True Crime, Internet Culture and Making a Murderer

Time for something a little different. Today, instead of talking about contemporary fiction, follow me as I delve into the world of contemporary non-fiction. No doubt non-fiction is a vast and immense place, but my particular strand of concern is the genre of “true crime”. Clearly this is a subject at the forefront of the public’s mind. This is evident from the popularity of the first season of the podcast Serial (which spawned many podcast off-spring, like Undisclosed and Truth and Justice) and furore over the more recent Making a Murderer documentary on Netflix. Undeniably, one of the reason this genre is enthralling but also quite murky is due to the fact that it blurs the fiction/non-fiction literary binary. We think of “crime” as a genre of fiction, the addition of the prefix “true” is there the promptly remind the reader that this case is real.  The story that is being detailed in the pages or on-screen happened in the real world, and with that comes real-world ramifications, no masterly the narrative is crafted.

Indeed, the narrative structure often aids this blurring between fact and fiction. I am not suggesting that the author/filmmaker is trying to trick the audience into believing falsehoods, but rather the audience instinctively embraces these well-crafted narratives as if they were fiction. The way we, as an audience, consume stories is traditionally through a neat structure of beginning, middle and end. Thus, the true crime subject is often presented as if it fits neatly into this arc; the point of origin is the crime itself, or perhaps the tortured childhood of a serial-killer-to-be, the middle is the court-room drama, or the grisly details of the terrible fates of a killer’s victims, and the end is the capture and sentencing. But, of course, this is not an accurate reflection of reality. There is no self-contained narrative and the ends do not neatly tie together. Rather, they are are straggling and frayed, left to weave through the very real lives of all those who have, to varying degrees, been touched by these crimes.

The true crime genre is nothing new, and a fascination with grisly murders have always fascinated the public (it was often a hobby of Victorian ladies to keep newspaper cuttings of the latest murder case in scrap-books to show to visitors).  But perhaps what is new is the galvanisation of vast swaths of the population who become absorbed in one particular case. Let’s take Netflix’s new hit series Making a Murderer as a case-study. Making a Murderer was shot over a ten-year period and tells the story of Steven Avery, a man released from prison in 2003 after serving 18 years for a violent rape he did not commit. In 2005, however, Avery found himself accused of murder, leading the widespread condemnation of Avery but also serious speculation that police planted evidence against the accused. Even writing a brief synopsis of the series, I inevitably delve into the emotive language of story-telling; the tired trope of “a man wrongfully accused” rears its head – but these are the tools we have of story construction, and it is nearly impossible to avoid this language that is so ingrained.

I want to be clear, I do not underestimate the intelligence of the public. I will be the first to admit that I have become completely engrossed in the Steven Avery case. But in my research I have come across a few articles that seem to imply that the audience easily forgets that Making a Murderer has a horrific true crime at its centre. However, I think most people realise this fact – Theresa Hallbach is a real victim, who suffered a horrific fate – and the details of her murder are truly awful. Indeed, it is the “trueness” of this crime that has the public thoroughly engaged. Although I attests that a lot of the language used to describe the documentary and its fallout can be quite problematic at times. For example, I have readily come across sentences like – “spoilers for Making a Murderer” and “new fan-theory about the Avery case”. This language makes me uneasy, not least because these are the same terms we use to discuss an episode of Sherlock or to speculate about a character in Mad Men, but also because I realise I am a part of it. Honestly though, can someone really be a “fan” of a real-life murder trial? It is easy to rush to judgement, but then again, these articles, blog posts and posts on Reddit are simply utilising the language-equipment at their disposal.

Importantly, I think Making a Murder calls into question many important issues we must deal with in contemporary society. When the camera spans the Avery auto-yard and when we first hear the Avery family speak, our minds might quickly jump to dismissive stereotypes about people who are poor and uneducated. But this documentary challenges us – it questions our prejudicial attitudes toward the poor, and it looks at how uneducated people get taken advantage of, and thus a lack of opportunities are afforded to them.

Furthermore, the public has been galvanised by what many see as the systemic corruption which runs through the justice system (in this case, it is American, but the sense of injustice crosses borders and enables reflection and criticism globally).  This response to feelings of injustice is evident in the two men who have, interestingly, emerged as the “heroes” of Making a Murder – Avery’s defence lawyers, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting.

I recently read an article arguing that there hero-worship of these men misses the point of the documentary. But the fact that the undying dedication of Strang and Buting, and their tireless efforts to aid their client under severe pressure, has encouraged sceptical members of the public to believe in the integrity of lawyers is inspiring. Even if this admiration often comes in the form of internet memes, Tumblr crushes, and the appreciation of Strang’s normcore chic. Once again, I argue that these are simply the tools at the internet’s disposal – photos and funny captions are fun, quick, and easy to digest, but that is not an indication that the people behind these memes is any less sincere.

