Too late for Michael Marshall Smith

Posted in brought by juliobesq on July 27, 2010

Last January perusing Amazon I came across Michael Marshall Smith’s “What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night”. Published as a “chapbook” by Nightjar Press. It pertained to be a new work – of some significance as there hasn’t been anything by “MMS the speculative fiction author” for quite some time. Instead, only those by Michael Marshall the thriller writer, although recently some decidedly otherworldly elements have creepy into his work. That wasn’t a typo, just an awful pun. Sorry.

I should have jumped at the chance to purchase, but didn’t, and must admit it due to ignorance. Unsure as to what a chapbook is; I instead filed it away for further something or other. And forgot. Until a mention on 3AM jolted my memory. To find it sold out.

Wikipedia ( tells us that “a chapbook is a generic term covering a pocket-sized booklet, popular from the 16th through to the 19th century. No exact definition can be applied.” Very useful.

Before MP3 released us from the tyranny of the format there were two ways you could digest your music – the album (for adults) and the single. I am not referring to the media but the presentation. There is the EP but it’s really a bastard child, albeit a particularly cunning and clever changeling.

The heyday of the Seven inch was serendipitously in the Seventies. No nostalgia here. I am only keen on false remembrance – the mental construct of imagined times: things are better now. And the seven inch still exists.

But for a decade the single was sacrosanct. Peak sales were racked up in that decades first half, where a stateside hit could buy you a house. Or mansion. But its true cultural nascence hit with punk. Until then only the EP and album were donned with a printed sleeve. The throw-away pop disk wore a plain black or white wrapper. Punk gave rise to the printed jacket, adverts boastfully proclaimed “with picture sleeve” (let us ignore coloured vinyl). (Though in Africa singles were sleeved in the cast-off backing paper used to print table cloths, a far more colourful and apposite decoration.)

Better writers have eulogised on the singles anthropological impact. Bill Drummond in 45 and Nick Hornby repeatedly. What is agreed, is that palpable sense of excitement, of anticipation. Bringing the disk home. Slipping it out of the paper bag. Poring over the sleeves decoration, studying it to yield clues as to what lay beneath (bands were bought on recommendation, on hearsay). For punk made the adornment as intrinsic as the music. Elevated it from object to artifact.

And when it lived up to expectation: the rush, a whole world encompassed in three and half minutes. To be transported back there: placing the needle back at the spirals start and spinning again. And again. And again.

Where it differed from the EP or the album was this monosyllabic rush. This epitome. This zenith, that screamed I am it, I am all you need, your three and a half minute fantasy. I believe the average time for another act. The fact the flip was called a B side already relegated it to an apology, a mechanical necessity. For the curious and the fan boy.

If the short story is the power-chord pop equivalent of the mature concept album novel, then unfortunately it can only be served in the collective form, the EPs suffocation of the anthology. What is needed is a format where it can sing its single praise.

I’m sure everyone has got the chapbook analogy long before I labored this metaphor home.

Suppose a story so scintillating, so self-contained it needs only a cover of it’s own. In Nicholas Royle’s words, who runs the press, “deserves a cover of it’s own”.

So we return to Nightjar, publishing single stories in the speculative arena. Each one wrapped within an especially designed full-colour jacket, published in limited edition, currently around the 250 mark. Beautiful objects holding up their belief in themselves high above the impending wave of print-on-demand and e-books. A little sliver of goodness you hold in your hand, and know slipping it to a friend will pass with it a shiver of delightful badness.

This tale may have had a gloomy ending so fondly sought in gothic fiction, but at the eleventh hour I managed to attain the remaining copy of MMS. Currently in the post.

Also sold out is Tom Fletcher’s “The safe children”, a modern reinvention of the horror story with no recourse to the supernatural. A fantastic tale that lingers (or is that loiters) long after conclusion. Highly recommended but unavailable, so, before the other titles sell out, do yourself a favour and purchase the chapbooks still in stock. Don’t let your fear of an unknown format spoil your chance to indulge in some fear of the unknown modern gothic undoings.

As an end note, a coda, Postcard Records (who brought us Orange Juice) started a singles club. Where for a subscription you were posted a monthly release. With only faith in the labels taste that each proffering would cling to your heart. Continued by Subpop in the 80s with Nirvana and currently Moshi Moshi with Slow Club.

Both Salt and Route offer/ed a book club where you receive/d a jamboree of next editions (Route no longer). So pretty please (or dark ugly dank please) Mr Nightjar can we have a chapbook club to save us forgetting to monitor the blog and thus miss an edition. In the meantime for the price of a pint purchase a perfectly-bound-it’s-own-sleeve-3-minute-burst-of-literary-single.

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