The Darkening Light: Funny, dark, brilliant. Impossible not to read in one go.
In The Darkening Light, Ted Curtis has recreated the dystopian world of revolutionary vegan anarchism that was semi-conscious and twitching in the 1980s. Curtis’s rancid protagonist makes Martin Amis’s Keith Talent, look well-adjusted as Frank drinks, smokes, sniffs and leers his way around various squalid squat gigs. This short novel will quickly suck you into its vomit-stained depths. Its speeding, stream-of-consciousness rhythm will spew you out in an hour or so, nervously exhausted and with your own fit of the horrors.
In the spring of 1986 nine young punks travelled from Swindon to Wood Green in a beat up old van, to see atavistic, eat shit, heresy and others blow the socks off the London Borough of Haringey. In the 24 hours that followed their lives would be forever changed. What was going to happen? Would it be the vegan revolution? A declaration of world peace? Or something more sinister? This cavort through the anarcho punk and hardcore scene of the mid 1980s pulls no punches. From the very first page, once you start reading this coruscating tale you won’t be able to stop, and by the time you finish your life will be changed too…
Thank you, Ted, for agreeing to talk to me today. The Darkening Light is written throughout in second person. This can be quite a challenging point of view both for the writer and the reader, but for me, it worked very well and helped to sweep me along in Frank’s stream of consciousness. How did you go about choosing this narrative approach, and did it present you with any difficulties?
It was suggested as a class exercise at Birkbeck, while I was doing a BA in Creative Writing there. The tutor called it the second person personal, suggesting that it implicates the reader in any nefarious activities the narrator is involved in, using Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City as an example. I had a copy of that, so I re-read a little of it and I got to work. The whole thing came out of me in about three weeks, a thousand words or so a night, and there wasn’t much editing done afterwards. A little was taken out, after I gave it to two or three people to look over, but the only major difference was a redrafting of Pus’s story, which I’d got a bit wrong, relying on remembered gossip from the distant past. I was corrected on this by one of my first readers and was directed to https://killyourpetpuppy.co.uk for supporting testimony. I don’t know if you’d call The Darkening Light stream-of-consciousness as such, I took little breaks to research the historical aspects of the omniscient side of Frank’s character – Theale during the English Civil War, and the major news events of 1986, such as Chernobyl – but the frenetic nature of the second-person-personal perspective meant that it more or less wrote itself.
Frank mentions waiting for the vegan revolution. Now that it seems to be here, or at least on its way, how do you think Frank would feel about it?
I think that Frank would think that, while that aspect of modern society has gotten better, everything else has got much worse. In 1986, you could sign on and get subsistence-level financial support from the state, without your having to sign a claimant commitment and apply for 150 jobs a week, and attend endless work-focused interviews – you could, in short, live in the way I’ve depicted in the novella if you so chose, or if you were driven to it by external and internal forces you couldn’t quite comprehend. It wasn’t much of a life in material terms, but there was community, however cynically I’ve portrayed it, and you weren’t facing homelessness and destitution at every turn, with squatting being more or less illegal now. ‘No Future’, we screamed; we’d never had it so good. (Also present in Frank’s commentary throughout is the growing realization that, for many of his friends, animal liberation isn’t what they’re really angry about, whether they know it or not.)
Frank remembers a time when everyone had silly punk names, ‘Not Stan Bastardly or anything stagey like that, just names that had no relation to anyone’s given names. It was a break from the past, the end of history.’ This made me wonder about the origins of Frank’s name, so can you tell me a bit about that?
I chose Frank Smith as a kind of an everyman name in the early 1990s, first using it for an early published short story, ‘Slummin’ in Swinetown with Scootskin’, for the short-lived magazine Em: new writing and music. He was originally Frank Smith from Edinburgh, but then Irvine Welsh got popular, and somebody at a writing group asked me, ‘have you actually ever been to Edinburgh?’ and I changed the name to Frank Smith from Huddersfield. The Huddersfield addendum was later dropped, but I stuck with Frank Smith; I would have chosen John Smith, but people might have been expecting Doctor Who fan fiction. The first-person narrator is Edward Curtis in the thing I’m currently working on.
The Darkening Light is cut through with dark humour, for instance, Frank likening Gorse Hill on Wednesday afternoons to ‘Wootton Bassett without the funerals’ and ‘Pete has removed his T-shirt and given it to you, and you have tied it tightly around Mark Dooley’s damaged wrist to form a crude punk rock tourniquet’ and the nurse headbutting Mark after he punches her. Was it a deliberate choice to use humour, or did it emerge organically as part of Frank’s character?
Very much organically; I think that when life’s done a number on you, you quickly develop a gallows humour as a coping strategy, otherwise you’d have to check out of this vale of tears at the very next opportunity, if not sooner. That said, I’m not sure that I view the crude punk rock tourniquet as humorous, although this at least wasn’t based on a real event. The headbutting incident was intended to be funny, and I’d all but (heh) forgotten about it, although it does explain why a school friend left the recent comment, ‘THE NURSE!!’ on my Facebook page; it seems to be something that people remember from The Darkening Light. As for Gorse Hill and Wootton Bassett, when I lived in Wiltshire, the shops in both places were routinely closed on Wednesday afternoons, and I remember somebody at work making the joke, I went to Wootton Bassett the other day, but it was closed. The funerals line, a reference to the large number of military funerals that took place in Bassett during the Iraq war, and which led to it being officially renamed Royal Wootton Bassett, is possibly Frank’s first leap into occasional omniscience.
