Front cover image – detail from Shutterstock Image 153524099 © Malivan Luliia
Back cover – Interior detail of the viewing platform at The Shard, London © Matthew Haynes – see it on Lulu.
WHY A SHORT STORY COLLECTION?
Leading up to 2013 I enjoyed reading short stories, but I was not writing them. I would prefer to spend months writing a novel rather than even contemplate writing a short story. But it wasn’t always like that.
In junior school I produced a short series of ‘self-defence manuals’ with diagrams on how to perform various takedowns I had seen performed by James Bond and or on television shows like The Saint. The moves were useless, but it acted as a release valve for my pent up creativity which was not wholly catered for by the school curriculum; playing a recorder would only have been fun for me if it had contained a poison dart.
I also invented the character of a girlfriend who I had met in Woolworths in Rhyl. She had been coming down the stairs while I was walking up, she had tripped and I had caught her in my arms. Romance blossomed from that simple accidental meeting. The character was used in bullshit conversations with my best friend, who was nice enough not to challenge me too much about it. It had crossed my mind to resurrect this character for a short story entitled ‘My Imaginary Girlfriend’, but then I saw the film Ruby Sparks and realised that the parallels between what I had planned for the story and the movie were too close.
When I was doing my English ‘O’ Levels at school the ability to write short stories was of paramount importance. I remember accepting my missions with the gusto of a newly licensed 00 agent from my ‘M’ (English teacher Miss James) and then realising that in most cases I didn’t have a clue where to start. She gave us titles like ‘Outcast’ or ‘Sanctuary’ and would ask us to produce a story in a certain amount of time and a certain amount of words.
My main strategy was to write a sci-fi story, usually based in some way on whatever I was watching on TV or reading at the time (Asimov prevailed). So for example ‘Outcast’ became a robot sent back through time for committing some misdemeanour in the future. M got smart to my strategy and added a caveat to my missions – ‘no science fiction please Matthew,’ she would say. This was after introducing me to the wonderful Brave New World and 1984, the tease.
So ‘Sanctuary’ was based on a clearing in a forest near my family home in North Wales, but I think it also included a ninja and a white tiger. She said no sci-fi, she didn’t explicitly veto fantasy!
Around the same time, I used to write comedy adventure stories influenced by Monty Python. These stories featured Arthurian knights fighting the Boredom beast and on a quest to find the Holy Hairdryer. These were passed around my small circle of friends in the form of neatly handwritten sheets of lined A4 stapled together on the edge. I also co-wrote a couple of school plays loosely based on Snow White and Seven Dwarves and Grease. There was also my ‘lost’ play called Alice in Blunderland which never went into production. It was probably for the best.
At university my life suddenly became a lot more interesting and the need to fantasise on the page disappeared. I was also preoccupied with cranking out essays. However, once my undergraduate life turned to postgraduate life, I found the need to fall back to writing as a form of escape from the tedium of writing my PhD thesis. The Magpie Diaries started to take shape during these years.
So my attention has been solely on writing novels for some years now and I have disregarded the value of the short story. However, over the years I have read several comments about how short stories were harder to write than novels and I wanted to explore this claim. I have also been greatly impressed by the skill of some authors (Neil Gaiman and Philip K Dick in particular) in crafting seemingly perfect short stories. So I resolved at the start of 2013 to write some short stories, producing one short story per month.
As with most New Year’s Resolutions my target of one story a month was not achieved. The year was an annus horribilus and as a result Lucky took far longer than expected to write and work on this collection got put on hold. During the distractions I did write a few more titles down and come up with some interesting ideas. I started working on the stories again in 2014 while getting to grips with a new job, and the writing continued intermittently through 2015. I hope the drawn out timeline has resulted in a better collection.
Along with ‘The Sun & The Rainfall’, ‘Ramona’ is not strictly fresh material. In its original form ‘Ramona’ was a scene from Broken which fell by the wayside during the 2012 rewrite of the novel. I didn’t want to just delete it and forget it, I wanted to rewrite it and expand it into a short story that would complement the novel. The events towards the end of the story are new and Kevin ends up surprising Danny which I think is kind of neat. The story is available via the ‘Look Inside’ preview on the Amazon page for the book.
THE SUN & THE RAINFALL
During my ‘A’ levels and an unexpected gap year, I toyed with the idea of writing a novel. It was to be entitled The Sun & The Rainfall – a title taken from an early Depeche Mode song. I didn’t get very far with writing it, but a kernel of ambition remained and subsequently influenced me to write what eventually became The Magpie Diaries. I recently exhumed the original story and present a very much reworked version in this collection.
What it represents now is a prequel ‘origin’ story for Gareth Jones who gets his just desserts in Lucky. Originally Becky (the precursor for the Kirsty Young character in the Magpie Diaries) is stalked by a serial rapist who has sexually attacked a woman in Chester before coming to Abergele and staying in some holiday flats opposite her Aunt’s house. I guess some of this influenced Gareth’s appearance in Lucky. The rapist is removed from this reworked version of the story and although there a signs that something is amiss, Gareth’s true intentions towards Becky should come as a surprise.
During a test read, Siggy asked me ‘why?’ when she had read the last line. I replied ‘because he’s a complete psychopath!’ and reminded her that an older Gareth tries to attack Lucy in Lucky.
‘The Voice’ is perhaps missing a subtitle ‘Gareth’s Story’. This is the story that Gareth is writing in ‘The Sun & the Rainfall’ that Becky dislikes (and sure enough revolted Siggy). It is somewhat of a tip of the hat to H P Lovecraft and might as well be called The Call of Cthulu, although I think the thing down the well is just a small deformed version of the great dark god. It was also an experiment in writing something claustrophobic from the point of view of a psychopath. It was written in 2015 while I was still reworking the preceding story.
