AJ Reid

Notes from the Paradise Peninsula

Tag: writing

The Horseman’s Dream: A Tale of Conspiracy, Corruption, Cruelty and Conditioning in Post-Disaster Britain

Fifteen years ago, I had the idea for this book in the waiting room of an MOT garage.  Usually, I move quickly through projects: done and on to the next one.  But not this one.

When I began writing it, I had no idea that the duration of my protagonist’s exile would match the time it would take me to complete the book.  I like to think that I would have carried on regardless had I realised, but fifteen years is a long time.  Happily, I can now stop worrying too much, because it’s finally finished, edited and ready for a printing press.  No doubt there will be some who won’t like it and to those people, I can only apologise, because this is fifteen years of me doing my best to say something that might be worth your time.  It’s about something intangible, yet powerful, like the scent you catch in the air every now and then that makes your heart swell with nostalgia or the child’s smile that brings a tear to your eye.  It’s about something good that still exists in a bad world.  Like the lone snowdrop on the rubbish tip, this beauty will always find a way.   This is the best story I can come up with to frame the notion of a force within all of us that can survive anything: grief, addiction, trauma, enslavement, conditioning and, in near-future Britannia, even a natural disaster and the rise of a terrifying new brand of fascism.

An early map for The Horseman’s Dream, showing how the British Isles have been reduced to a tiny archipelago by a near-extinction level natural disaster.

When I came up with the idea for the story, I had a job working late shifts in a local restaurant and that morning, I could barely face sunlight, I was so tired. I poured a styrofoam cup of scorched coffee from the MOT garage’s grotty percolator and sat down to check out the reading material on the table. Next to the mountain of Heat, Hello, Ok!, Cosmopolitan, Loaded et al sat a pristine hardback of the Holy Bible. The juxtaposition of the literature seemed absurd, even more so when flicking between them. It made me consider how human consciousness might have evolved over two millenia, if at all.

Two years earlier, 9/11 had brought religious fundamentalism into the spotlight with an event that was truly shocking to witness live on TV. It felt unreal, like a waking nightmare. I’d stood on top of one of the buildings a year previously and the memory made me shiver. A toxin was leaking into my bloodstream through the television as I watched these hellish events unfold. It was tough to escape the feeling that somebody had crafted this nightmare for a specific purpose: to alter the consciousness of the world, to upset the balance to serve their own ambitions, whatever they might be. Someone had turned down the dimmer switch for humanity and all its higher virtues, leaving us all suspended in a darkness, not of physical light, but of the spirit.

I set down the literature and drank my coffee, none too keen to wriggle any further down the rabbit-hole without more caffeine. I could feel The Horseman’s Dream rumbling in the distance or so I thought. Turned out to be my car failing its MOT on a knackered exhaust.

I was thinking about my experience at Ground Zero, where it was all no longer just on the TV.  Since I had been booked for label showcases in New York before 9/11, I assumed that they would be cancelled, but I was wrong.  They went ahead anyway in the November.  Getting on a plane became a totally different proposition overnight.  Twitchy faces seemed riveted to their headrests, casting anxious glances at their fellow travellers and security checks both in arrivals and departures took so long that you could see the weariest visibly ageing as they stood in line.  It wasn’t just the time it took or the draining effect of air travel: they had been poisoned like me.  They were afflicted by the same sadness that took control of the veins, arteries, nerves, muscles and ligaments, not just the brain or the heart.  A genuine malaise that saw altruism and other romantic imperatives smeared from the collective consciousness and replaced with a cold objectivism.

An early impression of what the broadcasting corporation’s logo might look like.

Reading the tributes amidst the still-rising smoke and dust at Ground Zero was harrowing.  As a young man, I had been looking forward to writing stuff that would comfort people and encourage them to be kinder to each other, to make the world a more interesting, peaceful place.  It suddenly seemed a most naive, childish ambition, and my motivation to write faltered badly during the following two years.

