Friday, 30 September 2016

Review: The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley

Another stopping point in my ongoing horror bender was this nasty little novel.

Oh, no, I mean that as a compliment.

The Loney has everything that you want - bleak, dangerous landscapes, religious fanaticism, taxidermy animals, locked rooms, oppressive atmosphere, and a premise so disturbing and horrible it will creep inside your mind in the cold hours of the night. There is nothing comforting here, nothing nice.

Its a novel of very English horror, but not in the warm, stately-home, M.R James sense. It's more the grey meanness of respectability, the mud and hostility of the countryside, the threat of the sea in the off-season. There's a real grubbiness to it, the kind that gets under your fingernails, that coats your tongue. It is immediately familiar, and deeply unsettling: the priest who puts a bit too much vehemence into correcting his young charges, the big-shot from Town, who brings with him dirty banknotes and a young woman whose relationship to him is never defined. This novel has darkness layered upon darkness upon darkness. Not all of it is, or needs to be, explored in depth - the inference is enough to chill, to build and build to the real, terrible point of it all.

The Loney is upsetting, viscerally so. It is by no means the best novel that I've read this year, but as a work of horror, it has a impressive impact.

Not for the faint-hearted.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

Another gorgeous cover, though.
You know when you want to love a book? You know when you look at it and go, "Well, this is clearly Angelmaker level stuff and I'm going to fall blissfully in to it, and everything will be great?"

Never ends well, does it?

Look. I didn't hate this book. I had to read it twice to make sure of that.

Parts of it are bits from a really, really good book. Thaniel is adorbs and Matsumoto might be a type, but he's a very fine and engaging example of that type. The initial plot is tightly set up and interesting and there are people whose emotions and struggles I care about. It's just that, every time it looked like it was about to soar off in to wonderous places, every time I'd feel myself softening and leaning forward and about to fall in love, it would just... stop.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is not a bad novel, but it is a self-conscious one. It covers up its sentimentalism with quite unnecessary brutality, but cannot quite commit to that. It's a steampunk novel that absolutely detests the idea of being a steampunk novel. This is a book that involves a clockwork octopus, clairvoyance, and a rebellious Lady Scientist exploring quantum-mumble-something-I'm-not-a-scientist, but with a writer very keen to impress upon us that everyone hates steam trains, the Lady Scientist is not a Suffragist and that we are totally not getting our airships here.

Honestly, I can live without the air-ships. It's the writer I'm worried about.

To make the inevitable comparison to Harkaway, I would have to admit that Pulley is probably the better writer - but Harkaway writes the better novel. He is gloriously, gleefully trashy, and applies his considerable intelligence and talent to that without reservation. Weighed down by a need to be better, Pulley's prose is glistening, but her plot is stilted, doubting. There is something resigned and perfunctory about it, as though she second guessed herself at every turn. She gets bogged down in the bruising details and dismisses the rather more interesting problems with a throwaway ending.

It almost feels as though Pulley wanted to pass this off as magical realism because her critique group felt that a rattlingly good spy story about forbidden love, magical clockwork and precognition wasn't Literary enough, and the novel that we hold is the tragic result of their interference. Or perhaps I'm just projecting. We went to the same university - sometimes its hard to tell.

Also, I did not like Keita Mori. I know that like-ability is not key to good character structure, but Mori crossed a line for me. I got the feeling he was supposed to be more sympathetic that he ever seemed to me. What's more, to make him appear more pleasant, it felt as though Grace was defamed unjustly - something which made her seem a little two dimensional and really beyond the pale. All of this made the ending deeply uncomfortable. This felt to me less like another attempt Literariness than an unfortunate consequence of the novel's earlier flaws.

Will I come back to this book? Yes - very probably. It bothers me, and books that bother me tend to get me to reread them more those I enjoyed without reserve. And I'll probably look out Pulley's next novel, although not with any urgency. I want to see how her writing develops.

But would I reccomend that you read it?

Let me think on that one.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Harry Potter and the Ruthless Case of Queer-baiting

Oh, Gods.

I don't want to write this article. This is actually being written over an article where I defend Rowling.

I never hit publish, never quite happy with it, not 100% convinced by my own arguments. I'll be keeping bits of it as I go along, trying to keep my balance as I do my thing and see both sides. Inside, I'm hurting.

So. Here we go.

I would hate to be J.K Rowling. I mean, who'd want what she's got? Sales figures that are a publishing rep's wet dream, every property she writes pure marketing gold, and enough clout that she actually got the final say on that dreadful, yellow book cover. Who'd want that? To be rich, famous, talented and the mythmaker for an entire generation.

Oh, yeah. That last one's a bit of a risk, isn't it?