‘Sureshot’ was one of the first of the new batch of stories I wrote for this collection. The back cover image of the print version of the book on Lulu was taken during a trip up The Shard in London. I was impressed by the views, particularly the steep angled vantage point looking down onto HMS Belfast. The idea of a sentient wheelchair is perhaps influenced by a character on the TV show version of Ghost in the Shell.
My somewhat failed attempt at a hard-boiled detective story in the science fiction world of Muta. Maybe somewhat influenced by Sam Thompson’s Communion Town and watching China Town on Netflix. I think I got too caught up in the novelty of being back in Muta-land to really do the original idea justice but I like the idea of music having neural augmentation in the future coupled with an androids desperation to feel.
This story gave me a lot of trouble and went through several versions until I arrived at a compromise for this collection. I love ‘empty world’ stories but I’m not a big fan of zombie stuff so those readers expecting a grand unveiling in the spirit of 28 time periods later will be disappointed.
If this was a kind of ‘forced by aliens’ Adam and Eve tale, the astronaut up on the space station was going to have a hard time reuniting with his childhood sweetheart down on Earth, which is why I ended the strangeness after a day and let him be reunited with her via conventional means.
The compromise has left me frustrated and the tale has many loose ends. It’s one of the stories that might get a revisit when I have more time and be elevated into a novel. However another part of me is saying ‘leave it alone and move on…’ – the same voice that told me not to include a story about the character Yolanda from Muta in this collection.
One of the most recent additions to this collection which was added after I got a big dollop of enthusiasm back for this project after reading Adam Robert’s sci-fi collection Adam Robots. I had played with the were-creature idea in Tales of the New Found Land but wanted to do it ‘properly’ for this collection. I picked up on the idea of shape changing in American folklore from somewhere and so that’s why I based it in the setting and time period I did. I guess this could take place around the same area a few decades prior to the happenings in ‘The Voice’.
WORK MAKES YOU FREE
I have always been touched by stories of the Holocaust and it felt like a good subject to look at through a sci-fi lens. Self-teleportation is also something that I have enjoyed ever since Miss Popoff sneezed on BBC’s children’s programme Rent-A-Ghost and more recently in the film Jumper. I wanted to take it to an extreme and have a character who could jump from planet to planet.
However the idea for this story actually starts with the Paddington Bear movie. What if the bear was an alien thrown into a human world? Then you get something like The Man Who Fell to Earth or Stranger in a Strange Land. So switch it around and have a boy thrown into an alien world. Then work out the mechanism of how this could happen. Johan appearing in the loft was the starting point. The talisman became a St David’s star and then it all came flooding out.
Along with ‘Iris’, ‘Victor’ is one of my silly sci-fi stories. After reading Adam Robots I realised that it’s okay to do ‘silly’. So what could be sillier than a toothbrush becoming a man? There’s some commentary on the dynamics of relationships thrown in there and I revisit Muta-land once again. I have also done a bit of a Cloud Atlas job on this and referenced the previous story in this story – I was a bit unhappy about killing off Bianka and so I present an alternate happier ending in the holo version.
ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER
Another very recent tale written around the same time as ‘Blood Moon’. I thought if I had included a werewolf story then I should do a vampire story. This is very much in the form of a big shout out to Philip K Dick who wrote about robots taking over in short stories such as Second Variety way before Cameron’s rise of the machines. As usual I try to answer a ‘what if?’ – in this case what if humans were getting killed by machines and vampires existed. They would need to protect the livestock right?
My really silly sci-fi tale. This caused me almost as much trouble as ‘Clear Sky’ despite its relative simplicity. Again it has a bit of a ‘forced by aliens’ Adam and Eve style to it – which after ‘Clear Sky’ is wholly intentional as I hope it throws readers off the scent of the silly reveal. There is a vague link to alien invaders in ‘Work Makes You Free’, but it is vague at best; I am not David Mitchell.
While I was doing my O-levels one of my poems called ‘The Game’ was put into an internally circulated collection of poetry at my school. The poem was met with some enthusiasm by several girls from lower sets who found that it had just the right amount of sauciness to pique their curiosity over the writer without getting banned from publication.
Following this success there was an inevitable Adrian Mole-esque period of inner reflection after I turned sixteen. I turned from prose to poetry. Most of my poems were pretty terrible and will not see the light of day. I’ve not really got any better since then at poems and they happen very rarely. I scattered a few choice poems about in the collection.
SCRABBLE BABBLE, TOIL AND TRIBBLE
Powered by Google, this poem has already appeared on this blog here: SCRABBLE BABBLE, TOIL AND TRIBBLE and is an alphabetical exploration of seemingly nonsensical double-words.
This poem has already appeared on this blog here: #SINGLEAGAIN and is a twee pun infested take on the use of social media.
Written during my angst and ennui ridden pre-university days this poem features in its original badly typed form on this blog here: THE HILL. Unhappy with the incorrect passage of phases I rearranged for the collection so it runs from past, through present, to future. It is supposed to reflect the ages on (wo)man and the almost indestructibility of the landscape. Mortality and all that jazz.
WEE OF THE RED TOWER
Based on a conversation with Siggy as we were walking into town one Saturday this is a story influenced by the young adult fiction of Terry Pratchett. There has always been some talk about me writing fiction specifically for young adults or children. The conversation we had revolved around doing an illustrated reader in the vain of Dr Suess based on little people who lived in a post box.
This poem has already appeared on this blog here: WEE OF THE RED TOWER
‘Ramona’ serves as a prequel scene for Broken.
The Sunshine & the Rainfall serves as an origin story for the character of Gareth Jones in Lucky.
‘Resonance’ and ‘Victor’ are set in the Muta ‘universe’.
Some stories are interconnected as explained in the preceding section.