On writers who write about writers and the writers, like me, who write about them.

Hoorah! A new book review!

It ought to be a fair appraisal, right? But so often it reads like more than that, like a judgement. There, I’ve said it.

Oh, look. Here’s another. And another. My Twitter feed, Facebook news feed and Goodreads homepage are choked with book reviews. Well, I’m a writer; what else should I expect given my sphere of contacts?

Book reviewing is a big thing now. It’s out there, everywhere, as it is for all products and services. But is it real reviewing or is it just saying something because someone put a platform there and having a voice is nice? Is it good reviewing or is just mud-slinging?

For me a considered, informative review ought to show an understanding of the difference between assessment and condemnation. Book bloggers tend to display this kind of understanding.

Oddly, it’s writers that very often don’t.

Perhaps, for someone who has only ever been a reader of books (as opposed to to someone who writes them as well) it’s alright to condemn a novel or a collection of stories. You’re a punter and other punters want to know what you think; it was ace/it was shit/I loved it/I hated it.

Take look at any title on a bookseller’s website or any title on Goodreads and it’s immediately clear that the combined summaries of the many have become a great barometer of the quality of a book – as they are of anything you can buy online.

For me, though, having written books for some years, reviewing another author’s work makes me uncomfortable, especially if I didn’t enjoy it. That’s why I almost never put pen to paper about a book I haven’t had a good experience with.

When I was co-running the Horror Reanimated blog, our policy when authors or publishers submitted books for appraisal was the same: we only reviewed the work that we felt deserved a bigger audience, books that really rocked our world.

Goodreads is one of those places where writers do review other writers – a lot. And, whilst there are clear guidelines for how reviews are written, I still think that writers should evaluate the efforts of others in their line of work with a little more thought, a little more awareness, a little more tact.

We are all, let’s face it, in the same business.

If you’re a writer, how often have you had this experience? You’re reading a book and you know darn fine that the author is light years beyond you in their skill with language and story-telling ability. And yet, their book just doesn’t quite do it for you. Or, worse, you abhorred or yawned through every page of it – except for those bits you just flat-out envied until you puked undiluted gall.

Been there? Well, for me this is a signal to either not review the book or to make it very clear that your review isn’t a raging ego-trip but just another opinion.

I recently read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I love Cormac McCarthy’s work – The Road is one of my all-time favourite reads – and I’m aware that he is a superior writer to me in every way. However, whilst the language and imagery in Blood Meridian were almost transcendental, after a while the story lost its power over me. I rated it four stars on Goodreads but there’s no way I’m going to review the book. Not a chance. I mean, I can’t even be sure how much of it I understood. 60 – 70%, perhaps? How could I possibly make a judgement about it?

Judgement comes from above; only it’s cheap bastard cousin opinion can come from below, so why pretend?

And, really, it ought to be exactly the same when you read a book you feel is inferior in every way to what you, as a writer, are capable of. You know how tough this job is. You know what people go through, not just to complete work in the first instance but then in trying to garner some recognition. Is this really the moment to rubbish someone? Just because they’ll never be in the same league as you?

These days, anyone can be a reviewer. Anyone can have the pleasure of making their judgement (or is it just an opinion…) public. As long as it’s honest and not rigged, that has to be a good thing, because it leads to a kind of democracy of discernment that anyone can access and subsequently base their buying decisions upon.

But back to writers appraising the work of their peers. What does this really contribute?

You could argue, I suppose, that inventors of vacuum cleaners would be the best-placed people to judge newly-invented vacuum cleaners just arriving on the market. But could we really trust them to be objective when, like all other vacuum cleaner inventors, what they really want is a bigger share of the market?

Hm.

Oh.

Personally speaking, I will continue to save my book reviews for those rare diamonds that really knock the stuffing out of me – in a good way.

Because, frankly, I need every ounce of writing energy that I can muster, not for flaunting an opinion – something anyone can do – but for the real deal; putting all I have into creating the kind of stories that no one else but me can tell and doing it to the best of my ability.

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The Function Room: A review and interview with author Matt Leyshon

the function room I recently finished The Function Room by Matt Leyshon. I don’t often review books but this one deserves a lot more attention. I was so intrigued by it, I decided to give its author a good grilling, too. Results below…

Take an average English town where bad things happen and dark notions throng the mind. Populate it with vile, self-serving individuals, among whom even the charitable think only of themselves. Give it an intelligent but unhinged power source – like a sentient CCTV control centre with the ability to influence every occurrence. You will then have an urban backdrop that approaches Matt Leyshon’s Leddenton and an idea of The Function Room that operates it. I say approaches because I think it’s unlikely that, without Leyshon’s shadowy influence, you’d be able to conceive of anything quite as grim or fiendish.

