Uncertainties II: Foreword

by Brian J. Showers, August 2016

grande_uncertainties1Uncertainties is an anthology of new writing — featuring contributions from Irish, British, and American authors — each exploring the idea of increasingly fragmented senses of reality. These types of short stories were termed “strange tales” by Robert Aickman, called “tales of the unexpected” by Roald Dahl, and known to Shakespeare’s ill-fated Prince Mamillius as “winter’s tales”. But these are no mere ghost stories. These tales of the uncanny grapple with existential epiphanies of the modern day, and when otherwise familiar landscapes become sinister and something decidedly less than certain . . .


We think we know the world we live in, but we don’t — we very much don’t — and stories of the supernatural and strange, of the weird and the uncanny serve as a reminder of that.

Let’s talk about uncertainties.

Many years ago, before I moved to Dublin, I lived in one of those turn-of-the-century wooden houses that still line the streets of downtown Madison, Wisconsin. That’s where I’m from originally, you see. The house was large with clapboard siding and two broad and spacious front porches, one upstairs and one downstairs. Perfect for the barbecue, which during the summer months always seemed to be smouldering and ready to go. There was hardly an evening when someone’s friends weren’t over, because back then we knew just about everyone. If you’ve been to Madison you’ll know the sort of house I mean, and if you attended university there — which is what the eight of us were partly occupied with all those years back — you’ll no doubt share with me some level of nostalgia.

Anyway, the house was shabby when we moved in: cracks in the plaster, weird stains on the carpet, gouges in the front hall banister, and a kitchen floor that sloped gently to the south-east. Proper student digs, like. It had certainly housed generations of undergrads before us, and probably a good few families before that.

I knew every inch of that creaky old house. Going down the basement steps you had to duck your head to avoid the overhang — or risk concussion. The house’s foundation was limestone, the basement walls were exposed; bare lightbulbs hung in each of the three dank rooms. This is where Mike and Ben’s band practiced, no doubt the bane of all the mice living down there. At the front of the house was Jeff and Max’s room, which I suspect at one time served as the parlour but now contained a bunk bed. John had his own small space off the living-room, while my room was at the rear of the house with a second door to the back staircase. Upstairs was another kitchen and hidden in a sort of walk-in closet off the second-floor sitting room was a small stained-glass window. Kurt, Erika, and Mike had rooms up there as well. And above them was the attic.

The attic was empty and unfinished with a slanted ceiling; if you weren’t careful you’d get a good scratch from one of the nails poking through from the tar-paper shingles nailed to the roof. All manner of late night madness went on under that roof. On certain nights, and after enough drink, we’d sometimes illuminate the attic with candles and get the Ouija board out. It was never me moving the planchette, I swear, but I’m still certain we never once pierced the veil of the other world. We all loved that stuff, by the way. Urban legends, bad television, good science fiction, and cheap beer.

So one day in the late spring I was sat there studying at the desk in my room, when I was interrupted by Max calling for me to join him outside. Out the door I went, down the front steps, and around the corner to the narrow gravel drive-way that ran between our house and the neighbours’. That’s where I found Max, arms folded, head tilted back, scrutinising the upper-storey. He didn’t say anything at first, so I took a step back to get a better view of what he was looking at. It was just the side of the house, nothing odd that I could see.

“What’s that window?” Max finally said.

“Which?”

“That one up there,” he pointed. “The one there on the left is the kitchen. And those two on the right are for the upstairs dining room. But what’s that one there?”

I looked up to the window he was pointing at. I didn’t see what he was talking about so much as felt it. That window. There was no room up there that either of us could account for; the windows simply did not tally with our intimate recollections of the space in which we dwelt. I knew the house same as Max, and now we shared that same sense of uncertainty.

grande_uncertainties2We rushed inside and up the staircase to the second floor. We both counted the windows and then dashed back to the drive-way to count them again from the outside. The discrepancy remained and neither of us had the answer. What had once been a familiar space was now suddenly quite strange. Our home had become, in the truest definition of the word, unheimlich. However, there was one thing we were absolutely sure of: we were less certain about our house than we were before. And that’s essentially what this anthology is about, that occasional shift in perception that can leave us with an overwhelming sense of the incredible. Uncertainties is, to be exact, a volume of uncanny tales.