One of the most powerful uses of the internet is as an instrument for social change. I maintain that these articles and images, which appear to be shallow (or dubbed “fanart”), are significant to the much-needed conversation about proper judicial conduction and justice for all; that is, for both the victim as well as the (possibly wrongfully) accused. This documentary has opened up a dialogue – true, it is not always intelligent or well-thought-out, but even base-level memes add to this integral discussion that we must have in the public domain.

Unlike in fiction, we can’t just skip ahead 20 years. We can only keep on talking, keep the discussion going, and continue waiting – and it will indeed be a long wait. If Strange and Buting are the heroes of this tale, let us see if their perseverance for justice will inevitably win-out.

 

And, let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want this tote bag?

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5 Favourite Reads of 2015

I concede that these lists of “Top X” anything are not without issue. It’s not easy to rank favourites from such an expansive selection of great fiction. In fact, one could argue is it not particularly necessary. However, these lists are useful to provide a literary snapshot of the year, although I will be the first to admit even writing these words feels a bit problematic. Compiling this list somehow feels strange, because I become aware of all the fantastic fiction I have read which is not included. Yet, it also makes me aware of my reading habits and enables me to expand my literary gaze in the New Year.

So, here is a list of our five favourite books of 2015, in no particular order. All are contemporary works; most have been first published this year, except in two cases where new editions of the books were produced. Let us know what you think, and happy reading to all in the coming year!

 

  1. Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

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This wonderful collection of short stories was published in October 2025 by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Although the tales are divided and given separate titles, they are all told by the same voice – an anonymous, hermit-type woman who has taken up residence in the west coast of Ireland. Each sentence is rich and engrossing; this is not a work to be read for plot, but rather it is a literary experience sure to enchant the reader.

 

 

2.  The Dumb House by John Burnside (Vintage)

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This haunting title was originally published in 1997, but was re-issued this year as a part of Vintage’s “Scottish Modern Classics” series. This is an unsettling tale about a man who becomes obsessed with the idea of language; how humans acquire language and what happens if the road to this acquisition is cut off. This is a dark psychological tale of untoward experimentation and unnerving psychopathic destruction.

 

 

3.  Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki  Murakami (Harvill Secker)

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This book was originally published in English in 2014, but the paperback was brought out by Harvill Secker in summer 2015, so we decided to include it in this list. This is a beautifully written book which tells the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, who is the only member in his group of childhood friends whose name does not include a colour. The story explores how Tsukuru, now in his thirties, returns to his childhood friends in order to discover why they suddenly cut off all contact with him. It is one of his more grounded works, and Murakami’s writing manages to be touching, without being overly sentimental.

 

4.  Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel (Coffee House Press)

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This is the second short story collection on our list, and is the first work of fiction published by Lincoln Michel. These stories are all a little bit odd, perfectly apt as they deal with the bizarre reality of human nature – implicit in the title Upright Beasts. The collection is almost a study in magical realism and more, borrowing elements from all literary categories. Some of his stories are creepy, some are gripping and some are very funny, and the whole collection is simply brilliantly crafted. Michel is surely a promising emerging author, we look forward to what he produces next.

 

5.  Slade House by David Mitchell (Sceptre)

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The latest work by the notable British author was suitable published just before Halloween 2015. In Slade House Mitchell presents an absorbing take on the classic haunted house narrative. A series of nine stories told nine years apart, each with a different narrator, but all centred around the mysterious and disturbing Slade House. Mitchell perfectly captures the eerie nature of the traditional ghost story, much in the tradition of M.R. James or Robert Aickman. Yet Mitchell still manages to feel fresh with a few added twists and turns, and throughout the tale a genuinely creepy atmosphere prevails.

New Era, New Trophy – World Fantasy Award

Earlier this month the organisers of the World Fantasy Award announced that they would be making a change. For over forty years the winners of the World Fantasy Award were presented with a trophy modelled in the image of renowned weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft. However, now there is a wide-spread belief that it is time to shake things up a bit. The coveted award will no longer take the form of Lovecraft’s head, however influential that head may be. As you might expect, this alteration caused a bit of controversy in the sf/f community.

The organisers did not give an explanation for the change, but it is apparent that many feel Lovecraft is not an appropriate figure to represent the award. The problem of Lovecraft’s racist opinions, which some argue figure in his writings, is clearly of particular concern. Quite predictably, a schism appeared in the sf/f world. One side argued that Lovecraft’s influence on fantasy and horror was being denied, while others protested that fantasy has undergone significant transformations since the Award’s initiation, and a new trophy should reflect that. Lovecraft, it seems, represents the  exclusive old guard, whereas we have entered a new era in sf/f, one which is inclusive and embraces previously marginalised voices.

