Contents May Unsettle - Reading Notes
By the time you read this, Contents May Unsettle has finally been released. This post is an attempt to discuss the twenty stories within - and the stories behind them, and I've tried to keep it as spoiler-free as possible.
My last release, Scenes of Mild Peril, had what could be politely called "a troubled release" ¹. I'd had a number of short stories published by Stitched Smile before, but this was my first proper book release with them. They'd just shifted to Ingram Spark for better distribution, and I fell foul of this move away from CreateSpace. The resulting physical release was riddled with formatting errors, amongst them font problems, and inner margins so thin you couldn't open the book up enough to read the actual stories. It eventually got sorted but by then my enthusiasm had waned for the project - I'd gotten so used to telling people not to buy the book (because it was frankly embarrassing) that it was difficult to shift gear to publicizing it again. The literal years that Scenes took from submission to release (and then eventual re-release) meant I had quite a substantial body of work behind me again, and during that time I'd got my feet in the door with the lovely people at Burdizzo Books. So, it made sense to group them all together in my fourth book, which I think is my strongest collection yet. ²
The cover is by me - it's relatively simple, but is based on an idea I had several years back. The cover for Scenes was, with hindsight, a little too serious and dark. It's a lovely piece of art, but indicated the whole book would be horror, which it clearly wasn't. Going for something a little more generic but with a humorous touch works better, I feel. And it certainly stands out.
The opening page features a lovely sketch of me from Rees Finlay, brilliant trading card artist and author of the excellent Reaffirmation, a thought-provoking and honest work about Rees being diagnosed with autism. I helped beta read and edit this work, and the sketch was done as a thank you from him for that work.
The book opens with a foreword from my good friend, writing confidant and harshest critic M.F. Wahl. One of the few good things that came out of my brief tenure with the publishing house Stitched Smile was the friendship I made with a few of their authors along the way. Maggie Wahl was one, Lance Fling – poet and editor extraordinaire – was another. Maggie is a wonderful writer (Her novel Disease and story Purple Haze from the novella All We See It the End are both well worth your time).
It was quite unintentional, but Contents May Unsettle opens and closes with a war story. Entanglement was originally submitted as a story to Stitched Smile, my last publisher – they were proposing 11:11; (a collection of horror stories based around World War 1). It was accepted as part of that anthology, but it was just as our writer/publisher relationship was beginning to sour - as previously mentioned, formatting issues with my last short story collection had made for a disastrous release and sever my links completely with them – so I decided I’d find a home for it elsewhere. It’s a story I’m really pleased with – ever since the wonderful Fiends of the Eastern Front comic strip (Gerry Finlay-Day and Carlos Ezquerra) from 2000ad back in 1980, I’d wanted to write a story with Russian soldiers at the lead. The basis of the story is this – why does a golem have to be made from clay? It’s designed for atmosphere rather than outright scares, although the last part did make my dad wince, so job done.
ISOL-8 was a silly science fiction idea I’d had bandying around for a while, prompted by many discussions about how there weren’t enough hours in the day to both do my day job and write. My brain naturally came up with the concept of a widget that could fix all that, but these things never come without a cost - unless it was going to be a really dull wish-fulfillment tale. The interesting outcome of this story was from beta readers who tried to outguess me, but none of whom managed to predict the end result. This was given the podcast treatment on StarShipSofa back in 2018, read out loud by the amazing Nick Camm who did it absolute justice, featuring a pretty impressive Terrence Stamp impression.
The Necronomnomnomicon is one of those silly ideas I wake up with at the crack of dawn and nail on the first draft. Why can’t the Elder Gods have fun at Halloween too? I strongly suspect the title for this came before the story idea itself. Readers familiar with How I learned to Stop Worrying and love Dagon from Scenes of Mild Peril will know that I don't like to take Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos too seriously.
Power Trip was, as with a few of the pieces here, written to order. Burdizzo Books were taking submissions for an anthology called Sparks and were looking for horror stories based around electricity. The Monster from the ID from the movie Forbidden Planet was clearly the inspiration for the baddy/baddies here, but I also wanted to get a few light-hearted digs in at office culture as well. It chugs another nicely, and there are a few gags in here I'm quite pleased with. It doesn't take itself too seriously.
Brother, can you spare a Paradigm? is another Burdizzo submission, this time for Visions from the Void, an op-art inspired anthology based around the art of Jonathan Butcher’s dad, Les. The brief for this was interesting; to write a story based around a unique piece of art. My tale revolves around a detective, a jazz bar and a femme fatale. This particular detective – the Vorticist - has a unique set of skills, able to predict the future and solve any cases before they’ve even been presented to him. I created an entire mythos for it and it seemed to have done the trick – the editor presumed that the lead character, Blackstone, was a recurring character from my work- and not a brand new creation.
The Strangest Thing has Happened is a short poem, a story from my first book – The Great Day of the Unveiling, from The Shadow Cast by the World - put to rhyme. It was an interesting experiment, converting from one form of prose to another, and one I feel works quite well. It's probably the most 2000AD Future shock style story in the entire book - a silly (and possibly predictable) punchline, but it's a lot of fun.
Our Elegant Decay was a submission for the ill-fated Stitched Smile Magazine, a publication that lasted a single issue. I’d like to think the quality of this story wasn’t in any way responsible for its failure ("there goes the neighborhood") , and it’s one I’m rather fond of. A tale of betrayal and revenge, it’s the story that probably flagged me up on more government ‘watch’ lists during my research than any other. It opens with an average joke about botany, and it can only go uphill from there.
