Uncertainties 4: A Chat with Timothy J. Jarvis

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Conducted by Lynda E. Rucker

Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His first novel, The Wanderer, was published by Perfect Edge Books in 2014. His short fiction has appeared in The Flower Book, The Shadow Booth Volume 1, The Scarlet Soul, The Far TowerMurder Ballads, and Uncertainties 1, among other places. He also writes criticism and reviews, and is co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen.


 

Lynda: E. Rucker: First, I want to say how much I enjoyed this volume of Uncertainties! I love the direction you took the series in here.

 In your introduction, you write about how it’s less the traditional ghost that’s disconcerting to you as a reader these days then the bizarre juxtaposition of certain settings and events. Even more than any particular contemporary writer, I associate this with the filmmaker David Lynch. It also makes me think of something I come back to often, Arthur Machen’s definition of “sin”, as described by Cosgrove in “The White People”: “What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror . . . And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?” Can you say a little more about this approach to storytelling and how the stories in Uncertainties 4 achieve this unsettling affect (either individually or as a whole)?

28535979_10212960569946601_193795878_nTimothy J. Jarvis: Thanks Lynda! It was somewhat intimidating to follow the powerful set of stories you assembled for Volume 3. I loved the work in that anthology, and sought more tales that contained those “little slips of the veil” you discuss in your introduction. That notion — that our general sense of reality is complacent, needs undermining if we are to see more clearly — is one I think really important.

And I completely agree — I also think first of Lynch’s work in relation to this kind of aesthetic. There’s something compelling and unique about the filmic language he’s developed. It’s often called surreal, and it does, it’s true, tap into that same rich vein the surrealists found when mining dreams in the early twentieth century. But I think there’s something else going on too . . . The surrealists used free-associative techniques drawn from psychoanalysis to quarry the startling imagery of works like Un Chien Andalou or Story of the Eye. But it seems to me the twentieth century has to an extent defanged the strange of the inner life of the mind — partly because we are now so familiar with it, due to the prevalence of psychiatric and therapeutic discourse in everyday life, but mostly because culture has pumped the collective unconscious full of banality — ecstatic dream states feel very far away just now. Lynch uses transcendental meditation, a technique ostensibly similar to the automatism of the surrealists, to trawl for the fish swimming in the abyssal depths of consciousness, but the result somehow opens our collective eyes once more (if we let it). This is partly, I feel, because he brings tawdry and plain dull aspects of contemporary culture into his work, and not as parody or détournement, but without any ironic distance, something that gives rise to juxtapositions which produce extraordinary effects. The everyday is estranged, the strange made commonplace. His series of web films, Rabbits, sections of which appear nightmarishly in Inland Empire, perfectly demonstrates this. Actors wearing rabbit-head masks and dressed in ’50s-style suits or housecoats pace about an impersonal living-room or sit on its red-leather couch. The camera is static. The presentation is remarkably close to a sitcom, and as such feels very familiar. There is even canned applause and laughter, though the reactions of the ersatz audience bear little relation to what’s happening on set. The characters talk in banalities, non sequiturs, and gnomic utterances. The soundtrack is ominous industrial drone, thunder, and train horns that sound like mournful whale song. There is singing and moments of demonic intensity. It is very very wrong. A particular kind of wrongness that opens the modern viewer up to something very much like that which the surrealists found when prospecting in the unconscious. Or, for that matter, like the proximity to the numinous medieval mystics felt when in the throes of a visionary experience. It was this kind of affect I was looking for when soliciting stories for the anthology.

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Arthur Machen is a writer whose work is really important to me. His worldview, with its mixture of the esoteric and neoplatonist, is all about the search for an ecstatic that is both outside and within the quotidian. I’m fascinated by that definition of sin from “The White People” and I think must have been unconsciously applying it to my editorial approach. And Machen’s emphasis on the ecstatic in art, which he outlines in his literary treatise Hieroglyphics, was also a significant influence — the idea that contact with a strange outside might not necessarily involve horror. A lot of the tales in Uncertainties IV do evoke dread, but not all. Camilla Grudova’s “ ‘A Novel (or Poem) About Fan’ or ‘The Zoo’ “ and Nadia Bulkin’s “Some Girls Wander By Mistake” are among the stories that evoke much more the melancholy that a haunting can give rise to, a sense of loss become almost cosmic.

LER: Your casting of this approach as a twentieth and particularly twenty-first century phenomenon, and your choice of an epigram — “We live in Gothic times” — made me think of J. G. Ballard’s assertion in the 1970s that science fiction is the only form of fiction that is truly relevant, that can describe the world as it is. Do you think the weird/strange story or the Gothic are especially relevant modes for contemporary times, and if so, why?

