Mr Sandman, Send Me A dream

I rarely post book reviews on this blog as I find reading both highly emotive and quite personal, and accept that what works for me may not be another person’s cup of blackberry tea. Being somewhat bed bound this week I reverted to comfort book territory, picking up Neil Gaiman’s Preludes and Nocturnes, the first collection of the Sandman universe.  I first read this book back in 1992 and it holds so many emotional associations for me that what follows is not a critical review, rather a personal reflection of what this book means to me still – 22 years on.

Where it all starts

Where it all starts

Back in 1992 I was a callow student of library studies (you’ve seen the picture here, I’m even sat at a VAX!), fascinated by university life, the development of a new and strange method of communication called JANET (the Joint Academic Network) which the geeks used to communicate with each other on campus via the aged VAX computer system. This was way before the internet was open to popular use, and a super tool for a girl to employ to meet the then main target of her existent – geeky boys. I was happy to play computers with them, they were happy to show me their toys.

Morpheus

Morpheus

One of them had adopted the user name Morpheus on said system, which led to a discussion (actually in person) one day about the origin of the name. Oh, he said, let me show you my comic book collection, strange little girl. I willingly followed him up to his seaside book attic (aka paradise found) where a world of wonder was pressed into my eager little mittens. A sea of comic books, all loving preserved in plastic covers, filled in regimented lever arch binders. (An aside, I was using the frankly appalling user name Strawberry Tart at this point. I was 19, but I really don’t think that’s any excuse).

Now I’m a girl. A book nerd, fair enough, but I’d never been exposed to the wonderful world of the comic universe. My Morpheus was happy to educated me for the price of a few kisses. I really was that callow.  And so I read my first batch of single issue comics, by a chap called Neil Gaiman. This batch known as Preludes & Nocturnes.

Welcome to the Hellfire Club...

Welcome to the Hellfire Club…

Now Mr Gaiman himself acknowledges that he wasn’t all that happy with the execution and story development of some of these chapters. He may be right – but I didn’t have any comparable frame of reference for what I was reading. Sure, I loved fantasy, elves and hobbits and David Edding’s wonderful Belgariad. But this was another level of reality. I dived into it all headlong and began a love affair with The Sandman that has now lasted 22 years.

There were so many firsts for me with this book – my first actual adult comic book reading, my first meeting with the Endless, The Corinthian, The Furies, the glory that is Lucifer, Dave McKean’s beautiful artwork, John Constantine (Hellblazer being the second series I submerged myself into in Morpheus’ comic loft), and the greatest personification of Death I’ve ever read.

'Just feeding the birds'

‘Just feeding the birds’

This all came flooding back with this sickness induced re-read. I always seem to gain my greatest pleasure from Neil Gaiman when I’m bed bound and taking strong medications that can cause hallucinations!! I enjoyed every page, every detailed illustration in this now very battered first edition trade paperback. I fell in love with the Dream Lord all over again (though sadly not with his namesake who got a little huffy when the kisses stopped and banished me from his attic. Bah!).

For me, the pivotal chapters are 24 Hours and The Sound of Her Wings. 24 hours is pure horror theatre, and as a little gore hound goth – both then and now – it played into my nightmares beautifully. Then there’s The Sound of Her Wings, where we meet our second member of the Endless, Death. We walk a few hours in her shoes. We walk in the shadow of her wings, every day. I only hope that death is in reality that kind.

Introducing Gregory

Introducing Gregory

I loved this then. I love it now. I’m still in contact with my Morpheus, albeit at a distance. He gave me a great gift, this world, this toy box of fantasy. Right now I’m stepping back into The Doll’s House. The journey is long and occasionally uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Thank you, my Morpheus, and Mr Gaiman, for the magic that still captivates.

 

Endnote: thanks to everyone who has sent me good wishes. I am slowly getting better, this is my worst asthma attach in 20 years and I’d forgotten how debilitating they can physically be. I’m rather snug, surrounded by pillows, books, tea, various internet devices, and drifting off to the lovely sounds of Agnes Obel’s Philharmonics and All About Eve’s Ultraviolet. Zzzzzzz!

Fragments

I found myself wandering about with insomnia again last night; however knowing that I don’t have to get up at stupid-o’clock for work and can have a lie in helps take the edge off it. Last night was different from the usual thought train of worry, stress and more worry that tends to trundle through my brain at inappropriate hours. There were fragments of conversation that I needed to get out and into print format that had been building up over the past few days of non-writing activity. Rather frustratingly they aren’t remotely connected to what I am supposed to be writing about at the moment – but a throwback to an abandoned project from 2006 that I lost when the dog ate my laptop cable and I blew it up when I foolishly turned on the power…there’s an incident never to be repeated (and I now have the joys of Dropbox to back everything up to – lesson very much learned when you lose 20,000 words of a sci-fi novel).

