9 of the Strangest and Most Gruesome Author Deaths

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People often say that life is stranger than fiction, but what about death? Throughout history, many notable authors have themselves become the subjects of a noteworthy story because of the strange and sometimes gruesome ways in which they have died.

Listed below are 9 of the weirdest demises I have come across. If you are aware of any others, please feel free to add them in the comments section below!

 

  1. Christopher Marlowe

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Believe it or not, the 16th century playwright Christopher Marlowe was no stranger to a bar-room brawl. On May 30, 1593, Marlowe arrived at a lodging house with a few acquaintances to dine and have drinks. Everything was going well until it was time to pay the tab, at which point a heated argument broke out between Marlowe and his friend, Ingram Frizer.

Eyewitnesses claim that Marlowe seized Frizer’s dagger and in the resultant struggle, Frizer plunged the implement into Marlowe’s skull directly above his right eye, killing him instantly.

As if this wasn’t brutal enough, some conspiracy theorists claim that Marlowe’s murder was actually an assassination ordered by none other than Queen Elizabeth I – a theory made more credible by the fact that she pardoned Frizer four weeks later for undisclosed reasons. As an outspoken atheist, Marlowe was seen as a direct threat to the Church and given this was Elizabethan England (where you could be executed for far lesser crimes), it is plausible that ol’ Liz’s orders to prosecute Marlowe “to the full” may actually have been an order to end his life, carried out by his friend.

Weirder still, there are some who support the Marlovian Theory that the whole thing was an elaborate set-up designed to help Marlowe flee the country to avoid his impending inquisition and that Marlowe lived for many years afterwards, producing plays under a different name… and the name he apparently chose? William Shakespeare. The real Shakespeare, these theorists argue, was nothing more than a front-man to allow Marlowe to keep writing and having his plays performed in England long after 1593. Although there are many who doubt Shakespeare was the mastermind behind all of his plays, this is one of the strangest theories out there about who the great bard really was.

 

  1. Aeschylus

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Aeschylus, an Ancient Athenian author who specialised in tragedies, befell a tragedy of his own in 455 BC after having his head split open by a falling tortoise. Yes, you read that right. When outlining the specifics of Aeschylus’ demise, Valerius Maximus wrote that the tortoise had been dropped by an eagle that had mistaken his bald pate for a rock (a technique used by hunting birds to ‘break open’ their prey).

That’s not the only bizarre thing about his death. In his Naturalis Historiæ, Pliny claims that Aeschylus was only outdoors in the first place to avert the fulfillment of a prophecy that his death would occur as a result of a “falling object.” Spooky!

 

  1. Dan Andersson

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Sadly, the Swedish poet Dan Andersson is better known for the gruesome nature of his death than he is for his life’s works. He died on September 16, 1920, after the concierge at the appropriately-named Hotel Hellman failed to inform him the room was about to be fumigated for bedbugs.

I know what you’re thinking – unless they were some kind of massive, mutant bed-bugs needing to be mowed down with bullets or something, Andersson shouldn’t really have been at too much risk… right? However, in 1920s Stockholm it was commonplace to use lethal doses of hydrogen cyanide for pest control, meaning the fumigation basically transformed Andersson’s hotel room into a giant, chintzy gas chamber. His body wasn’t found until 3:00pm during the clean-up, at which time it was much too late. The hotel has since been demolished.

 

  1. Edgar Allan Poe

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To this day, the death of Edgar Allan Poe – considered by many to be the godfather of modern horror – is steeped in mystery and intrigue. Why? The fact is that no-one really knows how and why Poe died. No death certificate was ever filed and the only known obituary in existence claims that he died of “phrenitis” (congestion of the brain), which frankly raises more questions than it answers.

What little is known of the circumstances surrounding Poe’s demise sounds like they were plotted by the man himself in one of his more sinister tales.

On a wet and stormy night back in October 3, 1849, a compositor working for the Baltimore Sun by the name of Joseph W. Walker found a drenched and delirious man lying in the gutter close to Gunner’s Hall in Baltimore. The man, it transpired, was none other than Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe had left Richmond, Virginia bound for Philadelphia the week prior to being discovered by Walker, but since his departure no one had heard from him. As Poe was incoherent until his death 4 days later on October 7, 1849, he was unable to tell anyone where he had been for the last week, but Walker noted at the time that Poe was dressed in soiled, second-hand clothes (clearly not his own), a fact which struck him as suspicious.

Another interesting fact is that Poe called out the name “Reynolds” repeatedly the night before he died, but nobody has ever been able to piece together who or what this meant – was it a plea for help, or an accusation? Or, perhaps, simply the senseless outpourings of his maelstrom of a mind in those final days?

There are many theories surrounding how exactly Poe died, the most popular including that he was “cooped” (a practice in which corrupt electioneers would abduct voters, ply them with drink, dress them in gentlemanly get-up, and force them to vote for a specific candidate) and subsequently died of alcohol poisoning, or that his raging alcoholism exacerbated a more serious medical condition (such as syphilis, diabetes, TB, epilepsy, or rabies) which not only killed him, but may have driven him mad in the process.

