Jilly: Victorian Tales of Terror

It’s that scary time of year.

The nights are getting shorter, darker and colder, at least for those of us in the Northern hemisphere. We just passed Halloween (previously the Celtic festival of Samhain), when the barrier between our world and the realm of ghosts and spirits melts away and supernatural types return from the grave to threaten our orderly existence.

In other words, ‘tis the season for ghost stories and terrible tales.

We dipped a toe into the icy water here recently with our tag-team Scottish flash fiction adventure featuring the restless ghosts of tragic Alanis McLeish and her twin baby daughters (go here for Kay’s fabulous final instalment and links to the rest of the tale).

That tempted me to re-read Jenny Crusie’s Maybe This Time, her smart, scary homage to Henry James’s influential 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, complete with isolated, crumbling gothic setting; orphaned children; sinister housekeeper; and murderous ghosts. Thank heavens for the Crusie-heroine-turned-temporary-governess.

Maybe This Time whetted my appetite for Victorian horror. Click here for an interesting feature in Atlas Obscura explaining why the Victorian era was such a boom time for scary stories. It seems to be linked to the rise of the periodical press which fuelled a demand for genre fiction, combined with a period of rapid technological advancement in which things which had previously seemed impossible suddenly became real and normal.

Then yesterday, with uncanny serendipity, I found Victorian Tales of Terror, a recently republished anthology of carefully curated period fiction edited by Hugh Lamb. There are sixteen spine-chilling stories by famous (Dickens, de Maupassant) and little-known authors, male and female, English, European and American.

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Jilly: Crouch End Kong

Once every decade or so I see a painting or a piece of glass or art pottery and know immediately that I have to buy it. Usually it’s something colorful or intriguing or just plain crazysauce. This time it was all those things, and a creative inspiration as well.

For some time now King Kong has been a writing craft prompt for me. It started around five years ago, courtesy of a post on Ilona Andrews’ blog. She linked to a song by a comedy duo (I can’t find it now but I think it may have been Flight of the Conchords) about the movie. Their point was that the rebooted version spent forever on setup and backstory, when all the audience really wanted was Fay Wray in a slip dress and Kong atop the Empire State Building. The song was called something like “Get to the effing monkey.” It made me laugh and think hard about good storytelling and pacing and reader expectations, so when I went to RWA Nationals in New York in 2015 I bought a plastic Kong that still stands on the bookcase next to my writing sofa.

Told you that to tell you this: recently I was in Crouch End, a neighborhood near my home in North London. Crouch End has a modest high street, a few nice shops and restaurants, and a much-loved nineteenth-century red brick clock tower. I glanced in a shop window as I passed, then backed up and looked again in open-mouthed joy as I realized I’d just seen a pop art painting of Kong on the Crouch End clock tower.

If ever there was a painting with my name on it, this was the one.

The shop only had a poster but the artist, Sara Sutton, agreed to paint a new one for me as a commission. I collected it last week and hung it on the wall next to my writing sofa, opposite the bookcase.

I love it sooo much. Whenever I look up from my keyboard I see it and smile.

Do you own objects, souvenirs or keepsakes, classy or tacky—that inspire and motivate you? Or is it just me?

Jilly: Hits of Happy–Atlas Obscura

Do you have a favorite website or other go-to place that’s not strictly useful but makes your world a little bit better or richer?

Most of the newsletters I subscribe to are from favorite authors or are somehow related to writing and publishing—practical, useful subjects like aspects of craft, or marketing, or developments in the industry. The big exception is Atlas Obscura, which I find invaluable in a very different way. Their newsletter is the opposite of practical. It’s where I get my five-minute daily hit of wonder that transports me, stimulates my imagination and keeps me in the kind of mental space that inspires fantastic worldbuilding.

Atlas Obscura is an online magazine that showcases unusual and obscure places and objects around the globe. There are fabulous photographs, fascinating editorials on history, science, food, travel and exploration, and even experiences and guided trips.

Here are just a few of the many articles and images I’ve browsed lately:

  • Abandoned places in the United States
  • Secret apartments in New York City libraries
  • The U.S. Army’s extensive fossil collection, from trilobytes to dinosaurs
  • ATM machines in Singapore that dispense frozen salmon fillets
  • The typography of biscuit lettering
  • Winning cakes from an architectural baking contest in Melbourne, Australia
  • Elvis’s 1967 Lincoln Continental, Kurt Cobain’s uncashed royalty check and George Washington’s dentures

The above examples barely scratch the surface of the breadth and depth of the weird and the wondrous to be found on Atlas Obscura. The website is searchable, but for me that kind of defeats the purpose. I’m there to be surprised and inspired, though I’m delighted to enjoy the quality writing and solid information once something catches my attention.

