J. Ashley-Smith’s The Measure of Sorrow is filled with stories both haunting and filled with humanity.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
“The debut collection from Ashley-Smith (Ariadne, I Love You) proves that he can pack just as much of a punch in short horror fiction as in his Shirley Jackson Award–winning longer work. … For lovers of voicey, elegant prose that lingers for days in the corners of the mind, this is highly recommended.”
Hands down my favourite part of releasing a new book—apart from the joy of writing the book itself—is compiling the playlist that best evokes that book’s vibe. It completes it, somehow, brings it more fully into the world, by connecting it to that broader range of sounds and colours and feelings. The Measure of Sorrow is my third book (my first collection), and I couldn’t wait to go through that process again, to sink into what the book meant to me, and where it came from, and find a way to express all that in music that I love.
My original plan was for a ten-song ‘mixtape’ (and yes, I’m aware how that dates me), with a track for each story in the collection. Easy right? Not so much, as it turns out. How do you pick just one song to sum up a whole story? My first cut included around 60 tracks. What I’ve landed on here, after a truly brutal process of killing musical darlings, is a 13-track mix, with an intro, an outro, a track for every story, and a special bonus track. I’ve been listening to it for days, now, and am appropriately obsessed. It’s ready to share…
Hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed making it!
Waiting Around To Die, Townes Van Zandt
This song is by way of an intro—setting the scene, as it were, to the collection as a whole. Think of it as the epigraph to this compilation, the pointed quote in the opening pages that reveals some secret undertone. For a collection of short stories with sorrow at its heart, could there be a more appropriate anthem than Townes Van Zandt’s bleak, episodic narrative of a man sinking into increasingly desperate circumstances because, “it’s easier than just waiting ’round to die”?
Pyramid Song, Radiohead
From the opening bars of Pyramid Song, you know something’s not quite right. That off-kilter time signature that makes its own sense, but never quite resolves in a way we’re comfortable with. The first story in the collection is perhaps one of the weirdest I’ve ever written. The Further Shore may (or may not) be about the transition between this life and the next—a terrible coastal limbo where flotsam from our forgotten past is washed up along an endless white and black sandy beach. I don’t know if many other songs have been written about passing into the afterlife, so this song from Radiohead’s “We use keyboards now” phase seemed an obvious choice—but the more I listen to it in this new context, the more perfect it seems. The protagonist of The Further Shore may not see “black-eyed angels”, but he does jump “into the river” (albeit a vast salty one), beneath which lies something not unlike a “moon full of stars.” But is there “nothing to fear, nothing to doubt”?
I Love You Too, Dead Meadow
The title for the next story, Old Growth, I shamelessly appropriated from the Dead Meadow album of the same name. In this story, a divorced man attempts to share his passion for wild nature with his estranged kids, by taking them into the woods of rural Victoria. It’s not quite as he’d planned, though, as the woodland has been ravaged by bushfires. And there’s something wrong with the trees… This track isn’t from ‘Old Growth’, but it is one of my favourites. And I imagine it sung with the note of bitterness and envy that creeps into the protagonist Chris’s voice when he thinks of his ex-wife, the mother of his children.
To reap the full hypnotic mind-shredding benefits of this track, it needs to be cranked up loud.
The Ghosts You Draw On My Back, múm
The next story in the collection, The Moth Tapes, is narrated by a mother-to-be leaving notes for her unborn child on a dictaphone. (I know, I know—tapes, again!) From this constrained position, it’s hard for us to tell whether the weird happenings that follow are truly supernatural, a spiral into madness—or, worse, both. There’s a wonderful fragility to her voice that is mirrored perfectly by this spooky, ethereal track by Icelandic indietronica band múm. The vocals are whispered so softly they’re barely audible, and as frail as a ghostly child’s. And though beautifully produced, there’s a crackly lo-fi quality that reminds me of recordings from an old cassette player.
Not Here / Not Now, Angels of Light
In The Family Madness, two children are sent to stay with their eccentric uncle when their mother is taken into care for her mental illness. When Uncle Nathan disappears, the children learn he was more than merely eccentric. I know of no other band that literally sounds like insanity than Angels of Light (except for, maybe, Michael Gira’s other band, Swans). I imagine his croaky, commanding, Old-Testament prophet’s voice as Nathan’s, at the centre of his terrible ‘instrument’, droning incantations to summon something beyond comprehension from the cold vastness of the heavens.
O Children, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
This is the bonus track—an origin story for The Family Madness. While I already had the first inklings of the idea that this story would grow out of, the children’s narrative, which is the beating heart at its core, had an unlikely beginning. There’s a weird, unbearably awkward scene in the last Harry Potter movie, where everything’s gone to blazes and darkness runs rampant across the land; the heroes are fighting among themselves, depleted, doomed. Harry and Hermione, in a tent in the wilderness, put on the radio, and then dance together to this unbelievably bleak song. (I can only imagine they weren’t listening to the lyrics.)
