Seeking Strangeness


Genre fiction can be a good friend to new authors because ultimately it’s a meritocracy. It does not discriminate between young or old, rich or poor, North or South. If you’re keen enough you can join one of the many societies that exist for young SFF writers around the country and get something you’ve written read by a small press editor. They’re still massively short of BAME voices but hopefully that will come with encouragement and confidence.

The idea is that you hang around in these meetings and eventually get your story published by an independent house. You’ll only be paid a nominal fee for it but it’s a start. Their hope is that what you’ve written isn’t a one-off and you’ll prove to have the stamina for a long game. Publishers need writers they can rely on, and with the promise of continued reliability you move up.

But some highly experienced authors prefer to remain in the indie sector, where they have complete creative control over their material. The best thing that has happened to new writers lately is that self-published books can be submitted for a number of awards.

The internet makes book-buying equal for everyone. When I purchase an ebook from an unfamiliar name I’m interested in the work first, the author second, and Amazon helps to make it a level playing field, although it pushes Audible, which it owns, over print, which it doesn’t. I’ll choose a book by its synopsis or just on the feeling that there may be something strange or special there. Sometimes I end up reading rubbish, but I often end up having a good experience.

Which brings us to Black Shuck Books and this set of six strange story collections. Some of the authors are known to me, many are not. The editions cover, roughly, folk horror, urban disturbance, sea stories, stories that begin with the phrase ‘a dark and stormy night’ and stories all titled ‘Midsummer Eve’. Then there’s ‘Ars Gratia Artis’, about art and the supernatural, which benefits from being a less obvious subject than the others. I’d like to see the editor, Steve J Shaw, explore further non-traditional launchpad subjects like politics, theatre, sunlight, trains. I have a fantasy anthology somewhere about cars and it’s one of the finest ever produced. For the last few years horror stories have been mired in the dead-end of self-exploration, so it’s good to see tales breaking out of the rut.

Of the stories themselves a few are predictable and there are some plodders, but the strike ratio is surprisingly high and most benefit from not being set in London, because the authors come from all over the country. I’ve lately been haunted by Steve Duffy’s ‘The Acolyte’s Triptych’ from ‘Ars Gratia Artis’, which dares to think on a bigger scale and feels like Nigel Kneale at the top of his game.

So when you’re looking for something fresh, conduct a search beyond the promoted names. Finding them is often a happy accident, but when it happens it’s a thrill. Black Shuck is an interesting publishing house, and it’s not alone in the field. All further suggestions welcome.

16 comments on “Seeking Strangeness”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin As I mentioned previously, I was introduced to what I call the ‘supernaturalistic’ stories of Steve Duffy through the Sarob Press (formerly of Wales, now of Neuilly-le-Vendin). Sarob has to be among the very smallest of the small presses. It consists only of prop. and editor (and everything else…), Robert Morgan who nevertheless has a deft touch when it comes to selecting material and turning it into attractive books, as I’ve subsequently found.

  2. Paul+C says:

    Thanks – I’ve ordered a couple of these anthologies. Unusual small press books are available from Valancourt Books, Wakefield Press and the always excellent Tartarus Press whose owners (and writers) J B Russell and Rosalie Parker I had the pleasure of meeting at the York Book Fair recently. Their books are works of art and they do promote new writers. Your point about more control and less editorial interference is well taken.

  3. davem says:

    Purchased these all a while back … based I believe on one of your recommendations … very pleased I did so

  4. Stu-I-Am says:

    Speaking of ‘strange’ fiction (and the ‘dark and stormy night”collection from Black Shuck Books), may I recommend for the uninitiated — and especially any who may fancy themselves connoisseurs of bad fiction — the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest which seeks to reward the most atrocious original opening sentence to the worst novel never written. The tongue-in-cheek literary competition honors Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel ‘Paul Clifford’ begins with ‘It was a dark and stormy night,’ as it describes itself. Herewith this year’s grand prize winner from Stu Duval of Auckland:
    ‘A lecherous sunrise flaunted itself over a flatulent sea, ripping
    the obsidian bodice of night asunder with its rapacious fingers
    of gold, thus exposing her dusky bosom to the dawn’s ogling stare.’

