The title of this blog refers to my latest novel 'The Unseen' from Elsewhen Press (and hopefully not a prediction of it's popularity). 'The Unseen' is a claustrophobic first person psychological study that staggers wildly between the genres of fantasy, thriller and Hammer Horror. I've included links to my other Elsewhen novels, self-published short story collections etc. so if you followed me before I'd be pleased if you'd do so again as that previous Blogger effort became 'unco-operative after deciding to go on a permanent holiday from the internet. Other posts about new work and anything else I can think of on the spur of the moment will also appear from time to time. You have been warned...

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Unreliable Narrators

It’s something both ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘The Girl on the Train’ have in common as well as many other popular thrillers and famous novels across genres – the ‘unreliable narrator’. Our protagonist appears to be balanced and coherent but then unfolding events contradict their skewed reasoning and drive an ever-growing wedge between their perception of reality and ours. Things just don’t add up; the reader can no longer take the story at face value. Is the POV character insane, lying, deluded or just plain wrong? We won’t know until the final piece of the jigsaw that is their damaged mind fits into place.
   This is what gives the narrative its strength; the need to understand the true nature of the head we are locked in and the reason that person disguises it. For once we give them our trust there is no escape from the consequences of their actions. We become helpless partners in their chaotic drift towards disaster.
   The unreliable narrator works particularly well in crime and mystery plots where the reasons for a person’s odd behaviour are shown in the story’s resolution. But how can the author make the reader understand that he or she is not to be believed or trusted? Clues must be planted at regular intervals to make sure the reader understands that things are not as they should be, even if the narrator remains unaware of this. Other characters’ reactions, the narrator’s inappropriate behaviour in various situations and a general sense of normalcy slipping away can help achieve this.
   The phrase ‘unreliable narrator’ was first coined by literary critic Wayne Booth in the early 1960s. It has many classic examples:
   Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabakov’s ‘Lolita’, whose unreliability is shown by his outrageous claims, endless self justification and contempt for others; Alex from Anthony Burgess’ dystopian classic ‘A Clockwork Orange’ who proves at the very start to be a violent, manipulative sociopath who uses a fictional language, has delusions of grandeur and enjoys exaggerating his reprehensible acts to strut and show off to us, his horrified accomplices; the main character in Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Fight Club’, a maladjusted insomniac who joins an underground fight club for therapy that quickly transforms into a terrorist group, leading us down a particularly nasty rabbit hole to a stunning reveal that makes us question everything gone before; J. D. Salinger’s cynical teenage Caulfield in ‘Catcher in the Rye’, an admitted liar whose opinions are provoked by adolescent angst and filtered through the distorting prism of immaturity.
   What does the writer gain from this deception of using a misleading main character to tell the story? The main reward would seem to be balance, or rather lack of it. If the reader’s perceptions are continually challenged they are in a state of constant tension and the story becomes a fairground ride of unexpected twists and turns. They cannot rely on their guide with any degree of certainty and they cannot predict the outcome. In fact anything could happen; a healthy state for a thriller to be in.
   Sometimes the narrator is unreliable by nature, so awful they cannot be objective about themselves even when behaving abominably; they continually self-justify the most terrible acts.
   Sometimes they are damaged; an accident or psychological impairment has caused them, and by definition us, to see the world in a particular way others don’t.
   Sometimes they are young or naive; the narrator of Mark Haddon’s

‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night’ is an autistic child seeking to explain their understanding of events. There is no trickery involved in these reports, at least on the teller’s part; they are telling us what they know. It is the miss-fitting framework around what they say that gives the lie to their words.
   A further type of narrator is different from the above in that their misconceptions are due to a lack of, or incorrect, information. This is particularly effective in the thriller genre as having only half the picture can lead to some pretty spectacular leaps in the dark. Of course, in crime there are any number of unreliable narrators; they’re called witnesses and constantly contradict each other. The character of the investigator who will sift all this for the truth must be the one reliable factor. If we cannot trust their best efforts at enlightening us anarchy will quickly ensue.     

   This would be problematic in a crime novel which is a carefully constructed and methodical machine with room for doubt and suspension of disbelief but never anarchy.
   A final benefit of the unreliable narrator is that they can be used to cross genres. If their state of mind is in question we may start out with what appears to be fantasy and end up in psychological melodrama thus getting the best of both genre worlds; something I have attempted with my latest novel, ‘The Unseen’.
   However the device of unreliable narrator is used though, it generally proves to be a reliable method of delivering the chilling psychodrama every thriller writer aspires to and every reader wants to read.