Original Potterheads:

I am part of the original Potter generation, the generation to whom the books were initially marketed, before teachers, broadcasters and Hollywood started to push them on people. I say this not as a hipster claim, but just to state how seminal these books were, what they meant to people who were already readers.

For a start, we didn't have the snappy name back then. The concept of fandom soared clear over our sheltered heads. We identified each other more by, "Oh, yeah, have you read those new books about the wizard school?! J.K Roe-ling… R-ow-ling? Yeah, her. No she's a woman, seriously! Do you know she's like releasing one every school year?"
Someone gave this to Sprog1 and now we've got three copies!

The thing is, reading wasn't cool. Maybe it still isn't, but then it was the sign of a total freak. Children's books were not made into multi-million dollar film franchises. There was no such thing as YA. The organisation in libraries and bookshops went from the bright, exciting covers of the 9-12 fiction to a slim, drab and threatening section labelled 'teen'.

The adults you spoke to make it clear that this section was a teeny bit unsavoury. There were books in there which could categorised as acceptably serious books about issues, and there were the unfortunate but necessary books about relationships, but there was also the odd, well (whisper it) genre novel. Which probably had sex in it, too. Not really your sort of thing, dear.

As a pre-teen, I hungered for magic. But everywhere, unspoken, was the idea that somewhere between children's fiction and grown-up books, you had to give up adventure, dragons, prophetic dreams, strange futures, that somewhere in that 'teen' section, it went from being acceptable and charming to 'trash'. You could - I was beginning to understand - get it back; I'd devoured Cohelo's The Alchemist, been terrified and shocked by a copy of The Handmaid's Tale I'd found left on a desk at school, stolen my mum's The Children of Men (I only returned it when I left home). I was, even then, struggling through Mythago Wood for the first time, bewildered and entranced. But even though I was getting bored with childish things, I wasn't quite ready, emotionally or intellectually to make that leap.

So, between The Chronicles of Narnia and Nights at the Circus there was a wide, barren desert. I was expected, even pushed, to read serious, considered books. I was offered The Classics, but they didn't have enough blood and thunder to hold me. I was offered books about kissing and parties and clothes. I was offered well-meaning but patronising books about divorces and bullying and drugs?

How to express, at that age, that nothing was as serious for me as the end of the Oaken Throne, where Ysabelle puts her heartbreak aside to fulfil her destiny? Or than Kathleen battling abuse and bigotry in Dogsbody, pining for her absent father?

And, of course, I was such an avid reader. I'd tear through novels so fast that teacher's wouldn't believe my reading diary and I had to lie, dragging them out over weeks, not hours, reading them three or four times in the interim. At home, I was constantly, constantly after something new to read.
How about this?
 "Has it got ghosts in it?"
 Not exactly.
"What about magic?"
 Well, I suppose they do magical things!
"Such as...?"
... make butter?*

There was the occasional reprieve, the odd brilliant book which couldn't be teen because magic, but didn't talk down to me either. There was Pullman's His Dark Materials, William Nicholson's The Wind on Fire series. There was the perfect, irreplaceable Diana Wynne Jones. There was Alan than God for you Garner. There was my beloved Robin Jarvis.  But for every magical, gorgeous book that touched my heart, there were a hundred 'meh's - goofy, cutesy, predictable.

With a sizable marketing budget, clear branding, Harry Potter seemed to see that hollow place in my life, and to make a go of filling it.


Mind the gap:


But at that exact point in history, the marketing niche it was aimed for was perceived as tiny.

If you have not guessed from the above, my pre-adolescene was not a golden age of children's fiction. Books met relatively little fanfare. They seldom flew from the shelves. Dahl was the last superstar, and he'd been dead seven years.

So, when Harry Potter was published, it was being cast into an arena of modest investment, modest returns. It was marketed carefully to make its appeal as widespread as possible within that fanatical pool of young readers. It had just enough brand consistency that the extended series would draw in those who liked the familiarity and recognisable aesthetic of books like Goosebumps, The Babysitters Club, or even Redwall.

In doing this, I don't doubt that some decisions were made - some at the unconscious level, some explicitly - to make its appeal as 'broad' as possible - and by broad, I mean pandering to priviliged readers and expecting the rest to suck it up. Conventional wisdom has it that boys are reluctant to read books about female characters, white readers are less likely to read about protagonists of colour. Rowling was even recommened to use her initials, incase her womanhood put off the boys.

Nice, clear branding.
There were also, whether conscious or unconscious, assumptions made about what the readers for this book would look like - those people who must not be alientated, whose parents must not ban them from reading this.