  5. J. Folgard says:

    Virginia’s Valancourt Books does a great job with obscure authors and petits maîtres, their catalog is full of underrated gems.

  6. Helen+Martin says:

    Stu – this year’s Bulwer-Lytton prize hits a new low in writing. That is magnificent!
    Chris et al: The collection would appear to be Ars Gratia Sanguinus, an excellent title.

  7. Stewart Macdonald says:

    It’s from Ars Gratia Sanguis. Thanks for the recommendation

  8. Wayne+Mook says:

    To b honest Bulwer-Lytton wasn’t that bad a writer, Paul Clifford is far from the worst Victorian novel. His short story The Haunted and the Haunters or The House and the Brain, is a splendid tale and has been rightly anthologised on many occasions.

    I agree with Black Shuck books. PS Publishing is still putting lovely stuff both new and new editions of older books.

    The small press is pretty impressive all round.


  9. Keith says:

    Let me recommend Adam Nevill’s self-published folk horror novel Cunning Folk. Tops my horror novel charts this year. So pleased to hear about the return of Bryant & May. Wonderful news.

  10. Paul+C says:

    Thanks, Keith – that looks a good one. Try the Side Real Press if you enjoy obscure horror novels

  11. Helen+Martin says:

    There must be something about that collection that enables it to defy accurate citation. It is Ars Gratia Sanguis as everyone can see. Thank you,Stewart.

  12. Roger Allen says:

    Bulwer-Lytton couldn’t let well alone, Wayne Mook. After two prefaces and a verse epigraph to the chapter, he begins “It was a dark and stormy night;”, which is a good opening in itself, but B-L doesn’t stop there and goes on: “…the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” just in case we wondered.
    He later behaved like an archetypal Victorian villain: Rosina, his estranged wife, who regularly wrote novels attacking him, turned up when B-L was standing for Parliament in Hertfordshire and denounced him. B-L had her taken off to a private mad-house. After a public outcry (and B-L’s election to Parliament) she was released and wrote (another) novel denouncing B-L. In fact, B-L’s greatest contribution to politics is probably that his actions inspired a law stopping men locking up their wives and daughters in private mad-houses without question.

  13. Oskar from Sweden says:

    Not sure he should be counted as obscure, but I can recommend Terry Dowling and his collections Basic Black and The Night Shop. High-class ghost and weird stories.

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    Roger – I think we discussed Bulwer-Lytton on here before, Lytton’s marriage as he was called then, was disapproved by his mother (he changed his name to Bulwewr-Lytton due to his mother’s will.) so she cut off his allowance so had to work, it is meant to have caused a strain. I guess today he would have had a restraining order made. After he died she put out a book about it (her being put in an asylum.) and ended up estranged from her son. Neither of them come out of the whole thing looking good. With getting someone committed you only needed one doctor until the 1970s, the change was due to a case in Leeds where the head of the local health board kept sectioning women who were on their own, at first it seemed an obsession with prostitutes and then it seemed almost anyone, even women stood waiting for a bus, and once you were sectioned is was almost impossible to alter without the original doctor saying you were sane. They changed the law so you need two doctors to sign. At least Bulwer-Lytton inspired Bovril, Neo-Nazi hollow Earth theories, and was an early SF pioneer and coined a fair few phrases amongst other stuff.

    I know Art Gratis Artis is art for art’s sake, but I remember being told it’s incorrect as an English translation. I used a translator which is always fun, and Ars Gratia Sanguis came up as Blood of Grace and the art of grace is blood. I quite like these.


  15. Des Burkinshaw says:

    I foolishly once agreed to review a book by a fellow self-publisher who thought I’d get his book because I was a journalist and TV producer.
    The first page was 10 different ways of saying “It was a dark and stormy night.” I’m paraphrasing obviously but it was something like:
    The light was gone. Nothing could be seen in the dark. The black clouds filled the sky as the rain came down. A candle flickered out as the moon went behind the storm clouds blocking out the moonlight. All was dark, all was shadow.

    I was quite worn out by the end of the first chapter.

  16. Paul+C says:

    Clive Sinclair once opened a short story with ‘Call me Schlemiel’ in a parody of ‘Call me Ishmael’ which opened Moby Dick (but you all knew that already).

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