 

  1. Tennessee Williams

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The Pulitzer prize-winning playwright behind A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams, died aged 71 of asphyxiation after choking on a small plastic bottle cap.

His body was discovered a day later on February 25, 1982, by his secretary Joh Uecker.

New York’s Chief Medical Examiner later ruled that Williams was using the cap to ingest barbiturates.

Due to his copious drug use, Williams did not have a gag reflex and so was unable to expel the object from his throat after swallowing it. Moral of the story: be careful what you put in your mouth.

 

  1. Li Bai

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Li Bai (also known as Li Bo) was one of the great Chinese poets of the Tang Dynasty; he was also a serial womaniser and a drunk. Although the circumstances of his death in 762 AD are now the stuff of Chinese legend, meaning they may have been embellished or be entirely inaccurate, they’re bizarre enough to deserve a place in the list.

The story goes that following a long night of drinking, Li Bai drowned in the Yangtze River after trying to “embrace” the reflection of the moon, falling from his boat in the process. “Embrace,” of course, is a rather euphemistic way of saying Li Bai tried to *ahem* grab the moon by the crater in a show of lust of which Donald J. Trump would be proud… which, let’s face it, is a pretty weird way to go.

 

  1. Mark Twain

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Mark Twain, author of such classics-now-considered-racist as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, died of a heart attack in his home in Redding, Connecticut on April 21, 1910… a decidedly average demise. What’s so intriguing about Twain is not therefore how he died, but when: more specifically, the fact that he actually predicted the date of his death more than a year before it happened.

Twain is quoted as saying that he “came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835” (i.e. he was born on the same day that the comet came into closest proximity with the Earth) and so he “expect[ed] to go out with it.” This expectation was eerily fulfilled as on April 21, the comet could be seen once again streaking across the skies, the closest to Earth it had been on this particular fly-by.

Can a man die of expectation? Or was it fate that saw “these two unaccountable freaks… go out together,” as Twain himself once predicted they would?

 

  1. Albert Camus

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Like some of the other authors on this list, the death of writer and philosopher Albert Camus has drawn the attention of conspiracy theorists worldwide. Although officially Camus died an accidental death as a result of a fatal car crash on January 4, 1960, evidence has since been uncovered that suggests the crash was no accident. In fact, there is a possibility that Camus was killed by the KGB.

This theory hinges on the testimony of the celebrated Czech poet and translator Jan Zábrana, who claims in his diary that the crash that killed Albert Camus in 1960 was organised by Soviet spies.

This act was apparently in retaliation for an article published in Franc-tireur in 1957 in which Camus had criticised Moscow’s decision to send troops to crush the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

According to Zábrana, the KGB damaged a tyre on Camus’ car using a sophisticated piece of equipment that cut into the wheel at speed, but all evidence of the device was destroyed in the resultant crash.

 

  1. Sylvia Plath

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The acclaimed poet and feminist icon, Sylvia Plath, battled with depression for most of her life, undergoing experimental treatments such as electroshock therapy in her search for a ‘cure.’

After several failed suicide attempts (including ingesting large amounts of pills and intentionally driving herself off the road into a river), Plath succeeded in taking her own life on February 11, 1963, using her most extreme method yet: while her children slept in the next room of her London home, she plugged up the door leading into the kitchen with wet towels, knelt on the floor, and stuck her head in her gas oven as far as it would go. When they found her dead a few hours later, her head was still in the oven.


(Images: Wikipedia)

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The 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature Goes To… Bob Dylan

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The literary community was left divided this week after singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the world’s most prestigious literary award, the Nobel Prize for Literature, on Thursday, October 13.

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Dylan has managed to beat a number of notable authors (including Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Don DeLillo, Haruki Murakami and Javier Marias) to the top spot, bagging a $900,000 prize in addition to being named this year’s Nobel laureate – a great honour in itself.

Speaking after the announcement, Swedish Academy Secretary Sara Danius said that it had “not been a difficult decision” but acknowledged that some may view the choice as controversial, stating that “we [the Academy] hoped the news would be received with joy, but you never know.”

Although many have questioned whether pop songs should be allowed into the category of poetry (especially given the number of musical accolades available), it is clear that the nature of Dylan’s works has not excluded him from being considered a poet on the greatest stage of all.

Indeed, Danius compares the American songwriter to Homer and Sapphio (on the justification that the works of both are intended to be performed, often which musical accompaniment) and argues that Dylan “is a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards. He’s a very interesting traditionalist, in a highly original way. Not just the written tradition, but also the oral one; not just high literature, but also low literature.”

Many notable writers have come out publicly in favour of the choice: Salman Rushdie has stated that “the frontiers of literature keep widening, and it’s exciting the Nobel prize recognises that”, and Billy Bragg said “the first couple of stanzas of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ opened my eyes and ears to the idea that music and poetry could exist together.”

However, not everyone is so keen. Margaret Atwood, upon being informed that Dylan had won the Nobel Prize, responded “for what?” with cool acidity; Natalie Kon-Yu noted with a weary resignation many of us can sympathise with that awarding the prize to “another white male writer” is hardly a break from the norm. Irvine Welsh called the decision a “half-arsed attempt” to honour Dylan and argued that acknowledgement of his works should be restricted to the musical.