So, yeah, we were assumed to be shy, nerdy, lonely, but we were also judged to be middle class, straight, white. We were seen as inhabiting literate homes - probably detached homes, too, the that have kind gardens. They considered us as cis, as able bodied, as surrounded by supportive, literate adults. We were expected to be the children of adults who bought us books and read with us. These were children's books - not  handbooks for difficult teens learning to be adults or worthy issues books pitched at the troubled "youth". They were books for children, and to be a child at that age is a privilege.

Escapism, you see, was held to be very bourgeois. That was what all those messages to move on to Classics or Teen had been whispering - that reading books about witches, dragons and talking mice was childish, was irresponsible. That it was a sign of my sheltered life. I was still permitted it because I was cosseted, because I didn't have to face reality yet.

But, underneath its shiny surface of magic, Harry Potter was one of the most real thing some of us had read. It did what great fiction can do, what it should do; it kept our eyes fixed on the story while showing us so much more. It showed - not told - us how relationships worked, how people grew. It showed us prejudice and suffering, politics and heartbreak and abuse. It gave us the truest lesson, that the world does not divide neatly into Good People and Death Eaters.

And, because it chimed those deep, secret chords within us, we lent it to friends, nagged adults to read it, wrote gushing letters to the author, queued up outside bookshops, waiting, waiting for the next book.

And that's how it happened.

None of us saw it coming, the universal appeal, the near religious fanaticism. Through canny marketing, word of mouth, and genuine reader enthusiasm, Rowling's success did far more than just create a generation of readers and a million fanfics.

Adults read it under 'grown-up' covers to prevent being seen reading a children's book. Children read it under plain covers to hide its 'satanic' nature from religious parents. Dial-up connections crashed as people took 'Sorting' tests. One glorious summer afternoon in Poland, three generations of my family sat around a table, trying to puzzle out the meaning of the 'gleam of triumph' in Dumbledore's eyes at the end of book four.

We were slap bang in the middle of a cultural phenomenon.

And no-one had any idea how to respond.

Suddenly, that world isn't just one of multitudes held in the head of a few keen readers; it is the cultural myth of entire generations. It grows and grows and grows. Everyone has read it. Rowling has reshaped the universe inside people's head.

Children actually weep when they do not receive their Hogwarts letter. Adults wander the streets in  house colours. Blogs, articles, TV programmes discuss every word of every page. People send her their theories, their own novels, their sexual fantasies about her characters. And people - kids, teens, adults - of every colour, religion, gender, sexuality tell her how much it means to them. People tell her that she saved their life, saved them from loneliness, helped them through loss, depression, abuse.

She had not only shown us what she intended, but a hundred thousand things which she did not. We read our own stories on her pages, and wanted her to give them truth, validity.

The weight of that terrifies me.

Rowling had to cope with being something more than a wordsmith. She became foster mother to a generation, she became messianic: our prophet, our storyteller, our lifeline.

How the hell does a person deal with that?


 One Person cannot deal with all that.

She tried, Jesus Christ did she try. I've got to give her that.

I can only applaud Rowling for being so patient, so caring, so careful in the way she handles her fans. She has tried so hard to make it clear that the world she had built is a safe haven, that Hogwarts is open and welcoming. Frankly that's amazing and I wish I could leave it at that. But, ultimately, all she has done is tell us those things. She has given us are words  - not stories. She has given us empty assurances, not fictions.

Because that was the mistake that was made, I think, when my generation were being ushered through the world of books. People in hard places do not need 'serious' books, they do not need an all knowing adult talking them through their problems. Or, maybe they do need that - but they need fantasy, too. They need to see themselves battling the Dementors of depression, or the Boggarts of fear. They need to believe a family like the Weasleys will share what little they have with a lonely, abused child. Escape is not a luxury - it is a necessity.

 But key in this, is that they need to see oneself. To see that being black, or gay, or trans is not going to see you treated as worth less - the way that, perhaps, you are being treated in this one. Or, if you are, you need to see yourself triumph all the same.

And while, metaphorically, you have those stories - you are only there by inference, by parallel. There is nothing to help you make sense of the world as you. There are no out gay couples in the course of the books, there are no visible trans characters. The children are segregated by (binary) gender in their dormitories. The BME representation at the most prestigious wizarding school in the world is about as shitty as it was at my horribly middle class Grammar School. The disabled access is non-existent.


The first book was released in '97 - the year Labour won the General Election after nearly 18 years of Conservative government. Section 28 was not repealed until 2003. In the context, having Lupin as a metaphor for an HIV+ guy who loses his job among 'moral' homophobic panic was very brave move. Telling us that Dumbledore was gay after the event was making clear something that couldn't have been explicit in the books.