The band names, songs, albums and TV programmes are set out in lower case, whereas the people, towns, companies, venues, films, alcohol brands, submarines and even the Hackney Hell Crew are in title case. Why is this?
This is something that a tutor at Birkbeck also commented on, when I gave him a copy. I told him that it was very much a conscious decision, one taken to illustrate that, within that scene, everyone was equal, and nobody – at least in theory – was considered better than anyone else. The bands more often than not didn’t play on actual stages, but on the same level as the crowd, on the floor, at the front – if you wanted to see what they looked like, you had to push your way through, and endure the slam-dancing mosh pit, a kind of an initiation in and of itself. Brand names, the names of TV shows, as well as news items, have words capitalized because they weren’t part of that world, they were more like something we were watching from afar that had little or nothing to do with our lives, which brings to mind Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. The capitalizing of the names of the characters was more functional – I thought the reader might be confused by a name like Hop if it didn’t leap out of the standard text, given that the breathtakingly long sentences were intended to force the reader to consume the entire narrative at speed. And the Hackney Hell Crew are certainly first-letter capitalized because they were very much larger-than-life characters, both frightening and legendary.
The narrator has occasional flashes of omniscience, such as when talking about Pus from the Hackney Hell Crew, flashing forward to talk about his imminent murder, still in the actual past, but in the story future. Was this a conscious decision to elevate Frank to a god-like position, and if so, why?
This might come down to a sort of a cod-quantum-physics view of reality that I have, where time as we experience it is an illusion, and, from time to time – but particularly during drink and drugs benders when the surface of your consciousness has been stripped away – the whole of everything might come rushing into you, and you have a moment of understanding, and then it all flies away again, leaving you as confused as before. It might also be linked to the Buddhist view that everything that has ever happened, and everything that will ever happen, is happening right here, right now, in this precise moment. It’s a little ridiculous to me, the notion that human beings are so evolved, after less than a million years, that we can perceive the whole of reality. But more than that, I like the idea of an ordinary grunt character like Frank getting occasional glimpses of the infinite. In an episode of The Sopranos directed by Peter Bogdanovich – Sentimental Education – Steve Buscemi’s character, Tony Blundetto, finds a bag of cash and a bag of drugs on the street, and we immediately switch from Blundetto’s perspective to an aerial view, which Bogdanovich informs us in the director’s commentary on the DVD is known as the god shot, a brief change to the omniscient view. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but I like the idea of it now, and I think that I prefer it to the Dickensian omniscient narrator, an authorial voice that knows everything all of the time, where all loose ends are predictably tied up. The end of The Sopranos is a great example of the antithesis of this, it was deliberately left open to interpretation, it’s a TV show and people are still arguing about the ending twenty years later.
The Darkening Light features what must be the least romantic almost-sex scene in literature when Frank grabs Sarah’s chin with a hand still smeared in orange diarrhoea before kissing her in a vile toilet cubicle with friends glue-sniffing only inches away. It’s so grotesque it’s comical – were you ever tempted to cut Frank some slack and let him have a glimmer of hope, of happiness?
You might be pleased to learn that some of that scene was cut! I was advised by one first reader to cut the whole thing, but I stopped short of that – it would have seemed like a glottal stop, and it would have interrupted the flow (sorry). But you’re right, it is fucking foul, there was a lot of horror in that life, existential and otherwise. As for cutting Frank some slack and letting him have a glimmer of hope, I think there is the slight intimation of that at the end, where he’s trying to sleep and is ruminating on where he comes from: because therein lies the possibility of understanding, and of change. I could have gone on, but that would have taken us past the 24 hours, and it did seem like a good place to stop; as writers, I think we know when we’re done, don’t we, when a natural ending presents itself. See above for my views on the power of open endings.
I’m really interested in Suspect Device, a novel with multiple authors, including you. What was the process of writing as part of a collective like and how does it compare to writing a novel by yourself?
Do you mean Seaton Point? [Note from ed – oops, yes!] Suspect Device was a short story collection, edited by Stewart Home, although both Robert Dellar and myself do have stories in it. Seaton Point was Robert’s second foray into small-press publishing, gathering together a few of the contributors from his initial effort, Gobbing, Pogoing and Gratuitous Bad Language. We met at each other’s houses, hashed out chapter plans and assigned their writing to individuals, then we went to the pub. Later, when it was all done, chapters were passed around for rewriting by those in our little group who hadn’t originally penned them. Although the original concept was mine (the first scene, not the idea of the book itself), it was very much Robert’s baby and he came up with the title. He knew exactly what he was doing regarding structure, form and plot, whereas I thought back then that a novel was just a short story that had gotten out of hand. Writing with other people was inspiring and exciting, and I wish I got the opportunity to do it more often; writing on your own can be very lonely, even if you do get to maintain complete control, at least until an editor or an agent gets hold of it.
