin of closing a story with the immortal phrase ‘and then I woke up’. That it’s impossible to capture the ever-shifting intangibility of our dream worlds, and that in trying to do so we end up with writing that is at its best banal – as boring to the reader as when a friend tries to recount the reverie that had so entranced them in their sleep the night before.

If this is true then I have a problem. The entire plot of my novel revolves around the dreams of my protagonist. I didn’t even consider that this might be an issue before now: in the humdrum excitement of writing the first draft I just wanted to get it all down, to tell her story. But there’s no escaping that the middle of that draft lags, that something does not quite ring true, does not quite manage to keep the reader where I want them.

I’ve been able to push it to the back of my mind over the past week, but now my chapter a day has brought me to that crucial point where Grace has her first dream.

I had a bit of feedback to work with: the dreams were too long, too cheesy, too dialogue driven. Reading back over the chapter today I could see that was true. My style is usually quite sparse, but in my desire to thrust the reader deep inside Grace’s experience I had over-written it. I was making the same point twice, maybe three times. I was spelling out the steps of her journey in a way that was far removed from the abstract, impression-driven world that dreams more normally inhabit.

So there were some clear areas to cut. It was quite satisfying, actually – realising that I could convey what I needed to in drastically fewer words than I had previously thought. I did leave some of the detail, more than would normally remain when recalling a dream of one’s own in the cold light of day. Because this dream isn’t a memory – it’s happening to her in the present.

This might be part of the problem when it comes to writing about dreams. Very few of us, if any, will ever have the experience of being truly present in our dreams. I think I’ve come close a handful of times – that realisation that I’m dreaming, an awareness that imprints the experience more solidly in my conscious mind. But dreams more often come to us in fragments, bubbling up from the subconscious and slipping through our fingers before we’ve had the chance to really remember.

It was the desire to make this distinction, between a dream happening now and one remembered, that led to the other major change I made. Whilst most of my novel is written in the past tense, I transposed the dream to the present. It’s still in the third person, but I think it feels more immediate – whilst also managing to convey an otherworldliness and uncertainty that seems to fit.

I’m not 100% sure it works, but I’m going to go with it for now. I think it becomes more challenging to hold the reader’s attention with the dream sequences as the novel goes on, so this is very much only the beginning…

I’d love to hear your thoughts on writing dreams. Have you ever tried incorporating dreams into your fiction? How do you think the dream world can best be conjured up in words? Are there any good examples of dreams in literature that you think I should read? It’s not that I’m afraid of breaking the rules – but if I do then it most definitely needs to be convincing.

 

Writing Bubble

 

My Fictional World

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It’s been hard to find the time to read since Arthur came along. As an English teacher my working life was filled with books, and that was always one of my favourite parts of the job. Now that I’m a writer, reading’s taken on a whole new significance: analysing how other writers use language, create characters and weave whole worlds on the page, borrowing ideas – and seeing what doesn’t work so well too. But there are still few things I like better than to lose myself in a good book, and the middle of the night will often find me sandwiched between a sleeping husband and baby, book in hand, snatching a few precious minutes to myself.

Thanks to Jocelyn at The Reading Residence‘s Q & A meme I have the perfect opportunity to share some thoughts about myself as a reader – not just of picture books, but of real, full length novels! 

What were your favourite reads from your childhood?

There was one particular book that fascinated me called La Corona and the Tin Frog, a collection of strange and magical stories by Russell Hoban and Nicola Bayley. I also loved Enid Blyton as a child – I was slightly obsessed with anything to do with fairies, and especially loved The Magic Faraway Tree, though I enjoyed her adventure books too. I also read everything written by Roald Dahl, who spent some of his childhood near to my grandparents’ home in Radyr and was most definitely a genius. I think The BFG was probably my favourite book of his, though Matilda would be a very close second.

There are always those books that defined your teen reads and stay with you – what were yours?

I had fairly eclectic tastes as a teen. I loved freaking myself out with horror, especially Stephen King. I also enjoyed John Grisham’s novels which convinced me at the time that I wanted to be a lawyer. And then there was Judy Blume, who furnished me with a significant amount of my sex education – I remember Forever making a particular impression on me.

Who are your favourite authors currently?

There are quite a few… Ian McEwan, Iain Banks, Will Self, Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, Neil Gaiman, Maggie O’Farrell, Esther Freud, Monica Ali and Kazuo Ishiguro would probably be my top ten!

Which 3 genres do you gravitate towards most often?

I love the escapism of magic realism and science fiction, especially dystopias – the sense that literally anything can happen, and the way in which a world a million miles away can tell us so much about our own. I also enjoy contemporary realist fiction, both books set in the UK that hold a mirror up to our society and those by foreign authors which give me an insight into cultures I know little about.

Can you choose your top titles from each of those genres?

Hmmm… Narrowing down favourite books is really rather tricky! In terms of magic realism, I love Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, an epic and engrossing tale told against the backdrop of the birth of modern India. Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, whose protagonist’s emotions infuse the food she makes, is also captivating. For dystopian science fiction, I found Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, with its dark secrets hiding behind a boarding school’s doors, totally compelling. And then there’s Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with its devastating representation of the place of women on society. And when it comes to realism the book I most recently read was fantastic – Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave with its beautifully drawn portrait of a family in crisis. I also love Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, a fascinating and moving story of life in Afghanistan.

And your least favourite genres?

I’m not sure I have any ‘least favourites’. I’ll read anything given half the chance!

Of the many, many fictional and fantastical worlds, where would you most like to visit?

I’d love to hang out with any number of Murakami’s protagonists in Japan. I always find myself craving sushi and Sapporo beer after reading his books. I’d also be intrigued to visit the mythical land of Gaiman’s American Gods.  I like the idea of mythological beings existing alongside humans in the modern world – though I’d have to be careful not to get on the wrong side of them!

Everyone loves a villain, right?! Who would make your favourites list?

I really love to hate the Magisterium and The Authority in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I think he has important things to say about the darker sides of religion and society’s desire to constrain children to its will, and the characters he creates to embody his views are compellingly corrupt and cruel.

Share the books that have had you sobbing?

One of my favourite books ever is Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time, about a man struggling to cope after the loss of his daughter. I’ve read it more times than I can remember and it never fails to have me in tears.

And let’s end on a high! Which books leave a smile on your face, and maybe elicit a few laughs?!

Pretty much anything by Jonathan Coe – I especially liked A Touch of Love. I also remember laughing quite a lot at Will Self’s How the Dead Live, but he does have a very particular sense of humour…

I think that just about covers it – there are many more books on my shelves that haven’t quite made it into my answers here, but the ones I’ve picked should definitely give you a taste of my fictional world.

The Reading Residence
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