If there had been an openly gay character in a position of responsibility in a popular children's book in 1999, an editor would have told Rowling to cut them. Heck, she ran into enough hellfire and hatred from the religious nut crowd for writing about fictional wizards. The outcry at an openly gay Dumbledore would have made the hounding of werewolves in-world seem like a village fete. If her publisher had permitted it early in the series, her books would have been impossibly niche, issues books. If they had somehow become popular, one parental complain would have seen them swept from school shelves, challenged in every single library. 

Our world is a full of bigots as the magical one.

So, apparently, Harry Potter means a lot to me

In case you didn't know, I've had a pretty intense year. Don't get me wrong, most of this is positive stuff, but its very much marked a transitional period in my life,** and has involved a lot of soul searching and occasionally investing far too much in fictional characters and musicians. One of the ways this has been manifesting is an unpacking of a lot of the assumptions and behaviours I formed in early adolescence - when the depression first struck, when I was trying so desperately to be the person I was supposed to be.

For the last ten years or so, I never really thought I rated Harry Potter. Sure the books were magical, but I was an original Potterhead: they were just one magical world amongst many. Oh, I loved the first couple as a kid, but it's only really Azkaban that stays with me. After that? well, Goblet of Fire is pretty good, but I lost interest with Order of the Pheonix. Instead, I began misusing my knowledge, winding up friends who still took it seriously.
Harry Potter and the 607 Pages of Back-Story

I always assumed I'd grown up too much while waiting for it. After all, I hardly rushed to buy Half-Blood Prince - and when I did, I found it decidedly 'meh'. Sure, I thought, I'll hang around to see how the series ends, but don't expect any enthusiasm.

When it came to Deathly Hallows I acknowledged a return to form, a recapturing of some of the magic of the earlier stories. No, it didn't hit on every point, but I was willing to forgive. It was an okay children's book. Besides, I'd grown up a bit more and it was nice to be part of it again, the general buzz of a cultural phenomenon, able to laugh and say I was about half-way a fan. That I prefered the earlier books.

Still, I never quite bothered with the proper stuff. I only liked this, I didn't love it. The films are - ironically -  a closed book. I didn't get on Pottermore, never got myself Sorted - and anyway, everyone knew I'd be a Ravenclaw. It wasn't important. Besides, only kids actually want to be Gryffindors.

Then came the day that Sprog1 started reading Philosophers' Stone and it was really nice sharing a bit of hype with her. And, yeah, I'd bought a Hogwarts t-shirt, but only ironically. Anyway, it was cheap. And red.

No. I wasn't going to book tickets to Cursed Child, don't be silly.  But I'd probably pick up the script after it - okay, the actual day it came out. Well, it was there and - books, you know? And yeah, I might have read it at the same old breathless speed, but that's only because Scorpius and Albus are just darling. Otherwise, yeah, it wasn't so much to write home about. And, actually, perhaps it isn't such a terrible thing to be a Slytherin, after all and, well, just for a laugh, just for a giggle, because it didn't matter, I made a Pottermore account and got myself Sorted.

I was in Norwich, sitting in the Waffle House. I'd just bought myself a new-second-hand leather jacket because my sister had sent me a link for these and I needed something to stitch them too, and hey, didn't I used to wear a jacket covered with all sorts of pins and patches? Why did I give up doing that? I should totally bring that back.

So, a good day, let's have a bit of fun. I tap through the Sorting questions on my phone, let the Hat have its little think, and suddenly I'm nervous. Like, exam results nervous.

It's only a bit of fun. It's only Harry Potter.

But what if the screen goes yellow? 

Yeah, well Hufflepuff are probably the best people. You know more of them fought in the Battle of Hogwarts than any other house?

What if it goes green?

Then you'll be like Scorpius. Anyway, we know you're more of a Ravenclaw. It's who you are. Bookish. Anti-social. It'll go blue.

Besides, it doesn't matter. 

It's just a game. 

You're going to be in Ravenclaw. Or maybe Huff-

Alys, it's just a bit of fun. 

Would you believe I actually whooped? And laughed, hard, even hysterically? I was breathing relief, I was walking on sunshine, I was every single fucking cliché. And it hit me.

It mattered.

I hadn't realised how much it fucking mattered. How much I had invested into that self-image: bit reckless, bit conceited, occasionally a jackass - even a gloryhound - but also brave, honourable and maybe slightly unbalanced. Gryffindors are by no means the best people in the world, but their flaws are my flaws. Suddenly, it was all just wonderful. It was all so fantastic that I was going to go out and buy myself a Gryffindor pin and a Pride flag badge and I was going to attach them to my gorgeous, brand new-second-hand Sirius jacket.

My what now?