Regardless of your opinion, the Award’s organisers have been steadfast in their commitment to change. There is no going back. In fact, they have recently called for artists to submit their designs for the new trophy. So if you were upset with the decision to oust Lovecraft, you have the opportunity to offer a design for the trophy of your choice. However, the administration have stated clearly that “the ideal design will represent both fantasy and horror, without bearing any physical resemblance to any person, living or dead”, so bear that in mind!

 

For more on this topic:

The Atlantic published an interesting in-depth piece on this issue – Check out the article by Lenika Cruz here

See this short piece in The Guardian about the call for new trophy designs

Amazon Books – and what makes a great bookish space?

Last week Amazon caused a bit of a kerfuffle by opening a bookshop. It caused a bit of a anger, a bit of worry, a bit of soul-searching and a lot of confusion. To many the very notion of an Amazon bookstore, a physical building stocked with physical books appeared to be a non-sequitur – in fact an “Amazon bookstore” sounds like an oxymoron. And yet, the Amazon bookstore is upon us, snug and safe on the streets of Seattle.

Now, Amazon has caused its fair share of controversies in the past – news about the cut-throat nature of the corporation, the dismal conditions of warehouse workers and shoddy payment to publishers and writers are nothing new. Amazon has been dealing with these issues for years, but this latest move to open a bookshop is rather (dare we say it?) unprecedented. It is a development made all the more strange by the fact that Amazon’s entire brand seemed to pride itself on eradicating, first, the independent bookshops, and then, the highstreet chainstores. So the question is … why?

Dennis Johnson did a brilliant job answering this question on the Melville House blog, and we highly recommend reading the piece (it’s fairly short and far more factual that this one!). There seems to be no logical reason as to why Amazon have opened a bookstore, so Johnson simply has to as “why are Amazon so nasty” ? (And, yes, we are slightly paraphrasing).

Essentially, Johnson concludes and we agree, Amazon want to be the only game in town – that is ultimately their goal. To be fair, Amazon is not unique in this regard, market domination is basically the end goal for many big businesses. But this means you have to ask the question – do you love books? And if you do love books, you’ve got to ask whether Amazon can nurture that love and instil it in others. And honestly, we don’t think Amazon can do that – which is mainly down to the fact that they don’t want to and don’t care to.

Amazon is here to stay, that much is undeniable. But it is now up to the community of booklovers, and that is a world-wide community, to prove that there is a public appetite for more than just low prices. There’s a demand for more than “I want my book here, and I want it now!” – rather, there’s a demand events, author-signings, live story-readings, book clubs and all sorts of bookish-related pastimes. These things exist, and they’re fantastic – it would be a shame to lose them just because we wanted to pay a little less and found it inconvenient to take a trip to our local bookshops. Because a book is more than the sum of its parts, as any bookworm knows – a good book contains more than paper and ink, within those pages exists entire worlds. So let’s try to preserve those worlds, by building a community which maintains the magic of literature. This can be done online, as seen by the success of projects such as Goodreads and Booktube (a whole branch of YouTube dedicated to reading, reviewing and sharing books), but it’s also important to keep this bookish spirit alive by supporting those bookshops that really just love books.

The bookworld is changing, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Rather, let’s embrace it and help mould it, because bookish spaces can basically offer something that Amazon cannot – they can offer passion, authenticity and heart. Sure, Amazon is cheap – but really, where’s the fun in that?

More on this topic:

Denis Johnson’s post for Melville House (in case you missed it!)

The Guardian article on the Amazon bookstore from last week

Some theories by Rob Salkowitz at Forbes 

Read Sarah Kliff’s experience at the Amazon store from Vox

Feature: What Haunts Us This Halloween?

Halloween is a time for spooks and scares, and often the scariest things come from inexplicable sources. Spectres of the supernatural have haunted the human mind for generations; but in an era of technology and scientific rationality, can something as simple as a spirit from beyond the grave still give us the shivers?

Recently, The Guardian published this piece on the re-emergence of tales of ghostly hauntings, stating “the good old-fashioned ghost story is back with a bang”. The article speculates that a key reasons the ghost story has grown in popularity is because the reading public have become more receptive to genre fiction. Is genre snobbery finally at an end? (Well, not quite, but we’re getting there).

Ghoulish figures never left our literature or media – the vampire obviously garnered a lot of attention post-Twilight, though the new sexy model lacked the creepy leer of Dracula. Zombies, too, enjoyed a spell in the spotlight – they were embraced in various media forms, in films like 28 Days Later, in graphic novel and tv series The Walking Dead and even ushered in (yet another) take on Pride and Prejudice. The intent of these ghouls isn’t always to frighten the reader or viewer, but our culture’s fascination with such creatures is clearly still strong. These fiends aren’t always there to scare!