UncertaintiesVol3_DJ_CoveronlyTJJ: I do think the strange story, through the Machenian ecstatic, offers a particularly incisive way of flensing the mundane from the weird heart of things, and especially now, at this historical moment. What I particularly like about that Angela Carter quote is the idea that fiction is a means by which we can interrogate the world, and that we need, as writers, to ensure our tools are fit and honed for the task. I believe that when, in the western world, left-brain, rational modes of thinking became the predominant means of asking important questions, sometime in the seventeenth century, something was lost. There is always something that escapes reason, always something ineffable, but we tend now to ignore it. Kant divided the world into the realms of the phenomenal and noumenal and humankind choose to live in the former, in our heads, in the realm of the senses. Realist fiction is largely tied to this empirical mode, but the fantastic, the Gothic, connects more to the right-brain, to the imagination, and can offer us glimpses of the inaccessible real world out there. John Clute puts in brilliantly when he writes, in The Darkening Garden, “The Fantastic is the Enlightenment’s dark, mocking Twin . . . Bound to the world, the Fantastic exposes the lie that we own the world to which we are bound.”

Till recently there was still good faith on the empirical side and the imagination was allowed its demesne, but in our post-truth, post-facts world, things are a deal more confusing . . . The imagination seems now to be actively supressed, to be seen as dangerous. I think, therefore, it’s more important than ever that the Fantastic expose that lie.

I think this kind of investigation works across all the modes that are descended from the Gothic, and there are stories in Uncertainties IV that are recognisably science fiction — Marian Womack’s “At the Museum” and Aliya Whiteley’s “Reflection, Refraction, Dispersion” — which use that mode to open up to the nebulous and weird. There are stories which powerfully use the strange to crowbar open the mundane and show us its horrors, stories such as Gary Budden’s “We Pass Under” and Anna Tambour’s “Hand Out”. In other tales, intimate hauntings spiral into terrifying brutality, as in Lucie McKnight Hardy’s “The Birds of Nagasaki” and Charles Wilkinson’s “These Words, Rising From Stone”. And in yet others, the weird irrupts into the everyday to disconcert and derange, as it does in Brian Evenson’s “Myling Kommer”, D. P. Watt’s “Primal”, and Claire Dean’s “Feeding the Peat”.

LER: Since you assembled the anthology and it was published, times have taken a turn for the very strange indeed as we, along with much of the rest of the world, are locked down during a global pandemic. More than ever, it feels very much like a backdrop for an Uncertainties setting! Any thoughts on how destabilizing this sudden change is for us and how it might affect the fiction we write and read?

TJJ: This ongoing season of the plague definitely feels like something drawn from stranger fringes of supernatural fiction, perhaps from Eric Basso’s “The Beak Doctor”, Tanith Lee’s Paradys books M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, or M. John Harrison’s In Viriconium. There is something of that weird apocalyptic mood, on the intimate scale of short fiction, in Uncertainties IV — in tales such as Rebecca Lloyd’s “I Seen Her”, Kristine Ong Muslim’s “The Pit”, and John Darnielle’s “I Serve the Lambdon Worm”. It’s a tone I like very much, though its real world counterpart feels very bleak.

130780I think the pandemic can be seen as the world out there, that Kantian noumenal, reasserting itself, reacting against a particularly venal geopolitics. It forces us to encounter the vainglory of our anthropocentric perspective. In this way, the weird tale has a particular affinity for the current moment — this is something it’s been doing all the way back to, and beyond, Algernon Blackwood’s stories such as “The Willows” and “The Wendigo” and William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. I think fiction generally has been getting odder for a time, and will continue to do so — and the strange story is in the vanguard of this movement.

LER: Your table of contents is exciting — I can’t think of a better word. It’s because of both the writers you’ve chosen and the juxtaposition of writers — some we might anticipate seeing in an anthology like this, like D. P. Watt or Nadia Bulkin, some are very new voices, like Lucie McKnight Hardy, and still others might be new to readers of this type of fiction, like Claire Dean. How did you select the authors that you did for inclusion?

TJJ: When Brian J. Showers at Swan River invited me to edit Uncertainties IV, I was thrilled. I’d loved the previous volumes, and the series’ unconventional approach to the supernatural tale anthology was one that really appealed. So when I was soliciting and reading stories, I wished to do justice to that unique take on the ghost story. I also had in mind a particular mood that I wanted. There are incredible anthologies that have a diverse array of kinds of tales, but I felt I wanted a consistent tone for Uncertainties IV. My choices tended to be driven by this aesthetic. I wanted stories that were dark, yet not necessarily conventionally horrifying, and I wanted to see an experimental, risk-taking approach to prose. Speculative narrative and innovative writing can be uneasy bedfellows, but I was looking for authors and stories that brought them together naturally. I think this has meant the anthology is on the borders of a number of different literary modes, and hopefully will introduce readers to writers new to them. In this approach, I was influenced by the excellent Nightjar Press series of chapbooks (which is where I first read both Lucie and Claire) where what might be termed a more literary sensibility (though I personally dislike the use of “literary” in this way) coexists with themes more usually found in genre work. I do find this really exciting, and, of course, I was really fortunate that some of my very favourite writers in the field sent through such powerful stories.

LER: One thing that struck me is that most of the writers you chose are those who have risen to prominence during the last decade. Was that a deliberate choice, and if so, why?

