Friday, 23 January 2015
Tuesday, 20 January 2015
(Being an excerpt from 'Mrs Danby and Company' - by Paul Magrs. In this section, renowned adventurer
Professor George Edward Zarathustra tells of doings in the ocean deeps, within and without his patented two man / one woman submersible as he and his fellows encounter a gaggle of terrifying octopi.)
Even I had to admit that the octopi seemed indefatigable. Van Halfling – who must be seventy if he’s a day – was flagging considerably, waving a harpoon gun around quite ineffectually.
Once, I spied Mrs Danby’s worried face at a portal. What would become of that poor, rather plain, woman, if we two gentleman failed in our mission and died out here at the bottom of the sea?
However, it was that resourceful domestic servant who, in the end, saved us all. Somehow she cudgelled her feminine brains and realized that she could utilize the submersible itself to defeat our undersea nemeses. Her eyes turned to the control panels in front of her and lit fortuitously upon the dials that controlled the temperature of the inner and outer skins of the vehicle.
Now, the excellent Mrs Danby saw these controls and noticed that the thermostats were throbbing away and warming the interior of the sub quite nicely. What if… she must have thought… What if I turned the dials right up to the very highest settings? And what if I heated up the exterior of the craft as well? She knew – from her daily labours as cook and housekeeper – rather a lot about the conduction of heat and the uses of hot steam. And so she turned that domestic knowledge to the advantage of us all. On went the switches! Round went the dials! She barely gave herself pause to have doubts. The sweat began running freely at once. That poor lady glowed, perspired and sweated like a horse as the interior of the sub quickly started to overheat. She turned the hue of lobster thermidor before her efforts had any appreciable effect on the beings outside.
The first I knew of it, the umbilicus tethering Van Halfling and I to the sub turned hot. Soon my lungs were scorching and I was feeling rather clammy all over. Van Halfling shot me a look of alarm through his visor and before I could think further, I became aware of the effect that this over-heating was having upon our assailants.
They were being scalded!
All the while, as they had tangled with us, the octopi had left several of their limbs still wrapped securely around the sub. Now, with Mrs Danby’s flash of inspiration, they found themselves and their suckers welded and melting against the metal hull. Mrs Danby was cooking the murderous beggars!
How I wished I could smell them, sizzling away. I chortled at the sight of it. I guffawed – despite my discomfort – at the opaque and doomed look that came into their horrible eyes.
Oh, Mrs Danby! What a genius is she! Van Halfling and I capered happily as all five of our attackers were broiled and blackened and fell from our ship and our exhausted selves. We had triumphed!
Then we had to wave frantically at Mrs Danby, to get her to turn the gauges back down. Otherwise we two would be cooked as well, which would have been very counter-productive. In a lather of sweat and self-congratulation, she grappled with the controls, and then set about finding the correct way to open the airlock and re-admit us to the sub.
Oh, dear Mrs George Herbert Zarathustra. Imagine our glee! Just picture our ruddy complexions as we clambered back inside my tiny sub and stripped off our metal armour. It was still too hot, almost to touch. Van Halfling and I were hopping about in our undergarments, singed and bruised and too excited for words. It was the first time I had seen the old man shaken out of his impeccable calm. He was prancing about in jubilation, ecstatic to be alive. Poor Mrs Danby was flustered and damp, laughing as the pair of us gathered her up in a hug.
Most unseemly behaviour! I am sure you will agree, my darling wife. Who else in the history of mankind has weathered such bizarre calamities – and gigantic calamari – and come out quite unscathed at the other end? Why, only Zarathustra and Company!
Oh, possibly that rapscallion Captain Zero, too. He’s probably encountered such things as well, but that’s a story for another day, as they say.
But here we were – overly hot and overtired – and glad to be alive. Imagine, taking a steam bath at the bottom of the ocean! My very eyeballs felt as if they were being poached like eggs. I had the most marvellous idea then, and flung open the mini-bar, which was sequestered behind an oak panel, revealing several bottles of champagne on ice. We took the ice and rubbed it all over ourselves in order to cool down, and then Mrs Danby opened all the bottles in quick succession. The noise of popping corks was most welcome, though she was careful where they shot off in the confined space.
