Dark Days and Drinking

In the writing game, the propensity for substance abuse appears to be higher than in other parts of society, particularly alcohol. A number of my favourite writers all had problems with the bottle – Stephen King, Raymond Carver and Raymond Chandler to name but three. As King brilliantly articulates in On Writing, the idea that creative endeavour and booze or drugs are somehow connected and necessary in a world of emotional isolation and despair is a myth. Alcoholics drink because they are addicts, anything else is just another excuse.

Which brings me to my own battles with the booze. I’m obviously far from the standard of the legends I’ve mentioned, but I’ve used that excuse for my own excesses on occasion. And in the last few months the excesses are starting to get out of control. I drank heavily over the Christmas period, culminating in an ill-advised solo drinking session on New Years Eve which resulted in a substantial blackout period and one of the most savage hangovers I’ve ever experienced. I spent the first day of the year sleeping and puking and swallowed in a sea of self-loathing and guilt. Twenty six days later, I sit here and write, and I’m still sober.

I’ve been drinking for all the wrong reasons for a long time. It’s my fall back pastime when my mental health takes a tumble, which is the worst possible solution for that problem. When I’m bored, I drink. When I’m lonely, I drink. When I’m sad, I drink. When I can’t get the words down right, I drink. And on and on and on.  That my life is so much harder than anybody elses and I deserve to drink as some kind of a reward. It’s pathetic, really. I have friends with serious family stuff going on, life and death situations, and I get drunk because I feel I’m worthless as a writer or because I’m lonely. What a self-indulgent load of nonsense that is. Like I’m inviting the despair on to give me an excuse.

That’s not to say my mental health problems shouldn’t be acknowledged, far from it. But alcohol is not the way to do it. Once the fog cleared I made some enquiries and will hopefully be going back into therapy soon. I spent the best part of three years seeing somebody a decade ago and it really helped. More fool me for thinking I can do it on my own. And I’m sure that if I can keep my drinking under control my creative output should remain constant, and everything else will improve both physically and mentally.  I’m already sleeping better. My skin feels clearer. And its lovely to wake up in the morning without having to wonder how I got home. Simple pleasures.

It would be nice to get to the stage where I can enjoy a beer again, make it an occasional pleasure rather than a habit. If I can’t handle that, then it probably is time to give up for good. But I know now that I can’t go on as I have been, and that’s revelation enough.  I can not drink and be cleaner and happier, and still be able to write and live.

 

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2018: The Reading Year

Another year, another failed reading challenge. After missing last year’s target I took 2018’s challenge down to 70 books, one I was sure I would make. Not a bit of it, only coming in at 63. Barely a book a week. Why? I have read a few doorsteps this year, but I’ve found my pace has slowed dramatically.  One book took me a fortnight to finish, which is unheard of. I know it’s only a yardstick and I shouldn’t let it get to me, but yeah, I’m disappointed to fail two years in succession. Sitting down to do this, I thought I might struggle to find 10 books to choose for this year. I haven’t felt that magic too much in 2018. However looking back there have been a few pearls among the oysters so let’s go, my top 10 books read in 2018.

Don Carpenter – Hard Rain Falling. I’ve had this book on my TBR for ages, and by chance, a friend lent it to me. It’s a stark and uncompromising novel of a down and out pool hustler on the streets of Portland, Oregon, and his friendship with a black runaway through a life of prison, hardship and bitterness. For a first novel it’s extraordinary, and along with the bleakness there are moments of quiet beauty that take the breath away.

Donald Ray Pollock – The Heavenly Table. If you like Southern Gothic grit, Pollock is your man. This tale of the three Jewett brother, cowboys cutting a swathe across the frontier, is lewd, crude, funny and jet-black dark. What’s not to love?

James Lee Burke – The Lost Get-Back Boogie. For some reason I’ve never read a Burke novel until this year, which was a terrible oversight considering I’m a crime fiend and Burke is one of the most popular out there. I was glad to rectify this in 2018, and this novel set in Montana was the best of them, a stunning tale of a man trying to fly right with beautiful descriptive passages and real heart.

Willy Vlautin – Don’t Skip Out On Me. A running theme on this blog is my love for Vlautin’s books. The greatest living writer in America, for me. If anything this book is his most heartbreaking (quite a feat if you’ve read any of his others!), just so painful and beautiful. Another masterpiece.

Michelle McNamara – I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. This book on the Golden State killer caused a sensation on its release, particularly as the suspect has now been arrested. It’s very sad that the author died before this moment, as her painstaking research and quiet desperation to find the killer did so much to keep the crimes in the spotlight, and she passed away before the arrest was made. This book is her legacy, and it’s a must for any true crime fan.

Christopher Hitchins – Hitch 22: A Memoir. Come on, it’s Hitch, all right? As ferocious and funny as you would expect from the great man.