The name was there, ready in my head. My Sirius jacket. Maybe it had even been there as I was trying it on - this was the kind of jacket Sirius Black would wear while riding his flying motor bike, with a Gryffindor pin to piss off the pure-bloods in his life, and a Pride flag because...

Oh, it had mattered, hadn't it? All those years, it had mattered far more than I had ever let on. When was it I turned on Harry Potter, dismissing it as okay-enough-for-kids? When was it that I let cynicism overcome that devotion?

Oh, yeah. With book five. At the end.

Let's be Sirius:

Oh, JK. How could you?
I know he couldn't be out. I always knew that. Just like Dumbledore couldn't be out in the books.

But, at 12 years old, Sirius Black was everything I wanted to be. So brave, so honourable, so righteous. He would, did, give everything for his friends. He was ready to kill to avenge them. He would have died for them - he meant that. He was willing to die without recognition, without... Look, he deliberately put himself in the firing line while their safety scuttled away with Peter: I was the obvious choice.

And the way that - after everything he has suffered, everything he has lost because of Harry - Sirius is still willing to be his father-figure - more - his friend. Sirius was the very best of me, what I could only hope to be to the people in my life. Steadfast and devoted and brave, willing to suffer to protect the people he loved.

I still cry when Remus embraces him like a brother.

Oh, my heart.

It was so rare I felt that quicksilver moment, that sense that a writer looked deep in to my heart and read what was there - every hope and every fear: Alanna, Susan in The Moon of Gomrath, Prince Rilian of Narnia... and Sirius Black.

Of course, Rowling kills him off at the end of book five - offhand, using him to push forward Harry's journey, his death subsumed by the 'bigger' tragedy that Harry never knew his parents, the fact that Voldemort is back.

What did I take from that dismissal? After all, I wasn't out in any sense back then. Still, did I take the message that people 'like me' - whatever that meant - weren't really welcome in Hogwarts? That my sympathy, my identity should not be here? That I should be sympathising with Harry, or with Hermione? That I could go along with Ron, grow up with Ginny, find my bravery like Neville, or follow Malfoy on his redemption arc? That I could emulate one of the Weasleys, lovable Arthur, warm Molly, cool Bill, or dragon-obsessed, sportsman Charlie.

But not Sirius. Not tragic and a bit broken, not the accidental betrayer, the furious seeker of vengeance. Not the misunderstood, the falsely accused, the sincere and steadfast one who - along with Remus Lupin - is the closest thing we actually see to a parent figure for Harry? No. You don't get to grow with him.

And, besides, he's gay.

Rowling coded Sirius' queerness just as she coded Dumbledore's - but whereas Dumbledore is a fin de siècle cliché of gayness (youthful dalliance with beautiful young man of questionable morals that ends catastrophically, years of remorse and - one assumes - celibacy) - Sirius' cliché is more contemporary. His endless devotion to James, his presence as almost a third-wheel in Harry's parents' relationship, the way he is the first one there once they are attacked - this is love, right here.

Later, he and Remus (another character who is coded as queer) send Harry a joint Christmas present. Make of that what you will.

I remember the chapter 'Snape's Worst Memory' not because it shows James and Sirius being utterly dickish, no. What I remember is Sirius paying no attention to the swooning glances of the girls around him because he's too busy looking at James. I remember him saying, "Put that away, will you?" when James' showing off and Peter's toadying become uncomfortable, how he watches James' back every time Snape reaches for his wand.*** I remember how, while being insufferable himself, he's always there, reminding James that maybe he should stop being such a irritiating prick - and he is, after all, the only one Jame's will listen to. Their bond goes even deeper than that which binds the rest of Mssrs Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs. They are Sirius Black and James Potter, inseprable double act. Remus is too sensible, Peter too ingratiating. Sirius and James are equals, soul twins.

And, perhaps, when  Lily rejects James' advances the first time, he's just a little too quick in there with the, "Bad luck, Prongs."

Structurally, this scene sets up Sirius as a direct parrallel to Snape - they are each other's reflection, their "there but for the grace of the Sorting Hat'. Both come from traditionally Slytherin homes, have unhappy homes of varying stripes. Both are talented students with a dismissive attitude to authority. Both of them are in love with one of Harry's parents, and have that love requited only by a deep, friendly regard. But Sirius is aware of the waters that Snape is treading - they were the direction his life would have, the path his whole family tried to set him along - and how close they really are. No wonder he detests him so deeply.