Interestingly, Dylan has maintained radio silence since the announcement was made on Thursday evening, failing to comment on the award despite having a readymade audience (as he was playing gigs in Las Vegas and Coachella on Thursday and Friday nights, respectively). Perhaps, like Jean-Paul Sartre before him, he wishes to decline the award on political grounds, or maybe he just doesn’t like the pressure that comes with such praise.

Speaking to The New Yorker back in 1964, Dylan once said that “I fell into a trap once last December when I agreed to accept the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee… I looked down from the platform and saw a bunch of people who had nothing to do with my kind of politics… They had minks and jewels, and it was like they were giving the money out of guilt. I got up to leave, and they followed me and caught me. They told me I had to accept the award.”

So, it is still unclear whether or not Dylan will attend the ceremony. However, Danius has emphasised the fact that Dylan has won the Nobel Prize whether he acknowledges it or not, commenting that “if he doesn’t want to come [to the prize ceremony], he won’t come. It will be a big party in any case and the honour belongs to him.”

Whatever your thoughts are about how ‘literature’ should be classified, it’s difficult to argue with the fact that Dylan is an excellent wordsmith. His gravelly voice and poetic lyrics musing over war, heartbreak, betrayal, death and moral faithlessness have brought beauty to life’s greatest tragedies. I’ve posted one of my favourites below. Why not add your own in the comments?

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(Images: The Guardian, The New York Times)

 

Good News! Studio Ghibli’s Ronja the Robber’s Daughter is Coming to Amazon Prime

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After Studio Ghibli announced in 2014 that it would shutting down film production in the wake of co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, anime fans were left in mourning.

However, Studio Ghibli fans in the West finally had reason to celebrate today after Amazon announced that it was picking up three new children’s series for its Prime streaming service, one of which is Studio Ghibli’s first ever TV show, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter – directed by Goro Miyazaki, the son of Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki (best known for his work on Tales from Earthsea and From Up on Poppy Hill), and animated by CGI animation studio Polygon.

The series is based on a fantasy novel by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren (yes, that Astrid Lindgren), following the adventures of the adolescent daughter of a professional robber (Ronja) whose friendship with a member of a rival gang (Birk) makes her life very complicated indeed… and that’s before you take account of the slew of strange creatures she encounters in the enchanted forest!

Although the series aired in Japan between October 2014 and March 2015 and has already gained critical acclaim (winning Best 2D Animation at the Asian Television Awards and an International Emmy in the Kids/Animation category), this is the first time the 26-episode series will be dubbed and aired abroad. The series is due to premiere on Amazon in the US, UK, Germany and Austria later this year (exact date TBC).

The main changes will, of course, be the language – this new English dub will see The X-Files‘ Gillian Anderson take up the mic again (having voiced Moro in the English dub of Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke) as narrator; no doubt she will soon be joined by an all-star cast.

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If you’d like a sneak peek, take a look at the Japanese trailer here.

(Images: Studio Ghibli, Wikipedia)

 

Tired of Planet Earth? Now You Can Become a Citizen of the First Ever ‘Space Nation,’ Asgardia

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James T. Kirk was right: space really is the final frontier. We may have conquered the highest peaks and furthest reaches of our world, but it’s fair to say that the universe beyond Earth’s atmosphere has remained firmly outside our reach, a territory to which no man has ever been able to make a claim… until now.

At a Parisian press conference on October 12, 2016, Igor Ashurbeyli (Chairman of UNESCO’s Science of Space Committee and founder of the Aerospace International Research Centre in Vienna) announced that mankind is now set to establish a sovereign nation amongst the stars. The first ever ‘space nation’ – dubbed ‘Asgardia’ by the project leaders in reference to 1 of the 9 Worlds of Ancient Gods found in Norse mythology – will use an orbiting space station as a base through which to promote peaceful space exploration and prevent the conflicts on Earth making their way into the cosmos.

The project’s 3 primary goals are defined as follows:

  1. To ensure the peaceful use of space
  2. To protect the Earth from space threats
  3. To create a de-militarised and free scientific base of knowledge in space

With this emphasis upon peace, access and protection for all in mind, Asgardia’s founders have opened citizenship up to the entire globe (including under 18s), with the only requirement for entry being the possession of an email address which is needed to complete the sign-up process on their website. However, the website also claims that the first 100,000 people to claim citizenship will be given “special preference” over the rest; to put this in context, almost 500,000 people have already claimed citizenship in the few days that the site has been up and running. Although this makes the whole thing sound a bit gimmicky, the intentions for this project are far from that: indeed, Ashurbeyli claims that his team is determined to build nothing less than a “fully-fledged and independent nation” with the same status as UN-recognised states, complete with its own government, embassies, national anthem and flag.