*       *       *

The uncanny often gets lumped into the broader genre that is horror, but perhaps does not entirely belong there. While I admit there is much overlap, I see the traditional horror story as primarily seeking to elicit from the reader a sense of revulsion or shock or fear, whereas tales of the uncanny attempt to disrupt one’s innate understanding of the natural order. Sometimes the result instils a sense of horror, as in Lovecraft, but this is not always the case. This is a crude argument, I know, but I hope you understand my meaning anyway.

Take for instance Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, two authors regularly claimed by the horror camp. While no one would argue that they both wrote superb tales of horror, their respective bodies of work also segue into more subtle examinations of ontological disruption, often eschewing horror entirely. If you want examples, read Machen’s ‘N’ or Blackwood’s The Centaur, both of which survey preternatural shifts in world-view.

In some ways the uncanny tale is the antithesis to the classic detective story, which relies on a mystery that usually is solved by the end of the narrative. What begins as a tale of the unknown is inevitably explained; there’s a satisfying catharsis when you find out whodunit. On the contrary, the uncanny tale revels in the mystery itself. These stories start out in the recognisable world, the every-day, and slowly move into less familiar terrain. And instead of requiring the satisfaction of a solution, the connoisseur of the uncanny tale appreciates that lingering sense of wonderment, awe, and, yes, sometimes dread. Explanation is anathema and the preservation of the unknown is paramount for such a story’s success. It ignites the imagination. The stories gathered in this volume (and its predecessor) celebrate this notion.

I suppose you’re still wondering what that window in my old house was. A secret room of which Max and I were unaware? An alternate space with its own curious laws and secrets? Had we finally pierced the veil to other world? You might like to know, but to be overly concerned with the answer is to miss the point — what mattered in that moment was the mystery. And sometimes it’s far more interesting to let uncertainties linger.

Brian J. Showers
4 July 2016
Rathmines, Dublin


Brian J. Showers has written short stories, articles, interviews, and reviews for magazines such as Rue Morgue, Supernatural Tales, Ghosts & Scholars, and Wormwood. His collection The Bleeding Horse won the Children of the Night Award in 2008. He is also the author of Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin; and, with Gary W. Crawford and Jim Rockhill, he co-edited the Stoker Award-nominated Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu. The anthology Dreams of Shadow and Smoke, co-edited with Jim Rockhill, won the Ghost Story Award for best book in 2014. He also edits The Green Book, a journal devoted to Irish writers of the fantastic.

Order Uncertainties Volume 1 here and Volume 2 here.

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Uncertainties II: Foreword

Why Can’t You Write Something Nice? An Interview with Lynda E. Rucker

Conducted by Steve Duffy, July 2016

Author Photo 1Lynda E. Rucker is an American writer born and raised in the South and now living in Europe. Her stories have appeared in dozens of magazines and anthologies. She is a regular columnist for Black Static, has had a short play produced on London’s West End, and won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story. Her first collection, The Moon Will Look Strange, was published by Karoshi Books in 2013.


Steve Duffy: So first of all, congratulations on the Shirley Jackson award!

Lynda E. Rucker: Thank you! Congratulations on yours as well! I was really surprised to win.

SD: Thank you! I wasn’t at all surprised that you won. Will the winning story be appearing in the new collection?

LER: Not in this one, no: these are all stories that were published around 2012-2013, plus two new unpublished stories.

SD: (Studies table of contents) Ah, there are some great stories here. I see “The Wife’s Lament”, which I remember from Supernatural Tales. Are there, I wonder, a few autobiographical elements in that story, which has for its protagonist a woman from Portland moving to the UK?

LER: Actually, there really aren’t, not in that one! I talk about this more in the story notes, but that one really arose from wanting to build a story around the Old English poem of the same title.

