Category Archives: Alison Moore

Poor Souls’ Light; Seven Curious Tales

Almost a year ago I told you about a collection of short stories entitled The Longest Night; Five Curious Tales. These were just the right sort of ghostly tales you need around Christmas and saw some authors I love such as Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore and Emma Jane Unsworth who collectively self published it and went on spooky nights here there and everywhere telling these tales and discussing ghost stories. Well guess what? It has only come back for a second year. Last year it was five tales in homage, of sorts, to M.R. James; this year it is seven tales in homage (again of sorts) to Robert Aickman. Now as you know I have some issue with Aickman’s tales, so when I realised that I did a small wince before getting going…

Curious Tales, 2014, paperback, fiction, ghost stories, 140 pages, kindly sent by Emma Jane Unsworth

Having read Aickman I can see how the stories by Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore, Johnny Mains, Tom Fletcher, Richard Hirst, Emma Jane Unsworth and M. John Harrison are all inspired by his works as they all have elements of the supernatural and the ‘weird’ about them. If, like me (as you may have seen recently), you find Aickman and the ‘weird’ a little too, erm, weird then fret not.

Even when the element of the strange rather than supernatural or ghostly is there, even in the most Aickman like tale Blossom by Mains which really plays homage to The Hospice the story of Aickmans I most loved, it never goes to the point where the plot is spoiled by the weirdness or the reader feels somewhat played unfairly by the author. I admit there was a scene in Blossom which had me thinking ‘WTF?’ yet Mains handles it really well and the plot gets even darker after with a real sting in the tales tail.

The rest of the tales veer more to the traditional edges of the ghost story. For example with both Alison Moore’s The Spite House and M. John Harrison’s Animals deal with haunted houses though in very different ways. One is very much about a house haunted by its past and something it lived through, the other is very much about how a house feels about someone who returns to it and the imprints of how those who lived in it felt about the returned person. I enjoyed both of these especially the element of the house as a character within the narrative, or almost with its own narrative itself.

The cottage could be quiet, especially in the early evening, when the lane, with its fringe of trees against the setting sun, filled up with shadows. She heard what she thought were movements, half drowned by the sound of the radio she kept in the kitchen, even in the day. ‘It must be the central heating,’ she thought, but soon it became clear that these sounds were actually voices. Whatever room Susan was in, she heard them somewhere else.

Emma Jane Unsworth’s Smoke takes on the tale of someone becoming haunted by something, indeed something that follows them afterwards wherever they go. I am not being funny but the idea of seeing something ghostly and then it following you to the ends of the earth/your bed, or in this case around Europe, is something I find truly creepy and Unsworth nicely plays with that primal fear. Tom Fletcher also plays with the primal fear of being followed yet in The Exotic Dancer it is the case of a stranger following you with their eyes and their intent. Fletcher’s tale too is incredibly creepy and the setting of an old canal tow path and the industrial edge of a town/city is spot on. It has reminded me how much I want to read his novels.

In a collection where there isn’t a dud note you shouldn’t really have a favourite, yet I had two. As you might have guessed I really enjoyed them all, Richard Hirst’s and Jenn Ashworth’s tales just edged it; I think Ashworth’s in particular should be put forward for every short story award going. Now both of them have a couple of twists so I don’t want to spoil them so I will tread carefully. Hirst’s And The Children Followed is set around evacuees in one of the World Wars, it is vague about which not that it matters, as a recently bereaved (and going off the rails) young woman grieves for a sibling. I will say no more than that on the plot but as the tale goes on and the dread and horror mount I was instantly reminded of Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, you will gasp at the end. Ashworth’s story I actually want to say almost nothing about, other than it will turn a ghostly tale on its head for you and have you asking all sorts of questions. That is all, oh and it’s bloody marvellous with the games it plays and how she cleverly lets it unfold and toys with the reader in the best o f ways, marvellous.

I embrace her but she only shivers and pulls away to turn all the radiators on the house onto their highest setting. I wait for her in our bedroom, worrying about my cough and my breath, which is starting to smell like mushrooms, even to myself. She will not come up, but begins again to scrub the kitchen floor.