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You may be wondering how exactly the nation of Asgardia will be able to manifest itself given that its citizens will all be remaining firmly on the ground (well, for the time being at least). Well, it appears that the wheels are already turning in this respect. According to the website, the initial stages of Asgardia’s nationhood will be put into action as early as October 2017 – fittingly enough, on the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik – when they aim to launch the Asgardian nation’s first satellite into orbit. The project leaders also have future plans for the design and implementation of a “protective shield” around the Earth to protect us from asteroids, solar winds and space debris (although the specifics of this are left entirely unexplained) and build a fully-functional space station that will facilitate the conduction of “independent, private and unrestricted research” in orbit.

Is this just the stuff of sci-fi dreams? The bombastic claims being made by Ashurbeyli and his team seem at best rather premature, especially given that the competitions to design the nation’s flag and insignia and compose its national anthem are still pending. The idea that Asgardia can offer an “independent platform free from the constraint of a land-based country’s laws” has a certain appeal, but it is not clear how exactly this would be achieved given that claims of sovereignty in space are prohibited by international law. As director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law, Professor Sa’id Mosteshar, stated in an interview with the BBC: “the Outer Space Treaty… accepted by everybody says very clearly that no part of outer space can be appropriated by any state.” Although its arguable that the current UN laws and treaties that govern operations in space are in need of revisions to ensure they can account for technological advances in the near future, this does not justify an outright dismissal of the existing framework – especially when a cohesive vision of the new legal system has not been outlined at all. Little is known about the individuals who have already been assigned a position in government (a fact that is worrying in itself), and so it is difficult to gauge their intentions for this brave new world.

The claim that all research will be “independent, unrestricted and private” is also potentially cause for concern, as if Asgardian sovereignty was recognised and Earth law therefore rendered inapplicable, this would create an ethical loophole of sorts that scientists could use to conduct experiments which would never be permitted on Earth. As part of the website’s description of the concept of Asgardia, explicit complaints are made about the fact that “economic and political considerations often take precedence over purely scientific ones” and “ethical boundaries are considered necessary to sustain safety.” Are Ashurbeyli and his team suggesting, then, that these ethical boundaries and economic/political considerations should be removed entirely? Will any Asgardian be free to conduct whatever research they want, so long as they can fund it? History has taught us again and again that the pursuit of pure knowledge can have dangerous and unforeseen consequences. Could history repeat itself in space?

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It the founders of Asgardia have pure intentions, this could be the start of something wonderful that could benefit the whole of mankind… but it’s also possible that it could become a platform for the rich to get richer (farming asteroids for precious metals, perhaps, or developing military-grade technologies?) while the rest of us wait in line for our passports. We will all just have to wait and see…

If you’d like to become a citizen of Asgardia, click here to complete the sign-up process.

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(Images: Asgardia)

5 Reasons to Support Your Local Independent Bookstore

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It’s no secret that in the age of super-fast broadband when every store is online and you can find what you need at the click of a button, online superstores like Amazon are increasingly monopolising the booksellers’ market to the detriment of SME providers. Fewer and fewer of us are actually stepping outside and into our local bookstore to find something new to read, and if we’re not careful, there might not be a lot of places left to do so if the economy continues its downward trend.

In Nottingham (UK) where I live, we are lucky enough to have some really great bookstores, including our very own indie outlet Five Leaves, which follows in the footsteps of Nottingham’s radical bookshop tradition – the very first being opened in 1826 by Susannah Wright – by offering local readers alternative, political, weird, wonderful and often controversial texts they won’t find in mainstream outlets.

 

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Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham City Centre

 

 

As a recipient of the Five Leaves Prize for creative writing in my Uni days, I admit I may be somewhat biased on the subject, but I fiercely believe that we need our local independent bookstores just as much as they need us: it’s important that we offer them both our patronage and our coverage to make sure that these treasure troves of creativity, diversity and inclusivity survive.

That’s why I’ve put together a list of five reasons you should be doing all you can (if you’re not already!) to support your local bookstore.

 

 1. Supporting Local, Diverse and/or Upcoming Writers

Most of the big names in publishing prioritise selling potential and profits above all else, which is understandable, but it also means they’re less likely to take a chance with a new author or text if they’re not ‘mainstream’ enough to guarantee big sales for the company. That can only be bad for readers and writers everywhere. Literature needs diversity, but the only way to ensure that it can thrive is to give all sorts of people a voice.

That’s where independent publishers and bookstores come in. Not only do they publish and sell great texts that would be turned down by big publishers that are used to playing it safe, they are also far more likely to champion home-grown writers and help them build their fanbase at a grassroots level.

I happen to live in a city that has long since proven its literary pedigree – Nottingham has strong links to prestigious authors such as D.H. Lawrence, Lord Byron, and Allan Sillitoe, amongst others – but the truth is that every region has something unique to offer its readers, and it’s well worth visiting your local indie bookstore to find out what writers from your locality and/or culture have to say about life, love and everything in between.

 

 2. They Might Be Stocking Your Book Someday

There are many people out there who, like me, would love to be published but know the chances of getting in with a well-known publisher like Random House or Faber & Faber are pretty darn low, no matter how good the writing.

