Wednesday, 28 March 2012

A Brief Q & A with Mark Valentine and John Howard

This week, as a companion piece to my last entry, a brief Q & A with partnered authors of the uncanny, Mark Valentine and John Howard:

Mark Valentine’s first publication was The Garden of Ruin, god of the rain (1980) and his most recent, with John Howard, is the short story collection Secret Europe (Ex Occidente Press, 2012). He has written a biography of the Welsh author and mystic Arthur Machen (Seren, 1990) and Time, a Falconer (Tartarus Press, 2011), a study of the diplomat and fantasist ‘Sarban’. His tales of an aesthetical occult detective were recently brought together in The Collected Connoisseur (with John Howard, Tartarus Press, 2010) and he has published four other short story collections. He edits Wormwood, a journal of the literature of the fantastic, supernatural and decadent.

John Howard was born in London in 1961. He is the author of a collection of short stories, The Silver Voices, and a novella, The Defeat of Grief. His stories also have appeared in the anthologies Beneath the Ground, Cinnabar’s Gnosis, and Never Again. His collaborations with Mark Valentine have appeared in the collections Masques & Citadels, The Rite of Trebizond and Other Tales, and The Collected Connoisseur. He has published many articles on various aspects of the science fiction and horror fields, especially on the work of classic authors such as Fritz Leiber, Arthur Machen, August Derleth, M.R. James, and writers of the pulp era.

Why did you originally approach a Romanian publisher for this and previous projects?

MV: Originally, Ex Occidente Press approached us. Dan Ghetu, who runs the press, had enjoyed some of our earlier stories and asked us to produce a book for his new imprint.

JH: Dan was willing to publish more by us (separately and in collaboration) – which he did – and so it was natural for us to ‘pitch’ the ‘Secret Europe’ idea to him. Dan went along with the way the project developed, as well as requesting and/or making his own changes (such as not including any story notes).

What feedback, if any, have you so far received from British mainstream publishers from your work with Ex-Occidente?

MV: None. However, I’ve never tried to interest them in it.

JH: None – but I’ve never asked for any.
How and why did you both settle on the theme of dissent for many of the tales in this book?

MV: We didn’t discuss this as a theme. Our stories were drawn to it independently.

JH: I didn’t consciously settle on this theme. As many of my stories in SECRET EUROPE are set during times of upheaval (or worse) or impending change, the theme of ‘dissent’ clearly turned out to be relevant and so found its way into the stories through the various characters in their different – or not so very different after all – situations. It often takes an outsider looking in to discern themes.

Another example is in Des Lewis’ real-time reviews, where he (correctly) points out the times I’ve used ‘high places’ – balconies, terraces, towers, hills, etc – in my work. I never realised how often I did it until he mentioned it.

Did either of you ever consider it an issue placing the 'uncanny' tales next to the more political ones?

MV: No. I didn’t think about it. I just wrote the stories that the place or characters seemed to suggest.

JH: I never gave any thought to the arrangement of the individual stories in the book, or of attempting to co-ordinate the order of my stories with Mark’s. We were happy to leave this to the skill and judgement of the publisher. And I think this has worked out well!

As a writing partnership, how do you avoid conflicts? Do you both instinctively write to your own strengths or is it always something that has to be long planned and negotiated?

MV: We have known each other for almost 30 years so probably have a good idea of each other’s interests. For this collection, all we did was to divide Europe up between us, so we didn’t write about the same places. So, yes, the writing is mostly instinctive.

JH: When we’ve collaborated, we’ve avoided conflicts because Mark always has the last word! I’ve been happy with this because the impetus and main ideas have nearly always come from him. This was certainly the case for our six collaborations involving The Connoisseur. He was Mark’s character and Mark knows more about him than I do (although in my time with him I think he’s picked up a few things from me).

I think Mark and I always write to our strengths – many of which we share, and others of which are complementary. I think we largely write instinctively – and more often than not we’ve turned out to have shared those instincts, or they’ve led us in the same direction.