Not especially — it was largely coincidence, really. But Brian and I wanted to bring some new authors to the press, so that partly guided the choices — none of the writers whose stories appear in Uncertainties IV have appeared in any other volumes of the anthology. And, as I mentioned earlier, I was really keen to include writers not perhaps that well known to readers of weird tales, but whose voices I found compelling. So it ended up being a mixture of authors in the field who’ve not appeared in Uncertainties before, and writers whose work might not be known to genre readers. Outside of the consistent tone, I wanted to be eclectic, and have my choices guided by stories I loved. It was great to be able to bring a slightly different set of voices to the strange tale anthology; writers like Camilla Grudova, whose sui generis fictions sit on the fringes of genre, but whose style nestled in nicely with the other stories here, and John Darnielle, who is best known for two powerful novels, that mix realism and genre fiction, and his elegant and poignant songwriting with the Mountain Goats. It was great to have John, whose work I’d been a fan of for many years, give me a disconcerting flash fiction for this — I discovered he was a lover of small-press supernatural tales when I hosted a Q&A with him on the release of his novel, Universal Harvester.

LER: While reading this particular incarnation of Uncertainties, I kept thinking of the brilliant anthology Black Water edited by Alberto Manguel. To me, this feels very much like a worthy successor in that vein (albeit about 700 pages shorter!) Was this on your mind as an influence as you assembled this? Were any other anthologies an inspiration or influence?

51dZ3jMujFLTJJ: The eclecticism of that mammoth tone, along with that of Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Silvina Ocampo’s Anthology of Fantastic Literature, and that of their modern day successor, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, which is such a wonderful treasure trove, was definitely an influence. But I also wanted that consistent mood I mentioned before, and in that I was influenced by the previous volumes in the Uncertainties series, having really admired what you and Brian had done with those, and also by the wonderful flourishing of small press anthologies there has been of late — other titles from Swan River Press, and from Egaeus, Tartarus, Zagava, and Undertow, to name only a few. I think we’re currently in the midst of a really great era for the experimental supernatural tale anthology.

LER: Is there anything else you want to say to potential readers to encourage them to order a copy of Uncertainties IV?

TJJ: Uncertainties IV is an anthology of haunted stories, but traditional revenants do not appear (there are ghosts in some of the tales, but, like wilful poltergeists, they overturn the conventions). Instead, the volume is haunted by a sense of disquiet. Within its pages, what you’ll find is irresolution and ambiguity, the strange or eerie or ecstatic, and beautiful, risk-taking prose. These stories play on the flickering inkling that what is present to your senses is perhaps not all there is, and they will put you into tremulous contact with something unknowable, hidden out in the world or buried within yourself.

Buy a copy of Uncertainties IV


Lynda E. Rucker has sold more than three dozen short stories to various magazines and anthologies, won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story, and is a regular columnist for UK horror magazine Black Static. Her first collection, The Moon Will Look Strange, was released in 2013 from Karoshi Books; and her second, You’ll Know When You Get There, was published by Swan River Press in 2016, for whom she also edited Uncertainties III.

Uncertainties 4: A Chat with Timothy J. Jarvis

Thoughts on Small Press #6—Deluge of Submissions

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Earlier this year, our friends over at Tartarus Press announced a call for submissions for their forthcoming 30th anniversary anthology. (Wow! Thirty years!!) The submissions window ran from 10 January until 10 April—a clean three months. Editor Rosalie Parker said on Twitter the other day that in that time, she received over five hundred stories. Five. Hundred. Stories. Yikes!

In a previous “Thoughts on Small Press #2—What to Publish?”, I briefly talk about submissions. I mention that I’m generally not open for submissions, fearing I would be unable to handle the deluge. Looking at what Rosalie Parker has to sift through, I suspect I’m not wrong.

I also wrote in the aforementioned post that I believe it’s the duty of small presses to nurture new writers, as these are the writers who are pushing literature into innovative and exciting places. Of course, I fully realise that being closed for submissions, generally, is at odds with being open to discovering new writers. This is an issue with which I have been struggling since I started Swan River Press. As you might have guessed, this is something of an issue of time, or rather, a lack of it.

So that’s what I want to talk about in this post: submissions from an editor’s point of view—or at least from my own point of view.

Although I’ve already given my background elsewhere, it might be worth doing so again here for context. Much as I’d like it to be, Swan River Press is not my day job. I’ve got a job at which I work regular full-time hours. Swan River tends to gobble all other hours in between—I daresay that, though it is not a day job, Swan River is certainly a full-time job. (If you really want to irritate me, try referring to Swan River as my hobby.)

IMG_0019Through Swan River, I publish on average maybe four books per years, plus two issues of The Green Book—again, I talk about some of this in the post I mentioned above. Six titles per year keeps me plenty busy. It might not sound like a lot to you, but in addition to editing and other more obvious jobs associated with publishing, there are myriad other tasks in running a small press (such as a horrific amount of admin), the bulk of which I perform on my own. In any case, I’ve learned six publications is more or less my limit with the resources I have currently available.

So let me talk about a specific submissions example. One of Swan River’s main venues for publishing contemporary writers is the Uncertainties anthology series. The series was conceived, in part, as a way to work with writers who I might not otherwise be able to accommodate by publishing something book-length. I edited Uncertainties volumes one and two myself (and am working on the fifth). The third and fourth instalments were edited by Lynda E. Rucker and Timothy J. Jarvis, respectively. (Incidentally, if you want to read Lynda’s and Tim’s thoughts on assembling these anthologies, you can do so here and here.)