The other side of supporting new and upcoming writers is that one day you might be the one selling the books instead of buying them, in which case you will find that small independent bookshops are quite literally a godsend (or some other sort of lifeline not granted by a religious deity, depending on your preferences).

They’re far more likely to agree to stock smaller numbers of your book and give you a chance to prove yourself, whereas the big names will have millions of writers jostling for space (most of them with agents to fight their corner) and don’t have any real incentive to give you a shot. Fact is, without independent bookstores, there are far fewer chances for writers to get the leg-up they need to make it big. If you foster hopes of seeing your name in print one day, supporting indie outlets is a wise move.

 

3. Finding Gems the Big Publishers May Have Missed

This might sound counter-intuitive, but you’re actually far more likely to discover your new favourite book or writer by shopping independently than you are relying on Amazon’s automated recommendations and lists of top sellers in each genre.

Why? It’s simple – small, curated bookstores are usually staffed by well-read and enthusiastic booksellers who are far more likely to want to engage with you and help you find something perfectly suited to your taste.

Yes, the big bookshops usually have titled and organised sections, but their employees cannot be expected to have knowledge of every book stocked, nor are they necessarily going to have the time or energy to offer you their expertise. Recommendation cards can only go so far, and are only usually provided for big sellers, which means you could easily walk past the perfect book without ever knowing it was there. Plus, let’s face it, talking about books with someone who can ask questions, knows the stock well and will easily be able to tailor choices to your personal preferences is a lot more rewarding and likely to succeed than defaulting to “customers who bought items in your recent history also bought… [x, y and z].”

The likelihood that you’ll find the right book without hassle increases exponentially if you visit an independent bookstore that specialises in your areas of interest and employs people who have actually read and care about the subject matter. Five Leaves, for example, have particular interests in lesbian/gay counterculture, alternative politics and regional fiction/poetry (amongst other areas), which is why their staff are well-versed in these topics and can offer friendly advice on what to read next based on likes and dislikes, favourite authors, and niche subjects.

In fact, their store has become a local hub for writers, artists, left-wingers and misfits to come together, share experiences and recommendations, and generally have a good ol’ literary-themed chinwag… which brings me to my next point rather nicely.

4. Meeting Interesting and Likeminded People

I once heard a joke that went something along the lines of “I’d be far more likely to consider a date with someone who bought me a book in a bookshop than someone who bought me a drink in a bar.” I’m missing the punchline, but you get the general idea: book choices tell you an awful lot more about a person than their ability to guess what kind of drink you like, and establishing shared interests makes for good, long-lasting relationships.

Not that you have to be on the look-out for love to benefit from the social aspect of a bookstore. Bookshops, particularly small and/or quirky independent ones, are a great place to start a conversation with someone new, because there’s a pretty good chance that the person standing next to you either shares some of your likes/dislikes or can offer you an interesting new opinion on a topic you can both approach with genuine interest.

Indie bookshops tend to attract certain subcultural groups, thus bringing together people with shared experiences and interests that extend beyond a love of all things paperback. This excerpt from the Five Leaves website is an excellent example of what I mean:

“If there was any doubt that Five Leaves is a radical bookshop it was dispelled the day after the General Election when a stream of Labour voters, Greens and assorted lefties drifted into the shop seeking comfort after the storm. We found ourselves providing an open therapy group for the forlorn (as we were ourselves). We printed up some badges – ‘Don’t Blame Me, I Voted Labour/Green/I’m an Anarchist’, as well as a set carrying the Joe Hill slogan, ‘Don’t Mourn, Organise’…

All in all, it’s fair to say that your new best friend/boyfriend/girlfriend/ranting partner/book club invitee could be browsing the next shelf over from you!

 

5. Promoting the Local and National Economy

Most people are aware by now (as it’s been all over the news in recent years) that many of the big name booksellers like Amazon actually pay either little to no tax at all, despite making billions in profits from their annual sales. This hurts the local and national economy in two main ways.

Firstly, tax avoidance tactics allow Amazon and their ilk to offer books at prices which smaller retailers can’t match, meaning many smaller outlets are either having to sell exclusively online to reduce overhead costs and/or shut down completely because they cannot maintain sufficient profits. Sure, you might have an extra £3 in your pocket, but at what cost?

The small, independent booksellers are paying taxes which the government uses to pay for education, infrastructure, healthcare services, and all the other things we pretty much rely on to live our lives. So spend £10 on a new book in an indie bookstore, and you know a significant proportion of that money is going to be fed back into keeping the country running. As such, you can bask in the warm glow of knowing you’ve made the ethical choice.

Secondly, having a quirky little bookstore in your local area has benefits for the entire community. They almost always hire local people, which means an increase in jobs (always a good thing). ‘Destination’ shops like this are proven to help maintain local property prices by giving the impression it’s a rather nice place to live (and why wouldn’t it be, with books on the doorstep?). They hold regular events such as poetry readings, book clubs, discussion groups, and even the occasional afternoon tea to promote local writers and engage more fully with the people who buy, read and have things to say about the books being sold. All this means they are far better placed to cater to local interests and cultures than your big-brand bookstore.