Stephen King – IT. Unbelievably, I’d never read this or seen the films until this year. Obviously the clown stuff is iconic, but the novel takes you to deeper and darker places. I actually found a couple of plot strands very problematic, but the sheer invention and quality of the prose means I had to include it. Bloke’s a genius, let’s be honest.

Donald E. Westlake – Dancing Aztecs. No-one does screwball comedy better than Westlake, and this crime caper about a South American statue is brilliantly written and flat-out hilarious.

Kenneth Cook – Wake In Fright. I’m a huge fan of the film (as is Scorsese, if you need a better recommendation than me) and the book it is based on is equally as good. As disturbing, surreal, horrifying and hypnotic on the page as it is on screen.

Kazuo Ishiguro – Remains of the Day. Saving the best for last. My book of the year by a country mile. So haunting and beautiful. Ishiguro’s writing is perfection, as Stevens’s tale of life as a country butler unfolds in bittersweet tragedy. A worthy Booker winner and a reminder of how brilliant fiction can be. So glad to have read it.

So, a nice way to cap off 2018, with my best book of the year coming in its final stages. Hopes for 2019? To complete a reading challenge would be nice. I want to try to read some more voices from outside the Western world, too. My radar feels like it’s been a bit off this year, so hopefully I can sniff out the good stuff better as well. I turn 40 in 2019 so I’m about halfway through my reading life. So much read, but so much still out there. It’s that thought that drives me on.

 

 

The Master of Splatterpunk

Over the last few months, in between reading for my book club, I’ve been having great pangs of nostalgia for the books that first set my literary wheels spinning when I was a teenager. I’ve written a little on this blog before about my formative years of reading, which were a great source of pleasure. As always in life, time moves on and a novelist or genre that was once captivating moves into the background to be replaced by newer tastes. Those early likes retain a special place in the heart of the reader but generally are not revisited too much, perhaps for the fear of ruining an early memory or discovering that perhaps the writer wasn’t as good as originally thought.
It’s for this reason that I rarely go back to those writers. Some, Stephen King being the most obvious example, are writers I’ve picked up in my teens and carried them with me ever since. With King it’s due to his sheer variety and amazing ability to write disturbing, compelling fiction that always contains an ‘everyman’ quality. His originality always kept me coming back too, the man has an incredible imagination and is never constricted to the horror genre as some of his critics might suggest. Basically, you never know what you are going to get.
Others though I grew out of pretty quickly. I was a voracious reader of Dean Koontz back in the day, and devoured his early mysteries and suspense thrillers. He wrote about serial killers and some pretty disturbing characters with a cool, calculating eye which I found fascinating. A lot of his early work had a sort of ‘Area 51’ flavour, where a group of characters stumbled across some secret that had the chance to change the world, and not necessarily for the better. He wrote a few like this but Strangers is the one that I remember most vividly. I loved how Koontz built up the suspense until the big reveal where the secret was unveiled, and his characters, though plentiful, were always drawn with emotion and background.
But I just stopped reading his books after a while. I can still remember when it happened – I forget the name of the novel but it contained the sentence ‘Fric in a fracas.’ Just one sentence, which jarred with me that none of his writing had before. My reading experience had widened substantially by then and I just thought, ‘this is poor prose,’ and put the book down. Maybe you don’t notice these things as a teenager, or you don’t care. You just get swept up in the story. But once I had gained more knowledge of the craft of writing and read more widely little bits of prose started to wind me up when I read them. ‘Fric in a fracas’ is by no means the worst of it, but I hated the unnecessary cleverness of it and still do. Sadly, I haven’t returned to Koontz since.
But the one writer who I have gone back to is the US horror and splatterpunk writer of the 80s and 90s Richard Laymon. This guy was barely known in his home country but had a small cult following in the UK, which is where I first picked him up in the mid 90s. I know why I enjoyed his books back then, for they are extraordinarily graphic in every sense of the word. Firstly, the books are drenched in gore. Laymon had a no-holds-barred attitude to scenes of violence. Characters are decapitated in any number of ways by a range of mostly insane serial killer types. The villains were sadistic and more often than not no explanation was given for their insanity. I genuinely couldn’t believe what I was reading when I first got into Laymon. There are arguments all the time about violence in video games and films and their effect on impressionable youths, but very little is ever said about books. I was astonished that he could get away with it, and as a 15 year old, thrilled that he was. It felt like my little secret when I read Laymon, the fact that my Dad didn’t have any idea what I was reading gave an extra layer of excitement to proceedings.
And boy oh boy, the sex scenes. There are some extremely graphic passages in Laymon’s work, too many to mention. Group sex, masturbation, lesbian scenes, extensive descriptions of foreplay, you name it. His novel Body Rides is the most explicit book I have ever read. Again, for a hormonal teenager this was an intoxicating thrill, and again, I was staggered that this sort of writing was free and available. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no advocate of censorship, but to discover this sort of stuff was out there waiting to be read was an amazing discovery at the time and a little bit scary, too.
The morality of the villains towards women in Laymon’s work is pretty disgusting, too. His novel Resurrection Dreams was basically about a teenage boy trying to resurrect the corpse of a dead female classmate who he was in love with, so he could have sex with her. To put it bluntly. In much of his other work women are subjected to horrendous torture, rape and violence that is described in frank detail that is not for the faint-hearted. Re-reading him now I am still struck by the horrific nature of these scenes.
I appreciate I have now created a picture of Laymon’s work that will be outrageous and off-putting for most, and you may be thinking that I am some sort of degenerate being. So, why did I go back? And why do his books still effect me so much? The main reason, and one that came through loud and clear second time around, is the emotional core of the books. The villains are disgusting for sure, but for every villain there has to be a hero. Laymon wrote some horrible stuff but he always countered it with heroes who you knew would win through in the end. He wrote brilliantly about adolescence and the first stirrings of love and made his female characters strong, independent women who still had an air of vulnerability and a desire to be loved. I remember I developed a huge crush on the lead female character in Come Out Tonight and for a few months after was almost in love with her myself. Such was the emotional punch. A lot of the male leads were teenagers who you always knew would have a chance with the beautiful heroine and for a shy bloke who had trouble even talking to girls at that age this was my opportunity to be that guy, at least for the book’s duration.
Obviously those days are long gone now, but I still have a respect for Laymon’s writing style too. His books proceed at a frantic pace, with very little exposition. Characters are thrown in at the deep end from Page 1 and left to get on with it. Keeping an even pace throughout is a difficult accomplishment and Laymon does it with aplomb, building the suspense perfectly before the final climactic scenes. The dialogue is great too, dark in places but very funny at times. He was clearly a talented bloke.
Sadly Laymon died in 2001 and his posthumous releases tainted his work for me, with all of the violence of his previous work but none of the heart. Still, his novels were very important to me as a young man and re-reading some now only reinforces that view. If you have the stomach for it, check him out.