And these are the circumstances that lead Snape to act like an entitled prick when James gets with Lily, to call Lily a mudblood, to become a Death-Eater and inadvertently betray her by passing information on to Voldemort. Snape gets to repent at leisure and ALWAYS or not, he bullies Harry for six whole years for being the son of the man Lily chose over him. Sirius, on the other hand, looks out for his James' character, does his best to move on, stands best man at James' wedding and godfather to the son of the woman James chose over him. He puts his life on the line to protect them all from Voldemort and inadvertantly betrays them through a double bluff intended to make them safer. He does thirteen years for a crime he didn't commit, escapes only to protect Harry, then becomes a fugitive who repeatedly puts himself in danger to protect, watch over and buy presents for James' son.

Honestly, Sirius' love for James is one the most beautiful things in the series - it is there in his every action, every word. Yes, it could be friendly love, but it shows itself as more real, more convincing on every level that Snape's fan-favourite-adoration of Lily. The only other bond he has that comes close is with Remus. And later, after they've both lost everything, he and Remus find some comfort in each other whose force and commitment is there, in the text, in that embrace.

It was only this summer I realised how much all that meant to me.

The Cursed Child 

It doesn't MATCH!
(Warning - spoilers.)

What happens in The Cursed Child is queer baiting. Never mind that Scorpius forgets his name when talking to Albus for the first time, never mind all their hugging and not being able to live without each other and Scorpius getting stupidly jealous over Delphini - no. What's really going on is that Scorpius is in love with Rose Granger - the most two-dimensional and unlikable character I've ever had the misfortune of sharing a house with - and Albus is... Albus is...

Look, they're straight, alright?

I, along with a large chunk of the Internet let out a quiet, "Oh, ffs." Are we not over this yet? Okay, Dumbledore couldn't be out and Sirius couldn't be out and Remus couldn't be out and... and... and... but you are now an international phenomenon, woman, and you can do as you damn well please. These two are clearly in love. It's narratively 20 years since after the end of Harry Potter, Section 28 died a well over-due death, same sex marraige is legal even in the Muggle world and... *now kiss*

In fact, the whole set up of Cursed Child favours a queer interpretation - so Harry and Malfoy have trouble connecting to their sons, do they? They can't understand them? Worry about the influence of that boy they spend quite so much time with? And their sons are outcasts in some way, knowing themselves to be somehow different from what they 'should' be?

Okay, really, *NOW KISS*

Stop queering everything, Alys! Homosocial friendship is a real thing, you know!

Of course it is. It's what Harry and Ron have. It's what exists between Ginny and Hermione. It's what Cho and whats-er-name, the one who betrayed the DA, had. Hogwarts is full of friends. Oh, totes, ship them if you want, but in the books there is very little subtext. And, yes, those friendships can be intense, vital, the most important connection in a person's life - it's Ron that Harry has to rescue from the lake, after all. James became an Animagus for Remus - but there's nothing sexual there.

If we are to believe that Scorpius falls madly in love with Rose at first sight - with whom he exchanges about forty words - how are we to brush aside what he feels with Albus, whom he spends the whole blasted play with, or at least mooning over? Albus, with whom his chemistry and just-plain-raging-cuteness, is off all known scales?

I admit, I ship and OTP as badly as any other internet nerd, but I only headcanon when there is sufficient justification in the source text. Katie Reed and Geneviève Dieudonné? I'd love it, and I hold out hope - but Katie is het. Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra? Possibly - but I suspect it never got very far, and it's quite one-sided. Holmes and Watson? No. Not in the books, and not in most of the adaptions, either. That's what friendship looks like. Raffles and Bunny? Jesus Christ, you two, get a room.

Albus and Scorpius?

 I admit - I was disappointed.

This was a missed opportunity, a bit of bad writing, a sop to the bigots. No - it didn't have to be explicit. I mean, yeah, *now kiss* and it would have been nice, but you don't actually need a "Dad, I'm bi," moment. Readers and theatre-goers do subtext - its sort of our thing. Those two are clearly in to each other, so you don't have make a big deal of it. Show, don't tell! Just have them act like they're everyone's OTP every second they are on stage together and we'll get the message.

But instead, we got a play that showed us one thing, clearly, blatently and fan-service-ly, while verbally hammering us with another. "Oh, you thought it was Albus that Scorpius was in to? Oh, no, I can see that, but it's Rose. Totally Rose. RoseRoseRose. SEE HOW MANY TIMES I'M TELLING YOU IT'S ROSE."

And that's actually really gross. It's a cowardly and ugly way of keeping the LGBTQA+ community onside without giving anything real to hold on to. It's another way of telling us that, oh, yeah, we're allowed at Hogwarts - but not in the spotlight. That we are permitted existence, but not as a focal point, not as something we can grow with, live, embrace.

Rowling can do as she damn well pleases, and it pleased her to do this.


