Ginger Nuts of Horror
BY DAN COXON
"A lot is talked about authors finding their ‘voice’, and I was spending all my time trying to fake somebody else’s accent. It’s no wonder that I was rarely convincing."
Today marks the launch of a Kickstarter project that gets the full Ginger Nuts seal of approval. Tales from The Shadow Booth is a new journal of weird and eerie fiction, edited by Dan Coxon (Winner: Best Anthology – Saboteur Awards 2016) and published as a mass market paperback. Drawing its inspiration from the likes of Thomas Ligotti and Robert Aickman, The Shadow Booth explores that dark, murky territory between mainstream horror and literary fiction. The journal is crowdfunding on Kickstarter from Today with a view to publication in December 2017.
Featuring stories by:
Paul Tremblay, Malcolm Devlin, Richard Thomas, Stephen Hargadon, Annie Neugebauer, Richard V. Hirst, Sarah Read, Timothy J. Jarvis, Gary Budden, David Hartley, Kate Feld, Dan Carpenter and Joseph Sale. Tales from The Shadow Booth looks set to be a must read for fans of intelligent horror fiction.
To celebrate the launch of the Kickstarter Ginger Nuts of Horror has a series of exclusive interviews and articles from some of the contributors to the first volume. Today we are honoured to have Shadow Booth editor Dan Coxon over for a fascinating article about his journey and reasons for bringing this anthology together.
As a writer, and an editor, the last ten years of my life have been filled with confusion. During my university years, and the years immediately after, I wrote strange little stories that I thought were groundbreakingly brilliant, but which few others had the time for. I remember one about a burns victim slowly peeling the dead skin from his head, another in which a psychiatric patient gained god-like powers thanks to an experimental drug. Then there was the time travel story about an erratic time machine constructed of skin and bone. You get the idea.
Thankfully I started to enjoy some limited success with these, and a number of magazines and journals published the better ones (I remember Trevor Denyer, now of Midnight Street, being particularly supportive with his Roadworks magazine). I was even published, briefly, in The Third Alternative, the seed from which Andy Cox has grown his wonderful TTA Press. I barely made a penny from any of them, but I felt as if I was slowly getting somewhere.
For someone with a degree in English Literature, however, and (at that time) a career in bookselling, these genre stories felt rather lowbrow and garish, knock-offs of pulp fictions that were thirty years – or more – out of date. I don’t recall making a conscious decision to write ‘straight’ literary fiction, but gradually I turned my sights on supposedly ‘literary’ journals and competitions. I kept my weirder impulses firmly in check, replacing them with everyday tragedies and a search for epiphanies, both literal and literary.
This, by the way, was a huge mistake.
At the time, I felt that my writing simply wasn’t good enough to ‘step up’ to that level. This, to me, explained why I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. The competition was simply too good. I, by extension, was not.
In case you haven’t worked it out, this was also a huge mistake.
The truth of the matter is that I spent a number of years suppressing the stories that occurred to me naturally, trying instead to manufacture mainstream tales that never really interested me, never mind my readers. A lot is talked about authors finding their ‘voice’, and I was spending all my time trying to fake somebody else’s accent. It’s no wonder that I was rarely convincing.
Eventually, I realised that I’d strayed down the wrong path, but things were still far from simple. The pure, genre horror ‘voice’ wasn’t mine either. To this day, I’m not a great fan of monsters and gore – they don’t scare me, they simply leave me bored (or, worse, make me laugh). I recalled authors I’d enjoyed in my teens – Alan Garner, Michael Moorcock, Jonathan Carroll – but as far as I could see, there wasn’t a name for the strange blend of fantasy and realism that got my pulse racing, that misty realm of the odd and the profane. I enjoyed King’s The Shining, but not Salem’s Lot. I read and re-read Ian McEwan’s early stories, but Atonement left me cold. I seemed to exist between genres, neither one thing nor the other.
Slowly, I started to encounter a few authors who occupied a similar hinterland. Jeff VanderMeer, Robert Aickman. There was something different happening out there, in unmapped territory. Adam Nevill’s novels thrilled me too, with their very literate, and yet muscular, take on the supernatural. Here was something genuinely scary, and genuinely interesting. Through Adam, I found Machen, and then Ligotti. I returned to Lovecraft, and found him weirder and more challenging than I remembered. My interest in the strange even started to spill over into literary realms – Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney is a fine example. Suddenly, strangeness was everywhere.
I suspect that some of these writers I love have gone through their own identity crises. In his Introduction to The Wine-Dark Sea, Peter Straub reveals that Aickman disliked the term ‘horror’ for his fictions, preferring to call them ‘strange stories’. Lovecraft used the term ‘weird fiction’, shifting his focus away from horror and towards ‘vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy’. This seemed to apply to most of the stories I enjoyed, even the supernatural ones. Fear alone was not enough.
