Beneath the Dragon's Mound

I've just stumbled blinking into the light of October, having shut myself away all summer to finish the next book for Titan ('The Bone Harvest', out next May, kiddies!), and I've been able to enjoy a day out - which in my case means wandering about in some underground tunnels. Of course.

About half an hour's drive from my place is a village called Drakelow, which is an Anglo Saxon name meaning the Hill of the Dragon. It's called that because, well, there's a hill there, and like a lot of the old hills around Worcestershire it carries the remains of an Iron Age settlement. I haven't been able to gather a lot about the local folklore, but the remains of the settlement walls are a long curving mound, so maybe the Anglo Saxon newcomers thought there was a dragon buried under it or something.

I don't know about dragons, but there are a hell of a lot of tunnels. Three and a half miles of them.

With the outbreak of World War 2 a series of underground 'Shadow' factories was built, and the complex at Drakelow was designated Rover 1D, the idea being that parts made there would be dispersed to other sites for assembly. The tunnels were dug into the soft sandstone underneath Drakelow hill - sandstone which had already provided natural caves in which people had been living for centuries already. After the war turned Cold it was re-tasked as Regional Seat of Government 9 in the event of a nuclear attack; the workshops were turned into dormitories, armed forces C&C, a hospital, a GPO exchange, and even a BBC broadcasting studio. It was mothballed in '79 and eventually sold off in '94, and in recent years a small group of quintessentially mad English enthusiasts have been volunteering their time and energy to renovate it into a Cold War museum. For this they need money, and for that they sell guided tours. Which is where I come in - my and my mate Dan, a fellow searcher of things under hedgerows and strange lumps in the landscape.

Naturally there are all sorts of stories about paranormal phenomena in the tunnels - ghostly music, spectral monks and whatnot - and to be fair there were some pretty gruesome deaths involved in the construction, including three in a ceiling collapse and two factory workers who were killed when they decided to hitch a ride out of the tunnels on a conveyor belt but couldn't jump off in time and were dragged into the machinery and mangled. I'll be honest, I didn't see anything supernatural. The remnants of the complex's past lives were spooky enough for me. I'm just going to leave a bunch of photos here to speak for themselves.

Speaking Frankly

I don’t get out much. I’ve never been much of a gig-goer (gigger? Giggist?) so when I do it’s a bit of an adventure for me. On Wednesday night I was lucky enough to get to a book launch for an anthology of short stories called ‘Ten-Word Tragedies’ inspired by the lyrics of a song by Frank Turner, who was there to sing a few songs and sign copies of the book. It was a fun event, quite a small audience, I bopped a bit, yelled the words (often wrong) to the songs I knew, and got to meet an artist I admire who signed some of his work for me.

Anyway, the stories in the anthology are based on the lyrics of a song called ‘Mittens’, in which the narrator discovers a box of old postcards where he reads the stories of long-dead strangers and reflects on his own broken love affair. So far, so break-up song. The twist here is that Turner did actually have such a box of postcards and when he was approached about the anthology he sent some of them to the editors who in turn sent them out to the writers for inspiration for the stories.

Now Turner’s latest project is an album called ‘No Man’s Land’ on which the tracks are all true stories of historical women, and he’s getting some grief about it (which you are more than welcome to read if you want to delve into the cesspool of carefully curated outrage that is Twitter), because how dare he, a white dude fronting a band made up of other white dudes, presume to appropriate the stories of marginalised women? How dare he, especially without having first apologised for writing break-up songs in which hurt men say Hurtful Things, because of course we all know that everything a writer puts down on the page is exactly and precisely what they really agree with, and the only way forward is for everyone to continually apologise to each other for having written Hurtful Things and abase ourselves until we’re all crawling around in the mud like worms because then we’ll all be equal, just all in the shit.

And breathe.