Now I also readily admit that I’m a slow reader. Realising I wouldn’t be able to handle open submissions for the first two volumes, again, due to time restraints, I approached contributors directly. I was in the fortunate position to know enough writers who I wanted to work with—and, more importantly, enough who would indulge me by submitting a story. I approached only the number of authors I needed to fill the two books. I was pleased with how the process went, and feel both volumes turned out well. This is, of course, one way to assemble an anthology; not necessarily a wrong one either. However, I realise that most of the writers included were already established, with most names familiar to those who read within the small press. But how could I reach even more writers? I came up with a pretty good work around: Allowing others to edit Uncertainties would be a neat way of introducing fresh voices that I might not otherwise have published. My only editorial stipulation for the series is that an author can only be published in the series once—no repeats. This is another self-imposed restriction to keep from returning to familiar voices.

IMG_0015When it came time for Lynda and Tim to edit their instalments, I broached the idea of open submissions with each. I hope they don’t mind my saying, but both opted to solicit stories privately—the same as I had done, and I suspect for probably the similar reasons as my own: there were certain authors they knew they wanted to work with and the time commitment of ploughing through an open submissions slush pile would likely be overwhelming. And, like me, both Lynda and Tim have day jobs.

For Uncertainties 5, I’ve taken a slightly different tack. This time I’ve invited around fifty writers to submit stories—I figure I’ll have space to include stories by around ten or twelve depending. I’ve still mainly approached writers I want to work with, but am now opening up more widely to a limited number of submissions. Ideally I would like to assemble a future volume of Uncertainties with a completely open call for submissions. We’ll see.

Let’s get back to Tartarus Press’s five hundred submissions. There are a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost, every writer who submits will be a hopeful individual, dreaming that their story will be accepted for publication. When they submit, they will have every right to expect a response. This is really my biggest fear as a publisher: that I would not be capable of processing that many submissions, that I would likely become known in the small press community for my abysmal response times. Or worse, for my dead silence.

DnDQUqNX4AARHq8.jpg largeLooking at this from an editor’s point of view, would anyone care to estimate how long five hundred submissions might take to process? If stories are on average 5,000 words, that’s a total of 250,000 words. Certainly not every word of every story will be read in its entirety. Some will be given a few pages before being discarded, while others might be set aside to be read a second, third, or even a fourth time. (Remember, I’m a slow reader too.)

Reading is not the only task here either. Submissions must be logged. Writers will also likely appreciate an acknowledgement of receipt, and eventually expect a response, be it an acceptance or rejection. Some might want to know why they were rejected, request a critique, or otherwise desire to enter into a convivial correspondence. There is nothing wrong with this on an individual level, but you can see easily how it might turn into an administrative nightmare, especially for one person, especially if the anthology isn’t their sole focus. And that’s all before the publication process even begins.

Meanwhile the various anxieties of each individual writer will grow. And let’s face it—most will be disappointed. And then there’s always the risk of negative social media reaction, despite best intentions. (Note: Writers out there who have taken to the megaphone to publicly chastise editors and publishers—rightly or wrongly—I’ve read your tweets and posts and would not like to suffer your wrath. I wonder how many publishers keep writing opportunities private for this very reason?)

So that’s basically it. This post is more an admission of failure rather than a prescription for success. I just wanted to mull over in the open the issues I face as an editor and publisher. I’ve been thinking about this submissions issue for years, coaxing myself to perhaps fully throw the submissions doors open for some future project.

IMG_2365Were I to venture into the open submissions arena, what are some ways I might protect myself from an unmanageable deluge?

Some of you might be thinking: ask for help or find an intern. To that I would say: People need to be paid for their work. Anthologies incur the highest production costs of all Swan River projects, often times not capable of earning back the money or time invested. While I have no regrets, I still wouldn’t be able to pay someone to do this work for me.

Perhaps I could have a very short period in which to submit? Really, though, this merely limits the amount of time people have in which to click “send”. Ideally you’d want to give people notice, sufficient time to write something suitable for the anthology. The last thing you’d want is for people to send you any old thing they have on their hard drives just so they can feel they submitted something by the deadline. (Believe me, even though I am not open for submissions, people still send me book proposals completely inappropriate for Swan River. In fact, recently, someone pitched an anthology that pretty much described exactly the remit of Uncertainties. See “Thoughts on Small Press #4—Author and Artist Payments” in which I advise prospective writers to research at least a little the venues to whom they’re submitting.)

Hopefully I’ve outlined above some of the challenges an editor faces, especially when that editor works for a small, independent publishing house. Or perhaps I’m just whinging? Still, I can’t help but to feel sometimes that there are more writers than there are readers.

If you’re a publisher or editor, how do you face the challenge of submissions? I’d love to hear from you, about your processes and concerns—how do you approach the deluge of submissions? Or do you err on the side of an invite only system?

(By the way, I am actually open to submissions for The Green Book!)

If you liked this post, have a look at the rest of our Thoughts on Small Press series.

My inaugural post for this series of posts is here. As always I can be contacted by email, Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below. Please share this post where you think is appropriate. I’m looking forward to hear from you!

Did you enjoy his post and want to support the press? Check our titles in print—you might find something interesting!