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As soon as a book - any book - is read, it ceases to be the sole property of the author. Okay, lawyers might disagree, but as a reader and an academic, I will stand by this. Reading is a collaborative effort - an audience is not a passive consumer of authorial wisdom.

We engage. We see the stories they didn't even realise they were telling and we run with them because they are important to us. Yes, the copyright rests with them - as it should - but we care; it matters. And because of that we pick through the text and embellish upon the original structure until it is infinitely more beautiful and vivid than one person or creative team could ever have made it.

Long running franchises like Star Trek, Doctor Who, Star Wars have thrived upon this collaborative creation. Their worlds are richer for fan input, fan discourse.

What's more, Hogwarts is not just one among many magical worlds: it's a cultural phenomenon. It has become a cross-generational way of understanding ourselves, our relationships, our world. Every kid who gets themselves Sorted adds a little something to the world, every forum discussion, every cosplay, every round-the-kitchen-table confab creates a new interpretation, a new set of possibilites. And people of every background and persuasion want to take part in it.

Waving an authorial hand and saying, "Yeah, you're welcome, the place could do with a few rainbows," is well-intentioned, but ultimately meaningless. It's all very well to offer us a place at the table, but actually, we'd already made our own, and we will occupy it on our terms.

Because here's the thing - we don't just want to be at Hogwarts, in the background. We want a chance to be in the golden trio, in the Triwizard tournament, battling Death-Eaters, or working for the Ministry. We want to be in the Order of the Pheonix - not just elderly and celibate and dead - but living and loving and fighting another day. We want a chance to raise our kids, marry our lover, build ourselves families.

Yes, playing with canon by queering and swapping about gender and race is fun, but it is not merely reckless game played by entitled fans. Especially as a preteen, there is a need to see yourself in fiction, to find a character who stands for you and by you. It is one of the most profound ways that a person's identity and resilience can be built and developed. We don't just need to be told we belong, we need to see ourselves belonging, as worthy and important and with stories worth telling.

Sometimes mere words aren't enough. We need to be shown, not told. And if you won't do that, we have to do it for ourselves.

There is no such thing as 'only' fan work - the relationship between canon and fanon is symbiotic. Although it might have authorial approval, black Hermione was not Rowling's idea  - it was a fan theory born of a need to see oneself. There is no reason why it can't be true, and seeing Rowling nod and say that, yeah, this is an equally valid interpretation was a beautiful moment for many fans.

It's another example of the way that Rowling tries. Running in the blinkers of privilige, she makes mistakes, sweeping into tokenism, presenting us with clichés and caricatures. Others have criticised her handling of race, gender, her presentation of class, and dear-Gods-the-house-elf-thing - but I always had her in mind as someone who honestly does try, who is able to see that her vision of a character is not the definitive one, that other stories can exist in the cracks of her book, can be found by the people who are forced to inhabit those spaces.

Rowling took Sirius away from me when I was sixteen, and still needed him. I found him again, years later, with a story that maybe she didn't realise was there. I'm a reader, literary detective work is what I'm good at. I found the Sirius I needed - devoted, honourable, reckless, vindictive, and gay.

Her words hurt.

Again, I was surprised by how much it mattered. It felt like such a silly thing to bother me so much, such an obscure and self-indulgent pain. But I have lived my life through books, and to say so emphatically that I do not understand Sirius is to say I do not understand myself. To imply that I am deluded about him is to erase the parts of me that are built upon him.

No, maybe she didn't write him as gay - I'll accept that. Maybe she doesn't see him as gay - that's fine, too - after all, some people don't see me as trans or bi. Sometimes writers don't actually know everything about their characters, sometimes they need things pointed out to them. Sometimes, we have what we believe, but recognise that we left some ambiguity there - a well written character can be read in so many ways.

She could have said something like that.

She could just have answered someone else's question. 

The very popularity of her work puts Rowling in an impossible position, but - in the context of Cursed Child - I'm struggling to forgive this. She teased us with a white, cis m/m pairing which - as far as these things go - is about as mainstream an LGBT relationship can get, only to pull back, sating no, it was Rose. And, shortly after this, she pulled the plug on one of the most accepted fanon orientations. What's more, she did this without her usual, sensitive handling but with a surety, a flippancy that almost communicated a distaste. That, yeah, gay people were allowed, but not, like here, where we can all see them. That queer people were allowed a tiny bit of Hogwarts, but not a piece that actually mattered.

It was as though everything I felt and knew about this character was something she felt entitled to blank away, as though it were a mistake on a manuscript. It was as though I saw myself through her eyes - something permitted to exist, but only on sufference. I was allowed a tenancy in her world, but only on her terms. People like me are not allowed to get above ourselves.

