Another guest post today as part of the Impossible Spaces blog tour. I’m pleased to welcome Jessica George to the blog, author of the story ‘New Town’. Like a couple of the writers in Impossible Spaces, Jessica juggles two lives – as an academic researcher and as a fiction writer. Before she submitted a story for the anthology, I was only familiar with the former. I’d heard Jess give conference papers on her PhD research – which focuses on weird fiction, specifically Machen and Lovecraft.
I knew that Jess’s fiction was inspired by the writers she studies, so was expecting to see this in her Impossible Spaces submission. However, when I read her story, I was instantly impressed by the way in which she draws on this inspiration. Make no mistake: Jess’s writing does not read like Lovecraft’s! Her fiction has a down-to-earth quality – almost a breeziness – that is about as far from Lovecraft’s ponderous prose as you can get. ‘New Town’ combines this with precision and subtly that makes for a very compelling tale of a young woman drawn into the ever-present past of her hometown in Wales.
Despite the differences, though, Jess’s writing belongs to the same world as Machen and Lovecraft’s. In the case of Machen, this is kind of literal (and Jess will say a little more about this below). For these writers, the world is old – ancient, even – and, no matter how much they think they have done so, the people of the present can’t deny this for long. Something will always reach out eventually – and it might not be what you were expecting.
Anyway, time to hand over to Jessica…
My name’s Jessica George. I’m a PhD student at Cardiff University, a library assistant, and a writer. My Impossible Spaces contribution, ‘New Town’, is the first story I’ve had published in a physical book, though my stories have appeared online on Every Day Fiction, The New Flesh, and Friction Magazine. (If you’re interested, they’re listed here. I’m hugely grateful to Hannah and Rob for including my story, and to Hannah for inviting me to guest post here.
My PhD focuses on the work of Arthur Machen and H.P. Lovecraft, two writers whose works evoke a vivid sense of place – and my own writing has usually gravitated towards the fantastic, towards depicting a world in which the usual rules are a little bit different. I don’t think that’s unusual. Children’s literature, after all, is full of such places – from Narnia, to the secret den at the bottom of the garden where the rule of adults no longer applies.
For those of us who gravitate towards the otherworlds of SF, fantasy, and the weird, it’s a natural progression. Maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the written world itself is an impossible space. The most mundane actions, objects, places, when a writer chooses to depict them, gain a significance they couldn’t ordinarily have. But that’s not to say that ‘real’-world places can’t themselves partake of the weird…
I now live in Pontypool (not the one from the horror film of the same name), but I grew up in the neighbouring town of Cwmbran.
As Buffy-obsessed Millennial teens, we christened it the Hellmouth, imagining, perhaps, some swirling vortex beneath McDonalds that attracted Kappa-tracksuited conformity like Sunnydale drew demons. There’s nothing unusual there; probably every sixteen-year-old of a slightly alternative bent imagines him- or herself alone against the zombie hordes in his or her hometown.
There is, however, something a little bit odd about Cwmbran.
A New Town established in 1949, it serves to this day as a destination for architecture students, who come to admire the mostly-unspoiled nugget of Sixties design that is the pedestrianized shopping centre – the closest thing the town has to a distinguishing feature. From the golden arches at one end to HMV at the other with hardly a non-chain retailer in between, Cwmbran is the clone town par excellence. (The tiny £2.50 fleapit cinema, something of a local institution, closed down recently, finally scuppered by the move from film to digital.) And it’s not just the shopping centre. My friends and I grew up in near-identical pebbledashed terraces, on developments each equipped with near-identical sets of local shops and near-identical family-oriented pubs. Nightlife in the town centre was, in the nineties, non-existent; at five thirty, the crowds abruptly vanished and the centre became a hollow, uncanny place, recast in echoing shadows and the life-sucking orange tinge of never-switched-off security lights.
Anyone who’s ever listened to the Slits’ ‘New Town’ will recognise this place, and its sense of provisionality – as will anyone with more than a passing acquaintanceship with horror cinema. Weather aside, there’s more than a passing resemblance between the new town and the kind of identikit American suburbia whose onscreen presence promises some imminent gory cataclysm. Plonked down on top of a hitherto rural landscape and psychologically fenced off from it, it’s just begging to be uprooted.
And there’s the crux of it. While modern Cwmbran may be a far cry from the area Machen once called an “enchanted land”, a place whose ancient hills and mystic woods hid antediluvian mysteries, it’s still populated by humans. And where human imagination exists, the weird will find a way.
There’s the single town-centre tower-block (now done up to look like a budget hotel) in whose lift last week I encountered a bloke in a dressing gown, slippers, and fedora, with a brandy-glass of rum in his hand. There was the (now sadly departed) Square Inn, whose combination of oddity of layout (bar, lounge… subterranean bowling alley?), welded-to-the-bar clientele, and a faint sense that you might get glassed if you looked at someone a bit funny led to its being nicknamed “the Star Wars bar”. There are spaces in-between the carefully-laid-out housing developments and pedestrianized malls where human beings will always overspill the bounds marked out for them.
I won’t go as far as Machen did, and credit the geographical space of my upbringing with my desire to write. But it might just bear some of the responsibility for my propensity for the weird, with its emphasis on the slipping-in of the strange by unexpected byways. One thing that New Towns perhaps do better than anywhere else is highlight the thinness of the boundaries between the very new and the very old, the expected and the unpredictable; the fact that everyday life is often incredibly mundane and really damn weird at the same time.
That, perhaps, is what I’m trying to get at in ‘New Town’. Its main character, Heledd, is a perfect clone town inhabitant. With little sense of self: her identity is constructed from consumer goods and the expectations of her family and colleagues. She’s vague and directionless, and yet, of the just under 50,000 people in the town, it’s she whom the past chooses to reach out and swallow. While the idea of an inviolable human self is a tricky one, she’s certainly unable to keep herself from finding – and eventually embracing – something more, something other. The business of creating a clone town may be fairly straightforward, but – I hope – creating clone people is a hell of a lot harder.
For more information about Impossible Spaces, or to buy a copy, please visit the publisher’s website.