-Brian

Thoughts on Small Press #6—Deluge of Submissions

Thoughts on Uncertainties 4

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Uncertainties is an anthology series — featuring authors from Britain, America, Canada, Australia, and the Philippines — each exploring the concept 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, when otherwise familiar landscapes become sinister and something decidedly less than certain . . .


Over the last year or so, I’ve been working on putting together the fourth in Swan River Press’s series of contemporary supernatural and strange tale anthologies, Uncertainties. It’s the first time I’ve edited a fiction anthology and it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in writing. It’s been great seeing the thing take shape — as it started to come together, it began to take on a life of its own. Brian J. Showers at Swan River was incredibly helpful throughout the process, sharing his wealth of experience. He pretty much gave me free rein, his only brief being that I bring in some writers who hadn’t featured in the series before, and who might be new to the press. It has long been my feeling that innovative writing can enhance the uncanniness of a supernatural tale, so I solicited contributions from writers who I thought would be playful and experimental with their tales. And as cohesion was really important to me from the outset, I also asked writers whose work I thought would share points of similarity. As the pieces came in, I saw this had worked better than I’d dared hope and that there were lots of potent synchronicities between the stories. But there was also a lot of variety, so I starting thinking about how certain juxtapositions might work and also how to ensure an overall flow. The tales are all experimental in some way, but run the gamut from melancholia, to outright horror, to comedy. I wanted to balance and shift between tones in a hopefully satisfying way. It took me back to the days of making mixtapes for friends, and thinking about flow, moving between moods, and setting up a kind of loose overall narrative from disparate parts.

This was an incredibly satisfying process. It was also really satisfying to work with the talented Swan River team of Meggan Kehrli, Ken Mackenzie, and Jim Rockhill, whose design and editing skills ensured the finished article looks superb. And it was a real privilege to have for the cover a powerful piece of art by modern surrealist, Brian Catling, from a series of paintings inspired by the writing of M.R. James — it mingles the ghostly and the bizarre in much the same way as the tales within.

The section below is taken from my introduction to the volume. I wanted to try to give a flavour of the stories and illustrate my thesis about the contemporary supernatural tale, and did so by relating a couple of incidents that had been much in my thoughts, and which seemed to me to show what I conceived to be the difference between the traditional ghost story and the tale of uncertainty.

Timothy J. Jarvis B&WI have twice, in the last year, visited a supposedly haunted site not far from where I live in rural Bedfordshire: Old St Mary’s, a derelict fourteenth-century church on a hill above Clophill, a picturesque village about thirteen miles to the north of Luton. Old St Mary’s gained a sinister reputation in the 1960s following a spate of desecrations — over a period of several weeks, on moonless nights, graves were broken open and bones disinterred, and the ruins were daubed with disturbing graffiti. It was thought to be mostly aimless vandalism, the work of bored young people aping, but the original violation apparently bore clear signs of a knowledge of the occult and of the practices of dark rites. That time, the skeleton had not been just scattered but deliberately laid out inside the ruin in a pattern associated with the Black Mass, and a Maltese Cross had been daubed on the floor in what was thought, from feathers found strewn about, to have been cockerel’s blood. Afterwards the place became a bugbear for locals, with teenagers from Luton daring each other to visit it at night. Now it is a heritage site and well maintained, but it still has a charge.

The first time I went up to the church, it was dusk, following a grey late autumn day. There were two of us out walking. As my friend and I approached the ruins they were thrown into stark relief when the sun, setting behind them, a ball of orange fissured with red, like the blood-threaded yolk of an egg, dropped below the cowl of cloud. The effect was Gothic. My friend and I wandered about the churchyard for a time, took in the views, then went back down the path towards Clophill. Between Old St Mary’s and the village, the path passes through copse, and as we walked under the canopy of reddening leaves, where all was gloom, my friend and I saw, out of the corners of our eyes, a hand reaching between us. We startled, looked round, but there was of course no one there.

The second time I climbed up to Old St Mary’s, there was a group of us. It was a warm summer’s afternoon, the sun bright and high in a clear sky, the only clouds frothy white streaks, like cuckoo spit. As we approached the top of the hill, a blue van towing a low trailer heaped with junk drove past and pulled up in front of the gates to the churchyard. Two nondescript men, one balding, the other tall, both middle aged and dressed fairly smartly in chinos and linen jackets, like stockbrokers in weekend attire, got out of the cab, leaving the engine idling, and began circling the vehicle. After some moments stretching their legs they wandered off among the graves.

As we neared the van — which spluttered on, the smell of diesel exhaust acrid in the air — we saw, atop the pile of broken things in the trailer, an old cathode ray television, screen smashed, with, in the body of the set, a Murano glass sculpture of a clown, of the kind popular in the ’70s, which now, as the generation that bought and cherished such things dies off, floods charity shops. The clown was set there in that wrecked TV like statues of the Virgin are in roadside niches in southern Europe.

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Rounding the van, we saw that the men who’d got out of it were cavorting strangely in the churchyard. The balding was flailing his limbs in some kind of jerky dance and the tall was darting hither and yon. Then he stopped running about and stood before a headstone. We realized a moment later that he was pissing against it. The other kept on dancing. We decided then, without a word between us, not go on up to the church. We were halfway back to the village again, just emerging from the copse, when we heard the van’s engine revving behind us, and it careered past, kicking up clouds of dust, forcing us into the ditch. As the trailer went by, I could swear the glass clown turned its head to look at me and grinned.