There’s an emotional tone in that scene that I just loved and wanted to recreate—the idea of being up against something so vast and terrible you are completely powerless, completely devoid of hope. And in that moment of ultimate despair, to find solace in a small, simple—and, ultimately, flawed—act of humanity. I played this song on loop, trying to bleed the heart from it, to leach all its sombre potency into this story, which is one of my favourites in the collection.
Everyday, Yo La Tengo
This is the soundtrack to the short, short story, The Whatnot Shop, about a corner store that spreads its dereliction into a suburban community, possessing its inhabitants with a pervasive, nameless melancholy. And what better way to evoke the loss among the locals of the small, vital thing that brought colour and light to their neighbourhood, than the hypnotic sorrowful droning of Yo La Tengo, intoning over and over “Everyday, everyday…”
Soul And Fire, Sebadoh
Our Last Meal is a story about a sensitive New Age guy dealing poorly with a break up, conceiving one final, terrible act of passive-aggressive revenge. And no one sings the anthems of the tortured white middle-class male soul better than Lou Barlow. I’m being mean, of course—and disingenuous. I love Sebadoh, and this song. But still, as with the unlikable protagonist of this story, I can’t help but wonder if Lou’s terrible woes in this song (and others) aren’t, in some way, of his own making…
Little Smoke, This Will Destroy You
The next story, the novelette The Black Massive, is about the underground rave scene around where I grew up, in nineties East Anglia. An eldritch drug is introduced to the scene and soon everyone’s dry-swallowing Black Suns and ‘going crepuscular’ to the dirge-like sounds of Tendril. When I was conceiving the kind of music that Tendril would make, this absolutely bonkers, impenetrable wall-of-noise by This Will Destroy You was never far from my thoughts. Imagine an unlistenable drone, with freakish whispered mumbling, that sounds like a broken record player, bunged with dust. But on the Black…!
This is another one you need to listen to LOUD—even better, loud and in excellent headphones, after dry swallowing a couple Black Suns. (Though I should be clear I’m not condoning the use of any but fictional drugs.)
Over The Ocean, Low
This one’s a little cheaty… or, at least, a little obvious. The short, short story The Face God Gave begins with a mother and her two children in a plane somewhere between LAX and Sydney airport—yup, you guessed it: over the ocean. The plane hits some nasty turbulence and the masks drop from overhead, and then things get strange. This beautiful lullaby by Low (most of whose early songs have that sweet lullaby vibe) is maybe more suited to the story’s ‘heavenly’ ending. And that one-note solo is to die for.
Children Of The Grounds, Midlake
This track was just made to stand in for a folk horror short story with (possibly?) psychotic children at its centre. An unnamed village in England. A field of fresh green wheat. A dark pine forest with whispering needles. And tales of ancient forest folk granting boons in exchange for gifts, small and large. Like the story, there is an entirely unexpected change of gears around the halfway mark that transforms your experience of all that comes after. Enid Blyton is spinning in her grave; her head, at least, is spinning.
Seance Room, God Is An Astronaut
This song, and the album it’s taken from—Epitaph—was my go-to writing music throughout the months of finalising the collection: in particular, the many, many drafts of the title novella. I listened to it so much during that period that its dynamic twists and turns have become somehow fused with the story’s entwined narratives, synonymous with its almost ecstatically awful climax. The publisher sent back the first draft of the novella, saying the ending needed ‘something’. Turned out that ‘something’ was for me to not wimp out and let my characters off the hook so easily. The final, published, ending is as dark and brutal and unflinching as this track—another personal favourite in the collection, and without doubt my favourite track by God Is An Astronaut.
This is another one to be played very, very loud!
Dark Turn Of Mind, Gillian Welch
Much as I love Seance Room as a climactic showpiece, the compilation needed a cracked-vocal wind-down coda to play out to. No one sings sorrow like Gillian Welch, and no one sings the heart of darkness in the everyday like her either. This beautiful, broken, melancholy number provides me a final, shameless opportunity to plug The Measure of Sorrow: a collection for anyone with a dark turn of mind.
J. Ashley Smith is a British–Australian author of dark fiction and co-host of the Let The Cat In podcast. His first book, The Attic Tragedy, won the Shirley Jackson Award. Other stories have won the Ditmar Australian Shadows and Aurealis awards. He lives with his wife and two sons beneath an ominous mountain in the suburbs of North Canberra, gathering moth dust, tormented by the desolation of telegraph wires. You can find him at spooktapes.net, performing amazing experiments in electronic communication with the dead. His debut collection, The Measure of Sorrow, is out now from Meerkat Press.