All in all a great collection again from the Curious Tales crew/collective, one that I would heartily recommend you get your mitts on and get reading over these dark winter nights. I have often said that I think modern ghost stories are very difficult to get right, this collection proves me completely wrong and I am thrilled.

If you are looking to get a copy you best hurry as there is a limited run of just 500 of them in print. I am not sure what the plan is on eBooks. For more info and to buy it head to the website here where you can also find out about some live events ahead this month and next – erm, massive hint guys bring it to Liverpool at some point or else, I know just the place! Now I am in the mood for more ghostly tales, so which ghost stories and collections would you recommend I go and hunt down?

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Filed under Alison Moore, Curious Tales, Emma Jane Unsworth, Ghost Stories, Johnny Mains, M. John Harrison, Review, Richard Hirst, Short Stories, Tom Fletcher

He Wants – Alison Moore

There are some books that leave you feeling both completely uplifted and utterly devastated, all at once. I know it sounds implausible, such a dichotomy of emotions, yet these books are often the ones that leave us feeling the most enriched by the experience. Alison Moore’s He Wants is such a book.

9781907773815

Salt Publishing, paperback, 2014, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Lewis is a man who seems to be stuck in a rut. He is at the end of middle age yet not quite on the cusp of old age. He goes and looks after his father, Lawrence, at the old people’s home and yet his daughter, Ruth, comes round every morning to look after him and deliver soup that he actually doesn’t want. He has recently retired as his role as an RE (religious education) teacher yet having been widowed sometime a go he has no one to share his retirement with, just time and his own thoughts. He spends most of his days at home apart from when he goes to visit his second favourite pub, and that is probably how he will go on spending it. What Lewis isn’t expecting is a blast from the past, in the form of an old friend Sydney, to turn up one day and Lewis’ comfortable, if boring from the outside, life is shaken up.

As we follow Lewis through his day to day existence, often veering off on one of his nostalgic moments, we build a picture very much of the everyman. It is not that Lewis has not had dreams and desires, or that he has failed to accomplish many of them. It is more that Lewis is a man who has been happy in the village he was brought up in, happy to following his father’s footsteps to be a teacher, happy to fall in love and marry a good woman and just live the life he leads. No matter how conventional. It is not that he is ineffectual, he has just been happy with his lot and has never questioned otherwise. Suddenly seventy or so years have gone by and life has been perfectly fine and good, is that not enough? As he spends his time thinking about the past, the choices he has made, what could of been and also about the future and what may or may not lay ahead, should he have lived life a little more on the edge of his seat, has he wasted time?

When the school recruited a new librarian who was a single lady of Lewis’ age, Lewis became a big reader of whatever classics the library carried. As he returned each of these books at the end of the loan period, he attempted to discuss them with her, but each time, Edie, eyeing the Austen, the Eliot, the Woolf, would say, ‘I haven’t read it. It’s not my sort of thing.’
On their first date, they did not talk about books; they talked about food, what they had or had not eaten in their lives. ‘I’ve never had beef Wellington,’ said Edie. ‘I’ve never had black pudding,’ said Lewis.
When Lewis and Edie had been courting for a year, Lewis’s father asked if he planned to marry Edie. He asked again, many times, over the years, saying to Lewis, ‘What are you waiting for?’ They had been a couple for seven years before Lewis finally got around to proposing. After a three-year engagement, they married in the summer of 1977.

This is where the main theme of the book comes to the fore. All the different versions we have of ‘want’ in our lives. All the things we have wanted in the past, the things we didn’t want but somehow got, the things we wanted to ask for but were too shy or scared, the things we thought we wanted but actually didn’t, what we want for and from others, the things we want to forget, the things we want right now at this moment, the things we want for the future. Moore wonderfully describes all these things as Lewis assesses his life, even by the chapter titles throughout like ‘He does not want soup’, ‘When he was a child, he wanted to go to the moon’, ‘He wants a time machine’. All these thoughts and wants are covered by Moore in under two hundred pages, it is quite marvellous.

