Curious Tales and Poor Souls’ Light

Curious Tales and Poor Souls’ Light


And so, as promised, here is a sneaky preview into the new Curious Tales anthology. Last year it was The Longest Night, a collection looking back to the stories of MR James. This year we have Poor Souls’ Light, which takes as its starting point the unsettlingly Gothic tales of Robert Aickman.

Curious Tales

For those of you who have not previously enjoyed their walks on the darker side of Christmas, Curious Tales is a publishing collective founded by Jenn Ashworth and Richard Hirst and including writers Emma Jane Unsworth, Alison Moore and Tom Fletcher, and the artist Beth Ward. Joined this year by guest writers M John Harrison and Johnny Mains, they tap into the Victorian tradition of telling ghostly stories around the fire as the year approaches its shortest day. Even reading the stories on my decidedly modern Nook in broad daylight, I felt more than a little unnerved. I think that, after listening to them at one of the events – whether by candlelight in a Gothic Atrium, firelit in a sixteenth century pub or in the dungeons of Lancaster Castle – I’d want to make sure I wasn’t by myself on the way home…

Christmas hovers at the periphery. In Dinner for One, a meal is planned but not with celebration in mind. The aftermath of a funeral bleeds into an uncertain sense of the time in The Spite House, with ‘no turkey or potatoes to roast, no sprouts or plum pudding,’ and the tinsel and fairy lights buried in rubble. You don’t want to come looking for cheer and mince pies. Although I loved the moment when Joan, the bereaved woman in And the Children Followed, can’t find any jam so gives her unwelcome evacuee guest ‘a thick slice of stale bread slathered in mincemeat’ instead.

Poor Souls’ Lights are known in France as Lanternes des Morts, and are small stone towers, pierced at the top to allow light out. Candles were burned in them whilst masses were said for the poor, or for those in purgatory. And there are souls in torment in these stories, unquiet spirits with outstanding needs. The couple from Animals, locked in argument from beyond the veil, intruding into a holiday cottage to unsettle the balance of a woman’s mind; the dying wife in Blossoms who neatly punctures her faithless husband’s self-justifications. In Smoke, it’s the sense of something almost there: a thumbprint on glasses, the wisp from a cigarette, a thickening sense of unfocussed blame, but for what? The Exotic Dancer takes us walking down the towpath, through a misty, derelict landscape, where the canal becomes Styx-like, Charon a bearded man at the helm of a narrowboat.

Beth Ward’s illustrations are eerily beautiful, each one chiming with its accompanying story in a way that makes you go back to see it with different eyes once you’ve read your way through. I’ve only seen the book electronically, but I know from last year’s collection just how lovely the finished product is. I have my eye on one of Beth’s prints, if anyone needs a helping hand with my Christmas present!

Poor Souls Light


Instead of an interview, I thought it would be fun to start a chain reaction, with each member of the collective answering a question before posing their own. It was fascinating to watch the replies come back to my inbox, and very much like eavesdropping on a private conversation. Collectively, it’s revealing about the process of writing and of collaboration, and gives a real insight into the stories. My first question, to Jenn, went like this:


There are so many things I’d like to ask, but I guess I’d better go with a practical one! What was it that triggered getting together as a collective? Whose idea, where were you all? And what’s been the best thing about it?

Jenn: It was in August 2013 – Richard and I were talking about perhaps writing each other a ghost story for a Christmas present – we’ve been huge fans of supernatural and horror fiction since our teens and earlier. And then Richard mentioned M.R. James and The Chit Chat club and we wondered how possible it would be to set up a small press where we published beautiful ghost story anthologies to sell at Christmas. We knew immediately we’d want to work with Beth, Tom, Alison and Emma – and things kind of spiralled from there. Poor Souls’ Light is our second anthology – this time written in the tradition of and dedicated to the memory of Robert Aickman – and we’re going bigger and better with our events, too. The best thing about it for me, hands down, has been working with a brilliant artist and fantastic set of writers – we discuss every detail of the design and layout of the book, we edit together, we do event posters together and work on distribution, promotion and events together. Every aspect of the project is creative and collaborative and I am really really proud of us all for pulling it off.

Jenn’s question: Collaboration is at the heart of everything we do. And that’s very different to the lonely life of a writer as its often portrayed in the popular media. Do any of you think that the collaborative editing and production of the books has changed the way you write?