Plus, as places to read are becoming fewer and farther between as libraries are forced to close, not everyone wants to spend £4 on a sticky-swishy-latte-chino in Starbucks and waste time finding a good seat only to have some idiot with a mobile phone stuck to his face sit down somewhere close by and ruin the ambience. Many indie bookstores actively encourage in-store reading and will even provide comfy seating fit for purpose.

In short: indie bookshops can actually make your city, and your country, a better place to be.

(Image: Five Leaves Books)

Arundhati Roy’s Back with a New Novel, 20 Years After The God of Small Things

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The literary world rejoiced this week as Arundhati Roy, winner of the 1997 Booker Prize for her debut novel The God of Small Things, announced she will publish a new piece of fiction in 2017 entitled The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Speaking in a Hamish Hamilton UK and Penguin India press release, Arundhati expressed her joy that “the mad souls (even the wicked ones) in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness have found a way into the world, and that I have found my publishers.”

Although little is known about the novel as of yet, its editors Simon Prosser (Hamish Hamilton) and Meru Gokhale (Penguin India) have been generous with their praise, calling their association with the book “both a pleasure and an honour” and stating the text is “one of the finest we have read in recent times.” David Godwin, the agent managing the acquisition of rights to the book, added that “only Arundhati could have written this novel. Utterly original. It has been 20 years in the making, and [is] well worth the wait.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Arundhati Roy’s work, then The God of Small Things is well worth a read. It tells the story of Rahel and Esthappen, fraternal twins full of secrets whose varying experiences of the laws of Love – that is, “who should be loved, and how… and how much” – have left them damaged and traumatised, with one sibling living in silence and the other being left in a state of insatiable emptiness. The end result is somewhat difficult to describe: the novel functions as both political fable and psychological family drama, yet its overall effect is more akin to that of a fairytale, or perhaps a half-forgotten dream.

Time is splintered and disordered meaning Roy’s text constantly meanders, but these tangents and side-steps can be easily forgiven as readers are kept well-entertained along the way. Revelations are staggered between sentences that are repeated like mantras, giving the narrative a sure and steady rhythm not unlike poetry, and although there are times at which the author’s rich and evocative language can become somewhat overwhelming, one cannot help but become completely immersed in the sights, sounds, smells and sensations that Roy so adeptly describes.

If this doesn’t really sound like your cup of tea, it’s worth noting that Roy is also a prolific political and cultural writer – her non-fiction works, tackling everything from Gandhi’s racism and freedom of the press to femininity and India’s nuclear program, are available in most good bookstores.

(Image: Penguin Random House UK)

13 Creepy Reads for Halloween

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With only three weeks to go before spooky celebrations get underway, I’ve got Halloween on the brain. I love the idea of Halloween, because I love scary stories… and let’s face it, All Hallows Eve is the perfect backdrop for them. Think about it: the wind’s howling like it’s being beaten, there are autumn leaves strewn everywhere, the streets are lost to shadows, and there’s that ever-present chance that just around the corner, something awful is going reach out and touch you…

Yes, okay, that ‘something awful’ is most likely to be a small child in an elaborate costume who wants sweets, but that’s not the point. Halloween, for me, is all about embracing the deliciousness of fear – it’s a night when anything can happen, and you think twice about ignoring that strange bump in the night.

In honour of the occasion, I’ve put together a list of thirteen scary stories that are well worth a read this Halloween. If, like me, you love a fright, why not give one of these a try and spook yourself silly?

#1 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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If you’re looking for a story to give you the chills, then look no further… Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic for a reason. Inspired by a challenge to write a short ghost story by the great Lord Byron, Shelley claims to have subsequently dreamt of a scientist who galvanises life from the bones he has collected in charnel houses. Enter Viktor Frankenstein.

Shelley’s story follows the long and tragic chain of events that are set into motion by the ‘birth’ of the scientist’s monster, after which Frankenstein must watch his creation destroy everything he loves, bringing him to the brink of madness. This is a tale of friendship, hubris and horror – an oldie, but most definitely a ‘goodie.’ Shelley is credited by many as the producer of one of the first great works of science fiction and, after reading her debut, I am sure you will be inclined to agree.

#2 The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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Ah, another classic. Jackson’s archetypal story of the creepy, old haunted house on the hill might sound cliché, but you should let her off given that this story is the original that inspired oh so many copies and adaptations! Jackson is a master of tension and suspense, and certainly knows how to tell a good ghost story – there are quite a few moments reading this book where every hair on the back of my neck stood on end.

The novel follows four characters in search of a paranormal experience wherein, at first, all seems to be well. However, soon enough, strange things start to happen. Due to the unreliability of the characters and the unwavering presence of the place, Hill House (the setting for the novel) becomes practically a character in itself, and it is perhaps here that Jackson really works her magic – whilst you’re reading it, the quirks of your own surroundings suddenly become a lot harder to ignore… is that really rain on the window, or the gentle tapping of fingernails? Is the house creaking because its old, or is there really someone up there? Anyone who can get me thinking like that is a genius in my book… I don’t scare easily.