Hopefully this goes some way towards explaining why I decided to launch The Shadow Booth, a journal of weird and eerie short stories by contemporary writers. For a long time, I felt that there were a number of authors writing and interesting stories in this hinterland – stories too philosophical and introspective to fit the horror genre, but too weird and unsettling to sit within the literary field. It seemed natural to try and give them a home. I had recently bought several second-hand Pan Books of Horror at a book stall in London, and I wanted to use them as a touchstone: broad in their range, encouraging new writers as well as established authors, and yet extremely readable and accessible. It made sense for The Shadow Booth to be a mass market paperback too, somewhere in the region of 200 pages (slim enough to still fit in a pocket). The black cover suggested itself and could not be ignored.
In his book The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher does an excellent job of distinguishing the two terms, but he also brings them together. For Fisher, ‘the weird is that which does not belong. The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled with the “homely”’ (Fisher’s italics). The eerie, meanwhile, ‘concerns the most fundamental metaphysical questions one could pose, questions to do with existence and non-existence: Why is there something here when there should be nothing? Why is there nothing here when there should be something? The unseeing eyes of the dead; the bewildered eyes of an amnesiac – these provoke a sense of the eerie, just as surely as an abandoned village or a stone circle do’ (italics again are Fisher’s). For me, the first half of Stephen King’s It is eerie, that unsettling image of Pennywise lurking in the sewer. The second half spirals into the weird pretty fast (and not always in a terribly convincing way, it has to be said).
I knew from early on in the process that I wanted The Shadow Booth to encompass both. Going back to Fisher again, he points out that, ‘What the weird and the eerie have in common is a preoccupation with the strange. The strange – not the horrific.’ We’re back to Aickman and his ‘strange stories’ again. I remember a song from my teenage years, around the time that I was starting to read Moorcock and explore the gothic, by the band Therapy?. The song was called ‘Face the Strange’, and if I remember rightly, the chorus went: ‘So you turn/To face the strange/You turn/To face yourself’. I had finally found my ‘voice’, and indeed, it was strange.
I hope I’ve managed to bring all these elements together in the first volume of The Shadow Booth. I think I have. Some of the stories are undeniably weird (Dan Carpenter’s contribution, for example, as well as Richard Thomas and David Hartley). Some are definitely at the eerie end of the scale (Paul Tremblay, Stephen Hargadon). Others, for me at least, sit somewhere between the two (I’m thinking particularly of Malcolm Devlin’s story, and Gary Budden’s too). Whether you find them weird, or eerie, they are all undeniably strange.
On a personal level, The Shadow Booth feels like an odd kind of homecoming. This is territory I left many years ago, and I’ve spent the interim tramping through the literary wilderness. But now, unexpectedly, I have stumbled across a tiny, one-man booth in the desert sands. It looks like an old-fashioned Punch & Judy booth, the striped fabric faded by the sun and the winds. The sign is so worn I can barely read it, but I can just make out the name, and the promise of excitement, of beauty, and maybe even a little fear. The decision takes no time at all. I lift the canvas flap and step into the darkness.
The Shadow Booth is now crowdfunding on Kickstarter, until 26 October. Featuring stories by Paul Tremblay, Malcolm Devlin, Richard Thomas, Stephen Hargadon, Gary Budden, Annie Neugebauer, Richard V. Hirst and many more, it is available as a mass market paperback. Please pre-order a copy here and show your support:
Dan Coxon’s writing has appeared in Salon, Unthology, The Lonely Crowd, Popshot, Neon, Gutter, Wales Arts Review, The Portland Review, and the DadLit anthology Daddy Cool, amongst others. He is the editor of Being Dad, a collection of short stories about fatherhood that won Best Anthology at the Saboteur Awards 2016. He was long-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2017, and is currently a Contributing Editor at The Lonely Crowd.
He also writes weird and eerie fiction under a pen name, some of which has been published in Black Static, Unsung Stories, Speculative 66 and The Year’s Best Body Horror. He’s starting to feel that Stephen King’s The Dark Half may have been a grittily realistic depiction of the schizophrenia of storytelling.
In an unlikely – and terrifying – plot twist, he once chaired a writers' pitching panel at the SCARdiff horror convention, and he is appearing on two panels at this year’s FantasyCon. His dark half will also be reading something strange on the Saturday evening.
He runs a freelance editorial and proofreading service at Momus Editorial, and is happy to take on private clients as well as established publishers. Find him on Twitter @DanCoxonAuthor.