Aging and the world moving on around us while we stop and contemplate or just stop full stop, is also another major aspect of the novel. Lewis sees with his own eyes that once Edie died the world just carried on around him and without her, how can that be? As I mentioned before he is also at the end of middle age yet not quite on the cusp of old age, looking after yet being looked after too. Yet what defines old age, do we really have to pop to the shop and only buy beige when we hit a certain birthday? I loved this aspect of the novel which often adds a real sense of emotion, as we see Lawrence’s decline in the home, and yet some hilarious moments as Lewis tries to grapple with the real world.

When the computer is ready, Lewis opens up his email, finding new messages in bold. Someone he knows – a friend of his or someone he’s acquainted with – keeps sending him pictures, but Ruth says he mustn’t open them, he mustn’t look. ‘That’s not a friend,’ she says. One email says he is due thousands of pounds, but there is a link he must click on to claim the money, and he daren’t. ‘Incompetent in love,’ says another. He does not want cheap Viagra or SuperViagra; he does not want bigger, harder, longer-lasting erections. He does not want a nineteen-year-old Russian girl or an Australian virgin who wants to talk. He doesn’t not want a replica Rolex watch or a fake Gucci handbag.

He Wants is also a book which both makes the reader work with it. Moore doesn’t think we are stupid, she wants us to be a part of it all and form our own opinions as we fill in the gaps. The way in which He Wants is constructed is neither linear, nor is it a case of alternating between the present and the past. Each chapter hops skips and jumps between different parts of Lewis’s life until towards the end when we have built up the picture, little clues being handed to us here and there, and can work out where it’s all going? Or do we? As with The Lighthouse you might get a surprise or two as you read on.

It almost seems lazy to compare He Wants with The Lighthouse further, as they are very different novels in many, many ways. Yet Moore’s writing does some of the same marvellous things in both. Firstly the wonderful ‘did I really just read that?’ moments where something really shocking or revealing will happen in the middle of what seems such a pedestrian (which sounds so wrong as the story and writing are anything but pedestrian, but you know what I mean) memory or seemingly insignificant act. We have to read back to believe our eyes. She works wonderfully with the everyday and making it darker and edgier whilst all the more realistic at once. She also might just leave you to go off and work it all out; I will elaborate no further as I do not want to spoil what is just a wonderful and brilliant reading experience.

He Wants will easily be one of my books of the year. Alison Moore’s writing is so deft in so many ways it is hard to try and do it justice, or without spoiling any of the many delights, twists/surprises and ‘did I just actually read that then?’ moments which the novel has in store. So I will reiterate what I said at the start, He Wants left me feeling both completely uplifted and utterly devastated, all at once. It is a perfect example of the sort of book I want to be reading. I loved it.

If you would like to hear more about the book, you can her myself and Alison Moore on this episode of You Wrote The Book. Have you read The Lighthouse or He Wants and if so what did you think? I am very much looking forward to reading Alison’s short story collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories, in the non too distant future.

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Filed under Alison Moore, Books of 2014, Review, Salt Publishing, You Wrote The Book!

The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales

I have often said that to write a really good ghost story in a modern setting is almost impossible. However a recent collection of five wintery ghostly tales The Longest Night by a collective compiled of authors Jenn Ashworth, Tom Fletcher, Richard Hirst, Alison Moore and Emma Jane Unsworth seems to have proven me wrong. Whilst I read each of these tales, which are designed to emulate M.R James’ tradition on Christmas Eve (so very apt today) of meeting with friends to exchange tales of the supernatural, I found that I often was either chilled, shocked or felt the hairs on my neck slowly begin to rise as I read on.