Richard: An odd thing about writing fiction is how it’s at once public – it’s the art of creating something performative and social, and, one hopes, widely liked – yet is at the same time also solitary, private and intensely personal. Most people who write do so with some kind of reader in mind, but that’s generally an abstract notion. Whilst putting together ‘And the Children Followed’, my story for Poor Souls’ Light, I was acutely conscious of at least five other people who would immediately be reading it – initially in its rather messy first-draft state – and providing their honest critiques. Luckily, they’re all people whose work I love and whose opinions I’m always grateful for, and it’s been invaluable in helping the story it finds its shape, and in improving my writing in general. Also, when we promote our books of Christmas ghost stories with our tour of live readings, each of us reads our own story in full. That creates a sort of second tier of imagined readers, ones who have to sit and listen to what I’ve written for a solid twenty minutes, all of which requires the story to scan well, to come in under a certain word-count (in my worst-case-scenario imagination these listener-readers are easily bored, prone to profane heckling and take the form of my childhood nemeses) and to feature enough characters with silly accents for my inner theatre-ham to be sufficiently indulged. Collaboration is the connecting thread of Curious Tales – it has found its apotheosis in Bus Station: Unbound, the choose-your-own-adventure style novel me and Jenn are currently joint-writing – and my story and the others in Poor Souls’ Light are entirely collective creations, written not just by the Curious Tales writers (and artist) but also the Curious Tales audience.

Richard’s question: The artwork in Poor Souls’ Light sets the tone of the book and the illustrations are very different from those in The Longest Night: darker, less realist, more figurative. How has the process of responding to the stories worked this time round and has working with Curious Tales changed how you think of books artistically?

Beth: It’s pleasing that there is a noticeable difference in tone in this anthology. Instead of reading the stories first and choosing an aspect to illustrate, I chose to respond to a short description, a synopsis or a general mood, never reading the story before I made the image. There is also a large amount of what I felt should be in them too, inklings, relating to themes and imagery. So, for example, I knew I wanted mist and fog, I knew I wanted to include water, rubble and an underlying feeling of decay. None of my thoughts were discussed with the writers before or during. I completed all of the illustrations and read the stories after. The result was eerily accurate, not only did the stories have interconnecting themes and imagery, un-choreographed by the writers, but the illustrations absorbed and reflected these themes. I now see the illustrations as a shadow or an echo, they are an extension of the story.

A beautiful book is an art object. When I was eighteen or nineteen I remember being inspired by the most striking collection of ancient books and miniatures in a rather grand library in Prague (the name of which slips my mind). Some had been damaged by sunlight and their spines were bleached and flaking away. They were stunning, ancient bodies. I have flirted with the possibility of binding my own sketchbooks and making artist’s books, but have never become skilled enough at it. I still try, in secret. Books have always been present in my practice, either books I have made or worked in or books that have encouraged me to keep making work. I admire artists who make their own books and use books in their artwork, like Audrey Niffenegger, Michelle Stuart and Anselm Kiefer. I love graphic novels, zines and anything that combines image and text in a splendid way. So, in answer to the question, working with Curious Tales has not so much changed how I think of books artistically, but confirmed my love of books as beautiful art objects and given me the opportunity to collaborate with talented writers to create something incredible and collectable.

Beth’s question: The ghostliness and the creepiness in your work often come from the uncanny or abject. What is your favourite characteristic of the uncanny and or the abject?

Emma: My favourite aspect of the uncanny relates to its German translation, ‘Unheimliche’ (great word! Literally: ‘unhomely’); the Freudian idea of something relating to the home and yet not of it. Something that is familiar yet alien at the same time. Something that we have, at some point, somehow, invited in. A stranger at the table. I think that’s why I like stories that bring a sense of the uncanny into the domestic or a work environment – places that would normally feel safe or benign. What I like even more is to take this further, into a character’s head – so that their psychology is consumed by damage or threat. If you haven’t got a sense of home in your own brain… well, that terrifies me probably more than anything.

Emma’s question: How was Robert Aickman an influence/inspiration when you were writing your story for Poor Souls’ Light?

Jenn: For me, the idea of using Aickman’s work as an inspiration was more about capturing the feeling he evokes rather than anything specific about his style or subject matter. Last year, we worked on making a collection that evoked M. R. James and there’s something very cosy about his ghost stories – they make sense, in their own world, there’s a logic to them that, while haunting and creepy, is, in its own strange way – reassuring. Aickman doesn’t do any of that. His tales are cold, foggy, unresolved.There are loose ends that don’t quite make sense. Or at least, they don’t to me. I tried to write a story like that – once where the ‘plot’ was just out of view of the reader, and perhaps the characters too.

