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.’

Let me tell you…I’ve discovered Shirley Jackson

Does everyone have authors that remain permanently on their radar but that they haven’t actually read yet? You know the ones… Book bloggers you follow mention them all the time. You have most of their back catalogue on your ‘to read’ list. You are particularly attuned to mentions of them in the literary media.

For me, one of those authors is Shirley Jackson. I’ve read/heard so much about her that sometimes it’s easy to forget I haven’t read any of her works. But that changed recently.

First published in 2015, Let Me Tell You is a collection of some of Jackson’s previously unpublished short stories, early works, essays and lectures, bookended by a foreword by Ruth Franklin and an afterword by the editors – and her son and daughter – Laurence Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt. It occurred to me while reading that this sort of selection is  the perfect way to enter the world of a writer. There are one or two tales that deeply unsettle in Jackson’s trademark way, stories that shine a light on the perils of being human, humorous meditations on family life and insights into Jackson’s writing process. It’s a book of extreme juxtapositions – as the blurb puts it, from ‘the ordinary to the uncanny, the comic and the horrific’. In many ways, it’s better than a biography or would work as a lovely supporting read.

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Jackson comes through as a woman of warmth, wit, imagination and a shadowy edge that makes her fiction so brilliantly unique. Her words are laugh-out-loud funny and quietly unsettling. Frequently she shines a light into twilit corners that you don’t really want to look into for fear of what you might see, but look you do. You can’t help it. It’s too compelling.

Since the rest of the world are probably streets ahead of me when it comes to reading Jackson’s works, I can only recommend this one as a great addition and I’ll be looking to read more as soon as I can. Where should I start? If anyone has any recommendations, do let me know in the comments.

Mini reads for dipping

So the days of leisurely reading my way through book after book while my baby napped or fed for hours at a time are now gone. Increasingly she is a nap avoider and feeds are like wrestling a lapful of kittens while she is distracted by everything and everyone in the immediate vicinity. As time has compressed itself, my reads have needed to adjust to fit. Here are two of my ‘dipping’ style reads, offering up little chunks for the shorter reading windows as they happen.

Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories

downloadBecause of some of the bloggers I follow (Stuck in a Book, A Gallimaufry, Dove Grey Reader, Tales from the Reading Room, amongst others), I’d heard a lot about Elizabeth Taylor but had never read anything of hers. So when I spotted this bumper collection of short stories in my local library it seemed the perfect way to dip in a toe. I’m still working my way through but I can see just why so many feel that she’s gone (unjustly) unrecognised as the great writer that she is. Each story is perfectly nuanced; the sort of writing that makes you realise anew that good writing is a craft. Some of the best stories are only a handful of pages long, offering a fleeting moment that encapsulates a whole lifetime. I’ve seen Taylor compared to Pym and I can understand why, given that they’re both writers of a particularly English kind featuring people who you can only imagine existing in their very English worlds. But Pym has an underlying humour that shapes both her writing and her characters. Taylor’s stories are gentle and often affectionate in a similar way but also poignant and sometimes terribly sad. Try ‘Taking Mother Out’ and ‘The Letter-Writers’ for great examples of her style.

Tim Parks, Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books

download (1)On the opposite end of the spectrum I’ve really enjoyed reading this collection of essays on bookish things by Tim Parks. They’re brief, pithy and on a range of subjects covering the world of books, the art of writing, what and how we read, and the place of literature in history and culture. I haven’t read anything else by Tim Parks – which surprises me given how prolific he’s been – but as an author, critic, translator, essayist, literary professor and columnist, he’s uniquely placed to have some interesting views. I hesitate to say he’s being deliberately provocative with some of those views but there’s a definite, and perhaps playful, sense of dropping a literary bomb and then leaving an open ‘discuss’ hanging in the air. I didn’t necessarily agree with all of his opinions but I found the essays engaging  – sample titles include ‘E-books are for Grown-ups’, ‘The Dull New Global Novel’, ‘What’s Wrong with the Nobel?’ and ‘In Praise of the Language Police’ – and they really opened my mind to many things I’d never considered before.

Any suggestions for other bite-size reads I could consider?