Darling leave a light on for me (pic: Dave McKean)

Darling leave a light on for me (pic: Dave McKean)

Last night I managed to retrieve 7,000 words from the ethernet and was sat reading in bemusement wondering where the hell this stuff had come from. It was like I’d switched off my rational brain somewhere along the way and entered a parallel universe. Now I guess this is what writers are supposed to do, but I was in a dark place back in 2006 and it really shows. I’m a little wary of kickstarting this project off again, but I was surprised at the quality of the writing. I think at the time I was working in Lottery Towers, an insignificant battery in that particular farm and I literally resigned from that job a couple of months after writing this to move into the job I’ve just left, as well as signing on for my Creative Writing Masters (using this piece as part of my application portfolio along with some utterly appalling poetry).

It’s been a month now since I left work, and this is the first real piece of writing I have contributed to, other than polishing up a short story for the Room to Write short story comp (Sister Vampire, one of my faves but the jury is out amongst my family – the humour is a little bleak in this one!). I’m glad I’m writing again but I am a little concerned about the direction it’s going in – Shattered Orb is not a commercial piece in the slightest, the fragments I do have are disjointed and strangely abstract (much more like my short story style than my novel voice). I’m at a loss as to which way I should travel with the project.

Is this how all fledgling writers feel? It’s like taking baby steps in the dark. I’m not sure whether to go with my gut and spend time on something that mentally is not that great a place to be (but conversely may need to be gotten out of my system) or to concentrate on one of the 2 far more commercial novels I’ve been writing? It’s further complicated as Poison Prince is at a point where the main character’s father is about to die in a miserable protracted way from alcoholic liver disease (which I’ve always planned as a key plot point) – and given my own father’s recent passing, that’s another place that mentally I’m stepping away from.

So I am wittering and procrastinating here on my blog and thus avoiding doing anything constructive. I have booked myself into a session with a local creative writing tutor at the library next week (free! Bless you North Tyneside Library Service), which is being run to promote Story Tyne 2014. I won this comp in 2011, which led to my first ever publication. I’m hoping it helps focus my butterfly brain. I’m also off to do some voluntary work on Tuesday with a super charity who have asked me to engage my ‘work brain’ to help them out with a large funding bid. Given the paucity of my common sense right now I’m hoping I can actually help in a constructive manner.

Right, lets see where these errant fingers take me…

BTA is reading Den of Geek updates and Fortean Times, anticipating seeing Bad Pollyanna and Ayria tonight, listening to second hand Muse (Him Underfoot is working from home in the room next door and BLASTING THE MUSE!!!)

Stock Check

Can words been seen as stock?  I’m not too sure, but for my purposes today that is what they are and that is what I’ve been counting. My writer’s shelf is embarrassingly bare; I am not the most prolific of souls and sometimes it gets me a little disheartened. I also write in fits and starts and can never tell how long each burst will last. Finally, my short stories are utterly bizarre in their gestation – there’s usually a research period into the subject matter with a vague idea of how it’s meant to be told, several abandoned handwritten starts in a notebook and then a flourish of typing when I transfer the bones of the drafts to the laptop and begin to flesh the bones out. This can take months. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. There’s a tale I really wish to tell about rapper dancers (the kind with swords and bells, not a dreadful cacophony of words and noise and thrusting naked parts).  Research is complete – I even played one of their songs note by halting note on my much abused recorder to get the thread of it – and nada. Nothing. Abandoned pages, no story. Just one very bemused and anxious dog sticking her nose up the end of my instrument and begging with me to stop the dreadful racket.

So, bare cupboards. Lots of scrag ends, little tangible. To get over this hump I’ve had a look at the work I was attempting to complete last year. Two novels, Breaking the Angel and Poison Prince remain incomplete.  However, looking behind that at the drafts so far I’m actually pretty happy. BTA has shifted shape a number of times, being the first vague idea I ever had for a novel. It’s now at 63,387 words – and I’m aiming for it to be complete at 80,000. I’m finally happy with the structure and direction. I am way over the initial writing crisis with this one and I am planning book 2, ensuring that certain threads are planted in the story arc at this stage to give continuity without being heavy handed.  Given that at work I churn out 20,000 word reports on a pretty frequent basis, I can see the finish line for the first draft with this one and I’m going to prioritise it this winter / spring because then I can actually say ‘bloody hell, I wrote a novel!’. It may never go anywhere other than my laptop and Wattpad, but I really don’t care – the mental line of finishing will have been crossed. And without a forcible / sackable deadline, I am a crappy starter / finisher. An excerpt:

What was illusion, I wonder now?  What parts of Gabriel should I have trusted – or should my own intuition regarding his motives towards me be my reference point?  It’s easy to love something that beautiful; such elegant eye candy.  When he smiles and bestows his glory on me – on any woman – you become transcendent.  He raises you up.

Then just as quickly he can drop you down again.

I should have taken more note of his words, I suppose.  He was trying to tell me I still had the opportunity to fall on the side of nominal good.  To avoid his mistakes, regardless of the fleeting pleasures they could bring.

Gabriel was the one for all my life.  That’s all I knew at eighteen.