I’ve exaggerated some of the details here for effect (though not actually by very much). Two incidents that gave rise to the uncanny. But the first, closer in tenor to the classic Victorian ghost story, was far less disconcerting than the second, which has more in common with the stories of uncertainty found in this volume. We almost expect to see ghostly hands at haunted sites — there’s no real ontological rift. Preternaturally animated Murano glass clowns, we do not anticipate. The other key difference is that in the second story, the actual moment of the supernatural is not as important in creating the effect as the bizarreness of what led up to it — tales of uncertainty often show us a world always already off-kilter.

Buy a copy of Uncertainties 4.



Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His first novel, The Wanderer, was published by Perfect Edge Books in 2014. His short fiction has appeared in The Flower Book, The Shadow Booth Vol. 1, The Scarlet Soul, Murder Ballads, and Uncertainties I, among other places. He also writes criticism and reviews, and is co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen.

Thoughts on Uncertainties 4

Our Haunted Year: 2018

2018 Christmas

Running Swan River Press can be a difficult job. The hours are long, usually after returning home from my day job (also weekends), and any financial risks are wholly my own. The victories are incremental, only often partly enjoyed with my attention fixed on what the next challenge might be. That’s why it’s nice to sit down with a cup of coffee, some homemade cranberry bread, and reflect on some of the successes of this past year. I’m always pleasantly surprised at how many there are.

IMG_2036The first book of the year was R. B. Russell’s Death Makes Strangers of Us All. I’ve known Ray for a good long time now, and where guidance is concerned, you can’t go wrong taking your cue from Tartarus Press. This is the third book Ray and I have done together. The first two were Ghosts (2012) and The Dark Return of Time (2014). Michael Dirda at the Washington Post seemed to like the book too, commenting that, “The disorienting title story of R. B. Russell’s superb Death Makes Strangers of Us All takes us into an ‘unreal city’ straight out of Kafka or Borges.” Not too shabby, huh? You can read more reviews here and an interview with Ray here.

IMG_2079The next book was a long-time in coming: William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. This title is one of the two of which I own excessive multiple editions: the Chapman & Hall, 1908; the Arkham House, 1946; plus innumerable paperbacks, etc. The situation really is ridiculous, folks. I figured the logical next step would be to publish my own edition. And this I did, with my dream line-up consisting of Alan Moore (introduction), Iain Sinclair (afterword), John Coulthart (illustrations), and Jon Mueller (soundtrack) — everyone who participated shares a deep admiration for Hodgson’s masterpiece, which is really the only way to do a project like this one. Apart from some production difficulties (ugh), we produced a beautiful signed edition just in time for the 100th anniversary of Hodgson’s death at Ypres in late April 1918. Alan declared it the finest edition of The House on the Borderland that had ever been published. Some reviews can be read here, a wonderful discussion between John Coulthart and Jon Mueller is here, and if you want to listen to Jon’s soundtrack (and even buy a digital copy), you can do that here.

IMG_2100Next was up may well be our most unsettling book of the year: Nicholas Royle’s The Dummy & Other Uncanny Stories. Apart from his introduction to Joel Lane’s The Anniversary of Never (2015), this is the first time I’ve worked with Nick. I suffered a few sleepless nights due to him, but sure, it was worth it. The stories evoke the uncanny in the Freudian sense, and that cover by Bill Bulloch is most disturbing. Reviewer Mario Guslandi also liked the book: “Royle’s dark fiction is always worth reading . . . His storytelling is impeccable, his plots always interesting and his characters credible.” If you’re still not convinced, you can read an interview with Nick here. You need a copy if you don’t have one already.

IMG_20180620_162604_437Shortly after The Dummy, we published Rosalie Parker’s Sparks from the Fire. This book was special not only because I got to work with Rosalie again, but also because Rosalie’s collection The Old Knowledge (2010) was the very first hardback book we published, ushering Swan River into a new era. Publishers Weekly gave a favourable review to what is one of our most popular books of the year: “[Parker’s] treatment of the fantastic is often so light and ambiguous that stories in which it does manifest are of a piece with tales such as ‘Jetsam’ and ‘Job Start’, sensitive character sketches whose celebration of life’s unforeseen surprises will appeal to fantasy fans as much as the book’s more overtly uncanny tales. Parker proves herself a subtle and versatile writer.” Naturally, I think you should buy a copy. Here’s an interview with Rosalie conducted by Jason E. Rolfe and some more reviews.

DnDQUqNX4AARHq8.jpg largeAnd then there’s Uncertainties 3. I edited the first two volumes in 2016. This year, to keep things fresh, I handed the reins over to Lynda E. Rucker, whose collection You’ll Know When You Get There (2016) I hope you’ve already enjoyed. Lynda did a superb job in selecting stories, showing the broad range of what supernatural literature in all its guises can do. Do take a peek at the line-up! In addition to some great reviews, Joyce Carol Oates wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that, “Among the most memorable books I’ve read this year are [ . . . ] several slender, elegantly designed collections of short stories of the uncanny (Uncertainties Vol. 1, 2, 3) published by Swan River Press.” Okay, so she has a story in the anthology too, but still! In addition to all that, Robert Shearman’s “Bobbo”, Lisa Tuttle’s “Voices in the Night”, and Rosanne Rabinowitz’s “The Golden Hour” were chosen for Best British Horror 2019! I don’t know about you, but I’m very much looking forward to Timothy J. Jarvis’s turn as editor for Uncertainties 4 next year.

