Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Priming the pump; standing on the shoulders of giants

I've been treated to curling up during these first early autumn evenings with a new anthology of striking modern short stories. Edited by Al Sarrantonio and Neil Gaiman and entitled "Stories", plain and simple, I only spotted it thanks to my local library's great selection and showcasing of their eye-catching, recommended and recent books.

The stories themselves are neither plain nor simple. Nearly all have a twist in their lashing tails and more than one will leave you wondering and perhaps shuddering. It's hard for any anthology to be flawless and to avoid being patchy in places, but this collection was haunting and readable throughout.

I particularly relished Joanne Harris's "Wildfire in Manhatten" where ancient myths come exploding into modern America in a multi-layered and complex tale that demands a double take at its smoke and mirrors.

The anthology hits the ground running right from the first story, disturbing all we humble vegetarian sympathiser-types, with Roddy Doyle's "Blood". The pace doesn't flicker as we move on to Joyce Carol Oates story of identical twins, "Fossil-figures" taking sibling rivalry to a chilling new level.

This had me contemplating the amazing possibilities in stories built around the closest family realtionships, like siblings born in a multiple birth. I also loved the astonishingly (enviably? - I think so!) accomplished first novel I recently read by Diane Setterfield, "The Thirteenth Tale". It grips you mercilessly with its lovingly constructed gothic plot and Gormenghast-like cast of characters, centering on two pairs of twins.

Maybe it's because my great grandmother was an identical twin, as were her sons, my great granduncles and I, as an only child, always fantasised about having a twin, that I find these stories and novels particularly engaging. The talent with which these particular tales are told has much more to do with it, though!

I'm constantly drawn back to writing and reading stories that deal with family relationships especially where these strive to explore and challenge shallow assumptions and cliched stereotypes and to reveal and celebrate who we really are, or think we are!

I've also just been rereading the wonderful novel by Susan Hill "I'm the King of the Castle" about  two schoolboys, Edmund Hooper and Charles Kingshaw who find themselves thrown together by the relationship between Edmund's widowed father and Charles' widowed mother. Isolated in Hooper's "kingdom", trapped as in a glass case under the microscope in the rambling house once owned by Edmund's moth collector grandfather, Kingshaw finds himself bullied and dispossessed in this bleak and mesmerising book.
The book's English country setting is a character in itself, vividly brought to life by Hill's lucid descriptive power: there is the house and its grounds, claustrophobic and troubling; "Hang Wood" beckoning the tormented Charles to run away, only to be pursued by his tormentor; the surrounding fields haunted by vengeful crows and maggot-infested rabbits and the local castle where another round of the jockeying for position between the hunter and the hunted is played out, with a climactic scene in which a window of hope seems to be flung open for Kingshaw, only to be slammed shut again with devastating consequences.

Susan Hill is masterful in her building of the sense of tension, panic and utter hopelessness as one by one, within Kingshaw's quest for escape from persecution, his minor triumphs and moments of hope are extinguished. The ending is bleak but perfectly prepared for. I appreciate this book more each time I revisit it. For me, it has a similar appeal to L. P. Hartley's tale of an Edwardian childhood, "The Go-Between", also plotted with knife-edge tensions between hope and helplessness, the struggle between good and evil with all its ambiguities. The wonderful "I'm the King of the Castle" succeeds in touching the deepest fears and obsessions of childhood and adolescence, while being a cracking good read into the bargain.

It leaves me inspired to go on crafting my own stories out of childhood's partial but compellingly vivid understanding of the world, the power struggles between extraverts and introverted outsiders with whom I can usually identify!

I'm always grateful and thankful, standing on the shoulders of giants, for all I can learn from the techniques in plotting and pacing and characterisation of other writers. We all have stories to tell, pebbles in the stream, worn away to reveal hidden grains and fault lines inside us; unique, and humbling and shocking and so beautiful.

So now my library books are back on the coffee table and it's onto Microsoft Word's nemesis OpenOffice here on the laptop to edit my latest short story. I've tucked its ungainly flamingo body back under my arm with its legs hanging down. Yes, it might be looking at me a bit puzzled (see yesterday's blog if you're not following), but after a bit of a struggle, I've convinced it to keep its neck straight while I knock that ball towards the peg!

Books mentioned in this post with links to Amazon.co.uk:

"Stories; All New Tales" eds Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio at Amazon.co.uk

"I'm the King of The Castle" by Susan Hill at Amazon.co.uk

"The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield at Amazon.co.uk

"The Go-Between" by L.P.Hartley on Amazon.co.uk

No comments:

Post a Comment