Poison Prince started as a bit of fluff, drawing on my memories and diaries as a teenager. It’s fluff that’s reached 30,000 words and is completely different to BTA in that it is much more contemporary coming of age and has no magical realism or fantasy woven in.  Him Underfoot has read the draft so far and been consistently amused and on occasion a little bit shocked.  I haven’t held back. He has mildly suggested it may be something I never, ever let my family read…and he has a point.  This is the catharsis book. I wrote this first section over a concentrated 2 month period and then just…stopped. Work / life / Christmas got in the way. Guilt over not finishing BTA. I got side tracked. As much as this amuses me, I need to park it for a while until BTA is at full draft stage and I can devote my full attention, frustration and occasional seething anger at it. Along with my never ending love of dodgy 1980’s music.  It is plotted in full, which helps. A quote:

My brain was in denial that disco day.  Right up until I got home, that is.  I walked through the door to a scene from a badly lit soap opera; Bernadette sprawled gracelessly on the settee, makeup sliding from her face and eyes like coal pits.  My father was holding court in the kitchenette, a glass of dark liquid being liberally poured down his throat as he bawled insults at his dear wife.  I was pretty sure the liquid wasn’t cola.

Their argument was in full flow, and as I walked unwittingly into their midst so unfortunately was a glass ashtray.  Shaped in a lucky clover leaf design, it was just the right size to whack into my nose – arguably my cutest feature – and leave a considerable dent therein.  Not content with mere reshaping, a bloody effluent came pouring out of my left nostril and splattered the lino as it overflowed my inadequately small hands.

Then there is the short story dilemma. I do not consider myself a strong short story writer, yet I do on occasion produce work I am proud of. When they work (very infrequently), it’s like they have been delivered to me from another dimension. I know how much work I put into them, the research, the marination, the execution, more marination, then editing and more editing. They are highly subjective and much more literary than my novels. I find them mentally exhausting to write – there is a reason I call the loose collection The Repository of Lost Souls.

But they have another purpose. With Charybdis published, and The Bone Queen to follow this year, they give my writing a legitimacy it didn’t have before. They make me actually think, hey, I can do this and people don’t think I’m a screaming weirdo lunatic. They may be sad and odd but they’ve connected with people.

That’s not why I write them. I sat down today unsure what to write or where my thoughts were going and I began to write Scylla, a companion piece to Charybdis.  Now she’s been floating about in my head for a while (yup, research done) but she’s never coalesced into anyone tangible.  Today she did. It’s early days, early drafts (only 2 abandoned paper based starts), but I am broadly happy with where the first draft is going.  The only botheration is that I’m back at work tomorrow and all writing will now be parked until the weekend. So I’ll lose the flow (and no, there is no creative writing at work, I am too busy writing issue based, emotionally exhausting assessment reports trying to find money for amazing charities).

Broadly speaking, I feel I am starting the writing year in a solid place.  I have tangible, realisable goals and it was a pleasure to be writing properly today. I’ve written this post to remind me of this, when I flag. When I lose myself in the Universe of Procrastination (aka the Internet). So that when I come back here in a year’s time I can reflect on one completed manuscript and another in progress (if not in full draft).  The only thing holding me back is me.  I’ve never been here before, and it feels like the sun is dancing on my keyboard, bringing life into my fingertips.

Terminus

There’s a room I don’t wish to revisit. Its genesis was my coming of age; it’s ending a mattress in the dark and the shadow of the wings of the Nephilim.  I have no desire to go back into that darkness where he can find me again, and carve his name on my pristine flesh.  Expose the weakness that lies at my very heart.

Shadow of his Wings

Shadow of his Wings

I’ve been running from this for so long.  Long years when I kept it packaged away tightly in one of those compartments of my mind that my father taught me to find so long ago when teaching me how to be a proper empath.  I lie to myself, tell myself that it’s gone but the truth is it has permeated everything I have done these past years.  My dreams, my relationships.  I was stupid and careless.  I was young and wanted to be like everyone else.  To keep on feeling pretty.

I was a fool, in short.

Adoptive Brethren

What can I say about Stephen? He’s always there, always at the periphery of my life.  A reassuring presence in my screwed up life.  Sometimes that lanky frame may be there in body; chin resting on long fingers but his mind is elsewhere following the script in the books he always has clutched before him.  Oh he’ll use new technology, true, but give him a stinking old tome any day.  Preferably made of vellum.

He says little but sees everything with those calm brown eyes.  He is rarely pushed to show outward emotion. When I need him he always comes.  It may take him a little time to find me but he always comes through. Stephen is a good man who will not be moulded or coerced into anyone’s designs.

Which is what fascinates me about Stephen so much.  Why me?  Why defy his spiritual leader, his greatest teacher, his own father to protect and shelter me like he has done this past six years?

Saint Stephen, the Martyr

Saint Stephen, the Martyr

He never explains and I’ve learned to be content with that.

What I do know is that I love him.  He is my brother. My only constant.

I don’t know if he would die for me.

I’m not sure I’d die for him.  I’d kind of hoped that we’d never have to find out.

Shit happens.