Can you tell me about some of your other work, such as Mad Pride: A Celebration of Mad Culture?
The Mad Pride book was Robert again; he’d secured a grant to do it from the Millennium Fund at the end of the last century. He picked me as one of the editors as well as a contributor, and the other two editors – Ben Watson and Esther Leslie – were proper writers, something I certainly wouldn’t have considered myself to have been at the time. I also had no clue about editing, thinking it to be a matter of rearranging commas and semicolons and not being in any way intrusive upon the original author’s work. But also, given the subject matter, I think in retrospect that it was kind of imperative to absolutely preserve the contributors’ voices. I was quite surprised to hear that Nicholas Lezard had selected it as his paperback of the week in The Guardian (https://bit.ly/35cJp1B). Other than that, I’ve mostly had short stories published in various collections, notably the punk nostalgia series that began with Tales from the Punk Side (Itchy Monkey Press and Active Distribution) and Not Just Bits of Paper (Createspace). The story that appears in the former, ‘You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth’, is very similar in perspective and style to The Darkening Light.
You completed a Creative Writing degree at Birkbeck. What did you gain from this study and what effect did it have on your writing?
Initially, it was a matter of my wanting to leave London, and wanting to get some kind of a qualification before I did. I was surprised to be accepted, then it was a matter of having deadlines to derail my procrastination, which I enjoyed immensely. There were a few collaborative exercises, but more than that, I learned the nuts and bolts of writing, the mechanics, and I found out that you can be the best prose writer in the world, but that without an understanding of structure and of what ought to go where, your beautiful snatches of dialogue and descriptive passages would remain as pretty doodles, good for getting likes from your friends on Facebook but not much else. I had never heard of the inciting incident, the midpoint crisis, the twin reversals of fortune, all that stuff. It was an invaluable experience.
What are you working on now?
As well as the aforementioned unfinished work, provisionally entitled ‘SPACE’, I’ve completed the second draft of my first full-length novel, ‘Here’s What Happened’, and will hopefully be sending that out to agents soon. There’s also another incomplete novel, ‘Blenkinsop and Langley’, which I will return to soon. All three are murder mysteries, but with similar underlying themes to The Darkening Light; I like the idea of writing subcultural stories, but wrapping them up in the garb and structure of a classic crime thriller, which more people might want to read.
Finally, can you tell me what your favourite three books are, and why?
First is Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye. When I started to take writing a little more seriously, I was drinking myself to death in a Hackney co-op house filled with artists and writers, and somebody gave me a book of Bukowski’s short stories, The Most Beautiful Woman in Town. I had no idea that it was permitted to write so openly about the things that he did, and I quickly consumed the whole of his oeuvre, the poetry, the short stories, and the novels. Ham on Rye is a fictionalised memoir of his Depression-era childhood, and I think he writes about childhood best, with a brutal innocence that strips way all pretension and guile. Although, upon a recent re-reading, I found aspects of it to be cripplingly naïve and self-pitying, overall it’s a minor masterpiece, and it remains at the absolute top of the tree.
Next comes Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, pure literature, and the spellbinding tale of a group of mostly privileged students at a small, elite Vermont college, who elect to delve into the mysterious rituals of the ancient Greeks; it doesn’t end well for them. The Secret History says very little to me about my life, as they say, but it’s just so very good, almost the consummate novel.
Finally, and by no means least, is Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. It’s the perfect political allegory, race in America writ large, all set against the background of the Clinton/Lewinsky impeachment scandal of 1998. Coleman Silk is a classics professor at another fictionalised elite New England college, and, noticing that a couple of his students haven’t showed their faces all semester, he asks the class, who are these people, are they spooks? He’s duly reported and suspended from his job for this implied racial slur, but Silk has a hidden past; he’s a light-skinned African-American, and it had been suggested to him after the second world war that, while he probably couldn’t pass for white, he could almost certainly pass for Jewish. And so, in the pre-civil-rights quagmire of 1940s and 1950s America, he does just that, in order to get on. He disowns his entire family in pursuit of the American Dream: his future wife never knows, nobody knows, and in 1998, he could quite easily rid himself of the charges against him and keep his job, but really, why should he? Instead, he befriends Roth’s alter-ego in much of his work, the writer Nathan Zuckerman, and tells him his sorry tale. Class is also prominent in the narrative, as Silk takes up with Faunia Farley, an illiterate janitor from the college, and through her he comes into contact with her deranged and estranged husband, the Jew-hating Lester, and thus, his end. It’s really got everything, even ice-fishing; Roth, for all his faults, was likely – along with Paul Auster – the greatest writer produced by the United States in the 20th Century. Go read it if you haven’t, but don’t expect orange diarrhoea or antisect.
Thanks very much, Ted, for this fascinating insight into your writing. If you’d like to read Ted’s work, or connect with him on social media, please check out the links below.