However, the supernatural continues to unnerve. Despite the fact that we know more about the workings of the world, the universe and outer space than ever before, we can still be spooked by stories about ghosts. In fact, the more we discover about the universe, the more we realise how little we actually know. In this grey space is where the philosophy of H.P. Lovecraft reigns – we, as humans, are limited in what we can understand about the cosmos, and what is most scary is that we are aware of our limitations.

Everything from cosmic horror to the ghost story is frightening because at the heart of those stories is the unexplained. Worse still, something as seemingly simple as a ghostly spectre is not only inexplicable, but has the potential to be utterly incomprehensible. But let’s not get too upset by the fundamental shortcomings of the human mind – it’s Halloween, let’s just have some fun and scare ourselves silly!

So, our advice is curl up with a classic ghost story from M.R. James or get a thrill from David Mitchell’s new novel Slade House; generally just have a good time! And rest assured, we’ll still be grappling with all those unfathomable forces after Halloween’s over – there is still much to be uncovered in the dark and bewildering universe (or, is that multiverse?).

Highlights | 19-25 Oct 15

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The New and Improved Romie Futch by Julia Elliott (Tin House)

Out this month from Tin House is The New and Improved Romie Futch by Julia Elliott. Tin House can always be relied upon to provide fantastic new fiction, and this title is sure to garner attention. Elliott tells the tale of down-on-his-luck Romie Futch who attempts to reclaim his life by enrolling as a test subject at the Centre for Cybernetic Neuroscience. There, he hope to become “new and improved” by downloading knowledge of the humanities subjects into his brain. Safe to say, things do not go as planned, and Romie ends up on the trail of a mutant beast known as “Hogzilla” – a thousand-pound boar possessing supernatural powers. Elliott’s book seems encompass everything we love – undeniably weird, with sprinkling of the speculative and Southern Gothic. We are eagerly anticipating out copy!

Find out more on Tin House’s website and read an interview with Elliott to find out more.

Read Publisher’s Weekly review of the book here and read an excerpt here

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 Vintage Classics Bronte Sisters Series
Granted, the Brontes are not contemporary authors, but the dynamic literary sisters are back in bookish news (not that they every really left!). In honour of the bicentenary of the Bronte, Penguin Vintage Editions are re-jacketing Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte), Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Bronte). These fantastic new covers deserve a mention because they so perfectly portray the eerie and Gothic themes embodied in these texts, which often gets let out in mainstream discussions of the Brontes. The jackets were wonderfully designed by Sarah Gillespie, find her stuff here. And just in time for Halloween, too – the only problem is you feel the unrelenting urge to buy the whole set!

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The Masters Review – New Voices for the Classic Ghost Story

Gothic is most certainly the theme of the week – the finial item on this list comes from The Masters Review. October is the month of all things creepy, and The Masters Review is determined to let their spooky side shine! The state their aim for the month is to “to bring you as many different takes on the ghost story as possible”, and this week’s feature is the new short story “Clean Hunters” by Lana Valencia. If you’re interested in a bit of non-fiction this Halloween season, The Masters Review has also published some great essays on the uncanny (“Something’s Wrong in the Garden”) and the darker side of literature in their Literary Terms series (“Literary Terms: Gothic, Grotesque and The Uncanny“).

Feature: Unsung Stories Live

This week, indie publisher Unsung Stories showcased some exciting sf and speculative stories in a public reading. On Tuesday 20th October, a crowed of sf/f enthusiasts gathered in the Star of Kings pub in Kings Cross, London, to hear some fantastic (and fantastical) tales in Unsung’s spoken-word event. The occasion was a great chance to hear some of the very talented voices from the sf world as they took to the mic – and is all the more significant as it is the only live-reading of purely sci-fi, fantasy and horror available in London!

The readings were a brilliant blend of touching, troubling, imaginative and comic tales. These superb stories were provided by David Hartley, Cassandra Khaw, Robert Sharp and Simon Guerrier (see below for links to their Twitter accounts). This was the second spoken-literature event run by Unsung Stories, and we have been dutifully told that there will be more to come! It is a great initiative to get both new and seasoned sf/f writers to share their work, so we will keep you informed on any upcoming events.

We also encourage you to check out the Unsung Stories website for more information about the publisher. They specialise in genre-blurring work that crosses traditional borders of genre fiction, often resulting in a wonderful mix of sci-fi, horror, crime and fantasy. So far, Unsung have published three books – Déja Vu by Ian Hocking, Dark Star by Oliver Langmead and The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley – and we are keeping an eager eye on them to see what they come up with next!

For an impressively detailed account of Unsung Live, take a look at this superb review by Andrew Wallace.

If you want to know what the readers are up to, follow them on Twitter:

David HartleyCassandra Khaw Robert SharpSimon Guerrier