The stories in the Function Room are by turns unexpected, nauseating, thought-provoking and quirkily inspired. I’d almost go so far as to say there’s a kind of humour at work in the tales, except that at no point did I laugh. Nor did I grin or smirk. These stories force you along a narrowing tunnel of unpleasantness, only to trap you in some forgotten loop of Hadean bowel with no exit. If horror is about unsettling your reader, about eating away at the foundations of what they hold close and dear, then Leyshon’s work is good horror. Excellent horror, in fact, and Morpheus Tales made a smart decision in publishing his debut collection.

There is a visceral logic to the machinations of The Function Room and its baleful influence reaches into every page of this book. Rather than speculate on this or why Matt Leyshon does what he does in the way that he does it, I think it might be better if I just asked him…

Joseph D’Lacey: Hi, Matt. I appreciate you coming along to visit my somewhat shabby and underfunded blog. I’d offer you a cup of tea but the milk’s gone sour and, anyway, the kettle broke some weeks ago. I do have an ancient wedge of seeping Gorgonzola, though. Would you like some?

Matt Leyshon: It’s a pleasure to be here Joseph.  I was forewarned about the state of your cheese so I’ve brought my own, but thanks for asking.

JD’L: There were a couple of things about the book I didn’t completely gel with – let’s get those out of the way now and then move swiftly on.

The first thing I’m curious about is your linguistic style. You ran the risk of losing me with The Rape Waved Yellow because it was so purple with description. However, your prose settles down as the collection progresses and the book contains several instances of enviable poetic genius. It made me wonder what’s more important to you, the story or the telling?

ML: The linguistic style of these stories came about naturally.  The editing is lighter than normal though, hopefully retaining a feel of each story being almost a stream of consciousness, or like a dream.  I’m aware that the book is pretty heavy in places but the way that a story is told is very important to me and in these stories my style hopefully adds to the sense of horror.  I see the story itself more as a framework upon which to hang characters, dangle a shroud of ambience, and as a place to secrete some ideas disguised as amulets and charms.  But an original plot is more conducive to original ideas than one that isn’t, so whilst I might be suggesting that the story is secondary to its telling, I still think that it is important to try and tell a tale that has not been told before.

JD’L: As an adjunct, while it’s clear that the first tale acts as an introduction to Leddenton and The Function Room itself, why did you decide put this tale first and how important was the chronology of the stories?

ML: Apart from a handful that were written especially for the collection, I didn’t foresee these stories being published alongside each other.  Although they often feature the same locations and characters, they were written as self-standing pieces.  When it came to putting the collection together doing it chronologically seemed to work best, in that other ways did not work at all.  In the end there were a few stories that could have come first, but I settled on The Rape Waved Yellow because it introduced not just the town and The Function Room, as you say, but also some of the entertaining themes that recur throughout the collection, like Gnosticism and gore.

JD’L: The penultimate paragraph of D.M. Mitchell’s introduction, Welcome To Leddenton, was so academic I found it impenetrable. I worried that The Function Room might be a book I simply wouldn’t understand – not a great feeling for a reader to get on page two. Was the book intended to appeal to a purely ‘literary’ readership?

ML: It’s funny to think that after all the time I spent trying to think of frightening ideas, Dave Mitchell has managed to scare readers off with his introduction before they even reach my stories.   But to answer your question, I always believed that these stories were horror stories and I hoped that they would appeal to a horror readership.

JD’L: Your characters’ names and the way they morph between human and superhuman abilities reminds me of Classical mythology. In fact, at times the tales are more like bleak fables than what people might think of as ‘traditional’ short stories. How aware are you of the effect you have on your reader? Do you have any inkling, while writing and editing, how readers will respond or do you simply do your thing and hope for the best?

ML: I just write in a way that I enjoy and hope that others might enjoy reading it.  In reality I never really knew how readers might respond to The Function Room and I avoided thinking about it too much for fear that it might have sanitised my writing. But it is interesting that you were sometimes reminded of Classical mythology.  I used Egyptian mythology several times for ideas and as points of reference.  Also the character Marsyas in The Rape Waved Yellow is based on the satyr of the same name in Greek mythology who gets flayed alive and has his skin nailed to a tree, rather like he does in my story.