And so – before we faced our next challenge – I am afraid we three adventurers became rather tiddly."
('Mrs Danby and Company' is available here and here! Please do buy a copy, and tell all your friends about it.)
Monday, 19 January 2015
Here's my surprise announcement for January the 19th.
It's a brand new novel - published today!
MRS DANBY AND COMPANY
by Paul Magrs
When world-famous detective Nightshade Jones of Balcombe Street retires to Sussex to look after hornets, housekeeper Mrs Martha Danby packs her bags and sets off on a luxury cruise on the doomed SS Utopia.
En route to the dazzling city of New York, she soon meets legendary vampire-slayer Abraham Van Halfling, who claims his demon-hunting days are over. But soon the pair are embroiled in a series of wild adventures when, one stormy evening, the irascible and brilliant Professor Zarathustra stomps aboard, brimming with outlandish tales of giant cephalopods, guarding an ancient lost city at the bottom of the Atlantic.
Our heroes are drawn into a steampunky adventure involving disaster at sea, evil underwater backwards-speaking arachnids, an elixir of eternal youth, vampires in Central Park, sinister Eastern travel agents, a swift trip to Mars and an altogether rollicking time in an early, rather hectic portion of the Twentieth Century.
It would be altogether splendid if you were to join Mrs Danby and Company in doing their level best to save the world!
Sunday, 18 January 2015
Friday, 16 January 2015
by Paul Magrs
(First published in New Writing Four, Edited by AS Byatt and Alan Hollinghurst, March 1995. Also published in 'Playing Out', my first collection of short stories, by Vintage in 1997.)
I sent this story on spec to New Writing and luckily, they took it in a flash. It's my twentieth anniversary as a published writer this year, so I thought I'd bring some stuff out of the archive for you. Here's the first thing I ever had in print...
She has a friend called Patient Iris who lives at the top of the town by the Roman remains.
Irises take a good while to open. She thinks if you place them by the window they stand a better chance.
Iris is patient. She watches men reconstructing the Roman remains.
At the top of the town you can see all of South Shields, the grey flank of North Shields, the blue sash of sea.
The Romans must have built here for the view.
Their fort is vast. When they rebuild it, do they use the old stones or do they have all new, cut into shapes they have guessed at? She and Patient Iris watch them working and the stone certainly looks new. Newer and more yellow than even those private estates they’ve been putting up.
She feels bad about Patient Iris. Who has turned bright yellow and sits by the phone. Who is ready to ring out in case she has an emergency. Her bedsores are a sight to see. She has looked under Patient Iris’s nightgown, at Patient Iris’s bidding. She instructed Patient Iris to sit by her window, to get some air, watch the world outside. Lying down all day does you no good in the end.
Fat purple welts, all down the back of her. Succulent, like burst fruit.
Patient Iris can’t quite remember, but didn’t the coast here once freeze entirely?
It is so high up. The Roman soldiers, with the north wind shushing up their leather skirts, parading on those ramparts, must have had it hard.
And didn’t it once freeze over?
Patient Iris lived at the end of a street. When the coast froze up, surely it was before the time they bombed the row’s other end? The houses went down like dominoes, a trail of gunpowder, stopping just short of Iris’s door.
Patient Iris is a survivor. She survived the freezing-over that winter when, she realises now, she must still have been a child.
She talks on the phone with her friend. Her friend phones now more often than she visits. They both agree that visiting is not much use. There’s nothing new to see. Although the Roman remains, across the way, grow a little higher every day.
And these two women don’t need to see each other. They are so accustomed to the sight that the phone is all they need. And it saves Iris’s friend a trip out. Up the hill is arduous work, after all. Yet they used to walk it happily, to get to the Spiritualist church. When calling up your husband was the thing, before bingo.
Her friend phones to check up on Patient Iris’s back. Both know that her health can’t last this winter.
And winter is stealing in. When Patient Iris wakes in her chair each morning, the first thing she sees is the Roman remains blanched white with scabs of frost, their outlines etched in by an impossibly blue sky.
Winters like this, everything turns to jewels. Patient Iris runs her fingers over and round her tender sores as she speaks into the receiver to her oldest living friend. Will they turn to rubies, drop away, make her well again and rich?