I do often draw on autobiographical elements in the fiction that I write, but I think by the time it is shaped into a story, it is often unrecognisable from what it once was. Often it’s a matter of taking many different bits and pieces and putting them together: like almost anyone who’s spent a lot of time in other countries, I’ve had the feeling of culture shock and homesickness, but rarely in the specific ways or over the specific things my characters do. (In fact, people often think my characters have terrible times in certain locations because I hated those places myself, which is just not the case at all.) And I tend to write about places I’ve been, so, for example, most of my characters are, like me, either from the American South or the Pacific Northwest.

Another element of using autobiography in fiction is exaggeration. So, for example, I think it’s a very common experience, when you’re as young as Penny, the protagonist in this story, to get caught up in an unrealistic infatuation with someone – whether it’s a real relationship, an unrequited crush or even a celebrity obsession – in which you build them up in your head and imagine that by osmosis you will become someone else as well. In a way it’s kind of part of the process of finding your identity. For many young women, as well, there can be a kind of fascination with older men as Ian is in this story – a sense that their interest in you somehow empowers you, but that can also quickly turn to insecurity in an actual relationship because, well, you’re still just barely done being a kid, you haven’t had time to accomplish anything particularly exciting or to really become who you are going to be. So there were a lot of dynamics I wanted to exaggerate and write about in that story, but I was drawing more on broad and generic experiences than anything particularly concrete – there are other stories in the book that are more specifically autobiographical.

You'll Know When You Get ThereIt only occurs to me just now, as I’m answering this question, that in a way this story has a lot of parallels to the book Rebecca, which is one of my favourites, in that a naive young woman is swept up in a whirlwind relationship with a much older and more sophisticated man who may or may not be a sinister figure. Really, though, the genesis of this story is embedded in my translation of the poem itself, which people will have to buy the book to read more about in the story notes!

SD: Quite right! I’m always really pleased when a writer includes story notes. The vibe I get from that story, and from all of yours, I think, is bound up with this wonderful combination of characterisation and sense of place. Both have a reality about them, which I think really helps to “sell” the story, in the sense of making it work for the reader. The feeling of real people, in real situations, and then the fantastic or uncanny element working its way through . . .

LER: Yes! It’s what I love best in fiction, really, is reading about real people in well-grounded settings. Last year, Gary Fry wrote a really insightful review of my first collection on his blog that opened with this line: “My overriding impression after reading Lynda Rucker’s first collection of short stories is that of a writer who loves both horror fiction and mainstream literature.” He’s absolutely right, and I think it’s one of the elements that makes horror fiction such a strange, hybrid beast. It’s often lumped in with science fiction and fantasy – and I do think it belongs there, in part; I love and feel a part of those genres and it’s why I get very angry when I hear people moan about things along the lines of “What are all these icky horror people doing mucking up our nice fantasy conventions/awards” (sentiments I’ve heard more than once expressed regarding both the World Fantasy convention and awards and the British Fantasy Convention and BFAs, to name names).

SD: “Ugh! I simply wouldn’t have them in the house, dear!”

LER: However, I also think horror fiction has equally powerful roots in mainstream fiction as well, and I consistently find that many horror writers, and generally the ones I consider the best, often cite at least as many mainstream influences as straight-up “genre” ones. Nina Allan wrote a terrific piece on her blog several years ago called “The Trouble With Horror”, and in part, it’s about how in order for horror stories to work, they must be powerful stories first and foremost. It’s a wonderful article that I return to periodically and agree with completely.

To continue reading, please click here.

Why Can’t You Write Something Nice? An Interview with Lynda E. Rucker

Our Riverine Head

IMG_0002I never intended for Swan River Press to have a formal logo. But the stony-faced image used on the website – the visage that’s made its way into some of our publications, on postcards, tote bags, and of course at the top of this blog – has inadvertently become the press’s logo. In this post I’d like to tell you about where it came from and what it means.