They also have a Youtube channel, a calendar, a journal, and a couple of books—Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, and The Atlas Obscura Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid.

I really look forward to my bites of weird and wonderful. Whatever else my day holds, I know I’ll spend a few minutes indulging in brain candies of the most unexpected kind, and I never know where those treats will lead me or how they might inspire me later.

Atlas Obscura is a delightful way to fill the creative well. It also serves to remind me that there’s plenty of joy to be found in our world, if you take a moment to look for it.

Where do you find a hit of happy? Any recommendations?

Kay: Altered Books, Altered State of Mind

Most of us who come to this site are readers. We get a lot from books, starting with pleasure and comfort and ranging to education and creative stimulation.

I recently went with an artist friend to a juried exhibit of altered books. The artists had taken books as a starting point and cut them apart! Glued them down! Stitched them up! They created a whole different set of artistic variables with the texts and covers to view the book elements in new ways, and I think, to investigate reading and the value of books.

I loved some of the pieces. One of my favorites was a wholly new creation—a wooden, hinged “book cover” encasing pages showing a series of graphics all done in the same color scheme, of a figure leaping a mountain in joy. There was a tree made with the fanned, sculpted pages of a book. Also a giant bug made of sculpted book pages with human legs. There was a rather unimaginative (in my view) framed sequence of Harlequin covers, one from each decade. There was a way-too-large stack of annotated titles, an homage to banned books, and another about piece about resistance that had thorned rods running through the pages. There were one or two pieces that I thought were a waste of a perfectly good book.

(I apologize for the quality of these images: they’re enlarged screen grabs from YouTube, because I forgot my camera.)

It was fun to see the exhibit with an artist and to get her take on the objects. And it was fun for me to see how an artist had interpreted, and altered, books like Mother Goose and Naked Lunch. (Here’s a link to a one-minute video showcasing the exhibit.)

Did it stimulate my thinking? Absolutely. Did it stimulate my creativity? Well, better ask me later, when I get that WIP finished.

What about you? Have you guys seen any exhibits lately that made you think about your writing life?

Kay: Quiz for Y’all—Now What Do I Do?

I finished my last book. I’ve revised it. It’s done.

Usually when that happens, I get a new idea. For a long time now, like clockwork, when the old book ends, the new one appears. It’s like the Girls were thinking about it while I was concentrating on other things, and when I’m ready, they send up the next demand, er, suggestion. The transition is flawless. The second I type “The End,” I can type “Chapter One.”

Not this time.

This time, I the Girls are on vacation, asleep, or, heaven forbid, dead.

I’ve got nothing.

There are ideas I could pursue, extensions of ideas I’ve already worked on. For example: Continue reading

Jilly: Villainous Heroes

Have you ever waited impatiently for a book or series starring a character that you’d previously loathed?

I’ve read a couple of villain-turned hero stories and even blogged about one of them here a few years ago (Grace Burrowes’ 2014 historical The Traitor, starring the baddie from her previous book, The Captive), but I’ve never done the foot-tapping, finger-drumming, calendar-watching book launch thing for a very bad guy before.

It’s Ilona Andrews’ fault. I’ve squeed about their writing here before, once or twice 😉 , but their newest trick leaves me open-mouthed and thinking hard.

According to their blog (link here), the project started in 2015 as an April Fool. They put up a spoof cover and tongue-firmly-in-cheek blurb for a romance starring Hugh d’Ambray, the hard-as-nails enforcer for Roland, the grand antagonist of the bestselling Kate Daniels urban fantasy series. It began as a joke that prompted a deluge of requests that spawned an idea that became a book, and what looks like a whole new series, Iron and Magic.

I’d think it was another April Fool, except they’ve posted footage from the cover shoot, run a title contest, and best of all the blog post I linked to above contains a further link to a long excerpt. It’s really, really good and I can’t wait to read the rest of the book. Judging by the comments (more than 1,400 at the time of writing), I’m not alone.

I’ve read the excerpt a few times now, because I’m fascinated to understand how the authors have managed to establish empathy for such a dark character. It would be easier to understand if the character’s bad deeds were in the past, or somewhat diluted as backstory, or happened to a character we don’t care deeply about, but in Hugh’s case his murdering, torturing and various atrocities have been committed across multiple books, right in front of our eyes, against our heroine Kate Daniels and her community. He should be unforgiveable.

So how have they done it?

Spoilers below, so read the excerpt first if that’s your thing.

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