It makes me question my own creative decisions – as it should – because I wrote a book called The Hollow Tree (no, this isn’t a stealth promo) about a murdered woman known only as Bella in the Wych Elm. I questioned at the time, and still do now to an extent, what my position was as a white dude trying to write the story of a female victim of male violence. Did I have that right? In the end, the fact that my editor was woman who was not telling me ‘James, you’re a misogynistic bastard, stop it’ made me think that it was probably okay.

Because it’s about ownership. When you start to make pronouncements about who has the ‘right’ to tell another person’s story, you’re making a statement about ownership. You are saying ‘this subject’s story belongs not to your group, but to our group’, and when you start to talk about people as things to be owned you’re on very dodgy moral ground. Surely, isn’t the whole purpose of what we’re trying to do here to stop treating people like objects? Cultural territory to be fought over?

One of my favourite Frank Turner songs is called ‘Rivers’. It’s a lovely celebration of the beauty of the English countryside, but I must confess that I have never once called into question his credentials as a geographer.

The stories in ‘Ten-Word Tragedies’ are also based on fragments of the lives of real people, taken from those postcards. I haven’t seen them, I don’t know what they look like, but presumably there isn’t any information about who the original owners were. What if one of the white male writers inadvertently ended up basing his story on a postcard written by a black woman? Should he have checked? Should a rigorous process of historical research been undertaken to ascertain, as far as possible, the correct ‘ownership’ of that story? If you’re going with the idea of ‘owning’ a story, why do any of those writers have the right to appropriate the fragmentary detail of a real person’s life?

Here’s why.

My father-in-law died in March and I’ve been doing my best to support my wife as she has dealt with not just the emotional fallout but also the mountain of legal and bureaucratic practicalities surrounding his death. I’ve only read the first story in the anthology so far, but it’s called ‘I Am Here’, by Michael Marshall Smith, and it’s about a woman dealing with not just the emotional fallout but also the mountain of legal and bureaucratic practicalities surrounding the death of her mother. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s beautiful and haunting, and it’s gone straight to the heart of a grief which has touched my family closely. If anybody had said ‘No, Mr Marshall Smith, you may not write that story for it does not belong to you’, then it wouldn’t exist, and that small piece of haunting beauty would not be in my world, and my world would be the lesser for it.

I understand the imperative to give marginalised people their voices, but at the end of the day a world with fewer stories in it cannot be a good thing.

(Honestly, I had nothing to do with this project, but it's really good!)

Y Pestis Say Hi!

I wrote this for the blog tour of 'The Plague Stones' but I don't think it got used, and it's good not to waste things, isn't it?

Greetings from your Friendly Neighbourhood Plague

Hello. My name’s Yersinia Pestis and I’ll be your disease for the next few days. You know why they call me that? Well have yersinia doctor recently – because you really should!

Just a little plague humour for you there to take the edge off. I mean if you haven’t got your sense of humour what have you got? I figured that since we’re going to be working very closely together – at least for a while - I’d start by telling you a little bit about myself while you’re still able to concentrate.

I’m a simple, down-to-earth rod-shaped bacterium who likes spreading virulently, killing millions, and destabilising whole civilisations. I’d like to take this opportunity to say how great it is to be inside such a large organism for a change. I’ve been cooped up in that bastard flea for ages, stuck behind a plug of slime in its gut (which is exactly as much fun as it sounds) until it decided to take a bite out of you. Then because it was already full of me it – well, just look at the pavement outside a nightclub in the early hours of a Saturday morning and you’ll get the idea. I reckon that flea must have vomited somewhere between ten to twenty thousand of me into your bloodstream. That’s fleas for you. All class.

Uh, nope, looks like I’m here for good now. Well, not good, obviously. Not unless you’ve got some antibiotics handy. You haven’t? Shame.

