The Rules And Practice Of Cigarette Magic

I’d been waiting for a cab at the taxi rank for half an hour in the blazing sun, anchored by two heavy bags of shopping, when I remembered cigarette magic. This was a real thing people used to talk about, and it goes like this:

  1. You can’t smoke in taxis, private cars or buses.
  2. The universe hates you and doesn’t want you to have things.

So you light a cigarette.  And before the cigarette is done, your ride will arrive, so that you cannot finish your cigarette.

So I lit a cigarette, smiling at the memory,  And I was maybe a quarter through it when a cab appeared out of nowhere.

Magic is real if you want it to be. Or, sometimes, maybe the universe just gives up and lets you have one for free.


This Is Actually Really Good

I mean, it’s really young, but it is all honey and fire and power.  You should get some.

That’s all I’ve got, it’s Monday morning, leave me alone




Henning Mankell’s Hearse

Wallander left the station and drove out of town towards Tomelilla and Smedstorp. The drive gave him time to think about the murders. The summer landscape seemed a surreal backdrop to his thoughts. Two men are axed to death and scalped, he thought. A young girl walks into a rape field and sets herself on fire. And all around me it’s summertime. Skåne couldn’t be more beautiful than this. There’s a paradise hidden in every corner of this countryside. To find it, all you have to do is keep your eyes open. But you might also glimpse hearses on the roads.


Look at that last line.  Henning Mankell is the simplest crime writer on the planet. A lot of the time, the prose looks basic.  Machinic, even.  And then, bang.  A reminder that you are in the space of a very clever writer who holds the punch for when you’re least expecting it.

(Rape, for those unaware, is a yellow flower crop harvested for vegetable oil.)

Some of you may have seen the BBC adaptation of this starring Ken Branagh.  They used it as the first episode.  It’s actually halfway through the Wallander novel sequence.  I see why they used it — even though it’s a middle book, it serves as an excellent introduction to the character and to Mankell’s style.  It’s more complex than the tv adaptation, and also, somehow, less miserable.

The style, though. It’s like Mankell is setting the type himself, by hand, with hammer and hot metal.  Hemingway without the showiness.  It’s just… there.  Like Mankell is saying, this is just how it is.  Fascinating.

SIDETRACKED, Henning Mankell (UK) (US)



Friday Furnace

I’m a few days off finishing a big job, which has been hampered by it being 34C outdoors and about 600C in my office.

I am waiting for the promised storms, so that I can work as fast as my brain is going without my fingers slipping off the keys or the laptop freaking out and shutting down.  (They really don’t build Lenovos the way they used to.)  I am looking at tweetstorms and threads and general low-weight bullshit moving across my streams like sprayed manure over a dying field. Remember when Medium was going to cure all this?  Hahahah.

Mediun owner/operator Ev Williams is Mark Zuckerberg.  You remember when Facebook enticed publishers to pivot to video for Facebook and then killed news/opinion video on Facebook?  Medium has pivoted something like five times, and each time it’s severely injured a whole tranche of publishers and writers who it invited in.  It’s that. It’s exactly that.  It’s bringing news and opinion and art and theory sources inside and then killing them in a box.

RSS isn’t dead. Social media works great for link notifications, not so much for complete thoughts or even not-fully-baked considerations.  The fields are on fire and being sprayed with liquid shit.  Dig your own garden, build your own structures, make your own space.

I am too hot and I have too much to do and I am possibly in a bad mood.

I have a newsletter.  It goes out on Sundays, when it will be cooler and I will be less shouty.


Bats, Giant Diseased Bats

I am, in fact, farting around with a little personal weblog idea, because it amused me to “make” a thing that took away the impetus to tweet.  (I had to go back on Twitter in prep for the CASTLEVANIA launch announcement.)  I’m fine with syndicating words to Twitter, as it can create useful network effects that benefit me when I go back into public-internet-hermit mode.  But having Twitter be their sole home and originating space?  Not always so comfortable with that.  I have systems to copy my words out of Twitter again, but…

And while I do enjoy these morning notes, and find them useful — when I’m really busy, like this year, my mornings are really just for trying to wake the fuck up.  I’m finding I’d like to do little bursts of notation and broadcast during the day.  As a way to keep myself thinking and moving, as a way to perhaps be in the world in a useful way, and also to create a little box of thoughts for myself.