‘Do you remember -’ she says, breaking into her friend’s flow. ‘Do you remember when the coast froze up?’
Her friend is thrown for a moment. Then she sees the orange cranes frozen in the docks, useless and wading on ice. The monstrous keels of half-completed ships, abandoned, like wedding dresses on dummies with the arms not on yet and pins sticking out.
‘I think so,’ she mumbles. She had been telling Patient Iris about the local women, bonded in a syndicate, who won a million pounds between them on the football pools. They were all supermarket cashiers and had their photos taken by the local press, sitting in shopping trolleys.
‘But do you remember the seals on the ice?’ They appeared from nowhere. Came thousands of miles south because it was so cold that winter.
Her friend doesn’t remember the seals.
Patient Iris recalls seeing grey sides of beef stranded on ice. She worked in a butchers, running errands. The butcher boys joked about serving up seal chops.
The seals grew bigger. From the top of the town Patient Iris could hear them bark at night. Not like dogs; grunting coughs like old men in the park. They were getting bigger because they were pregnant. The whiskered seals with large, inscrutable eyes, beached on the useless docks.
‘Imagine,’ says Patient Iris suddenly. ‘Imagine giving birth on sheer ice. Imagine being born on sheer ice. You come out of blubbery safety, straight into snow. The seals try to cover each other, but…’
Her friend decides Iris’s mind is wandering. Tomorrow she will visit her in person. She begins to end the phone call. She wants Iris to put down the phone in case she needs to phone herself an ambulance. She knows Patient Iris all too well and how she likes to do things for herself.
Patient Iris has been kneading the bedsores as she talks. Down the side of her leg, through stiff white cotton, fresh stains of primrose and carmine bloom.
Patient Iris puts down the phone and thinks.
One night when the seals were barking out their birth pangs, she left the house in her nightie and slippers and walked down to the docks.
The dark, slumped shapes, dividing and reproducing, unabashed on the exposed span of gleaming ice. The high pig squeals of baby seals. The mothers rolling over, moist with their own cooling gels, careful not to slip and crush their children.
Patient Iris met a woman, a hag, really, with great hooped skirts and a basket of herring on her back. She said her name was Dolly. She was a lunatic, screaming the odds at the clock face when it struck the hour. In her basket the fish slipped and goggled their frozen eyes as Dolly jogged about to keep warm.
‘I keep sailors inside my skirts. That’s why I wear them so big. So they can hide inside and dodge the draft. They needn’t have to go to sea. Or do what they don’t want.’
Dolly’s face was like a coconut, the hairs growing thick inside the grooves so she’d never be able to shave them if she tried.
Tonight Iris’s oldest living friend dreams of Iris turning yellow and sitting by the phone. The moonlight shines off stark Roman walls and drops into her room.
Patient Iris is still, asleep sitting up, looking dead already. Apart from the slight hiss of breath, which issues as smoke from her open mouth. She is awkward in her chair, doubled up with her precious jumble of ruined organs preserved in that clatter of limbs. She looks just as uncomfortable as those cashiers posing in their shopping trolleys, arms and legs akimbo and waving their champagne glasses and oversized cheques as photographers’ bulbs go off.
Patient Iris’s friend of many years dreams that this winter will be cold. Colder even than that winter before the town was bombed and Tyne Dock was sheeted over in ice.
Colder still and the men decide to down tools and abandon the Roman remains till spring. It is so cold that it frightens them. This kind of weather will crystallise fragments of lost souls in the air. They rekindle themselves and brighten jewellike when it comes in dark. Centurions gather on the ramparts in their leather skirts with the wind whistling through them, their eyes dead quartz.
In the cold imagined by Iris’s friend, the Roman remains can complete themselves.
Old outlines glisten silver on the air, tugging at each other like a big top going up. They stir the air to recall what once stood there. Moisture freezes, clicks into place and recreates a fabulous ice palace on the reconstructed site at the top of the town above the docks.
Patient Iris’s window is open and the time is right for irises to open. Unseasonably, perhaps, even dangerously, in midwinter. But what does Patient Iris care for danger now?
She is open to the elements. Her sores expose her to the harshest that the north can offer.