The Horseman’s Dream was the idea that broke the drought.  My styrofoam coffee cup now empty, I scribbled as many notes as I could fit within the confines of Ben Affleck’s forehead, before I had to move on to Jennifer Aniston’s dress on the next page of the magazine.  I inconspicuously removed the notated pages and stuffed them into my pocket before diving back to the Bible.   Flipping it open randomly landed me in Revelations.

I remembered that feeling of apocalyptic dread as I watched the Twin Towers fall on television. It made me wonder whether the apocalypse would take the form of something so awfully spectacular in the physical world or whether the apocalypse of the soul would be the thing to finish us off. This imperceptible parasite travelling through airwaves and feeding on higher virtue seemed to me to be a grave, real danger and it was clear that we had all been affected by it.  Infected by it.

I still like this idea for a cover. What do you think?

I took the idea of a reality TV mogul rising to power and using media and technology to control and ultimately destroy the minds of a population to achieve complete dominance.  I had always been disturbed by the incredible influence that the media has over people, but post 9/11, it became an assault rather than an influence.  Something wasn’t right. And that pristine passport.  Building 7.  Temperatures required to melt steel beams.  I don’t know if you remember, but people were openly talking about these things in polite company.  I remember when the phrase “conspiracy theory” wasn’t dirty, laced with ridicule or used to undermine alternative opinions and ideas.  The manipulation of that phrase became a source of suspicion in itself.  Conspiracy theories about conspiracy theory.  To the shadowy forces at the helm of this dark vessel cleaving through the waves of the collective consciousness, tampering with crime scenes seemed like more of an afterthought.  Their real quarry seemed to be our very souls and it was jaw-dropping to see truth and logic escape from family and friends as they belched and regurgitated the desired narrative, becoming more exhausted and enraged by cognitive dissonance by the day.

This was the beginning of fake news as we now know it.  The parasite no longer lived only in the airwaves, now it had fibre-optic broadband and the ability to create hate, confusion, polarisation and foster narcissism, cruelty and desensitisation in anyone on the planet in microseconds.

Fortunately for the resistance, short wave radio still works in Britannia.

And it’s still working.  The ego is inextricably entwined with social media in a way that TV, radio and print has never been, creating more profound lacerations to the user’s psyche and generating slow-burning, but dark consequences for our society.  A week ago, a seven-year-old boy was slashed with a knife only a few miles from my home.  I recently received death threats for intervening to prevent a woman being verbally and physically assaulted by four men outside a local bar.  The hunt is still on for the man who thrust a pint glass into someone’s face at the bottom of my road a few weeks ago.  Not far from the supermarket, a running street battle with machetes took place last month, resulting in some horrific injuries.   And in true Ballardian fashion, someone recently smashed up a police mental health support vehicle while the officers were in a nearby house, attending to an emergency call.

And all the while, funding for health and emergency services is being strangled to death.  Or to privatisation, I should say.

I don’t think it takes a genius to see that someone is conducting a symphony of chaos from the wings.

The arrival of dreck like the Jeremy Kyle Show and X-Factor fed the parasite, which had found its natural home online for the reasons outlined above.  These programmes were designed to appeal to the lowest aspects of our humanity: merely an update of the Victorian freak show, so that people could give air to their desperate need to sneer at the pathetic plights and dreams of the poor, vulnerable and mentally-ill.  Like a self-sufficient, perpetual eco-cycle, the circus continues ever apace, gathering more momentum every day under the watch of leaders who care nothing for us and everything for their offshore bank accounts.

And all this before I’ve even mentioned Brexit.

The Horseman’s Dream became a revenge story for the meek and a tale of justice for the abused.  A protest against faceless, psychopathic corporations controlling our governments and our minds.  The perpetrators would see their own cruel weapons turned against them amidst the howl of trumpets from the skies.  I wrote that the horsemen would not come as War, Famine, Pestilence and Death, but in the form of an institutionalised, 16-year-old catatonic.  His weapon would not be a flaming sword or burning bow, but something else altogether more nebulous and abstract.