At the River’s Brink is one of the oldest stories from this book, predating pretty much anything even in Forever and Ever, Armageddon or Scenes of Mild Peril. I’ve never included it in anything before, because I was never that sure of it. However, after such a long absence, I think it stands up as a strong piece again. It never seemed to fit into an anthology before, where there was a strong emphasis on twist endings – which this doesn’t really have. It’s another retelling of the Pied Piper legend, but I’ve come full circle to be proud of it again now.
Microcosm, Macrocosm (original title: Microcosm, Macrocosm, Let's call the whole thing off) is a dark science-fiction tale, again intended for a Stitched Smile anthology that never happened. I'd always wanted to write a story about the isolation of being stuck in deep space, to negotiate the twisted mind of somebody going ever-so mad; the very definition of an unreliable narrator. There are some proper dark moments in this that I'm particularly pleased with, and it's a proper macabre little tale.
Hastur La Vista, Baby is a story entirely based around its punchline, inspired by a (very) short story I'd once posted on Twitter. It seemed like fertile ground to revisit, and is - I imagine - one of the few stories ever written in which a manual for a 3D printer specifically mentions its inability to print objects that do not adhere to non-Euclidian geometry.
All our Heroes are Gone is my superhero epic. One of the things I really enjoyed in my retired superhero story Sovereign’s Last Hurrah in my collection Scenes of Mild Peril was coming up with new superhero names. Setting this story in a standalone universe meant I could go wild with it, creating an entire legion of superheroes and an accompanying rogue’s gallery. It’s a dark take on superheroes with some proper nastiness, and I really love the epic feel of it.
Shadow and Substance was borne from a basic conceit; what if you were just about to make a major decision in life and Twilight Zone host Rod Serling suddenly appeared at the periphery of your vision, doing an introductory spiel about how badly decisions can go? And if you couldn’t get rid of him? This was a story that lay dormant for a while as I just couldn’t land the ending – it kept running out of steam. However, I got there in the end and feel that the tale now couldn’t conclude any other way.
The Thing from Another World is another poem, this time John Carpenter’s “The Thing” put to rhyme. I’m particularly fond of the line “But when the wire tip was probin’ Palmer’s Hemoglobin”. It is what it is, and hopefully is tribute enough so I don't get sued into oblivion by the John Carpenter Estate.
12 Drummers Drumming is another Burdizzo story, this time from one of their semi-regular Christmas anthologies. Each writer was given a title from The 12 Days of Christmas – in this case, 12 Drummers Drumming – and told to craft a tale about it. This one is about a virus that strikes the planet sending everybody deaf and also features an Easter Egg for any keen readers of my tales. It’s a fast-paced post-apocalyptic tale with an ending that’s a bit of a departure for me.
To Mnemosyne, a Daughter is a radical departure, intended for yet another Stitched Smile erotic horror anthology that never saw the light of day – probably because they never went with my proposed title of “Putting the Willies Up You”. It’s a strong (and lengthy) tale but I feel that eroticism isn't my strong suit. Horror publishers said it wasn't scary enough, and Erotica publishers said it wasn't sexy enough. I really like the story itself, but it doesn't seem to want to commit itself one way or the other to what kind of tale or genre it's trying to be. I was writing this at the same time as M.F. Wahl was writing her submission, and we were exchanging the notes - my story is incredibly tale in comparison to hers, that was just downright filthy. And therefore 246.2% sexier.
You Only Live Thrice was written for a Burdizzo anthology that didn't - or is yet - to happen. It's a Bond pastiche, revisiting James (and some of his rogues gallery) in their golden years. There are some obvious gags in here, but it's got a nice warm heart, I think. I like it. It'll work better if you know your Bond, but most of the superspy tropes have ingrained themselves into the public consciousness by now.
The Ghastly Glittergrieve was an attempt to come up with a festive poem and came out rather better than I’d expected. I am rather fond of a cautionary tale.
Another Burdizzo submission for Red Sky at Night, who have the habit of getting the best writing out of me. This was for a weather themed anthology called Under the Weather and was my attempt to write in an American setting using an American accent. It's another one where I struggled to build a strong ending at first, but I think it works well. I'm also very smugly pleased with a "Monster Mash" gag hiding within it.
Par is a dark horror tale and one that I'm really, really fond of. It's like Tag from Scenes in that I'm going for atmosphere rather than outright scares, and a few beta readers have remarked how this particular tale has stuck with them.
Blare the Bright Fanfares is a World War 2 superhero story featuring a character from another short story, this one from my last collection Scenes of Mild Peril. In that poignant tale, we met the retired (and now quite senile and decrepit) ex-superhero Sovereign – a legend in his day. Local Hero Press, a superhero themed publisher who I’d published with before, were taking submissions and I thought it a prime opportunity to revisit this character but at the prime of his career during the Second World War. Sovereign was supposed to be the best of the best – a thinly veiled Superman pastiche, albeit British. He’s so used to being indestructible, any fear or trepidation has left him a long time ago. I wanted to pit him against something that would terrify him, but move away from the boring clichés of supervillains. I think I managed it. It ends the collection with a glimmer of hope, at least.
So, there we are. That's Contents May Unsettle and I certainly hope it does unsettle!
Serving suggestions: The recommended wine to accompany your read of Contents May Unsettle is a Jam Shed Malbec or The Reckoning's Old Vine Red. The recommended musical accompaniment is the Tales from the Loop soundtrack by Paul Leonard-Morgan and Philip Glass, and the best snack to accompany your reading is a delicious pack of Boarwell's Pork Scratchings³.
¹ - In much the way as Ed Gein can be said to have had a "trouble clowning career"
² - But I would say that, wouldn't I? :)
³ - "We use everything except the Oink!"