JD’L: The stories in the Function Room form a mosaic of Leddenton and its inhabitants. In fact, I thought it came close to being a multi-protagonist novel. Have you written anything longer and is it set in Leddenton? If not, do you have any novel-length ideas or plans?

ML: I haven’t written anything longer and I have no plans to at present.  My most recent works have not been set in Leddenton as it would feel too easy somehow.  I do like to challenge myself creatively, but I’m not yet brave enough to face the challenge of writing a novel.

JD’L: Without wanting to give too much away, The Function Room of the collection’s title is situated in what some might consider hallowed ground. How intentional was that?

ML: Its situation was intentional in the sense that The Function Room is based on a real building. Externally it is a church hall in my old hometown in Dorset, but I was mainly concerned with the architecture rather than the buildings usage.  The religious associations were a happy coincidence though as the book does, on occasion, explore the possibility of a higher intelligence.  Internally I based The Function Room on the butcher’s shop beneath my old Layton flat in Blackpool where the majority of these stories were written, also by happy coincidence.

JD’L: The book still gives me the creeps now, which is a rare and wonderful thing these days. People often ask if I’m some kind of sicko, writing and enjoying horror. I usually tell them I’m healthier for getting my darkness onto the page.

Are the things that happen in Leddenton separate from you now that you’ve written about them or do you carry it all around with you? I suppose, more specifically, I want to know to what extent is this how you see the world?

ML: I’ve enjoyed the macabre since I got the Usborne Book of Witches from my primary school book club and I do find a pessimistic world view to be more fun.  However I don’t get any sense of catharsis from writing.  I think my intellect is healthier because of writing and my sense of humour is perhaps a little blacker.  As Roald Dahl once said, “In fiction, whatever is horrible, is also funny.”

JD’L: How long have you been writing for and how did you come to be published by Morpheus Tales?

ML: I’ve been seriously writing fiction for about 5 years but I’ve always had on and off involvements with literary and music magazines.  As for

Morpheus Tales: Best Weird Fiction Vol III

Morpheus Tales: Best Weird Fiction Vol III

The Function Room: The Kollection, Morpheus Tales Publishing came up with the idea for it after accepting a series of my stories for their quarterly magazine.

JD’L: What advice or encouragement do you have for up and coming writers?

ML: My advice would be to read lots and to read widely outside of the genre.  I recently finished Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys and have just started The Quarry by Iain Banks, but in between these I read the horror journal Shadows and Tall Trees with brilliant stories by Gary Fry, Claire Massey, and D. P. Watt.

JD’L: When’s the next Matt Leyshon publication due and where can we buy it?

ML: If you can read Japanese, I’ve a story called Sadistic Little Girls that is being published in Night Lands 07 due out in Japan this autumn.  I’ve another story coming out later in the year in a long-standing anthology series that I’m not yet allowed to announce. There is a special edition of Morpheus Tales being published next year that I’m working on and also Paraphilia Magazine publishes new work from me every few months which you can read for free here: http://www.paraphiliamagazine.com/periodical/category/writing/

JD’L: It’s been a privilege to get a chance to read your work and have a chat with you, Matt. Thank you very much for your time and best of luck with all your future projects.

ML: Thanks for having me Joseph, it’s been a pleasure.

What an exciting week!

I had an email from my agent saying we’ll soon be signing a deal for the audio rights in MEAT and Garbage Man. Taken with the scheduled reissue of both titles in e-book and print by Andrews UK, it’s a sign that both books have long tails and real staying power. I couldn’t be happier about it.

Since my last round up another swathe of great reviews have come in for Black Feathers. As you can see from the countdown to the right, there’s less than a month to go until UK publication (and less than three weeks until the American release)!

The final printed copies arrived at Angry Robot HQ this morning – gorgeous or what?

The final printed copies arrived at Angry Robot HQ this morning – gorgeous or what?

My thanks this week go to Jason for his BoneBreaker post, Horror Fiction Review, Bane of Kings (for The Founding Fields) and the wonderful woman I know only as ‘karen’ who put this awesome response on Goodreads, resulting in forty shelf adds! Karen, you are awesome!

This Is Horror are also having a big Joseph D’Lacey week with a written, in depth look at Splinters and a two-part podcast on the project. Part one was very difficult to listen to for me, as three horror experts carved a Y-shaped incision into the book and completely dissected it. Still, the verdict was good and the podcast contains another chance to hear Richard Kellum reading the infamous Son of Porn (adult content).

I have two Black Feathers launches coming up and will dedicate a full post to those in the next few days.

Have a lovely weekend!