Festering, House of Mirrors, and the smell of home

I'm writing a novel, compiling a poetry collection, and writing about writing

I’ve been writing a lot over the past two months, but none of it’s made its way to Substack, yet. That’s mostly because the things I’ve been writing have either been part of longer-form works, or because I’ve been refining and editing things that I wrote a long time ago. I suppose at a broader level I’ve probably also been questioning why I have a Substack, and I’m not just posting on my own website—I think that’s because of the social discovery aspect, but I’m not oblivious to how the lack of moderation on the platform has lead to the platforming of fascists. Equally, I’m not overly aware of what’s been happening around that. I think Substack has a strange role as a platform-that-doesn’t-want-to-be-a-platform. That being said, it is a platform and therefore does have content moderation duties—at the very least, beyond a certain size of newsletter.

A photograph of a person with their back to the camera walking through a clearing in the woods. It is green, probably late spring or summer. The person is me. I'm wearing a grey t-shirt and sunglasses.
Let’s be honest, all writing needs an image of some sort so that the social preview looks better, so this is the best I have for you. Idk, it’s symbolic of me going into the woods or some shit like that. 📸: Dean Pomeroy (@pomeroyphotos)

Festering

I’m working on a novel. Technically, I’ve been working on this novel since September, when a new idea came to me with the sentence:

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The very first time your mum lets you out on your own—properly on your own—you spend most of the day in the too-shiny-for-its-age shopping centre.

I then proceeded to write about a shopping centre that wouldn’t be out of place in the background of some vaporwave video on YouTube, and a house that was haunted by… something. A little while later, it started to grow connections in my mind to something I’d written a year or so earlier:

I am twenty-six and on the 17:32 from Edinburgh to London when I get the news that my dad is definitely going to die.

Like that, a protagonist started to form in my mind, and I started to shape a work of horror around it. A story that would let me explore all of my gnarly feelings about class and hometowns and marshes and Thatcher and stagnancy. About moving away from a place but it changing in your absence. The note I have from when this finally clicked for me is “What happens when you go back to your hometown and it’s not the same place you remember… but literally?”

I wrote a first chapter—or a few first chapters, I guess—and submitted it to a mentorship scheme that with any luck I’ll hear back from soon. The novel is called Festering right now, based on the title of a zine the protagonist finds in the story. It’s a a work of gothic horror exploring haunting, trauma, desire, class, and identity. The protagonist’s mum dies and he reluctantly returns to his decaying hometown. The town is eerily different, and buried memories begin surfacing surrounding his best friend’s death when they were nineteen—who somehow seems to be alive.

I’ll probably keep writing about the writing process here, because I think it’s interesting, and it gives me a chance to talk about writing without always just sharing a whole work.

In the past few days I’ve been writing a section where the protagonist (as yet unnamed) meets up with an old friend from school who now has a job in corporate London and is insufferable as a result:

“You can’t be thinking of moving back for real. You love it here. And I’m sure on your salary—”

“What can I say, sixty k doesn’t go as far as it used to. I probably won’t, you’re right. There’s just a bit of a pull… especially since Dad retired. I’d love to just kick it with him down at the golf course on a Wednesday night. I know it’s only an hour away, but the hour counts!”

I think I’ve finally found how to write dialogue that progresses the plot, which is thematically resonant, and does actually sound a bit like humans actually speak. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to people’s conversations on the metro into town and jotting down interesting snippets and I think it’s helped a lot.

House of Mirrors

I’ve written poetry since I was… thirteen, I guess? Either thirteen or fourteen. Of course, that was the kind of cursed poetry that you see thirteen year olds write, full of lazy metaphor and loud feelings. Things like:

Your lies
Deceit
Absorbs me
Until I am nothing more.

The kind of poetry that is important as a way to develop a style and a voice and, if you’re me, an ability to actually feel your own feelings. Over the years, fortunately, I honed my ability to return to and edit a poem, rather than letting it just hang there as an archive of a feeling.

I started to take my poetry a little more seriously in 2019, when I realised that I was actually sitting on a lot of poems that thematically spoke to each other. Granted, some of these were still feeling-poems and needed a good edit, but I started to think about compiling them into a collection. In 2020, I worked on a first version of that for Dreich’s chapbook competition. It was a heavy-handed concept at the time—that every poem contained the phrase “and yet, you”. It didn’t really land. I’m glad it wasn’t published.

Over the course of the Lockdown years, I started to rework the collection to be more about the idea of a year that never ends, a reflection on the feelings of having lost time at a foundational moment in my life. It wasn’t about the pandemic, per se, but more about all those experiences which make us feel like we’ve lost time. I could never quite find the angle with that version of the collection, though: it wasn't sure if it was a pandemic poetry collection or not.

More recently, I’ve reworked this into House of Mirrors. House of Mirrors is a poetry collection that explores my relationship to home, the self and the body, and intergenerational trauma. It’s an attempt to reckon with my own existence, and what it means to be a person trying to break generational cycles whilst also being flawed and imperfect. The title comes from the idea of the collection as a reflection of different versions of myself as I grapple with the central themes of the work. Repetition of patterns that are slightly different each time feature in many of the poems as a way of showing the gradual movement to make a different self despite doing the same things over and over. Ultimately, the collection is hopeful that change is possible—that we can change the patterns lodged inside of us across generations—even if it takes some time.

More on House of Mirrors or the thinking behind it soon. For now, I’ll leave you with a poem from the collection, “The smell of home”.

The smell of home

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedYour homesick first term over, embrace the smell of home. Musty walls, essence of dog. Boiling vegetables all through the night, a kitchen sauna peeling back the paper. Embrace the smell of home, as it fills your nostrils with feelings you tried to forget, spikes in your back from the worn-out mattress. Was it always like this? Were the walls always slick with whispers and the bedrooms spilling onto the floor? “Can I cook tonight?” a pot of someone else's stock is simmering on my stove. I never taught you this. whose gentle caress taught you to hold a blade like that? who taught you that beans could be fatty salty creamy morsels of love, not just something to throw on a potato? you deftly chop and expertly sauté. this pot is filled with your freedom: fennel bringing sweetness chilli bringing heat parsley bringing freshness that I never knew could be there. when I was your age, I could only busy myself with surviving. stock was a cube. but as your new life bubbles away on the stove, I can’t stop my resentment rising— “you’re making such a mess”.

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