Tag Archives: Scotland

Tartan Gore: An Emerging New Fiction Genre?

7 Jul

I’ve been noticing a trend recently towards the publication of quirky books which most would probably classify in or around the horror genre, but which seem to go beyond that easy categorisation. Rather than being the run of the mill shock and gore stories, they are, instead, complex stories immersed in Scottish landscapes and history, adding deeper layers to the narrative. I don’t think this is a coordinated effort, rather it seems that there’s a new generation of writers discovering that Scotland provides a near perfect backdrop for these types of stories. Not only is there a wide variety of scenery to set stories against, ranging from 1960s high-rises and crumbling concrete housing estates to remote islands, rugged mountains, ancient castles and Georgian buildings towering over tightly winding medieval streets, there’s also a rich and lurid history which can be drawn upon. After all, Scotland was the home of people like of Burke and Hare, the notorious grave robbers who got tired of waiting for their victims to stop breathing before selling their bodies to the local medical school for students to dissect, and Aleister Crowley, labelled as a Satanist by some and a prophet by others, as well as countless ghost stories, pagan rituals, bloody battles, unsolved murders and heartless betrayals.

There is also something about the people of Scotland which invites them to become characters in such books. They tend towards the no-nonsense end of the spectrum and few take themselves too seriously. Add to this a propensity towards gallows humour and you can see why they fit into books where few characters are the stereotypes you’d expect.

In many ways, these books seem to draw very heavily on the influence of another Scottish genre, Tartan Noir. These are the hard-boiled police procedurals starring the brilliant but flawed anti-heroes you can’t fail to end up rooting for, best illustrated by the Inspector Rebus books written by Iain Rankin, which are tightly woven into the Scottish landscapes and cultures. These books showed many writers that novels set in Scotland could go beyond the traditional shortbread tin vision of the country and open up its dark underbelly for all to see. Tartan Gore seems to have taken this basic premise and pushed it further, exploring even darker elements and alternate pasts, presents and futures, while still keeping the complex characters and iconic settings. Just as with Tartan Noir, those writing Tartan Gore aren’t writing to conform to a specific genre, instead they are writing what they want in landscapes they know and love, and creating new and though-provoking fiction along the way. It just so happens that they can be drawn together by the common elements of their Scottish settings, the characters which inhabit them and the dark subjects they encapsulate.

This contrasts sharply with how it was when I growing up, where almost all novels seemed to be set across the ocean on the distant and alien shores of North America or the less distant, but equally alien, south of England, and those who inhabited them weren’t really characters I could recognise from my daily life. Yet, that seemed to be what was expected and to have something resembling anything like the reality of Scotland would have somehow seemed wrong. Now, it seems, there are an increasing number of writers willing to accept their Scottish roots and experiences, and write stories which draw on their knowledge of life here while exploring ever-darker themes and avenues. Just as Tartan Noir allowed Scottish detectives to shoulder their way into a genre dominated by their American counterparts, Tartan Gore seems to be doing the same within the horror genre, and bringing with it a deeper complexity which relies less on shock value and more on thought-provoking ‘what ifs?’. Because of this, and the reality of the landscapes in which they are set, they seem more plausible, even possible, making them ever more terrifying.

As I said, I don’t think that people are necessarily setting out to write Tartan Gore books, but rather that there seems to be a growing confidence amongst writers that such books not only can be set in Scotland, but that their Scottish setting can positively contribute to the story being told to the extent that the landscapes almost become a character within their own right. Just as you couldn’t imagine Inspector Rebus stalking any other streets than those of Edinburgh, in Tartan Gore, the stories cannot necessarily be removed from Scotland because of the way they are woven into the real world locations in which they are set.

Within this genre, I would include books like The Edinburgh Dead, Halfhead and Under The Skin. None of them are your typical horror book (indeed some might classify Halfhead as Sci Fi and Under the Skin as a thriller rather than horror), but all of them make the most of their Scottish settings to tell troubling and disconcerting stories which make you stop and think as well as engaging you in the intriguing tales themselves.

Does classifying a book as Tartan Gore make any difference to it? Probably not, but as with all genre classifications, it provides a useful handle for readers to grasp and to bring books together in their minds. It also provides a certain level of expectation as to what they’ll contain and this helps potential readers connect with writers and books which they might not otherwise have found. In this respect, I hope that this genre continues to expand as the stories which fall within it tend to be very different from the standard fare currently available. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they are amongst some of the most unusual books which I’ve read in the last few years.