Curious Tales, 2013, paperback, fiction, ghost stories, 88 pages, kindly sent by Emma Jane Unsworth

The Longest Night isn’t a collection of stories designed to revolutionise or modernise the ghostly tale, as what each author does rather marvellously is give the tale a truly Victorian feeling yet very much in a modern setting. If you are wondering what on earth I mean by that, I mean that the stories feel very traditional with modern twist. We have old haunted houses, slightly scary children who might be possessed or at least can speak to the dead, ghostly ladies returning from the grave and of course the wonderful scares a telephone can provide. Why is it that the simple telephone can be so bloody unnerving? All these tales also have the feeling of you being told the tale firsthand, as Stephen Volk (who created the cult show Ghostwatch) says in the introduction of ‘No listen. This happened to me…’, a celebration of the oral tradition of the ghostly tale. In fact, frankly, I wanted to be sat by a roaring fire with a mulled wine being told these tales by the authors themselves – which if you pop to the site you will see they are doing, well in bookshops anyway. I feel slightly cheated I have missed out.

Now you may have noticed that I am being rather vague, or actually haven’t really mentioned, about what lies in wait within each of the tales. This is because as they are all rather short, again the traditional and best ghostly tales are short sharp shocks, and so I wouldn’t want to spoil them. I think I can get away with saying that Alison Moore (who wrote the brilliant The Lighthouse) and Tom Fletcher’s stories are probably the most traditional in terms of setting and sensibility, both set within empty houses; one the former estate of a famous author, the other a new house in the middle of nowhere where a house husband starts to feel something not quite right is going on and seems to be linking itself to his young daughter. I loved these as they felt like the sorts of tales that Arthur Conan Doyle and M.R. James would indeed write now.

I also greatly admired the three tales by Ashworth, Hirst and Unsworth as whilst each one of them had the traditional feel, they also had something of the urban legend about them mixed in and probably most importantly they had the evocation of modern human base fears mixed in with the supernatural. In each tale there is an underlying completely natural fear be it grief, loneliness or madness. With those feelings we all know so well plus the sense of unease and fearful trepidation they all had a horribly, yet brilliantly, heady mix of the fearful running right into every part of their structure and it was really deftly done.

All in all a marvellous, very well written and indeed incredibly unsettling collection of modern winter ghostly tales which I think would have gladly given the contemporary ghost writers of the past a real case of the shivers. I am hoping this becomes a yearly fixture as I could do with a decidedly chilling evening in the pre-Christmas madness once a year, or more often frankly.

For more information about the last few available copies and indeed where the authors will be reading in the New Year head to the Curious Tales website here.

Which are your favourite ghostly tales for the perfect darkened evening with the roaring fire (I don’t have a roaring fire here, which along with the lack of a bath has confirmed in my mind I need to have moved by next winter just for reading purposes alone) be they new or old? Do you think the Victorians did it best? Have you any other modern ghostly tales that will continue to prove my thoughts on the modern ghost story wrong?

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Filed under Alison Moore, Curious Tales, Emma Jane Unsworth, Jenn Ashworth, Review, Richard Hirst, Tom Fletcher

The Lighthouse – Alison Moore

I really should listen to people more and stop making assumptions so quickly, I really should. One book that has certainly highlighted this recently has been reading Alison Moore’s debut novel ‘The Lighthouse’, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. I had assumed that with a lighthouse on the cover it would be about the sea and boats, which it isn’t but I don’t read blurbs so I just assumed it would be. Then I heard it was a ‘walking book’ and as a child who went on too many walking holidays (sorry Gran, I do think of them more fondly now) that put me off too. However Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes raved about it to me when we recorded a Man Booker special of The Readers and now, having finished it, I am kicking myself for having not read it sooner.

Salt Publishing, paperback, 2012, fiction, 184 pages, borrowed from the library

Futh, which I admit I initially found such an unusual name it bothered me to start with and slightly distracted me, is a man who has decided to take himself off on his first holiday alone walking in the German countryside. As we meet him on the ferry we learn that he has recently become separated and in some nostalgic way has done what he and his father did when his mother left and head to Germany for a break of sorts. It is this almost circular and mirroring of the past and the present that we see more and more of as ‘The Lighthouse’ goes on. As Futh walks in the days that follow certain things mainly scents, as he is a chemist who creates artificial scents which I couldn’t help think was inspired by the fact the only thing of his mothers he had was a perfume bottle shaped like a lighthouse, remind him of the past and memories start to come back that he can’t quite figure out, yet as the reader we can which I thought Moore had planned rather intricately.

