Monday, 9 December 2013

I was poking around online today for colloquial names for the Johnny Jump-up (or heart's ease, as it's commonly known in the UK), and here is a wonderful list!  Also some desultory history and a little casual theorizing!
  • love in idleness
  • butterfly flower
  • kiss me quick
  • a kiss behind the garden gate
  • three faces under one hood (also "two faces under a hood" and "little faces.")
  • varigated violet
  • bullweed
  • love lies bleeding
  • banwort, bonewort or banewort (Saxon names applied to a number of flowers, including the yellow pansy.  The OED doesn't list this name as being a synonym for the Viola tricolor, though, so take this name with a grain of salt. )
  • Pink of my John (also Pink-eyed John; the one is probably a corruption of the other)
  • garden violet
  • wild or field pansy (a common name in England)
  • heart's ease (another common English name)
  • stepmother (comes from German Steifmutterchen, "little stepmother" - I believe the Swedish and Danish names may be similarly translated.)
  • Johnny Jumper (maybe a corruption of - or the source of - Johnny Jump-up)
  • ladies' delight
  • bird's eye
  • call me to you
  • gentleman tailor
  • kiss and look up
  • tittle my fancy
  • (possibly) fairy buttons
The Viola tricolor was known as the pansy until the (I believe) nineteenth century, when the garden flower we now think of as the pansy began to be cultivated from it.  It was after this that people started to distinguish between the (cultivated) pansy and the wild or field pansy.  It's native to Europe and was introduced to the North American continent in the nineteenth century or earlier.  In the "language of flowers" it was known as the flower that represented thought (Ophelia refers to it as such in Hamlet). I don't know when the name "pansy" accrued to this flower.  Some internet sources claim that "pansy" is a corruption of the French word for thought, pensee.  The OED, however, makes no mention of this.  Instead, the OED cites the earliest use of pansy in English to about 1450, and declares that the origin of the name "heart's ease" is unclear.  (The earliest use of heart's ease in the OED comes from 1530, making "pansy" appear to predate "heart's ease."   (I don't suggest that the one actually predates the other, only that the good people who work on words for the OED haven't found an earlier use of the latter yet.)  Bonewort, banewort or banwort may be the earliest English names for the Viola tricolor, but the OED only claims that the name was used to for yellow mountain pansies, Viola lutea.  Whether the Anglo-Saxons distinguished between the two remains open for conjecture.

My completely spurious theory about the pansy/pensee connection is that it's actually a Victorian creation, not an earlier one.  While it's true that Ophelia refers to the pansy as the "flower of thought" it may be that she's obliquely referring  to its other common names, those which associate the flower with meaningless physical affection or love affairs, such as love in idleness, love lies bleeding, or kiss me quick, and thus commenting on her doomed affair with Hamlet.  Shakespeare was certainly conversant with "love in idleness," as that's the name he uses for the flower in Midsummer Night's Dream.  The Viola tricolor, furthermore, was commonly used as an ingredient in early modern love potions; Ophelia may, therefore, be referencing the flower as the flower of "thought" ironically, since Shakespeare's take on love tends towards the physical and impulsive, rather than the distant and rational.  Of course, another ironic use of the reference to a flower of thought is to consider it in relation to Ophelia's burgeoning madness, and Hamlet's sham(ish) madness.  (And, of course, "thought" is one of the play's major themes - but that's not really something to get into here!)  One could even argue that she's suggesting that Hamlet may have drugged her.

Anyway, my suspicion is that the Victorians (who were entirely gaga over the language of flowers) may have taken the line from Hamlet and poked at it a bit to make the pansy represent thought.  It's certainly much more fun to consider that line from Hamlet as being ironic commentary on vain love and madness than to take it at face value.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Long time no... thing.

It appears I've let my blog go for a while. Whoops. Well, merry Christmas to all; I'm back!

I may or may not have another short story appearing in Jurassic London's 2013 Stocking Stuffer. If I do, however, I'll be writing under a pseudonym. So I leave it to you to determine whether one of the charmingly brief stories that feature in this year's chapbook is from my pen. Did I mention the Stocking Stuffer will be, as always, free? Free free free?

It'll publish sometime this month, and you must treat yourself to it - whether or not I personally grace its (electronic) pages.

Since last we spoke my work has appeared in Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke, A Town called Pandemonium, The Lowest Heaven, and the 2011 and 2012 Stocking Stuffers. (Both Stuffer stories feature my happy little band of villainesses.)

I also have a story in World War Cthulhu, "The Mouse," featuring an intrepid female French Resistance fighter who find herself face to face with the Black Goat of the Woods.