Years later, when a coiffured tangerine was elected as the most powerful political leader in the world, I knew that The Horseman’s Dream was coming true.  I worried about Alice Grosvenor being a  “pantomime” antagonist until I saw this guy delivering his address from the White House as if he had won an episode of Big Brother (somewhat ironically – George Orwell would have had much to say about this hot mess we live in, I’m sure).

Political Reform: Wheel of Fortune Edition

The polarisation of the public in the UK and the USA continues to worsen, aided by technology and social media to create wider and deeper contamination and control of our people. It’s highly recommended to be a hustler, a playa, a gangsta, an outright narcissist or a gold-digger in our culture: anything else and you’re “weak”.  The sneering attitudes fertilised by reality TV (or reality “programming” could be more apt) have become the norm, while the wretched mantra of the staunch objectivist might as well be tattooed on our foreheads: “I’m alright, Jack.”

As a protest and admonition against that, I wanted to create a shrivelled, cruel near-future where a tipping point has been reached: a world where kindness, honour, loyalty, compassion and altruism would finally be rewarded by a mysterious cosmic power operating outside of the grimy reach of the Establishment. A power that makes their attempts to control others appear quite ridiculous and futile. A power that meets their unkindness with a vengeance a thousand times more powerful than anything they could muster. A power to whom we could all be grateful for liberating us from our slavemasters’ thrall.

When I finally finished the novel last year, I went through a stringent drafting process and reluctantly let go of about 30,000 words, leaving the final draft at 75,000.  In a fit of childish enthusiasm, I offered the manuscript to Will Self after attending one of his lectures in Liverpool and he was gracious enough to accept it.  It was an exciting moment for me until I returned to my car and realised what I had done: I had just given a manuscript to one of the most complex, capable (and acidic) novelists ever for a review.  I never knew I harboured such masochistic tendencies.  What did I expect? What a ludicrous notion that he might even read it.  A novelist of Will Self’s level has much more important stuff to do than read my twaddle.  I blushed even though I was alone and drove home, cursing myself as an idiot for most of the journey.

Alternate Cover

I put the episode out of my mind until a few weeks later when I received an email from Professor Self. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared of opening an email.  I needn’t have worried: he was most polite.  It wasn’t the “kind of thing he usually read”, but he said it was “full of fascinating ideas” and said that he would speak to someone who might be interested.  Although I’ve not heard back since, I’m still relieved that I wasn’t completely eviscerated, at least.  Just having one of the finest novelists of the last century read my work at all gave me a confidence boost, which has since been bolstered again by a few tough beta-readers who have come back to me with enthusiastic reviews.

I’ve been knocking together a few ringbound proofs in anticipation of the next step, which is to print a short run of paperbacks to sell from the website and perhaps the odd art/book fair here and there in a bid to remain as independent as possible.  If you can’t wait and would like a ringbound proof, email me and we’ll work something out.  Readers have bartered beer, guitar strings, homegrown vegetables and cigars so far, all of which I will continue to accept as tender until the paperback is released.

Ringbound proofs with holographic foil covers.

If you have any thoughts on any of the above, feel free to put them in the comments or send me an email.

Misprints feel like such a waste, so I deployed Arthur here as a beta reader.

If you’d like to read a few snippets The Horseman’s Dream (and others) and check out some weird doodles, click here

If you’d like to read the odd sarcastic tweet or see some nice art (I RT a lot of paintings/photography), go here

If you would like to be kept up to date on release dates and special offers, sign up to my mailing list by clicking here 

Lots of love,
AJ

 

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Potatoes and Literary Genre

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Upload

When I’m gone and turned to dust,
You’ll still click my link, I trust,
Give us a like or even a love,
I’ll be watching from above,
If creation truly be not a sin,
Maybe my uploads will get me in?

Followers come and followers go,
Like lovers you never really know,
Unless they too have uploaded theirs,
And put in order their affairs,
So that they can also live forever,
By seeding clouds with their endeavour,
Hoping there might come a rain,
To drop them back to earth again,
If only to give a vague idea,
Of what it meant when they were here.

