COMMENT: What lies beneath… is the story

Pale Fire. The narrator, Charles Kinbote, inserts his story ‘into’ John Shade’s poem – he parasitizes it, he acts a magpie. Pale Fire is writing at an angle. The real story is told indirectly, via clues. Nabokov delights in having Kinbote expose himself as untrustworthy. Cruel fiction. The real story is how far Kinbote’s delusion goes; the real story is what lies beneath the surface; the real story is told  where Kinbote’s fragile face breaks down.

Take a book like Money. The delusion of the narrator – his inability to self-reflect – is communicated to the reader using a similar technique: a writing-around or a writing indirectly. We see contraditions. We pick up clues. John Self narrates around his own monstrosity, he shoves our face in it. He knows he is terrible, unlike Kinbote. He raises the question of why he is unhappy over and over again.  Self confirms to us his self-awareness, and he shows us how he manages to delude himself as well.

Why is someone who lies so interesting? Why do I find fiction, literature, books, that take deception as their primary stylistic device (or, more properly deception, and the unveiling of that deception)?

I would say that people must lie to themselves, to others, about themselves, and about others, to make a coherent narrative, that is, to hold everything together in one voice (and Pale Fire and Money are both meticulously faithful to voice). Lies, I believe, secure our selves as coherent stories, that is, as singular narratives. Lies, in other words, make people possible.


PUBLICATION: ‘Rubies in your legs’

First publication in a long time. Sometimes I guess we have droughts.

Thankful to:

for picking the work up. It is more ‘micro’ or ‘flash’ than anything I have written as of yet. The piece goes live 15 October.


UPDATE: new stuff

So I’ve of course got lazy with the blog again. When the pressure is on the blog is the first to go. It is the bees of a precarious and environmentally unsafe working life.

Don’t fear. He is just sleeping – like the blog.

Two things are worthy of note.

Firstly, I have completed a novel. I am one small project away from a MA in Creative Writing. Job done. Now on to the tricky pickle of securing representation. I suspect this will be the mountain at the top of the mountain. Wish me luck.

Secondly, I have started a new Literary Magazine called doppelgänger. It has a lovely website (I chose the pictures) that has been assembled by my better half, who resents the term ‘web elf’ but is nonetheless an elf or imp involved in constructing one small corner of the web, hence.

Partly, I am motivated by lack. I miss editing; I miss reading new, unpublished writing, and then publishing it; I miss working with fellow writers.

Partly, I am motivated by possibility. New writing; new writers; new stories and ideas.

Partly, the novel’s completion has left a gap, and I am full of energy.

Many things. Many unknown things too. And doppelgänger is the result.


INTERVIEW: The Queen’s Head (again)

The Queen’s Head, a marvellous literary magazine run by Ryan Vance, has closed it’s doors. Which is sad but totally understandable, given the commitment these things take. I should know – I handed editorship of Avis magazine over to the next bunch, and was glad to receive writing time back in spades. Anyway, my key point really was that I was interviewed by The Queen’s Head, the result of which is as follows (reproduced with permission from the ed.) – I am saving this for posterity!

TQH: “Exit Strategies” is an unusual mix of worlds – it’s not often you see something as speculative as the Dune universe rub shoulders with the world of sex saunas. What was the motivation behind merging the two?

JH: Yes, it is a bit odd, isn’t it? On the one hand I feel there’s something comparable in the fantasy attached to both worlds – the obvious fantasy of Dune and the sexual fantasies that percolate through the corridors of a sauna. And there’s something to be said for the way in which a sauna might feel like an alien world for some people (although of course to others it’s a familiar, mundane, even day-to-day sort of space).

But on the other hand it’s linked to my writing more broadly. A lot of the stories I’ve been writing recently have come together when I’ve taken two at-odds things and tried to see if they could fit with each other somehow. Adam Marek, a short story writer I really like, does this a lot, for instance in ‘Testicular Cancer vs. The Behemoth’, where a man fighting the titular illness has to face off against Godzilla. It’s such a fun, strange, and moving way to articulate a set of feelings. And so juxtaposition is definitely something I wanted to have a go at with this piece.

TQH: Despite the sex-positive setting, there’s an unnerving lack of intimacy that permeates the story. The only character the narrator seems able to relate to as a person, and not an accessory to his escape, is his wife – who only appears in hallucinations. Was this depersonalization intentional, or is this is too cynical a reading?

JH: No, not cynical at all.  I was probably aiming at something like that. For me I guess the sauna isn’t the only place he is trying to escape from. His whole life, in fact. Everything in his life, even his real wife, is an instrument for some kind of escape or other – Tanya would help him dodge the pressures around performing a neat heterosexual identity, the sauna helps him escape from Tanya, so on and so forth – which, I think, leads to a very strategic attitude to people, resources, and fantasies. So in that sense his general approach to life would go hand in hand with depersonalization, or at least inhibit the emergence of genuine human connection. Everyone becomes a tool to get him out. I suppose it’s a bit of a joke that he’s only able to open up to a hallucinated version of his wife and not the real thing – I see the hallucinated Tanya as standing for some sort of idealized, impossible human connection. Poor guy does get put through the ringer a bit.