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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

Life On The Ocean Waves…

22 Apr

Much of my writing is influenced by the sea. Lighthouses turn up regularly in my short stores (such as When Death Came To Flannan Isle and The Lighthouse At The End Of The Road) while sailing and life on the ocean waves are very much at the heart of both my debut novel (For Those In Peril On The Sea) and the sequel which I’m currently working (or at least that I should be working on but at the moment I keep getting distracted by other things – such as writing this blog and indeed the Maths With Zombies one I’ve just started). Here, I’d like to give you some idea of why the sea and sailing are so important to me, and it goes deeper than the simple fact that I’m a marine biologist.

Sailing is something I loved from the moment I first did it. Not sailing on a dingy but proper ‘big boat’ sailing. My first time was on a 72 foot ketch called Taikoo owned and run by the Ocean Youth Club (or Ocean Youth Trust as it’s now known), a charity which aims to introduce sailing to young people. I’d grown up pottering around on the ocean’s edge but at 16 it was the first time I’d taken to the sea on something other than on a ferry, which hardly counts. Soon I found myself in thirty foot seas at the heart of a near-hurricane force storm. It was hard, physical work and pretty much everyone was sea-sick to a greater or lesser extent as we cowered in the cockpit, clipped onto the safety lines and clinging to each other to stop ourselves being thrown all over the place. At one point we ended up almost ship-wrecked when the engine gave out at a critical moment. Through all of this I discovered something: I loved every bit of it.

The only trouble with falling in love with sailing was that it wasn’t something I really had many opportunities to do. This meant it was a while before I got to do it again. When I was doing my undergraduate degree, I went to do an internship in Newfoundland and within hours of stepping off the plane in St. John’s, I found myself, quite unexpectedly, on a yacht bound for Labrador in search of humpback whales. I spent a month dodging icebergs, fighting storms, photographing whales and drinking moonshine offered to us by the locals (after all it would have been rude to refuse their hospitality!). I also learned a huge amount about life at sea from the Captain, an ex-Maine fisherman turned professional yacht skipper (I’ll confess here that there’s more than a little of him in the character Bill in my book For Those In Peril On The Sea).

My next sailing experience was around Scotland on a beautiful gaff-rigged ketch, again looking for whales and dolphins (it was all part of my training as a marine biologist). I sailed on her a couple of times, enjoying the amazing scenery and the changeable weather. That was how I ended up visiting the remote and beguiling island of Mingulay. It’s now uninhabited and is somewhere you can only get to with your own boat but with it’s white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. I’m going to be drawing on these memories a lot as I continue my work on the sequel to For Those In Peril On The Sea as it’s set amongst the islands of western Scotland.

From there I moved onto the Bahamas. I didn’t get to do a huge amount of sailing there, but I spent a lot of time on the water and got to know almost every inch of the beaches, bays and islands around the Sea of Abaco. Again, I was there because of work yet I also had plenty of free time to just head off and explore. It was there that I bought the first and only sailboat I’ve ever owned, an old North Star 1500 called Gone-with-the-Wind. I loved that boat more than almost anything else in the world and spent ages doing her up (she wasn’t in good shape after she’d got damaged in Hurricane Floyd). She also holds a special place in my heart because it was while I was living on her that I met Sarah, the love of my life. I sold her a few years later, the boat that is not Sarah, and it broke my heart but that was how I learned that owning your own yacht can be an extremely expensive business!

Since then while I’ve spent time more time at sea, it’s been on motorboats and ships rather than sailboats and I have to say I miss it. I long to get back to it, to feel the deck heeling under me again as the sheets strain and the sails fill. I think this was one of the reasons I enjoyed writing For Those In Peril On The Sea so much. It gave me the chance to re-live my memories of times I’d spent under sail and places I’ve visited. While the infected aren’t real and nor are any of the characters, much of the sailing and all of the places are based on my own experiences. The same is true for the sequel I’m currently working on, although it’s focussed closer to home than the Bahamas, it will again be fun to revisit the memories of my younger days.

As I have grown older, my career has taken me away from the sea and more behind a computer (both in terms of my academic life and my more recent ventures into writing fiction – well rather the sharing my fiction with the rest of the world). I will, however, take to the water under sail again, of that I’m certain. It’s simply a matter of time and circumstance and, if I’m ever to own my own boat again, a not insubstantial lottery win! Until then, I’ll have to just settle for writing, whenever I can, about life on the ocean waves.



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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.