Which stories from SECRET EUROPE do you both consider the most successful at achieving what you'd planned for the book as a whole?

MV: I hope they all work together as a set. While we didn’t have a definite plan for the book, we knew that most of the stories would be set in interwar Europe and in places and situations that might not be all that well known. The interest for me was in trying to imagine the atmosphere of each setting and the preoccupations of the characters.

JH: I’m not sure we really planned anything for SECRET EUROPE as a whole, except to cover as much of Europe geographically as seemed feasible.  I don’t think I started writing my stories to a plan, except that once I’d decided to use a setting (or create a fictional one) I wanted to make it as alive as possible, and hopefully to leave the reader with a sense of having been somewhere in ‘secret Europe’ – even if only for a very brief time, and perhaps with the relief of having got away.

As well as wanting to use places I’d had the chance to visit, I also wanted to write about times and events in recent history that have interested me for years, but which might not be well-known today: for example the brief but bloody civil war in Austria in 1934.

Mark and I divided Europe between us, rather in the manner of Molotov and Ribbentrop; so we never trespassed on each other’s territory, even when we ended up setting stories in the same areas, because of shared interests in them – for example, the Baltic countries.

I don’t think I can answer the question by choosing a story: that’s up to the reader!
My thanks to Mark Valentine and John Howard for giving of their time. I very much look forward to their next releases - both together and apart. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Secret Europe by John Howard & Mark Valentine, Exposition Internationale, (Bucharest)

Like a Cold War-era directive, I received this – one of a limited edition of 222 - through the post from Romania. A smart, Art Deco retro cover, featuring a heraldic red flame upon matt-black boards, above the title - invitingly illicit - compounded the evocation. I was otherwise relieved that your language-illiterate reviewer discovered its contents reassuringly rendered in his own tongue.
  Over just 180 pages, a whole twenty-five tales feature. (Ten by Howard; fifteen by Valentine). But no imaginative deficit is the cause. Economy of language is more often a signifier of focused intent than any dearth of ideas, and I was pleased to uncover this fact through their reading.
  Collectively, the tales are set during the tide of social and political unrest sweeping across Eastern Europe before and between the Wars. Small but telling endeavours are used by its citizens to undermine the governing parties’ grips on power. Howard’s sense of place is confidently realised without dominating plot. (One unavoidable exception is ‘Westenstrand,’ but here the ever-shifting landscape is a character by itself). His best tales relate little telling revenges committed against the state by those who work under or within it – a very European topic. ‘The Silver Eagles’ finds citizen defiance expressed in the counterfeiting of coins, while ‘The White City’ sees comedic lampooning on official stamps.
  Valentine’s tales highlight a more psychological motivation, where we follow individuals’ affected internally by their environments. These, in particular, lard the book with traits of the uncanny. ‘The Other Salt’ harbours a neat twist on a traditional horror motif, while ‘A Lantern For Carpathia’ follows the trail of a lost brand of cigarette to their stoical guardian whose last outpost has one far more compelling story to tell. Together, all feel strangely prescient in our own time of peoples’ uprising against state control.
  Where a sole protagonist is concerned, a remote coolness and ambiguous intent, redolent of Robert Aickman, unites both writers. In Howard’s ‘Wandering Paths,’ a man who has lost his way and the chance to reconcile with his wife seems condemned to pursue his failing geographically; while Valentine’s ‘The Lion of Chaldea’ sees a young Iberian scholar posted by his institute on a goodwill mission to Cadiz and the company of his host; ‘original’ thinker, Dr. Ecquo. Considered a crank by the scholar’s employers, Ecquo claims the citizens of the city once known as Chaldea, "saw the stars very differently from us…where we see mythological figures, creatures, heroes, symbols, they saw – something else." We are asked to consider; is Ecquo truly a crank or, also, ‘something else’?
  The historical and geographical knowledge of their subject, allied to the cool competence and tight, economical use of language united in tales not a word longer than required, suggests this small press release may well be Howard’s and Valentine’s best work so far. I hope they are reissued in time, to be appreciated by a far wider audience.