The cold of the north heals up Patient Iris forever. Her gasping, fishlike internal organs stop collapsing and freeze. Her bedsores harden. Iris reaches with one arthritic hand to splash a little scent behind each ear before she allows the cold to come over her entirely.
Scent catches at each earlobe and dangles there, perfect crystal earrings. And now Patient Iris is sealed forever. The fate of those at extremes, like here, at the top of the hill.
She decides to pop out for a walk. It is the first time she has fancied walking in ages. Perhaps Dolly is still out there somewhere, saving sailors, or Roman centurions, under her voluminous skirts.
Patient Iris stops by the docks to see the seal mothers return and, sure enough, she is rewarded by the sight of their stolid hard-working, bodies.
She is much braver now that her phone is left off the hook and she can wear her bedsores as jewellery. She will skate over the ice to see how the burgeoning families are doing. She will talk the snorting, whiskered mothers through a difficult night, as their children are slapped out like old shoes onto the bloodied glass.
Tuesday, 13 January 2015
GREAT PLEASURES by EDWARD SOUTHGATE
Encapsulate the book in one sentence?
Chapters in the life of a publisher and writer in New York, mostly erotic and mostly about late night hook-ups and adventures.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you?
It’s an episodic book of encounters, detailed wryly by a dispassionate, self-deprecating voice. There’s a muscularity to the prose, and also an unflinching eye for detail, and we get the low-down on every single encounter. It’s a kind of taxonomy of trysts – the boys who are richer, better looking, the boys who are drunker, more desperate, or more cool. Every age, ethnicity and degree of dodgy is explored here.
At first I thought the whole book was going to be sexy adventures, one after the next, but after about a third of the way in, the world of the narrator, Edward, starts to open out. We get glimpses of his day-to-day life, and his work, and his place in the world. More colour and life enters into the book, with the addition of his longer term friends and occasional lovers, and his trips to bars, galleries and a ridiculous holiday he takes to a gay resort. It becomes a more warmly inviting book as it goes along, and we are drawn into his world.
What genre would you say it is?
It’s erotic picaresque, to put it politely. Less politely and it’s hardcore smut. But… it effectively breaks its own genre, in a very witty way. Edward is such a self-deprecating and clever narrator, he can’t quite keep it up, in terms of maintaining that po-faced anality of the mucky-book protagonist. A prerequisite of that genre is lack of irony and just plain old showing off and self-valorization. Gay erotica is often a kind of adventure story, substituting fist fights and sword play for more intimate tussles.
Here, though, Edward stresses his own middle-aged dweebiness. There’s a pathos and a wit that makes the book into something more honest and moving than your average dirty fantasy novel. I love the fact that the most romantic moment in the book is an evening spent happily alone with a nice bottle of wine and a movie about penguins, and the most desperate search for the beloved is subordinated into a hunt for pumpkin ravioli (he settles for butternut squash.) It’s funny.
What surprises did it hold – if any?
Having said all that, there is still a fair amount of sexual exhibition going on - and the dexterity and skill involved is very impressive. It all felt exhausting.
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?
There’s a chapter about going to a gallery with a friend, and then a bar on top of a museum. Nothing much happens. Chat and reflection, and a few hours off from the relentless pursuit of men. Fervent hope and blind desire are laid aside for a few hours, and it’s a lovely holiday. A day off. It’s much more restful as a vacation than that other, chapter-long trip to the resort in Florida, which is memorable for its own reasons – to do with excess and desperation and the most challenging moment – in terms of bad taste – in the whole novel…
Have you read anything else by this author? Or anything this book reminds you of?
It reminded me most of Edmund White, and first reading his early novels, or later memoirs such as ‘City Boy.’
What will you do with this copy now?
It’s a keeper. It’s on my Kindle – where, it turns out, everything is a keeper. One of those strange things about ebooks is that they are with you, wherever you go, so long as you keep a device that works. I’d like to read more by this writer / character, though. There are glimpses towards the end of the book of his trying to live a more integrated, less compartmentalized life – and there are surely developments to come. I hope there’ll be a follow-up.
Is it available today?
Yes – ebook and paperback are available via Amazon.
Give me a good quote:
“I must believe that the slutty deserve love, too.”