And your immune system? I’m sorry but that’s just not going to happen this time. You know how normally when you get an infection you’ve got those immune cells, the macrophages, the ones that envelope and eat foreign organisms like me? Well, no – I’ve got me a type 3 secretion system to take care of them. And you know those other ones that burst open to alert the other immune cells and to stop me from having somewhere to spread, and that’s why you get all inflamed and puffy? I’ve got a hack for that too – a special protein I like to call Yop. All my little yoppies are going to disable your immune cells’ auto-destruct sequences, and they’re going to do precisely nothing except carry me straight to the lymph nodes in your throat, your armpits and your groin.

Where we are going to par-tay.

By the time your immune system has got it together those nodes are going to be up like fuckin' zeppelins. I’ll be in your spleen and liver and you’ll feel like you’ve got the worst case of flu in the world, and if I’m able to get into your bloodstream you can add septicemia, abdominal cramps, vomiting blood, and gangrene in your extremities. The presence of so much of me will cause your system to go batshit crazy, triggering septic shock where your veins and arteries haemorrhage, your blood pressure drops through the floor and your organs die quicker than the characters in A Game of Thrones.

But hey, it’s not all about me. I’m a social animal, really; I just love getting out and meeting new people. I can’t wait to get into your lungs, because then I can go full-on pneumonic and spray myself all over your loved ones every time you cough. Hundred percent fatality rate, baby, that’s what I’m talking about.

In the absence of antibiotics I suppose you could always try some of the old-fashioned remedies like eating crushed emeralds, drinking mercury, or covering yourself in human excrement. If you’re really desperate you could even try praying. Hahahahahaaa!

No, seriously.

Patient Zero

It's been a bit of a busy time recently but I thought I'd just check in to let you know what's happening, in case you're remotely interested.

Obviously the main thing is that 'The Plague Stones' was published this week. It's the third book I've written for Titan, and my sixth over all, and is probably the only one one to date that I actually think of as a horror story. Leastways, nobody disappears into a parallel world this time, which I know some people find weird in a horror novel, but then the thing I find weird is that people think I write horror at all. I mean yes, that's how the other two have been marketed, but I honestly can't see any substantial difference between Hekla's Children and The Narrows, which has ley lines and magical acupuncture in it.

Honestly I love those one- and two-star reviews on Goodreads where readers complain that they don't know what kind of story it's suppose to be. If you're one of those, please don't take this the wrong way, but good. If I wanted to give you everything you expected from to the same formula as everyone else I'd be flipping burgers not making up stories. Actually, take it the wrong way if you want. I'm not the boss of you. Read my stuff any way you like. The Plague Stones is also my most overtly political book so I'm basically asking for it anyway.

It's also the fastest novel I've written. I don't know if that shows. I wouldn't exactly call myself prolific, as I'm currently juggling a day job and any number of work-avoidance hobbies, so my definition of 'quick' is anything less than a year. But my oldest daughter has left home to begin her adventures in software development and my youngest is off studying Eng Lit at university, and I've changed jobs after nearly two decades to work in an establishment where I get my weekends back and hence some semblance of a work-life balance, so there's been a lot more quiet time for writing this year. I thought I'd be a bit more disciplined about it, to be honest, but there you go.

There was a launch party at Foyles in Grand Central, Birmingham, for which I baked biohazard biscuits. To my knowledge, everyone who attended has survived.

So look, all of next week is a Blog Tour, in which different bits and pieces of me will be popping up and down on the 'tweb like a digital whack-a-mole, and I'll be physically hither and yon over the next couple of months, to whit:

June 1st-2nd
Collectormania 26 (Birmingham Film and Comic Con, basically), where I'll be selling ma books.

June 7th-9th
Cymera, Scotland's Festival for Science-Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Writing, where I'll be chatting to Big Jim 'Gingernuts of Horror' McLeod in the company of the awesomely talented Cassandra Khaw.

June 29th
With the Oxford Writing Circle, talking all things bookly.

July 13th
Edge Lit 8, just pretty much lurking.

July 26th-28th
London Film and Comic Con. Allegedly selling books, but probably stalking Gina Torres, if I'm honest.

If you're around, say hi. I can't guarantee it, but there may be biscuits.