Book review: December Stories I, by Ian Samson

december_sstories

What’s that sound in the air? The crisp crunch of carollers footprints in the even evening December snow, perchance?

Not a bit of it. That sound you hear is applause; the clapping of hands from all those souls for whom the festive period is never as simple as the unbridled joy and consumerist cheer that the overwhelming majority of corporations and media establishment would have you think everyone is feeling at this time of year.

Because, of course, the month of December means a multitude of different things to different people at alternate points in their lives. The meaning of Christmas (if there is such a thing) changes as our feelings evolve and our memories build upon one another. The sweet stirrings of excitement many felt as Children on Christmas morning contends with the emotions pent up in familial tensions and blends over the years with Christmases of all stripes and colours; of loneliness, disappointment, anger and – yes – joy, into feelings that are not simple or binary emotions; but not necessarily the poorer for that.

Yet this complexity is so rarely discussed or acknowledged. And it is rarer still to see it put down in any form of creative medium. And so the aforementioned applause comes because it is precisely this complex diorama of festive feelings that is displayed so well, so vividly and so wonderfully in Ian Samson’s latest book, December Stories I.

Published by a team of fabulous independent creatives over at Belfast-based No Alibis Press, December Stories I comprises ‘short stories, vignettes, axioms, the odd recipe [emphasis on ‘odd’], art criticism, meditations and literary curiosities relating to all things festive’.

This collage of 31 entries – one for every day of the titular month – offers readers a plethora of different viewpoints with which to view the Christmas period. And it is within these tales – of terrible Christmas poetry, strict instructions from teachers to parents before the holidays, Floridian barbecues and meditations on faith (among so many others) – that we encounter the rich and so often contradictory feelings and emotions that make Christmas what it is.

Funny, sad, lovely and above all else utterly empathetic, December Stories I, is the perfect antidote to piped Christmas Muzak played on repeat from October onwards. And it also offers something else to people who may otherwise find themselves rushed off their feet at this time of year with work, social engagements and requisite consumer splurges and extensive (and expensive) grocery shopping: a chance to pause. Indeed, Samson’s book gives everyone who reads it the opportunity to take time out from everything else that may be going on and reflect – perhaps even meditate – on what Christmas means, and has meant, for them over the years; and also, perhaps more importantly, what it can mean for others, too.

Human beings are wonderful, surprising, contradictory things – and few times is this more apparent than during the Christmas period. Samson captures all of this effortlessly and brilliantly, making December Stories I an essential item on everyone’s Christmas wish list (we suppose you could wait for the January sales; but where would be the fun in that?)

You can watch Samson reading one of the short stories from the collection, ‘Two words’ in this lovely short video below.

 

 

 

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White winter mist

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The woods are shrouded in a white winter mist. Snow falls from the sombre sky, trees twist and creak in the icy wind. There is someone lying in the woods. A girl.

Her skin is as white as the snow around her, and yet it is a sickly pallor. Her mouth, once as red as blood, is now pale and lifeless. Her hair, as black as ebony, is unkempt and lies straggled on her shoulders. Her figure is delicately cracked in place, as if she were porcelain. Yet the cracks are tinted with faint blue hues – the tell-traces of cyanide.

She had always been so lively – scampering and exploring the woodlands which had become her home. Her eyes had shone with bright delight whenever she found a new fruit, flower or animal.

Everything she encountered seemed to befriend her. She was the darling Snow White; her pure white skin, her vibrant red lips, her glossy black hair made her perfect.

She was irresistible.

She was envied.

The girl was exploring in the woods, when the Queen – the Hag – crept up to her, offered up the cursed fruit. She had seen the young girl’s beauty, and was overcome with jealousy.

“An apple darling?” she rasped, outstretching a withered hand.

The girl should have run – she might have been spared. Yet alas, she was blind to the Hag’s wicked ways.

“For me?” she cried, her innocent eyes, widening in surprise.