Now I am aware that I have fallen into the trap of making this book sound like it is a ‘walking book’ and actually it is so much more and that is where the second strand of the novel comes from in alternating chapters. Ester is a rather unhappy landlady of a B&B in Germany called Hellhaus (which is German for ‘lighthouse’) where Futh comes to stay. Her husband, Bernard, no longer seems interested in her and so finds herself sleeping with single men who stay at the hotel, and who will have her, in a way of getting her husband’s attention. This works but not in the way she hopes, his reaction is of a darker jealousy which cleverly creates a sense of unease and dread in the reader for all concerned.

“In the past, she always used beds she had already changed, but since receiving complaints about the sheets, she makes sure to use rooms not yet cleaned. Or she uses rooms whose occupants are out for the day, brushing off and straightening up the bedding afterwards, and sometimes, while she is there, browsing the contents of drawers and suitcases, picking up perfumes and lipsticks, testing them on herself. If guests ever notice their possessions, these small items, going missing, they rarely say anything.”

Both the characters of Ester and Futh are polar opposites yet they have similarities and are so fascinating they make you read on. She appears from the outside a little cold, sexually dominant and manipulative; you learn how she went for Bernard when she was originally dating his brother etc. Yet really ester is a woman who fell in love with a man who became bored of her and she became bored of her life, she wanted romance and indeed still collects and reads Mills and Boons, the promise they offer consoled with drinking gin during the day. Futh on the other hand is one of those people who seem to amble through life a little bit confused and is often overlooked, misunderstood or finds himself misunderstanding the world around him. I did love the fact that wherever he stays he has to work out an exit of safety, hence why he doesn’t like planes. He is someone who goes under the radar possibly because he is actually a bit boring. It is this ambling nature and of not understanding or being understood which makes the ending of the book all the more horrifying, but I won’t say more on that subject.

“He has got into the habit of always determining an escape route from a room in which he is staying, imagining emergency scenarios in which his exit is blocked by a fire or a psychopath. This began, he thinks, when he was in his twenties and living in an attic flat. His Aunt Frieda, worrying about stair fires and burglars, gave him a rope ladder. It seems important he should always know a way out.”

Another thing I really admired and found rather enthralling was the circular feel to ‘The Lighthouse’, something which the title seems to allude to right there and indeed the quoted paragraph above does too. Themes of how history repeats itself, with Futh’s mother (also called Angela) leaving his father for being boring, and then his wife does the very same thing. The very walk itself he goes in is circular, the bottle in his pocket is a lighthouse, Esters hotel has the name, the place Futh saw his father hit his mother and ended their relationship was on a walk to a lighthouse etc. Occasionally these fall into symmetries and seem a tad too much, the fact Ester dated one brother then another and Futh’s wife might have had an affair with his estranged step brother, or the fact Futh creates scents and carries an empty bottle of his mothers and Ester collecting perfume bottles seemed one too far but because the book is so, so good I ended up overlooking it, even if it did seem to be one connection that was thrown in for the plot a little.

I think ‘The Lighthouse’ is one of the most accomplished debut novels that I have read in quite some time, and indeed is one of my favourite novels of the year so far. It is a book that says so much and is brimming with themes and ideas in fewer than two hundred pages. It has shades of dark and light, there is some real humour at Futh’s expense making the darker undertones all the darker, the unease build throughout and the ending all the more upsetting. I had to keep re-reading the last few chapters. I would highly recommend you give this book a whirl and am thrilled that the Man Booker judges chose this over some more famous names or I might have missed out.

Who else has read ‘The Lighthouse’ and what did you think? Have you ever been put off a book by its cover and/or what you have assumed about it or thought the subject matter wouldn’t be your thing (I am also thinking of Madeline Miller’s ‘The Song of Achilles’ here) only to love it and wish you had read it sooner? Oh and you can read Trevor of Mookse and the Gripes thoughts here and also Kim of Reading Matters here as it was Trevor who said I should read it and Kim’s review that made me get this from the library!

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Filed under Alison Moore, Books of 2012, Man Booker, Review, Salt Publishing