This is not okay. There has been so much, now, that is not okay, but this felt like the first time that she had deliberately drawn a line, wresting back her creation from the tarnish laid on it by 'SJWs' - or, as I like to see it, people who grew up, loving her work. I've disagreed with her on a lot of things, have criticised a lot of her creative decisions, but feel as though I've been hanging on here - describing them as blunders rather than slights, desperately trying to see the good in someone I used to admire.

I cannot bear her ill will - her position, after all, is impossible. But I cannot let this slide.

She's the one, after all, who taught us the world does not divide in to good people and Death Eaters.

All I can say, Ms Rowling, is that your words can cause great hurt as well as great joy. All the same, thank you for Sirius. Thank you for your novels, and the lessons they have about tolerance, friendship and magic. Thank you for creating this world for us. I am honoured to have been Sorted in to Gryffindor, house of such renowned and LGBTQA+ magical folk as Albus Dumbledore, Remus Lupin, Minerva McGonnagol and Sirius Black.

* my mum, who has the patience of a saint, developed some incredible strategies on this front.
 ** if you ever suspect me of making a pun, the chances are that you're right...
 *** Something many people forget about this scene is that - yeah, James and Sirius are being total arses here, but the first chance Snape gets to throw a curse, he gets right in there with the slasher hex.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Review: Spoiled Children by Philip Hemplow

Yikes. I'm well behind on these...

Continuing on my horror bender, next up was Spoiled Children, three eldritch novellas - also available independently as Sarcophagus, The Innsmouth Syndrome and Ashes.

So, I never actually found Lovecraft's own work scary - well, apart from 'The Rats in the Walls', and that was less "cringing in terror" than "dry-heaving for an hour". Other than that, it was all just a bit meh. I mean, they're great stories, but I'm not going to wigged out by some massive monster just because its name doesn't have a quite enough vowels and it's so godawfully terrifying that, to solace yourself, you decided to abuse a thesaurus.

As studies of loneliness and paranoia they are glorious, as twisty tales of atmosphere and pleasant frisson, I really enjoy them, but they aren't enough to get me starting at shadows, or send my mind pulling itself apart in genuine disturbance. Yeah, the universe is big and scary and uncaring, but there's only so many times you can read about a genteely destitute, neurasthenic young white man stumbling upon unspeakable horrors and realising this before you stop really caring. If I were to imagine the kind of person most likely to be driven mad by the horrors of the abyss, it would be precisely the sort of people Lovecraft's protagonists tend to be. The rest of us have more pressing worries.
In that way, Lovecraft's fiction lacks a human element. With no point of empathy between us and the person experiencing the described horrors, there is no fear.

With this in mind, Spoiled Children is fucking terrifying.

Hemplow writes well, at times strikingly so - acid rain leaving brickwork "as pockmarked and powdery as a Renaissance syphilitic" - and his stories are relentelessly modern, embracing 21st century strangeness and conflict. We go to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, deal with the corruption of post-Communist Russia. We see a Centre for Disease Control and Prevention rep sent to a recession struck Innsmouth, or big money transforming the rural English landscape. These settings, jobs and proceedures are fantastically realised, giving a sense of rigorous research without ever info-dumping. The world is not a vague, Gothic backdrop - it is our world, with all its safety nets and preoccupations.But this is not the Spoiled Children's real strength.

No, its real strength is in his characters. Hemplow's protagonists are vivid, alive. These are not ciphers who are so obviously going to fall prey to entities from beyond the abyss that you don't bother to get attached. They involve you, from the first page, with their struggles, ambitions and goals. These are people with relationships, jobs, priorities and failing relationships. They have friends and money worries and interests. Their survival is important to you, the threats to them upsetting.

More than that, by bringing in this human dimension Hemplow brings the horror of Lovecraft's heartless universe right in to your own life. It all seems horribly plausible, raising the possibility that - outside your own, warm bubble - there are dreadful things, resting in uneasy sleep.

My favourite story in the collection, for several reasons, is Ashes, a grand culmination of both character work and creation of terror. With a main character who is both pathetic and unlikable it would be a compelling study of desperation and betrayal, even without the supernatural elements. But it's all the better for having a cracking weird fiction plot. For a further kick of vicarious dread, it had a scene which horrified the medievalist in me, just as the more conventional horror aspects delivered their kick. (Put the fish slice down, woman. Put the fish slice down.)

Brilliant as the book is, I cannot say that it's flawless - some of the 'action' scenes feel a little rushed, and the endings, although earned and convincing, feel rather abrupt. However, these are minor complaints against what is an altogether fresh and immensely satisfying collection of stories.  

Spoiled Children engages your heart and your brain, not merely your pessimism. In all honestly, it's one of the best things I've read in the genre. Give it a go.