47575930_571374369993353_4001565216583188480_nThen there are issues 11 and 12 of The Green Book, the former of which was excessively late this year. I apologise. Anyway, issue 11 boasts cover art by none other than Mike Mignola. This marks the second time we’ve worked with Mike — anyone remember the first? Issue 11 features articles on Lord Dunsany, plus the first serialised entries from A Guide to Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Fiction, a long-term project I’m working on with Jim Rockhill. Issue 12 features more entries from the Guide, and our issues for 2019 will continue with these. The project has has proved an extremely enlightening one. I’m learning loads and my reading list has grown like you wouldn’t believe. Intrigued? Stay tuned.

dublin logo final copyThe reason The Green Book 11 was delayed for so long turned out to be one of the absolute highlights of the year for me. The second Dublin Ghost Story Festival took place in late June. As in 2016, the festival sold out long before this intimate event and proved to be just as enjoyble as its predecessor. The guest of honour was Joyce Carol Oates (!!), and the opening night’s entertainment was provided by the great Reggie Oliver, who is surely one of the finest writers of the supernatural tale. Other guests included Helen Grant, Andrew Michael Hurley, V. H. Leslie, Rosalie Parker, Nicholas Royle, R. B. Russell, and Lisa Tuttle, each of whom brought with them their passion for the genre. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better believe we indulged the entire weekend in all things ghostly and strange, with discussions, readings, signings, and a trade hall that could easily claim the entire contents of your bank account. There are some photos over on Facebook. So will there be another Dublin Ghost Story Festival? I’d love to know the answer to that too!

37710479_2143309032570526_903951175399768064_nSure, running Swan River Press isn’t always easy, but looking back over the year I can clearly see the late nights and hard work were worth it. Thank you again to those who have shown Swan River support through this past year. I raise my glass to everyone who read our books and shared them with friends, wrote reviews, attended the festival, supported us through patronage, or sent correspondence and kind words. And a special thanks as always to the Swan River team: Meggan Kehrli, Ken Mackenzie, and Jim Rockhill. They put in loads of work, and it’s due to their expertise that our books always look their best.

Oh! Before I forget, because I completely missed it during the year, October was our fifteenth anniversary — our first publication, a chapbook entitled “The Old Tailor & the Gaunt Man”, first saw print in 2003. I’m working on a bibliography, Fifteen Years of Swan River Press, which I’ll try to issue as soon as I can.

I promise you I’ve got a full publishing schedule ready to go for next year. Some titles I’m particularly excited about, so make sure you’re on our mailing list. It’s the best way to get the jump on all things Swan River. You can also join us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I look forward to hearing from you all again soon.

 

 

Our Haunted Year: 2018

Things Less Certain: An Interview with Lynda E. Rucker

© Brian J. Showers, August 2018

Uncertainties 3Lynda E. Rucker has sold more than three dozen short stories to various magazines and anthologies, won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story, and is a regular columnist for UK horror magazine Black Static. Her first collection, The Moon Will Look Strange, was released in 2013 from Karoshi Books; and her second, You’ll Know When You Get There, was published by Swan River Press in 2016.


Brian J. Showers: This is the first anthology you’ve edited, isn’t it? Given that there are already two instalments in the Uncertainties series, what were your initial thoughts as to how you wanted to approach this project?

Lynda E. Rucker: I’ve always wanted to edit an anthology, but yes, this is the first one I’ve ever done. Initially, I was really unsure whether I wanted to do one that was invitation only or whether I wanted to open it to submissions. I talked with a few other people and editors about it, and in particular had a couple of long conversations with Joe S. Pulver. Talking with Joe convinced me that editing an anthology for the first time was a big enough project without also drowning myself in a slush pile, so in the end I decided to go the invite route.

The idea behind the series was already in place, and I’d read both the previous books and had a sense of the shape I wanted mine to take — although what was interesting was that I ended up with something somewhat different from what I had envisioned. That’s the human element of assembling an anthology. Even when it comes to work by writers you’re familiar with, you can end up being surprised — that’s the mark of a good writer! So there were several instances in which I asked a writer to send me something and I expected a certain type of story and what I got was quite a bit different. I think that was one of the most exciting elements of the process.

Lynda Rucker 01BJS: The thing I love about, broadly speaking, the horror genre, is that there are so many nuances in the approach, each eliciting different sensations: the strange, the grotesque, the weird, the numinous . . . What sort of dark corners does Volume 3 explore? Anything unexpected or surprising?

LER: One recurring theme that emerged in about half of the stories is that of fraught sexual or romantic relationships. That’s a preoccupation in my own work, but it sort of surprised me that it ended up being a dominant theme in the stories writers sent to me. Within the broader remit of the Uncertainties series, which (as I interpreted it!) is to sort of show the world askew, I tried to include a variety of voices and styles and approaches to the uncanny, and I think the anthology really reflects that.