'The Unseen' link to buy below:

Monday, 6 June 2016

Take Three Girls...

Take Three Girls was a drama series broadcast by BBC1 between 1969 and 1971 which followed three girls sharing a flat in Swinging London. I had very distant memories of watching this as a teenager and it's gained quite a reputation since as both a favourite happily-remembered series and a breakthrough drama realistically showing young working women's lives for the first time on British TV. It was also BBC1's first colour drama series, which shows you how old it is.
The characters - cello-playing Victoria, single mother Kate and Cockney art student Avril - were played by Liza Goddard, Susan Jameson and Angela Down. For the second series, Kate and Avril were replaced by journalist Jenny and American psychology graduate Lulie (played by Carolyn Seymour and Barra Grant). Two series of 12 episodes were shown on BBC1 between 1969 and 1971. Only 10 episodes of the original 24 still exist owing to the BBC's usual suicidal tendancies regarding their classical output of the sixties and seventies (witness the missing episodes of Steptoe and Handcock for the butchery of their own priceless archives) A four-episode series - Take Three Women showing the original characters later in their lives - was broadcast on BBC2 in 1982. Victoria was a widow with a young daughter and Avril an art gallery owner while Kate was sharing her life with her son and his teacher. This latter re-evaluation of their lives (from the first episode anyway, the only one available on-line) attempts a commendable if perhaps stiff attempt to compare the stolid and unimaginative early eighties with the series' original late swinging sixties fun and new opportunities becoming available for the girls, then teenagers to early twenties, but it's the first series in particular that so well captures the changing spirit of the times with deft individual portraits of each Girl and her very different social and economic background. There is class involved of course, much more obviously in that odd time on the cusp of the troublesome seventies which actually saw far more social upheaval and mobility than the sixties (which apart from young London, Manchester and Liverpool, was a mere tabloid creation for most working class youth). However, the drama is so well scripted, acted and produced that the class barrier never hits you over the head; rather the two middle and upper middle class girls (Kate and Victoria) befriend and quickly bond with the sensible working class Avril, who adapts to her new social situation with great aplomb and no little ambition to improve both her education and financial independence without for one moment betraying or belittling her own social background. The Avril episode (2) of the first series in particular shows an acting masterclass from the entire cast of Avril's family as she struggles to leave home for her new flat with the other girls. It may seem a bit 'actorly' now, but the writing, character incisiveness, and performances, particularly the actress playing Avril's desperately unhappy mum, are still unexpectedly moving and shocking in their rawness even when viewed today.
I've attached Youtube links to the existing first series and  one to the revisited eighties version. Viewed together they make a melancholic statement about how much we change with life's bitter experiences, and about the basic things such as friendship and love which can stay the same.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

New thriller 'The Unseen' from Elsewhen Press

'The Unseen' is now available on Kindle and will be released shortly in paperback. My new novel is a psychological thriller about the increasingly unreal events affecting John Mason when he moves to an idyllic country cottage near a village on the edge of Epping Forest, a year after the death of his wife Judith. Written in the first person with an increasingly unreliable narrator, the nightmarish scenario of sexual tension, guilt and growing madness is unsettling and ultimately horrific.

'Ex-advertising man John Mason is driving to the small town of Hambleford to view a cottage that is for sale, when he is caught in a sudden hailstorm. It brings back memories of the crash a year before in which he lost his wife Judith; a crash caused by a woman in white standing in the middle of the road – a woman who was nowhere to be found after the accident. As the hailstorm lashes his car he has a vision of her, with empty eyes and a silent screaming mouth. John had been having regular dreams about her ever since the crash, but lately they have been replaced by dreams of an idyllic cottage on a hillside like the one in which Judith had wanted them to live. John is special – he sees things that others can’t. Since childhood he’s had strange experiences but has tried to shut them out; now he thinks Judith is trying to contact him, that she’s been sending his mind images of the house where her spirit will join him again, and that Pine Cottage in Hambleford is literally the cottage of his dreams.
But things aren’t all as they appear and John quickly becomes convinced that a spirit other than Judith is trying to manipulate him.