“For you,” replied the Witch, in her feigned, scratchy voice.

The girl gazed at the fruit: its red flesh looked positively divine. “It’s to die for.” the old woman chuckled. Like Eve, the girl was tempted. Like Eve, she couldn’t stay strong. She gave in, took a bite, and fell. Her body collapsed upon the freezing snow, her limbs spread-eagled, her mouth parted slightly in shock. The Hag vanished – victorious.

The girl grew weaker and weaker; the poison grew stronger and stronger. It surged through her veins, controlling her, overwhelming her. She could not move. The snow whirled, the winds howled furiously, as if to rouse her from her sleep – her nightmare. She could not sleep. She could not wake.

There was no-one to save her; the pulse slowed in her wrist. The girl’s heart stopped beating in the white winter mist.

 

About the author

Profile Picture.jpgJudith Webster is an English student and aspiring journalist who loves reading and analysing books, which inspired her to start her own blog. Her favourite books to read are classic novels, Gothic novels and a little mix of Horror and Young Adult books, too. She has always been quite a creative person, as well as a bookworm, and so always wrote stories as a a child. As she makes her way as an aspiring creative writer, she is inspired by reading other people’s posts and watching “BookTube” videos on YouTube. You can find her on Goodreads, here.

5 reasons writers love winter

winter-quotes-picture

Winter has been at the heart of countless literary classics, and for generations, it has served writers well as a metaphor for stillness, sterility, and despair – as well as for introversion and contemplation. Understandably, the relationship between writers and winter has long intrigued.

This relationship is explored intriguingly in Stephen King’s The Shining, writer Jack Torrance takes on the job of winter caretaker at a grand hotel in the American Rockies. He is convinced that the isolation and the light workload will be invaluable in helping him get to work on the novel he’s been planning. Such a feeling is undoubtedly familiar to many writers, convinced that a retreat will be the catalyst to productivity.

Of course, lovers of the book – or the Kubrick film adaptation – will know the reality turns out a little differently. Torrance stalls work and procrastinates for weeks on end and is eventually driven to madness. He works through his writer’s block by typing “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” repeatedly, and also takes to writing the same phrase on the walls of the hotel. Such a solution to creative block is not advised for anyone struggling to meet deadlines (self-imposed or otherwise).

Yet while Torrance here perhaps does not have the most stable of relationships with the cold season, there are plenty of reasons why writers are drawn to winter – both as visual, linguistical aid and writing tool, as well as being perceived as an opportunity to focus on their work and write (albeit with more focus on the writing and less focus on the axe-wielding murdering that Torrance gets up to).

We’ve put together a few of the best reasons writers should start falling in love with winter right this minute…

Winter sunset, Mount Tegelberg, Bavaria, Germany

Winter sunset, Mount Tegelberg, Bavaria, Germany

  1. Winter scenery is inspiring

Certain images of winter recur time and again throughout wintry literature. The transformation of a river in winter from a fluid pathway to a solid one can be magical or devastating, a glassy arena for figure skating or an icy grave. This shift can convey a powerful mood.

Think of James Salter’s lyrical novel Light Years, where he describes New York’s Hudson River in winter:

“We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked from the wind… The day is white as paper. The windows are chilled. The quarries lie empty, the silver mine drowned. The Hudson is vast here, vast and unmoving.”

For writers of all ilks – screenwriters and playwrights, novelists, poets and short story writers – the scenes and images we encounter in winter can carry all manner of different meanings. They can inspire stories and poems, and guide our pens when we err or lose focus.

  1. It’s the excuse we need to stay inside and write

Shorter days and lack of reason to stray outside provide us with a reason to devote more of our time to our notepads and keyboards (or minimalist typewriters). The season carves out more time for us to spend with our loved ones – so often the inspiration for great writing – and also leaves us space to contemplate the world, ourselves and our writing.