Just to give a few examples without giving away too much — the Matthew M. Bartlett story has a kind of lush decadent feel to it that I think situates it firmly in the realm of the weird; Ralph Robert Moore’s story is a mix of magical realism and a hardboiled American style of writing; and the S. P. Miskowski story starts off somewhere in the territory of mimetic lit-fic and veers off into something much more unsettling — actually it occurs to me just at this moment that there are elements of it that are almost Ballardian. So in all, I think it’s a book that really showcases the scope of the genre.

BJS: I believe you grew up, like so many of us, reading classic anthologies — tales of terror, stories to tingle the spine. Hitchcock and Karloff, Haining and Dalby. Which of those old anthologies (and their editors) were important to you as a reader?

kaddish copyLER: Yes, my grounding and my first encounters with horror fiction is absolutely in those old, classic stories. As for who was specifically important to me, in those days — pre-internet — it was largely a matter of access. I grew up in a small town with the nearest bookstore an hour away, and it was a fairly uninspiring Walden Books in a mall. So I sort of had to make do.

Fortunately, I also grew up in a house full of books and with a mother who liked horror stories, although sadly Haining and Dalby didn’t cross my path. Of the ones you mentioned — absolutely Hitchcock. Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery is probably the first horror anthology I ever read. I still remember that F. Marion Crawford’s “The Upper Berth” and A. M. Burrage’s “The Waxwork” in particular terrified me. I also had an anthology called Shudders, which is where I first encountered “The Monkey’s Paw” along with stories by William Hope Hodgson and Frank Belknap Long, among others. There were a few more — I can’t remember the titles or editors but I think they were all sort of generic packaged anthologies that reprinted classics. It was with that foundation that I went on to read more contemporary stuff — I almost said “moved on”, but that makes it sound like I left those old classics behind and nothing could be further from the truth.

Speaking of “more contemporary”, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some later editors, from the 1980s, who were hugely important in shaping my conception of short horror fiction, its scope, and what it can do — David Hartwell with The Dark Descent, Charles L. Grant’s Shadows, and Stuart Gordon Schiff’s Whispers anthologies along with “Year’s Bests” edited by Karl Edward Wagner, Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, and Stephen Jones & Ramsey Campbell. And of course, those two modern classics, Douglas Winter’s Prime Evil and Kirby McCauley’s Dark Forces.

BJS: It’s funny how anthologies seem to be the gateway for so many! You mention your “conception of short horror fiction, its scope, and what it can do.” What are the limits to horror as a genre — if it has any?

REFLECTION+copyLER: My inclination is to say “there are no limits!” but that’s a bit disingenuous on my part — if we’re being very literal, obviously there are certain types of stories that can’t be told even within the broadest parameters of the horror genre. But I do resent narrow definitions of horror fiction, more so because they are nearly always formulaic and insulting. Most often, this comes in the belief that horror movies are movies where killers stalk people and kill them in explicit and inventive ways, or they are cheaply made junk with lots of jump scares, and that in literature, it’s adolescent, poorly-written, predictable tripe for the barely literate.

My view of horror is that it is a very broad church. It encompasses everything from the subtlest and most enigmatic of tales to the full-on Grand Guignol. It’s Halloween and Martyrs and The Hills Have Eyes, but it’s also Picnic at Hanging Rock and I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House and The Innocents. It’s Gothic literature, it’s ghost stories, it’s supernatural tales.

I think arguments about labelling literature are incredibly tedious, but it does bother me when people try to insist that something isn’t horror basically on the grounds that it is well-written or well-made, that it has depth and resonance and fine prose or is character-driven or has a political consciousness or whatever. And I loathe the fact that people keep throwing decades of amazing horror films and stories under the bus by coining new phrases like “post-horror” and “elevated genre”, and maybe the worst of all, “horror-adjacent” (what does that even mean?) What that says to me, quite simply, is that the person doesn’t know anything about the genre or its history. I also lean toward the idea that horror is really less a genre than it is a mode of literature, “an emotion” as Doug Winter once famously and controversially said.

Trilogy
Clearly, I could go on about this for a while but I probably should just go and write an essay instead. Nina Allan — a fine writer anyone with preconceived notions about the inferiority of the horror genre should check out — has written about this on her blog, and I’d urge anyone who wants to read further on the subject and get some great recommendations to check it out here and here and here.

BJS: I’m sure we could go on about the nuances of horror ad nauseum, and I know there have been a few late nights in the pub where we have — but this wonderfully illuminating exploration of nuance is really what the Uncertainties anthology series is about, isn’t it? So what else have you got in the pipeline these days?

LER: I have a few short stories on the go and a novella, and I’m working on a monograph for the PS Publishing imprint Electric Dreamhouse. I’ve also got a novel on the back burner that I hope to be able to move to the front burner once I get a couple of other projects out of the way. And beyond that, I’ve got a few more distant projects in mind — including an idea for another anthology, actually. Uncertainties 3 was a real pleasure to put together, and I hope readers enjoy it as much as I did.

Buy a copy of Uncertainties 3 here.


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.

Things Less Certain: An Interview with Lynda E. Rucker

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.

Uncertainties II: Foreword