Jurassic also will be republishing my Smoke story "Uncle Smoke" in a very limited edition chapbook, with all-new content. As always, I am indebted to Cubicle 7 and Jurassic, the editors of which have been hugely supportive of my writing. Thank you both.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Bright Star's Beautiful Problem

Let me begin by saying that Bright Star, the 2009 Jane Campion film about John Keats' paramour Fanny Brawne, is beautiful.  Gorgeous! It is lush and full and just dripping with color and light and sound and evocative sets and awe-inspiring clothing. Butterflies flit, flower petals unfurl, curtains rustle, petticoats whisper, floorboards creak and groan.

But what is the lesson of Bright Star? A woman's life is over if the man she's in love with dies. The historical Fanny Brawne, 20 when Keats died, went on to marry and have children and live a fairly long life in apparent comfort and happiness after his premature death. The movie, however, ends with her getting the news, donning a black dress and wandering around Hampstead reciting Keats' poetry aloud to herself. She never took off the ring he'd given her, the ending narrative titles tell us, suggesting that she never got over losing him. There's nothing wrong with that, in and of itself; no one ever really recovers from the death of a loved one. But what the film is implying is that she wandered around in her black dress, reciting his poetry to herself for the rest of her life.  That that was it; his death was the final event of her life as well. Campion doesn't present this as a tragedy but as something provocative and inherently beautiful. Something, perhaps, that the audience should applaud as aesthetically correct as well as emotionally honest. Keats died in poverty and believing himself a failure; it is only appropriate that the woman who loved him and understood his true genius should be unable to live a normal life after he's gone. ...Right?

That's my main complaint with Bright Star, but there are others. Bechdel Test?  Failed. Fanny has no friends, only hangs out with her relatives, and only talks about Keats. She is, we're told over and over at the beginning of the film, a great flirt. But Abbie Cornish plays her as a mean, spiteful brat; there's no delight or merriment or, you know, sexually-charged teasing in the way she interacts with men. Then Fanny meets John and becomes enamored of him – and increasingly more self-absorbed and more self-serious, the harder she falls for him. This is, I take it, supposed to be the character's journey from girl to woman (which: barf). What it reads as, though, is her entire identity becoming bound up in her feelings for Keats. Yes, she's 18 when she meets him, and yes he's her first love, and yes that's a pretty fair approximation of how 18-year-olds act. But the problem is, again, this:  that's what the movie is about. She never grows up. The film itself stops, so that we aren't subjected to the misery of watching Fanny move on into her happy and comfortable adulthood. We never see Fanny become an adult and learn to take pleasure from life despite its disappointments and compromises and tragedies and losses. Her evolution comes crashing to a close at the nadir of her self-absorbed, self-serious bullshit and then treats that end like the of apotheosis of womanhood.  We should not only sympathise with but applaud Fanny for failing to grow up and get on with her life, the movie tells us, because her first love happened to be a tormented and misunderstood genius – and also the flapping curtains and rustling petticoats and creaking floorboards and look, how pretty! Another shot of beautiful people drifting through verdant forests! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

The film only ever really comes to life when Paul Schneider's Charles Brown takes the screen; he is the only actor to bring any real charisma to his role, and his relationships with Keats and Fanny demonstrate the only real emotional depth of the entire movie.  Schneider's Brown is not a great man or a great poet, but a good man and a loyal friend, and Schneider took a thankless role (the film's closest thing to a villain besides the tubercles baccilli, because he thinks Keats should be writing poetry instead of mooning about after some girl), and imbued it with real depth and pathos.  Although I do have to congratulate Kerry Fox, playing Fanny's long-suffering mother, for the one great scene where she's forced to sweep up hundreds of dead and dying butterflies, victims of one of Fanny's emotional crises. This is perhaps the only moment in the entire movie that deals honestly with Fanny's youth and thoughtlessness and carelessness, and how they affect the people around her. (Despite the fact that the butterflies – which we're shown Fanny and her sister collecting in the Hampstead fields –  are all indigenous to tropical rainforests, not northwest London.) For the most part, however, the film not only invites its audience to applaud all the stupid, selfish, self-absorbed crap in which teenagers in love drown themselves, but to lionize it as some sort of ultimate, pure, and truest-of-the-true expression of love.