Back in 2003, I published the first Swan River Press chapbook: The Old Tailor & the Gaunt Man. I put “Swan River Press” on it mainly as an afterthought as I never intended to publish more. You see, I was living in a flat on Leinster Road at the time (number ten), about thirty seconds’ walk to the Rathmines town centre. Having lived in Rathmines since I moved to Dublin, I wanted to give the press a name that would resonate with the area where I’d made my home.

At some point prior I’d come across Clair L. Sweeney’s excellent book The Rivers of Dublin (1991) and realised that, like many big cities, Dublin is riddled with rivers and streams – only now the majority of them are underground, culverted and buried. The Swan River was one of these subterranean waterways; moreover, it passed by my house, beneath Leinster Road, just behind our fine Carnegie library. And even though I never intended for the press to last this long, what name to give it became obvious.

Apart from the bloated verdigris dome of St. Mary’s Church, one of the most recognisable buildings on the Rathmines skyline is the red brick clock-tower of the town hall, designed by Sir Thomas Drew and built in the early 1890s. The clock is sometimes called the “four-faced liar” as it’s four sides rarely seem to be correct or even in synch with each other. (I can actually hear the bronze bells tolling as I write this post. Also the rain against my window.)

Rathmines-postcard

For those of you who don’t know, Rathmines is a neighbourhood in south-central Dublin, just over the Grand Canal. However, Rathmines developed as an independent township from 1847 until it was incorporated into the City of Dublin in 1930, which is why I believe the area still maintains a distinct identity. If you want a fictionalised tour of the neighbourhood, check out my short story collection The Bleeding Horse (2008) and the follow-up novella Old Albert (2011), two attempts at building an uncanny mythology for Rathmines.

Spot 4But back to the Swan River Press logo. Should you ever visit Rathmines, or if you’re lurking about here already, have a look at the keystone just above the main entrance of the town hall. It depicts a serene face with a seashell crown. In reality this is probably just Saint James, who is commonly associated with scallops. But in my own mind I’ve always considered it to be the personification of the Swan River. This made perfect sense to me. After all, the Custom House on the Liffey is bedecked with similar riverine heads, each one evoking a different river in Ireland. And the Rathmines town hall’s sandstone mascaron gazes out to where the Swan River still secretly flows. I have to say, I prefer my more fanciful notion to the Christian one.

The image was drafted by my friend and colleague Duane Spurlock. I believe it was originally intended as an illustration for Old Albert, though maybe Duane remembers more. Anyway, Duane had illustrated some of the chapbooks I did after The Old Tailor & the Gaunt Man (a few copies of The Snow Came Softly Down and Tigh an Bhreithimh are still available in the shop). We also worked together on Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin (2006), for which he did illustrations. Gothic Dublin is now sadly out of print.

Duane’s pen and ink rendering of the mascaron is perfect. It reminds me that, though the river may be buried, it is certainly not dead. If you stand in the middle of the intersection of Mountpleasant Avenue and Richmond Hill, you will even hear the Swan River flowing beneath your feet on its way to the sea. Try it sometime.

The think the best images are imbued with grand meaning, and for me this one holds much. I’ve come to identify the face, this personification of the Swan River, not only with the press, but also with Rathmines, where I still live and take inspiration and publish books. A few years back I was fortunate enough to acquire Duane’s original artwork (thanks, bud!), and it now hangs proudly in the Swan River Press office.

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Our Riverine Head

“A Fantastic Shower of Books” by Des Kenny

10431464_10203672790317915_8866375727946965071_n[The following article appeared, extensively shortened, in the November/December 2015 issue of Books Ireland. It appears here in full by kind permission of Des Kenny of Kenny’s Bookshop & Art Gallery in Galway.]

He emerged from the stacks of books. It seemed as if he had resided there forever waiting his moment to join the human race again. In his hands were two books, a collection of short stories Ivy Grips the Steps by Elizabeth Bowen, the Anglo-Irish writer from Bowen’s Court, Co. Cork, and a copy of the Bucknell University Press book on the esoteric poet AE, George Russell, two apparently dissimilar writers. But far from being too disparate, these writers, as I was soon to learn, had a common interest in the supernatural, the unknown, and the fantastic.