While the urge to seek distraction via Christmas television, award-season films and through our social media networks may be great, such opportunities for silent, calm contemplation should be seized with fierce gusto by all writers.

As an added bonus, if the weather is too fierce to venture outside, there’s no risk of being that hipsterish aspiring writer sitting in a coffee shop with a cinnamon-mochalattefrappecino. The importance of not becoming this guy can perhaps not be stressed strongly enough.

 

  1. It’s a break to prepare for the next round of writing events

Winter gives us a chance to take a break from touring the literary circuit and networking at conferences and seminars, and helps us recharge for next year. It also gives us time to research upcoming events for the year ahead, as well as new writing competitions – a list of which we’ve put together here.

  1. Winter helps us add new dimensions and elements to our stories

Winter settings add elements of claustrophobia and danger to a story. Think of Butcher’s Crossing, for instance, where a small troupe of buffalo hunters are trapped in the mountains by a fierce snowstorm, and forced to survive for months on end in isolation among the potentially fatal elements.

They also help enhance ideas and narrative elements. Think of The Shining here, how King describes winter weather to help ratchet up the tension:

“It snowed every day now, sometimes only brief flurries that powdered the glittering snow crust, sometimes for real, the low whistle of the wind cranking up to a womanish shriek that made the old hotel rock and groan alarmingly even in its deep cradle of snow.”

  1. Without winter we wouldn’t appreciate the summer

Perhaps the most important reason for falling in love with the cold season, however, is that our experience of winter helps us better understand and appreciate the summer.

This concept is described expertly by Adam Gopnik in his beautiful love letter to winter. He writes:

“Without the stress of cold in a temperate climate, without the cycle of the seasons experienced not as a gentle swell up and down but as an extreme lurch, bang! from one quadrant of the year to the next, a compensatory pleasure would vanish from the world. There is a lovely term in botany — vernalization — referring to seeds that can only thrive in spring if they have been through the severity of winter. Well, many aspects of our life have become, in the past several hundred years, “vernalized.” (Even those who live in warmth recognize the need for at least the symbols of the cold, as in all that sprayed-on snow in Los Angeles in December.) If we didn’t remember winter in spring, it wouldn’t be as lovely; if we didn’t think of spring in winter, or search winter to find some new emotion of its own to make up for the absent ones, half of the keyboard of life would be missing. We would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys.”

 

 

Adam Gopnik’s love letter to winter

Winter sunset, Mount Tegelberg, Bavaria, Germany

Winter sunset, Mount Tegelberg, Bavaria, Germany

As we slink by the winter’s solstice and our dark days grow colder (or milder and wetter, as the case may be in the UK), there’s certainly a heavy amount of cultural baggage that burdens our seasonal metaphors.

Winter, after all, is so often presented as a season symbolic of spiritual barrenness – sometimes a psychological manifestation of emotional trauma and anguishing longing for comfort and warmth.

With the commercialisation of Christmas (UK households are set to spend well over £800 apiece in 2015 – largely on superfluous Star Wars merchandise), what once presented a core tenet of spirituality during the winter months has also become barren, and largely devoid of meaning.

Writers have often used this landscape as inspiration for their stories, poems and novels. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, for instance, is as chilling as the wintery mountain air in which it is set. While Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is surely mandatory reading for every one of us, as we seem to need reminding that Christmas is meant to be a time of love and goodwill, and not Darth Vader toasters.

Yet few have truly explored the cold season’s splendour and significance to our own lives. Albert Camus famously wrote, “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer” – in some of the most beautiful thoughts committed to words on the subject. But one writer has gone further still.

In 2011, essayist and long-standing New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik set out to reclaim the wonder, the satisfactions, and the significance, of winter in a series of lectures celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Massey Lecture Series.

These lectures, now published as Winter: Five Windows on the Season stand as a potent mixture of love letter to and cultural history of winter – exploring in depth the season’s image within popular imagination and interpretation.