Will doc files cleanse the streets,
And bring on revolution?
Bedroom wavs rock halls of power,
Halting executions?
Will jpegs of outstanding worth,
Become like stained-glass,
Worshipped by some hipster,
Still talking out of his arse?

But what happens when,
The wind blows again,
And we all take shelter below?
If we survive,
Will we be deprived,
Of the things that we love and know?
If the cloud blows away,
And the authorities say,
That it was always our decision,
We submitted and signed,
We’ll become deaf and blind,
Under a deluge of derision,
Incision and division bells,
Silencing the voices,
That scream against the toughened glass,
Of gilted Rolls-Royces.

Take your books below with you,
And cherish all your vinyl,
So that if the cloud should fall as rain,
Your ecstasy won’t be final.

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Why So Violent?

To ignore or denounce violence as a storyteller seems irresponsible, since conflict is fundamental to the art, as far as I can see.  I wish that I could agree with my staunchly-pacifist friends who look like they want to kick my head in every time we lock horns on the subject, but I know that the most violence they’ve had to contend with is being thrown in a bush at school and therefore, our weltanschauungen are just different.  Some of them even blame me for propagating violence by writing about it, which really shows how little they understand it.

 

My parents had a nightclub and three off-licences in town.  When I was four, I used to clean the sick out of the toilets and save the empty bottles of Newcastle Brown for jukebox Jimi Hendrix money.  Violence was a part of my life from as far back as I can remember, whether it was my nan throwing boiling chip fat over protection racketeers, the bouncers kung-fu-ing the shit out of some unlucky bloke or my mother being threatened with a syringe full of HIV+ blood, it was always around.  I had death threats sent to my school at the age of six from local gangsters, happy about neither my father’s resistance to their proposed protection schemes, nor the scars from the chip fat.  By sixteen, I was sitting in vans with bouncers, waiting to go into tower blocks to retrieve bin bags of stolen cigarettes; guarding ram-raided premises with a baseball bat all night; confronting would-be armed robbers before they pulled the gun/knife on my family working in the off-licence.  The following day I would have to be back in school in my prefect’s cape, trying not to fall asleep in Latin lessons on Cicero’s speeches to the senate.

 

When I was 19 and studying English and Philosophy at Liverpool University, I was the victim of a violent crime that would change me forever.  Sleep became a thing of the past: impossible until I reached the point of exhaustion after a few days and pass out, but even then I was tortured by nightmares, mostly regarding the illusions that we not only live by, but survive by in a so-called civilised society.  I suspended studies for a year and in that year, they reintroduced tuition fees, making the option of returning more difficult.  Having worked with OMD and Atomic Kitten in a Liverpool studio for a few years, I pursued a career in the music business and left for Nashville, which was almost as traumatising as the violent crime, but that’s for another blog post, perhaps.

 

Please bear in mind that none of this even made it into A Smaller Hell: when I returned from Nashville, LA and New York with nothing and started working at the department store in town, the violence became more nebulous than a simple punch in the mouth or knife to the throat.  The whole thing was like some bizarre psychological experiment, shot through with elitism, sexual weirdness and Machiavellian cruelty.  And this is from someone who had been working in the music business for a few years.

 

It was at this time that information about corrupt corporations and governments began to leak on to the internet in a big way, and I began making comparisons between the store manager and these larger-scale villains.   I also began to delve deeper into the part that narcissism played in all of this, and that helped me to forge the character of Dianne Doyle.  It felt like a process of zooming in and out of various concepts for both comic and disturbing effect, which is reflected in the title somewhat.  It was the absurdity of the manager’s craven need for control within the outdated, grandiose crucible of a traditional department store that really inspired me.  Her psychological violence was always calculated, insidious, subtle and usually, amazingly effective at bending staff members to her will.