Coming off the main services and using them for what they’re actually good for – sharing interesting links and pictures, signal boosting the good things, and abusing people I know.  (Hi Chip!)  Doing everything else in my own diaries and notebooks.

This is probably still my brain trying to escape the multiple deadlines surrounding me like bats.

Here is a picture of some skulls.  I have a newsletter.



The British Empire colonised the afterlife.

SUMMERLAND is one of the great entertainments of the year so far.  Another alternate-history, like UNHOLY LAND. And as good.

This 1938 is a time following an actual expedition into the afterlife by a British colonel, aided by Marconi and a thinly disguised HG Wells (named Herbert Blanco West, the latter two names belonging to his illegitimate children, which I thought was a fine touch) using the additional scientific theories of Charles Howard Hinton, a mathematician interested in the fourth dimension (he shows up briefly in FROM HELL).

Rachel White works for the Secret Intelligence Service. The service’s higher echelon is split into two parts. The Winter Court, here in the world of the living. And the Summer Court, populated by dead spymasters and spies — named for Summerland, an old British term for the afterlife. Thanks to British ecto-science, the two sides can interface.

One bleak winter afternoon when he was ten years old, Peter returned from school and found his mother sitting in the drawing room. The crystal set he thought was safely hidden amongst his toys under his bed lay in her lap. It was the size of a cigarette box, with a frayed cardboard casing, a Bakelite tuning dial and a tinny speaker that you had to hold up against your ear. Peter had bought it from Neville, an older boy at school. ‘Nanny Schmidt found this while cleaning,’ she said, tapping the set. ‘Tell me, Pete – what do the dead say when you talk to them?’ ‘You … you can’t talk to them with the basic kit, you can only listen,’ Peter said. ‘There is a lot of static. Mostly you only get the recent dead. They don’t make much sense.’ ‘I see.’ ‘I just wanted to understand how it worked.’ ‘And do you?’ ‘Of course I do, Mother, it’s all in Powell’s Aetheric Mechanics for Boys.

And let’s be clear here – the afterlife is British. Only British subjects of a certain status can obtain a Ticket.  Because when we did we go to the afterlife – but we fade away after a day. We dissipate. The Ticket lets us stay there, in the city we built on the other side.

Rachel White is dealing with a Russian defector who seems to be trying to get himself killed. Without a Ticket. And that’s where it starts. Because he knows something he hasn’t told anyone else.  Something that could destroy the British security service. And he tells Rachel.

It’s a spy story, yes.  In a thoroughly worked out alternate history where accessing ghost technologies changed everything, large and small.  Le Carre in the underworld, perhaps. It’s also an absolute blast from beginning to end.  One of those “it’s 3am I really need to put this book down, maybe at the end of this chapter, oops no” books.

I’m not doing it justice.  I really liked it.

Full disclosure: I once wrote a graphic novella called AETHERIC MECHANICS.

SUMMERLAND, Hannu Rajaniemi (UK) (US)





I read an advance copy of Lavie Tidhar’s UNHOLY LAND last week.  It’s one of those lovely books that starts out presenting itself as one thing, and mutates into another almost without you seeing it.

It begins with a minor pulp detective-fiction writer leaving his home in Berlin to revisit the land of his birth – a Jewish state in Africa.  Right away, we’re in alternate-history space — this was actually a floated idea around 1900, the British Uganda Program, also referred to as the Uganda Scheme, in the wake of Russian pogroms against the Jewish people.  So far, an African take on THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION.