TQH: And finally, the heart of “Exit Strategies” seems to link survival to denial, and keeping secrets, at least for this character. Have you found this to be true in your own experience, particularly in in the queer community?

JH: Yes, absolutely. I was, like many others, taught from a young age about the importance of apportioning off parts of my life, almost as a sort of social skill, and in keeping desire very secret in some areas while acting on it in others. In the end I wasn’t very good at maintaining these boundaries at all – and everything eventually sort of spilled messily into everything else – but some people will keep up strong walls for the duration of a lifetime. There’s something fascinating about how people manage the contradictions in this. How someone can be secretly gay in one world, secretly straight in the next, and how they (are often forced to) move between the two. And it’s often not about choosing to do this at all, but about surviving, about keeping the status quo while getting what you want.

I would hazard a guess that this sort of secret-keeping isn’t just limited to queer desire, but a general tendency when we engage with people. Guarding the walls we make between different lives, and handling the anxiety generated when they threaten to come down, is I imagine something that quite a lot of people recognise regardless of who they love (although the consequences of a boundary collapse may be dangerous, even fatal, for queer people in ways that I don’t think are necessarily the same for straight people). Exploring this was I think one of my starting motivations for writing the piece – what would a character look like who had, as his motor, this familiar anxiety? And what would happen, say, if he started to trip about Dune? What then, huh?

PUBLICATION: ‘A Heavy Scene’

Just a quick one to say I have a short piece forthcoming in Neon. Details will be here in a short while, but needless to say I’m absolutely delighted as I love Neon and think it does some really innovative stuff, like mad clever stuff, with poems hidden in fortune tellers and till receipts. Feel great about placing with them.


UPDATE: Competitions

Competition season – although there isn’t really a strict period where competitions start and stop – at least my competition season – is over. I think I didn’t do too shabbily, either.

I made the longlist for the Exeter Writer’s Prize, with my short story ‘The Neighbours’

I made the longlist for the Sunderland Short Story Award, with my short story ‘The Architect’

and I made the shortlist for the Short Fiction Award, run by the Short Fiction Journal, with my longer-but-still-short piece ‘Hino a Iansa/ Hymn to the Water Goddess’.

Onwards and upwards, as they say.



SHORT STORY: ‘Diamonds’, Colin Barrett


Colin Barrett’s Young Skins won the now defunct Frank O’Connor Prize last year, and in many ways it’s easy to see why. His collection offers a perhaps well-trod path into the lives of young men and women – usually poor, often drinking, drunk, pub-bound, stoned, often (usually) with miserable lives. Barrett sets his stories in Ireland, and while there are linguistic markers, circumstances, locations, and ambiences that ensure the reader never forgets where we are – I felt resonance between Barrett’s world and parts of my own. To my mind, this universality-within-specificity is the sign of a good piece of literature.

My favourites is ‘Diamonds’. I actually read it first in the Guardian, prompting a quick purchase of his collection. Earlier, I mentioned my love of nested stories. Yes, that’s right. ‘Diamonds’ has them in spades. Or, it has two of them. What’s great, though, is that Barrett does something totally interesting with them – the subject of this brief post. On a related note his play here with narrative reminds me of David Foster Wallace, which the Guardian piece mentions as one of Barrett’s influences.


‘Diamonds’, first of all, starts with a cracking piece of description.

I left the city with my connections scorched and my prospects blown, looking for somewhere to batten down for the winter to come. I left on a bright morning in August, dozing fitfully as the train drifted through the purgatorial horizontals of the midlands, heading west. The midland skies were huge, drenched in pearlescent light and stacked with enormous chrome confections of cloud, their wrinkled undersides greyly streaked and mottled, brimming with whatever rain is before it becomes rain. (Barrett, Colin, ‘Diamonds’ in Young Skins, p. 143)

If you can do sky or sunsets right I’m on-board. It’s almost a rule. This – being simply drenched in light is lovely; but ‘drenched in pearlescent light’ is excessive, exotic, rich. Then comes perhaps my favourite image in all of Barrett’s book ‘enormous chrome confections of cloud’ – which is so good next to the light’s pearlescence it makes my head fizz. It’s heavenly, sugary, coloured right. A sky done good.


A broader joy with ‘Diamonds’ lies in the plot. An alcoholic wanders about Ireland from town to town. When he returns home and picks up work as a PE teacher, he hears an old man’s story about how he lost his hand. He then sleeps with the mother of one of his pupils – she tells him a second story. Finally, he moves on. When he sleeps with a third woman, he himself relays to her a version of both stories (the old man’s and the mother’s) but merged together, mixed up; the mixing or combining helping to convey how fragmented and basically screwed-up his life actually is.

Where I think Barrett is really strong is in his combinations. Exquisite, ornate language, with narrative cleverness, with life’s grim reality. ‘Diamonds’ leaves me with ambivalence; half a thrill or awe feeling (at the combined-nested-narratives) and half morose feeling (as I appreciate just how utterly miserable some people are).