 

I am not championing violence by portraying it in accordance with my experiences: I hate it more than anything.  However, to water down what I have learnt through painful experience would render my writing redundant, not only to me, but to anyone reading it.  I find it difficult to apologise or even sympathise with anyone “offended” by violence in storytelling, because existence itself is a form of violence: as a consequence of sexual congress (itself a violent act), our spirits are plucked from the dark shelves of the netherworld, stuffed into pink bags of flesh, bone and blood and ejected through some poor lady’s bits into a world where the screaming never ends.  Who would choose it?  The rest of the multiverse would have to be hellish in comparison.

Have a nice day.

Check out A Smaller Hell and let me know what you think in the comments.

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The Horseman’s Dream Update

It’s only taken me eight years of drafts, scraps and rewrites to get to this point.  Since I was (and still am) no scientist, I read psychology books and articles daily during those years for the sole purpose of writing The Horseman’s Dream.  I studied other fields of science, met with psychologists, military veterans and brushed up on my theology, or divinity, as we used to call it when I were a lad.  I’ve even visited abandoned Victorian lunatic asylums in the dead of night on the Welsh moors and consulted with staff at the notorious Ashworth Hospital.  Over the years, researching this book has led me to a cup of coffee with the local vicar; chicken, greens and cornbread with a preacher from Mississippi; beer with a Zionist and lasagne with an evangelist from Birkenhead, amongst others.  It’s been an obsession by most psychological standards.  I remember how it started: sitting in a garage, waiting for my car to be MOT’d and the only reading material provided was Heat magazine and the Holy Bible.  The juxtaposition of the two texts right there on the coffee table set a few wheels in motion concerning doctrine, escapism, existence and control.  I scribbled as much down as I could while I was waiting, paid my bill, then drove home to resume scribbling.  The idea was so absurdly complicated that it’s taken me this long to unravel it into a story, rather than a rant.
Writing Third Person Multiple POV hurts my brain, but it’s the only way to tell this one.  Summoning each character makes it obvious why many successful actors also write: it’s an extension of what they have already practised and honed for years.  Imagining how a completely different personality would respond in any given situation whilst retaining authenticity is a dark art indeed, but what fun.  Apart from the needs of the story, the Third Person Multiple ties in with the psychological/sociological subject matter of the book: the broadcasting of the contents of peoples’ minds for entertainment and propaganda purposes.  Alternate reality entertainment, if you like.  At least, that’s the kind of pretentious tagline that Grosvenor Media favour when advertising Totem.  I hope to include some equally pretentious tagline for the book at some point to complete the oh-so-meta meta-ness, dahling.  So far the best I can do is “live the dream” – horribly unoriginal, but then that’s the point: that the benign creations of brilliant minds are often used for banal – or even evil – ends.  The TV was an amazing invention, as was the internet.  You may have noticed my use of past tense there.  I used it because they have been hijacked, restricted, censored and controlled to suit the demands of very wealthy corporations and individuals even now in 2015.  It begs the question of who provides our reality and just how far our illusions go.  What would you do if faced with the truth behind the veil?  Would you beg for the illusion to resume or would you revel in your freedom from it?

Horseman's Dream Logo-Recovered

In more news, I’ve started working with some very talented photographers, painters and other visual artists, who are going to help to bring the world of The Horseman’s Dream to life in images and video.  I will be posting their work here on ajreid.org over the next few months in the run-up to the launch of The Horseman’s Dream later this year, and I am most grateful to them for their collaboration on this project.  Any photographers or other visual artists who would like more details should contact me at thehorsemansdream@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

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Street Carnival in Birkenhead, UK 1902

What a great photograph.  Is it any wonder that A Smaller Hell is set in this weird and wonderful town?

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Mark Twain’s Rules For Writing

1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.

3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.

6. When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.

7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a minstrel at the end of it.

8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.

9. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausably set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.

10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.

11. The characters in tale be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

An author should:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.
16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
17. Use good grammar.
18. Employ a simple, straightforward style.

 

 

 

 

 

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