Impasse

OK, so the main news is that I’m writing again. It’s tentative, it’s flat, it’s probably not very good, but it’s writing. I’m only about 5000 words in so I haven’t even left the foothills yet and it has been slow progress so far. On a very good day I can write 2000 words but at the moment I’m struggling to reach half that. Part of this is down to my work ethic – I need to be writing 6 days a week minimum and that isn’t happening yet. It’s too easy to come home from work and find excuses not to write – tiredness being my main one. Generally I never sit down at the desk raring to go and with ideas flowing out of me, and I suspect much the same is true for most people. It’s work, like any other, and it has to be treated as such.
My other problem though is that the story has hit a wall. Already I seem to have written myself into a corner. I have a character that is pretty well developed in my head and the writing so far has concentrated on his story.
The difficulty has come with the second character. I envisaged the story moving between two characters who shared a brutal, life-changing experience in their teenage years which caused deep-rooted issues between them. The novel would switch between flashback chapters showing the build up to this incident and chapters showing how the characters are coping in the present day. With all of this leading to some sort of revelation and resolution at the books’ conclusion.
All well and good – but that second character is just not forming a clear picture of himself. I don’t need very much, just a flash of something or a snap of dialogue. I remember when writing my second novel a tiny part of a scene came to me out of nowhere whilst I was at work and I frantically wrote 2 pages longhand in illegible handwriting. There was no context to it, just a conversation between three characters in a house, but it was the basis for the 130,000 words which came after. I shouldn’t be hoping for the same thing to happen again, but it would be nice.
The main reason I struggle with dead ends is because I have an active dislike of plotting. I really believe that when you have living, breathing characters they write the novel themselves. That I am not only the writer, but the novel’s first reader too. Going back to that second novel, I would say that about 10% of it was plotted in advance. I had no idea what was going to happen in 10 pages time, let alone the ending. But all books have to end up somewhere, and you generally know when the characters have told their tales. So in general I don’t have any preconceived ideas of plot written down – I want the characters to tell me where the story is going. This probably flies in the face of a lot of writing advice but it’s what I think. And I know that I’m not the only one – Stephen King says much the same in his terrific book for writers ‘On Writing’. (King has written reams of brilliant advice for writers, far too many to list here. Well worth seeking out. Perhaps this time though I may have to go against the grain and write some stuff down in the hope that it unties the knots in my mind.
There are other ways to flush out the story tangles too though – running has always been a good one for me. It’s a great way to clear the mind of everything and concentrate on enjoying fresh air and getting the blood flowing. And sometimes this process allows the story room to breathe and suddenly the halves become whole and you are away again.
Perhaps it’s time to put the running shoes on…