It was immediately apparent that the man approaching my desk knew his way around books and so it proved. He was able to tell me that Ivy Grips the Steps was the American edition of The Demon Lover, though he believed that there was a slight variation in the contents.

As is wont to happen in a bookshop, a conversation ensued during which we discussed various aspects of the Irish book world and somehow or other Mervyn Wall’s The Unfortunate Fursey was mentioned. This resulted in a fascinating discussion of fantasy books in Ireland during which he disclosed that he had indeed recently republished both Fursey novels.

On further questioning it turned out that man who had emerged from the stacks of books was also a publisher who, in 2003, set up an extraordinary imprint, the Swan River Press, which specialises in limited editions of books relating to the fantastic, the gothic, and otherworldly, with a particular interest in promoting Irish fantastic writers from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

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Brian J. Showers, for that is the bookman’s name, is originally from Madison, Wisconsin. In 2000 he came to Ireland simply because he wanted to live in Europe for a while, and as he only spoke English his options were limited. After briefly considering Edinburgh, Showers took up residency in Rathmines, where he has lived ever since.

Although he had written his first book at an early age (“I have a ‘book’ that I wrote when I was seven or eight years old. A bunch of one page stories – all having to do with ghosts and robots and dinosaurs – that I also illustrated. The whole production was stapled together. Lots of staples!”), it wasn’t until he moved to Dublin that he began to take writing more seriously. “An awful lot of opportunities presented themselves to me when I moved here, including the people I met and the resources available to me, so I consider myself fortunate in that way”.

Since then he has written short stories, articles, interviews, and reviews for several magazines. His short story collection The Bleeding Horse (Mercier Press) won the Children of the Night award in 2008. His has also written Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin (Nonsuch Press, 2006) and Old Albert – An Epilogue (Ex Occidente, 2011).

However, it wasn’t just the writing of books that interested Showers. Soon he became fascinated in the whole process of producing a book, from the putting of words on paper to the putting of the finished book into the reader’s hands:

“All these roles are connected. I think most writers who are published commercially usually get some sort of insight into the publishing business, which is everything from editing to cover design to marketing. I really find that process enjoyable and integral to the creation of a book as a whole.”

His development from writer to publisher was a gradual process. At first he began to create hand-bound chapbooks of his own work: “The chapbooks were elaborate Halloween and Christmas cards that I made to send to family and friends. Only this time I didn’t attempt the illustrations. Those were done by various friends, including Meggan Kehrli, Duane Spurlock, and Jeff Roche. A lot of work went into making these chapbooks—the pages were hand-cut and the volumes assembled by hand—so I only published one title per year. I think the biggest single print run was three hundred, which took at least a month to produce . . . Anyway, I put ‘Swan River Press’ on each chapbook because my house at the time was on the ‘banks’ of the (now) subterranean Swan River. And they proved popular enough that I figured I’d sell off the remainder. After all, postage and materials aren’t cheap!”

Soon other writers began to ask him to publish their work, but chapbooks proved to be too labour intensive and so such collaboration was impractical. The solution was to produce simpler booklets, which soon gave way to professionally printed hardbacks. The word paperback does not seem to be in Showers’s vocabulary. He found that he enjoyed the whole process, especially working with other authors. He sees himself as sticking to the hardback format although at one stage, at the back of his mind, is the idea of doing a deluxe hand-bound edition of AE’s poetry for the sesquicentenary of the author’s birth. Despite the work involved, he had devised a new way to bind booklets, and was looking forward to giving it a go “just for the fun of it”.

The books that carry the “Swan River Press” imprint are a sheer joy to hold. The love and care that goes into their production from the time the first word is written to the final touches of design and illustration is infectious and they are a sheer joy to hold. In fact, there is an irresistible urge to open them and immerse oneself in the magic of the story.

Hopefully before Brian J. Showers merges back into the book stacks, there will be many more wonderful publications for booksellers to sell and readers to read.

 

 

 

“A Fantastic Shower of Books” by Des Kenny