Tom: I took inspiration from Aickman firstly in quite a basic, literal way – I built my story around a canal, because I (like Emma) was interested in his relationship with canals. But what really strikes me about Aickman’s fiction – and something that I particularly love – is the utter bewilderment experienced by so many of his protagonists. They’re not just encountering ghosts or monsters that they’ve previously dismissed as unreal, or dealing with a death metaphor made manifest, or reeling in disgust from the Other – they’re completely lost in a world that’s warping around them, has stopped making sense (as Jenn says), and is gradually breaking them right down. At the same time, Aickman’s stories can’t all be filed under ‘Protag Losing Sanity(?)’ – there’s more going on in them than that. ‘Nightmarish’ is a good word for them. And you’re not mad in a nightmare, however impossible things get. In Aickman’s stories the world breaks first, not the protagonist. I was very excited when Aickman was suggested as an inspiration, because I felt as if this eerie sense of reality gone wrong was perfect for our unreal times. One of our guest writers, M. John Harrison, summed up a similar feeling here (especially relevant given the earlier discussion of the uncanny).

So I chose a canal, and then wrote a protagonist who was going to encounter some kind of external breakdown, the full nature of which goes unresolved. And because Poor Souls’ Light is a wintry book, there’s an allusion to Santa Claus – an intrusion from unreality if ever there was one.

As a whole, Poor Souls’ Light is quite a different book to The Longest Night. The Longest Night had its fair share of nastiness, but the stories in it were closed loops. In Poor Souls’ Light the stories are left open, by which I mean that finishing them does not necessarily contain them. They’re open like the door you know you just closed. This is mirrored in the artwork, which is much darker (literally) than that of The Longest Night, much bleedier, and much more suggestive. Everything is spilling over the edges.

Tom’s question: It’s often contended that supernatural fiction is rarely just about the supernatural, but is representative of the fears and anxieties of its era. What social anxieties do you think we’re engaging with (consciously or not) in these stories, if any? Are there any shared themes, or other commonalities?

Richard: For as long as there have been stories, there have been stories featuring ghosts: think of Saul summoning the spirit of Samuel, of the ancient Greeks’ multiverse of malevolent spirits, of folk ballads, of Macbeth. The ghost story’s golden age came in the nineteenth century, with most of the great novelists of the age – Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, and of course Dickens – trying their hand at the form and, generally speaking, finding themselves creating masterpieces. It’s no coincidence that this coincided with the birth of the detective story. Whereas the detective story was the child of the scientific enquiry and reason, the ghost story was its shadowy twin, voicing the era’s anxieties about the rapid scientific advances being made. Beware is the root-warning of the ghost story, beware of inspecting the unknown, of meddling with it. Of course, science won out in the end and as the detective story rose in popularity, the ghost story was on the wane after the First World War. And yet it has remained, a dark seam continuing to run through our literature, and continuing to communicate the anxieties of various ages – Algernon Blackwood wrote about man’s disconnect with nature, Fritz Lieber about industrialisation, and Robert Aickman about the Freudian, his stories navigating power, sexuality and the hidden forces which hide within the human mind. All through the medium of spookiness. Poor Souls’ Light deals in public health and modern family structures, domestic abuse and PTSD, but I think a more modern theme – if it is a theme – which comes across in Poor Souls’ Light is a concern for the individual above any social groups. Each of the stories in the collection are character-driven, their inner workings less abstract and more central, any social commentary firmly in the background.

Richard’s question: This is the second time we’ve all brought out a book for Christmas, and we already have plans for a third coming out in 2015. How do you feel about writing for, and frequently about, something which is for each reader so loaded with personal significance, and so prone to sentimentality?

Jenn: I think the ‘in the tradition of’ anthologies we’ve been doing have helped us keep things fresh and helped us find new ways of invigorating ancient themes and ideas; but the best thing about Curious Tales is that it can evolve according to our own interests. I don’t think we’ll put out these anthologies forever – we’ll have come up with a new project long before this one stops feeling fresh. In fact, I think we might already have something up our sleeves…

Richard: Although the stories in this book are Christmas-tinged, I think we manage to avoid any Christmas sentimentality by just writing such nasty stories.

Tom: Ghost stories often go hand-in-hand with the sentimental, I think. The potential sentimentality of Christmas has its roots in loss – somebody who should be here isn’t here – or fear of loss – everybody’s here and happy, but for how long – or the sadness of not having anything to lose when all around people are celebrating what they’ve got. Ghost stories are perfect for an emotionally heightened time of year. There’s also the elemental side of Christmas – the dark, cold nights, and the subsequent urge to huddle – which creates just the right atmosphere for telling ghost stories. And one of the themes of a major precursor to Christmas, the Roman Saturnalia, was reversal. Ghost stories, with their reversal of the living and the dead, fit nicely into that tradition.


Poor Souls’ Night is available as a limited edition, illustrated print-only book. You can pre order it here.

The collective will be performing the tales in a variety of settings over the coming weeks. Find out where they will be and book tickets here.

Keep up to date with the collective on Twitter here.

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