Am I sorry I watched Bright Star? No. Will I ever watch it again? Probably not. It isn't that Bright Star is a terrible movie, or an unsuccessful movie – it's not; it does, I think, accomplish what it sets out to do. It's just that what it sets out to do is so irritating.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Stories of the Smoke

Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke is out, as of yesterday - and my story, "Uncle Smoke" (in which London's smog gives the world's pigeons some tourist info) is part of it. And, best of all, it's illustrated! The redoubtable Gary Northfield chose to illustrate a vignette from "Uncle Smoke" about Oliver Cromwell's decapitated head. His art is amazing, and showcases Ollie's desiccated melon in all its disgusting glory.

"Uncle Smoke" went through more drafts than is usual for me, and I wound up cutting about a third of it for publication, including the bit that inspired the story. Perhaps, someday, I'll publish the rest as an appendix to the original. In the meantime, here's a taster:

Where shall we begin, my doves? At the beginning, of course; the center of the universe; the sparkling pinpoint in that black velvet night upon which all the fingers of all the gods alight – I’m speaking relatively, of course; there is no actual center of the universe, because all points are the center of the universe, depending on where you’re standing. But even that does my head in a bit, and we all know my head is cloudy enough as it is. 
 And you may argue that the city isn’t the center of the world, but the City is certainly the center of the city, the seed of the city’s conurbation; the starving beast bellowing in the bellybutton of Ye Merry Olde, an ickle furry green tattoo all that separates that ravenous brute from the hedgehogs and hollyhocks of the hi-tiddly-hi-ti what ho of the English everywhere else. (I don’t visit the Green Belt; a man as amorphous as I makes a point of avoiding bindy bits on principle, of course; and you should certainly avoid it: all that fresh air never did nobody no good nohow.)  
So let’s take as written that the universe has a fixed center, and that fixed center is the city of London, and the center of the city of London is the City of London: the place where it all began, so we’ll begin there too.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Pandemonium 2011 Stocking Stuffer

... contains exactly three very short stories: one by Oz Vance, one by Den Patrick, and one by yours truly. And here's an extract!

“The problem is, we’re held to a different standard than the male villains.” Lillitha of Darkhaven, the Maestra of Misery herself, threw her fork down and pushed her small salad (dressing on the side) away in disgust.  “They get rated according to the number of Satanic pledges signed. Or world dominations schemes, whether they’re foiled, unworkable, or just plain stupid.  We get our bikini bodies compared.”

The Pandemonium Stocking Stuffer (which also features an introduction by Jared Shurin and the world's cutest cover-art, by Sarah Anne Langton) is on sale today on Amazons .com &

Friday, 4 November 2011

Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse

I won second place in a school-wide creative writing competition when I was twelve. My story, the title of which I can't recall, was a shameless ripoff of Lovecraft's "Pickman's Model."

My innovation? My great improvement over Lovecraft? I changed the narrator's gender.

Twenty years later, I'm staggered to find my name keeping august company among the contributors for Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by the folks over at Pornokitsch. Jon Courtenay Grimwood! Lauren Beukes! And, erm, me!

Daniel Brown at Stuff & Nonsense has some astounding words for Pandemonium, and, thrillingly, called my own story "a relentlessly black, magnificently downbeat exercise in the stripping away of humanity." A good review, as it turns out, is much more rewarding than a crummy certificate of (second-place) achievement. Thank you, Mr. Brown.

I'm delighted to inaugurate this blog with a little excerpt from "Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion," the story I wrote for Pandemonium. The anthology is available for purchase as an eBook from Amazons .com and, and a limited edition print run will be sold exclusively at Tate Britain.

 June 24 
Mist rises between the hillocks as the sun sets, a skin of methane that hangs over the water and burns off when the sun rises again. It stinks of rot, would suffocate us if we inspired it. It killed two dogs before we learned to tie them up at night, out of it. 
We watch it coalesce in the spaces between us after we set up our evening camps. Whirls and eddies in the vapor indicate that something, at least, can survive it. Kreach suspects they're bats, but they avoid our campfires and we have been unable to capture any, though she sets out mist-nets most nights. 
We do not know how they can breathe the poison. 
In the miasma, lights. Little flickering candle flames. They sway and flicker out of reach. They’re the ignis fatuous, of course. Corpse candles, hinkypunks, will-o'-the-wisps, friar's fires, ghost lights. The pops of light in the methane are the fire of decay, we know. Johanne tells us the native myths. That the lights sway because they're candles held by the ghosts of men killed a thousand years ago, building the railroads that once ran through this land, when it was dry. Imagine, this stinking, sucking wetness was once a desert of salt. 
At first we would follow the lights, children chasing fireflies through the dusk. Now we sit and watch them. The campfires of the dead.