#3 The Collector by John Fowles

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Fowles weaves a sinister tale of obsession and abduction, told from the perspective of loner and butterfly collector, Frederick Clegg. Clegg develops an obsession with a beautiful Art student called Miranda and, not wanting to be lonely anymore, one day decides to “collect” her. You probably think you can guess the rest, more or less, but Fowles still has a few plot twists up his sleeve…

What is so impressive about this book is the way in which Fowles portrays his central character – even Miranda, as his captive, views him with both scorn and pity, although she is unable to love him in any kind of real way. Miranda, too, is far from perfect – Fowles himself declares that she is an “arrogant… liberal-humanist slob”. Subsequently, what follows is a story wherein the lines between victim and attacker become blurred, and where nothing is quite what it seems. If you’re in the mood for a horror story that is simultaneously tense, frightening and sad, then this book is well worth a read.

#4 The Thing on the Doorstep, and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft

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‘The Thing on the Doorstep’ is Lovecraft at his finest, and it’s a great place to start if you’re unfamiliar with his work. The protagonist, Daniel Upton, narrates the woeful tale of how he came to murder his best friend… or did he? Lovecraft has been credited as the godfather of horror, and modern writers like King and Barker offer Lovecraft’s work much acclaim, even going so far as to say that horror as we know it would never have existed without him.

After reading a few of Lovecraft’s stories, I would challenge anyone not to look twice at that funny-looking shadow in the periphery of your vision…. then again, I’m one of those people that would never run upstairs if a killer was after me. That is partly because I live on the ground floor, but mostly because I learn from these stories. So, just remember this Halloween: if it walks like your friend and talks like your friend, it’s probably a demon occupying your friend’s skin and you should get out of there, quick, before you suffer the same fate!! *ahem* Better safe than sorry.

#5 The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

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Forget ghosts; forget werewolves; forget vampires – Shakespeare figured out early on that the demons are all here, because the real demons are us. That’s a lesson not lost on Banks. Frank, his central character, is isolated from the world, fearing how it sent his brother mad, and resenting them because he is impotent (after what he believes was a childhood castration in a vicious dog attack).

Frank occupies his time undertaking a series of sadistic rituals, one of which involves the ‘Wasp Factory’ referred to in the title, which is a huge clock face encased in a glass box. Behind each of the twelve numerals is a trap which leads to a different ritual death (such burning, crushing, or drowning in Frank’s urine). Frank believes the death ‘chosen’ by the wasp predicts something about the future.

The horror is his novel is not created by something that goes bump in the night – that, perhaps, is what is most unsettling about it. If you’re unfamiliar with Banks’ work, I would thoroughly recommend this book. If, however, you prefer science fiction, he also writes in this genre under the name Iain M. Banks, and his stories are just as unsettling.

#6 Dracula by Bram Stoker

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Well, you can’t really have a Halloween reading list without Dracula on it, can you? Don’t let a few dodgy films and Stephanie Meyer novels put you off the vampire genre – vampirism taps into an almost instinctual fear we possess (the fear of being neither living nor dead – something unnatural and limitless, like a God), and no work of fiction has explored that better than Stoker’s work.

Is it dated? Yes, of course it is, it was written in 1897! Does that matter? I really don’t think so. The approach taken to the storytelling – a combination of diary entries, prose, and newspaper cuttings – remains to this day novel and intriguing. Although the format has been copied several times (King, for instance, attempted something similar in ‘Salem’s Lot and openly acknowledges Dracula as his inspiration), no one does it better than Stoker. This novel has plenty to offer, and it’s a perfect choice for a good read this Halloween. What more do I need to say?

#7 The Shining by Stephen King

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No list of horror stories is complete without at least one offering from the reigning king of horror, Stephen King. Forget the Kubrick film adaptation: this is the real thing. There’s no “here’s Johnny!”, or “all work and no play…”, no silly garden maze or childish voices groaning “REDRUUUUUUUM!”. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kubrick; but the frights he offers are nothing compared to the chills Stephen King can give you.

The Shining follows the story of Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a position as an off-season caretaker in the Overlook Hotel. Then, after a winter storm leaves he and his family snowbound, the supernatural forces inhabiting the hotel gain enough power to be able to influence Jack’s sanity, leaving his wife and son in incredible danger. This is a story of a battle with the supernatural.

In this novel, King shows how easily the mind can play tricks on us, how we cannot trust even those closest to us when darkness falls, and how vulnerable we all are to sinister forces that lurk in bad places… and make no mistake, the Overlook is a bad place. Perhaps most importantly, though, The Shining shows us why we should never, ever trust topiary animals. Seriously. Don’t believe me? Read the book.

#8 Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

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I warn you, this one is not for the squeamish. Trumbo’s acclaimed anti-war novel explores the horrific fate of Joe Bonham, a young soldier who, after serving in World War I, awakens in a hospital to learn he has lost his arms, legs, and all of his face (including his eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue). However, his mind functions perfectly, effectively rendering him a prisoner in his own body.

