This weekend, a review of Bitterhall and interview with me appeared in the print editions of The Scotsman and the Times respectively.
Helen McClory is an extremely accomplished and intelligent novelist, which is what makes Bitterhall such a delight and a problem. At the very beginning the reader is slapped on the face with a silk glove: it announces itself as a challenge. “When exactly is this happening, and to whom is it happening, and who is making it happen? We begin to get tricky, don’t we, when I write in the first person. What tense do my intrusive thoughts manifest in?…. Everything is an aside. Except the centre. That is the centre. Find it”. Bold words indeed, and challenge duly accepted.
Over the past six years, McClory has developed a reputation as one of the most interesting young writers of fiction in Scotland. Among the fans of her work is Ali Smith, who said she was “completely unafraid”, while Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, memorably described her short story collection Mayhem & Death as “shiny, dark licorice, mind candy”.
Bitterhall, McClory’s new novel, is a more substantial meal, rich and gamey if one was to take linguistic liberties and extend Atwood’s metaphor before she could snatch it back and drive a dining fork through its now blackened heart.
Yesterday I was on The Afternoon Show with Janice Forsyth on BBC Radio Scotland, talking about Bitterhall and giving a wee reading. As always, Janice had great thoughtful questions – if you’d like a listen, check out BBC Sounds here. I’m on from around the 1:41 mark but the whole show is there for you.
Time to send Bitterhall out into the world, with your help. Thanks to everyone who has read and supported the book – and even to those who read and turned it down. The book is now a real book, a haunted house, a blue mood, a drifting thought landing on the shoulders of beloveds.
You can still catch a ticket for the online launch here, where at 7pm tonight BST I will be spiritually in Lighthouse Books talking with Eris Young about the book. Roseanne Watt, a Shetlandic poet and musician, supplies the atmospheric soundtrack to the evening. We encourage candles to be lit and drams (or tea) to be poured.
There’s also an interview with me in this month’s The Skinny:
“There are houses and there are books in this story,” says McClory, “and they function in a similar way: a book can be a residence just as a house can, and there is this idea that the house that Daniel and Tom live in has this sense of an old book – it has many pages, many corners and tangents to get lost in. I wanted that kind of idea – that there is a narrative to places and a narrative to presences.” Those places and presences do much to colour and shape the book’s delightfully metaphysical sensibilities.
“It is one thing to establish a sense of place – to evoke, rather than merely describe – but far more to summon impressions of the lives which occupy that place, along with the ways one may embody and change the other.
Doing so with aplomb is the first great accomplishment of Helen McClory’s second novel Bitterhall, the chief setting of which – the shared flat in which our three unreliable narrators move in and out of each other’s personal orbits – quickly becomes a self-contained, claustrophobic demi-monde, almost as key to the story as the mysterious 19th-century diary which motivates so much of the plot. “
Told in McClory’s rangy, poetic prose, Bitterhalljust works. Beautifully. This is no narrative Cerberus — McClory has everything under control. In fact, by the time you find yourself reviewing previous events, scouting out their earlier appearances for clues or hints, not lost but dizzied, the sense of adventure is overwhelming. All of this is done with not just brio but a winning sense of irony: punch the air as you note that a key chapter, written from Daniel’s point of view and re-told later by Orla, is titled ‘Thematic Continuity.’
I hope you can come to the launch. It is virtual, hosted by Eris Young at the wonderful Lighthouse Books, and in buying a (v cheap) ticket or buying the book from them, you’ll be supporting an indie bookshop in a time of need. It’s also going to be an oorie, atmospheric evening which you may, if your tastes are that way, enjoy.
‘I want you to love me, if I’m being honest. That’s why I start so gently, in the garden, in the present tense.’
There’s an excerpt from the opening chapters of Bitterhall up on the Books from Scotland website:
I am on the swing in the garden, under the oak bough, late August night, a couple of beers tipped over beside me in the short mossy grass and my heart is a neat bundle of sticks in love with the dead and the unreachable. Up in the house a single light shines; first floor, the bedroom, my bedroom, so it looks like there’s somebody up there.
Bitterhall is a story of obsession told between three unreliable narrators. Daniel, Órla and Tom share a flat and narrate the intersections of their lives, from future-world 3D printing technology to the history of the book, to a stolen nineteenth-century diary written by a dashing gentleman who may not be entirely dead. A Hallowe’en party leads to a series of entanglements, variously a longed-for sexual encounter clouded by madness, a betrayal, and a reality-destroying moment of possession.
It’s out in March 2021, and if you would like to send a gift forward in time to your future self (or some other self), you can pre-order Bitterhall here at a reduced price of £7.99 – pre-sales are huge for writers, telling publishers how well the book is going to do, so I really hope if you’ve any inclination at all to have the book on your shelf, you go ahead and add it to the basket. Influences on the novel include Iris Murdoch, AS Byatt, the history of the book as an object and Rashomon, so if you like any combination of these disparate things, it might be for you. Or not, but who can say until they’ve read it?
I’m delighted and honoured that one of the pieces from my new (in-progress) book has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The piece (I hesitate to fully say ‘story’ – once you read it, you’ll see why), ‘Tenebrae‘, was published in The Wild Hunt. Huge thanks to editor/founder Ariell Cacciola for putting it forward.
The bluebells are wet outside the window and in the dark we make coffee and stand looking over our plans, and talk to each other without moving our lips, or touching, or seeing one another. You disrobe and pull on old-fashioned trousers, shirt, braces. Wool, linen, nylon, metal. We have to finish something larger than ourselves. I disrobe and attire myself in an old-fashioned pair of trousers, shirt, braces, jumper. Wool, linen, nylon, metal, and wool again. I light seven candles in the library and carefully put them out one by one by blowing on them. You go out to the coop and call softly to the animals sleeping inside.
The flash horror anthology Tiny Nightmares, edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto has been favourably reviewed in the New York Times – and my story was singled out with a number of others –
Some of my favorites were the eerie “Parakeets,” by Kevin Brockmeier, in which a cage of birds begin to speak in voices not their own, and the creepy “We’ve Been in Enough Places to Know,” by Corey Farrenkopf, which mixes social inequity with cryptozoology when a group of squatters encounters a “creature living in the basement … gurgling at all hours.” Helen McClory’s spooky “Gabriel Metsu, Man Writing a Letter, c. 1664-66” is a tale of a museum docent who sees ghosts in paintings, the eponymous Gabriel Metsu in particular. Like Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the story captures the terror of replication — the frightening possibility that a copy might prove as powerful as the original. Or even more so.