Gopnik’s inquiry sees him explore winter through the works of Pushkin, Hans Christian Anderson, Goethe and Schubert, and he discusses the role of engineers, architects and polar explorers in shaping our perceptions of the season.

He writes:

“Human beings make metaphors as naturally as bees make honey, and one of the most natural metaphors we make is of winter as a time of abandonment and retreat. The oldest metaphors for winter are all metaphors of loss.”

Yet for Gopnik, such metaphors are wholly unsatisfactory. To counter such images and perceptions, he offers a defiant counterpoint to our cultural mythological misappropriation of winter, what it is, and what it means:

“My heart jumps when I hear a storm predicted, even in the perpetual grisaille of Paris; my smile rises when cold weather is promised, even in forever-forty-something-Fahrenheit New York. Gray skies and December lights are my idea of secret joy, and if there were a heaven, I would expect it to have a lowering violet-gray sky (and I would expect them to spell gray g-r-e-y) and white lights on all the trees and the first flakes just falling, and it would always be December 19 — the best day of the year, school out, stores open late, Christmas a week away.”

Such presentations and celebrations of winter are vital to us as human beings, Gopnik argues, though he notes that they may be part of a unique “modern taste”:

“A taste for winter, a love for winter vistas — a belief that they are as beautiful and seductive in their own way, and as essential to the human spirit and the human soul as any summer scene — is part of the modern condition. Wallace Stevens, in his poem “The Snow Man,” called this new feeling “a mind of winter,” and he identified it with our new acceptance of a world without illusions, our readiness to live in a world that might have meaning but that doesn’t have God. A mind of winter, a mind for winter, not sensing the season as a loss of warmth and light, and with them hope of life and divinity, but ready to respond to it as a positive, and even purifying, presence of something else — the beautiful and peaceful, yes, but also the mysterious, the strange, the sublime.”

Gopnik notes that the ability to praise winter, and to think of it as something to be celebrated and to fill us with as much joy as the sight of summer may give us, has been made possible by the conquest of artificial warmth:

“The romance of winter is possible only when we have a warm, secure indoors to retreat to, and winter becomes a season to look at as much as one to live through.”

CathedralofLearningLawinWinter

Charting our changing perceptions of winter, Gopnik writes:

“In the past two hundred years we have turned winter from something to survive to something to survey, from a thing to be afraid of to a thing to be aware of. It’s through the slow crawl of distinctions, differentiations, and explanations that the world becomes … well, never manageable, but recognizable, this place we know. The conquest of winter, as both a physical fact and an imaginative act, is one of the great chapters in the modern renegotiation of the world’s boundaries, the way we draw lines between what nature is and what we feel about it.”

Crucially, Gopnik argues that winter is essential to our enjoyment of summer, as without the coldness of one we would not be able to appreciate the warmth of the other:

“Without the stress of cold in a temperate climate, without the cycle of the seasons experienced not as a gentle swell up and down but as an extreme lurch, bang! from one quadrant of the year to the next, a compensatory pleasure would vanish from the world. There is a lovely term in botany — vernalization — referring to seeds that can only thrive in spring if they have been through the severity of winter. Well, many aspects of our life have become, in the past several hundred years, “vernalized.” (Even those who live in warmth recognize the need for at least the symbols of the cold, as in all that sprayed-on snow in Los Angeles in December.) If we didn’t remember winter in spring, it wouldn’t be as lovely; if we didn’t think of spring in winter, or search winter to find some new emotion of its own to make up for the absent ones, half of the keyboard of life would be missing. We would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys.”

They are thoughts reminiscent of those penned almost a century beforehand by Rainer Maria Rilke – one of the most prolific and poetic writers in history, who wrote:

“This last long winter, I have experienced a truth more completely than ever before: that life’s bestowal of riches already surpasses any subsequent impoverishment. What, then, remains to be feared? Only that we might forget this! But around and within us, how much it helps to remember!”