This is, effectively, my worst nightmare: he human body becomes a cage for someone’s consciousness, and there is no way out.  In excruciating detail, the novel explains Joe’s failures to commit suicide and to raise awareness of the horrors of war. It remains highly read despite being published as early as 1939 and, once read, is impossible to forget. The book became a rally point for the political left that had opposed involvement in World War II during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and serves to this day a powerful reminder of the human casualties of war. If you’ve got the stomach for it, it is well worth a read.

#9 House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

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Step up, step up, all those who like a challenge: of all the novels highlighted in this series of recommendations, easily the most sophisticated offering is Danielewski’s debut novel, House of Leaves. In terms of format and structure, the book is intriguingly unconventional, containing copious footnotes (many of which contain footnotes themselves) including references to fictional books, films and/or articles. Some pages contain only a few words or lines of text, arranged in strange ways to mirror the events in the story, often creating both an agoraphobic and a claustrophobic effect. The novel is also distinctive for its multiple narrators, who interact with each other throughout the story in elaborate and disorienting ways. It is, truly, a work of art as much as it is a work of fiction.

Here’s the thing about House of Leaves: you could simply enjoy it as a horrifying story that could possibly be true, or as a love story on a number of different levels, or as a whole bunch of puzzles and codes and ciphers, or as a satirical critique of academic criticism, or as a unique reading experience that will make you fall back in love with actual paper books… all of these readings stand alone in their validity. However you choose to enjoy it, though, you’ve got to commit to it if you really want to unlock its magic. You have to let the book take hold of you; believe in the world it creates… and when you’re done, you have to know that Danielewski’s novel will probably embed itself deep inside your mind, in some dark, neglected corner, and will stay with you… and if that’s not the recipe for a cracking Halloween novel, I really don’t know what is!

#10 ‘The Midnight Meat Train’, from Books of Blood by Clive Barker

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Of all the stories in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ is by far the goriest and most sinister. The protagonist is a down-and-out man, Leon Kaufman, who falls asleep on a New York City Subway train, later waking at a secret station beyond the end of the line. Worse, the train carriages contain the carcasses of murdered people, who have been hung up on hooks to drain the way cattle are hung in a slaughterhouse. Who is this mysterious butcher, and who does he work for? The answer is enough to make even the strongest of stomachs turn…

All of Clive Barker’s stories are decidedly dark, and so if you like a good horror story but haven’t encountered his work before, I’d recommend investing in all six volumes of the Books of Blood: they are packed full of gruesome tales of hauntings, demons, the undead, and the worst kind of the living. He has a way to getting under your skin; making you look right into the eye of the beast. As with many of these recommendations, though, these stories are not for the faint-hearted!

#11 Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

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Heart-Shaped Box tells the story of aging rock star, Judas Coyne, who spends his retirement collecting morbid memorabilia such as a witch’s confession, a real snuff film and, after being sent an e-mail directly about the item online, a dead man’s suit. He is told by the seller that the old man’s spirit is attached to this funeral suit, and that the ghost will go wherever it does. Thus, buying this suit would effectively be buying a poltergeist – and this is an opportunity Judas simply cannot pass up. Cue scary music.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a straight-up ghost story, though: the narrative offers by Hill here is full of darkness, anger and the desire for revenge. It is subsequently a story about consequences, rather than simply of supernatural spirits. If you’re a Stephen King fan, then I’d heartily recommend that you see what his son has to offer. There might be a new King of horror in the family…

#12 The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

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Beukes’ novel, set in Depression-era Chicago, follows the story of a drifter named Harper Curtis, who finds a key to a house that grants him access to other points in time. Cool, right? Wrong. Accessing the house comes at great cost: Harper is now tasked with killing all of the ‘Shining Girls’: bright young women throughout history who are burning with potential. Harper thus becomes a time-travelling stalker, following women in different eras and taking their lives.

The turning point comes when, in 1989, one of his victims – Kirby Mazrachi – survives. Being a fiercely bright young woman, Kirby decides to track down her attempted killer, and thus starts to hunt him back. What follows is a fascinating game of cat and mouse, in which the hunter becomes the hunted and the victim becomes the one with all the power. Beukes shows us all why you should never mess with a girl with potential – it’s too hard to get the best of her. There’s a moral we can all get behind!

#13 Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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Don’t let the film adaptation of this novel put you off: Lindqvist’s novel is deliciously creepy and sinister, and deals with such hard-hitting issues such as existential anxiety, fatherlessness, alcoholism, school bullying, paedophilia, child transgenderism, and murder. The story centres on the relationship between a 12-year-old boy called Oskar and his friend, a centuries-old vampire child called Eli who was turned as a child and is therefore stuck forever in a young body and mind. Oskar and Eli develop a close relationship, and Eli helps Oskar fight back against his tormentors. However, if you think this is a simple undead friendship story, think again….

Throughout the book their relationship gradually becomes closer, and they reveal more of themselves and in particular fragments of Eli’s human life, where we learn that the most dangerous desires cannot even be eradicated by death. This is deeply unsettling stuff, but makes for compelling reading. If you love a good Swedish horror story, why not give Lindqvist’s novel a try this Halloween?

(Images: Amazon UK)