Where do stories come from? Neil Gaiman and Kate Mosse

The genesis of stories is endlessly fascinating to me and I particularly love those that end up being a bit ‘so I was on a bus…’ or ‘I was staying in an old house in the middle of nowhere…’. For this reason, I’m always drawn to short story collections that include notes from the author on the origin or history of each story; the how, where or why they came to be written. Usually they’re relatively brief, but they do provide an enticing peek behind the curtain.

Two such collections that I ploughed through in January were Kate Mosse’s The Mistletoe Bride and other Haunting Tales and Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things – Short Fictions and Wonders. Both of them include author notes on each story and, while pretty different in style, they each reflect their author’s dominant passions and share more than a few themes, such as ghosts, myths and legends, and a sense of homage to existing tales.

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To quote from Mosse’s introduction, her stories:

‘…have in common…a protagonist in a state of crisis, someone whose emotional state makes them more susceptible to experiences or happenings outside everyday life. They are women and men who, for a moment at least, have slipped between the cracks of the physical world we can see and understand and into a shadow world that may not even exist.’

Given that most of Gaiman’s oeuvre and many of the protagonists in Fragile Things reside in the ‘shadow world’, they do make good companion pieces. Nicely creepy, they’re also a perfect gloomy January read.

Those author passions I mentioned are pleasing to unpick. In Mosse’s case, there’s the influence of the surroundings in which they’re set (in many cases her beloved Languedoc and Brittany regions of France), the folk tales that endure in local stories and the way that personal and emotional history affects the present, often via ghostly visitations or visions. In Gaiman’s case, there’s a strong sense of the Gothic and the darker regions we inhabit, where the line between this world and the next becomes blurred, as well as a regular seam of tongue-in-cheek jibing at convention. Mosse’s ‘Duet‘ was a clever play on perspective and ‘The Revenant‘ pleasingly spine chilling. Gaiman’s ‘Feeders and Eaters’ was terrifying as much for what it doesn’t explain as what it does, and ‘Other People’ is a bit of a masterclass in short story craft.

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I’m a fan of both authors and, in particular, of the fact of that they both have such obvious writing obsessions if you read around their various works. To quote Mosse again, much of the enjoyment of these kind of collections is as a direct result of the way they help you get to know them as writers.

‘Any collection of work written over many years must, by its very nature, tell another story too – of how the author came to be the author she or he is.’

Sophie Hannah – ‘The Orphan Choir’

17612685I don’t know what it says about me that I’m more frightened by creepy children than almost any other horror story trope. I’d far rather face down an axe-wielding, blood-crazed killer than a small, wan-faced child in an ankle-length Victorian nightshirt.

In Sophie Hannah’s The Orphan Choir, as if one isn’t bad enough, there’s a whole pack of creepy child ghosts, their choir robes perfectly mimicking the terrifying nightshirts. To quote the BCC it’s ‘the chilling story of a woman haunted by music that only she can hear, sung by a choir of children that only she can see.

I won’t say too much about the plot because like most scary stories, the terror is in the reveal. Hannah’s style is simple and punchy. Where I thought she excelled was in the opening sections of the book as central character Louise becomes mired in a dispute with her neighbour – who she refers to as Mr Fahrenheit because of his anti-social love for the music of Queen – that leads her to question her sanity. Hannah describes relationships between people particularly well. Louise’s interactions with Mr Fahrenheit had my hackles rising within just a few paragraphs and Louise’s relationship with her husband makes for believable if uncomfortable reading.

While certain elements lingered in my mind after lights out, the ending of the book didn’t quite live up to the beginning. Writing this review, I kept thinking of my experiences with Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat and wondering if it was me. I loved both books when they were still in the early, scene-setting stages; all hints and whispers in the woodwork. Once the plots lurched out of the shadows, I felt they lost a little of their power.

Mini reviews: Dunmore and McFarlane

Back in early November, I spent a week in the Yorkshire Moors. By some miracle the sun mostly shone on us, although most days were characterised by a slightly manic “we must beat the fast-approaching twilight” tone, as we raced around the sights with the early evenings drawing in behind us at warp speed.

As with most of our cottage holidays, there was lots of time built in for sitting in front of the woodburner and reading so I thought I’d touch on a few of the books that I took with me.

13111441Helen Dunmore, The Greatcoat: The blogosphere kept telling me to read Dunmore and eventually I couldn’t ignore it anymore. This was the first of two of her books I took with me. It’s more of a novella, produced as part of the Hammer Horror partnership with Arrow Books. The premise is wonderful. It’s 1952 and lonely young doctor’s wife, Isabel Carey, is struggling to adjust to her new life in Yorkshire. During her first chilling winter, driven to distraction by the cold, she finds an old RAF greatcoat in the back of a cupboard and throws it over her bed for warmth. That night, a young man knocks at her window. He’s an RAF pilot and as the BCC says ‘he wants to come in…‘. I was totally gripped by the story and read this in one extended sitting that led me from the woodburner to a hot-water bottle strewn bed. However, I’m not sure I loved the ending. Perhaps things became a little too overblown for my taste; a ghost story with a little too much flesh and blood.

18712884Helen Dunmore, The Lie: The second of the Dunmores, this story was set in Cornwall in 1920 and I loved it wholeheartedly. Deeper, more insightful and nuanced than The Greatcoat, the book follows Daniel Branwell from the putrid mire of his Great War experiences to the loamy dirt of his Cornish home. On his return, he tells a lie, simple enough in passing but one with the darkest of consequences. Branwell is possessed by the memory of his time in the trenches and the ghost of his greatest friend, Frederick, and I found that his story crept under my skin in a much more chilling way than The Greatcoat. I’m thrilled to have discovered Dunmore, who writes people, events and the natural world with such understanding and delicacy of detail that she gave me goosebumps on more than one occasion, both through the satisfaction of a well-turned phrase and the thrill of a truly terrifying passage.

17332361Fiona MacFarlane, The Night Guest: I really went all-out creepy for this particular holiday. After reading lots of reviews, this one made by To Read list fairly easily. Elderly Ruth lives alone on the sea front in New South Wales. One day, larger than life Frida arrives, announcing that she has been sent to be Ruth’s carer. But Frida is not all she seems and Ruth has started to hear a tiger prowling around her house during the night. I loved this book for two reasons. 1) MacFarlane’s Frida is a truly fabulous creation; believable, disarming, sinister and constantly wrongfooting both Ruth and the reader, and 2) I can’t think of another book that so beautifully captures the insecurities and frustrations of growing old and feeling at the mercy of others. This was a gripping, thought-provoking and ultimately devastating read.