But.  The writer’s name is Lior Tirosh. Compare that to Lavie Tidhar.  Partway through, Tidhar ascribes the authorship of one of his own books to Tirosh. OSAMA.  An alternate-history novel featuring a detective and a series of pulp novels.   One detects the wake of the grand galleon of Michael Moorcock sailing by on the way to Tanelorn.  Tidhar, as most recently evidenced by CENTRAL STATION, is a game-player of a writer who uses the spectrum of science fiction canon for his pieces.

And then the book turns into what it’s really about, a grand game of alternate worlds cast like jewels on the sand.  The long second act is all dust and blood and madness and glory, and the fast third act comes down on you like a sharpened spade.

Lavie Tidhar is a clever bastard, and this book is a box of little miracles. I liked it.

More details here.  It’s out Sept/Oct.

UNHOLY LAND, Lavie Tidhar (UK) (US)


Crooked God Machine

My Daddy’s hands were like burnt maps. He said if we wanted to learn how to conquer the world, all we needed to do was look at his hands.

CROOKED GOD MACHINE by Autumn Christian is a mesmerising, monstrous nightmare of a novel.  There’s David Lynch in there, and Cormac McCarthy, and Southern Gothic, and modernist narrative forms, and folklore and half a dozen other things that are all the novelist.  I’m just trying to put some handles on it for you. It is horrific and unrelenting and dreamlike and beautiful.  I found it weirdly hard to put down.  Like it didn’t want to let go.  Like it wanted to make me keep looking.

It’s the story of Charles, who is living through the very slow end of the world, living in a small house in a small town that is always dying but never quite dead yet.  It’s the story of growing up during the end of the world.  Normalising the most awful things.

There are almost clues to what happened.  But they’re scattered by dream logic, and the lyrical horror of transapocalyptic life, where God shrieks at you through the television, a Jenny Greenteeth-like monster called Jolene eats bones in the creek at the end of your garden, people go to sleep for ten years with spiders in their heads and the hell shuttles are always on their way to collect you.

For some of you, there’s a bunch of things in there that are going to feel disturbingly close to home. It is not a comfortable read for anyone.  But it compelled me.  It’s young, raw work, but it is fierce and furious and knows what it’s about. I admired it a great deal.

CROOKED GOD MACHINE, Autumn Christian (UK) (US)


Medicine For A Hole In The Head

Sometimes — and I suspect it’s usually a sign something is wrong in the work, that my brain is thrashing around looking for new things to grab hold of — but sometimes, I think about being online more.  In that Extremely Online way of multiple daily blogging.  I look at clever new microblogging systems like Blot, which is really very smartly built indeed, or remember with guilt that I still have an unused instance at the marvellous Ghost system, and I think, well, maybe I could do something this time…

It is, as I say, a warning shot from the back of my head.  Something’s wrong and I need to look at what I’m working on again.  It’s the subconscious leaving clues that something is broken. You have to learn to recognise these things before they trip you up.

I have decided to blame Georgina Voss for saying she wanted “an alternative internet.”  That clause sent my stupid brain to a number of places it should not loiter in.

So I shall go to the place where they fill these glasses with wine, as medicine.

Re-reading: CANNIBAL METAPHYSICS, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (UK) (US)


Bad Writer

Georges Simenon used to write a novel in eight days, producing between six thousand and eight thousand words a day.  He’d start at dawn each day and be done by 10.30am, drenched in sweat.  In his younger days, it’s said, he’d throw up after completing his shift.  One of my favourite stories about Michael Moorcock is that he’d start a book on a Monday when the bill from Harrods came in and deliver the novel on Friday to get the cheque to pay it.

I cannot imagine what these things are like.  I’m a 500-word-a-day novelist.  Sometimes I wonder if I’m too late to try it: whether it’d kill me, whether I’d dry up halfway through.  Whether it would even be worth it.  These things stand like megalithic stones in the landscape of a writer.  I know I’m working in their shadows.  But I also tell myself: what muscles do you tear and what do you lose when you try it?

Simenon owned wolves. But he had to give them to a zoo after they ate the cat.


Recently read: CROOKED GOD MACHINE, Autumn Christian (UK) (US)