Monday, 11 November 2019

Novelisation Review 2: The Professionals 4: Hunter Hunted, by Ken Blake

The second in an occasional thread celebrating old-school paperback novelisations from the 70s and 80s, which are now mostly forgotten.  We're not talking great art but these books have their place - they were a fantastic resource from a time when you couldn't watch your favourite film or TV show whenever you felt like it - and I think they deserve to be remembered.

This time, I'm looking at The Professionals 4: Hunter Hunted, by Ken Blake, adapted from the excellent UK TV series.
front and back cover of the Sphere paperback, 1979 reprint (cover scans of my copy)
Once again written by Kenneth Bulmer under the Ken Blake house name, this volume is based on the shooting scripts for three episodes.

The first is First Night, where an Israeli minister is kidnapped from the Festival Hall on the Southbank and, to avoid an international incident, it’s down to CI5 to find him.  After an action packed opening, we then see some dogged detective work (the kidnappers are tracked by a Polaroid picture they’ve sent), which works slightly better in the episode than it does here.  Great pacing, some humour and some nice observations on contemporary London.

Kathie Mason (Cheryl Kennedy) from "Hunter Hunted"
The second, eponymous episode has CI5 charged with testing the new laser-sighted 180 and Cowley hands it to Bodie & Doyle.  Whilst at headquarters, they encounter Kathie Mason, an ex-colleague of Doyle’s who’s interviewing to become a CI5 agent.  After a night at her place, Doyle discovers the gun is missing and it seems someone is out to get their revenge on him.  Brisk, involved and good fun, this cracks along with some nice dialogue, excellent set pieces (especially the demise of Doyle’s E-type)  and some good interactions between the agents.  I really liked the episode itself (especially Cheryl Kennedy as Kathie) and this does it justice.

The Rack is the final episode.  Following a raid on ex-boxer (now criminal and drug dealer) John Coogan’s mansion, he and his brother are taken to CI5 for interrogation.  The brother has a go at Doyle then punches him, in self defence Doyle retaliates and the brother dies of a ruptured spleen.  A tribunal (the ‘rack’ of the title) is then set up, wherein prosecution lawyer Geraldine Mather decides to take on the Action Squad and cut them down to size.  Briskly told, with good characterisation, this works well to flesh out Doyle and his feelings over perhaps (without giving away spoilers) causing the death of a man while Cowley has a great grandstanding speech on just why CI5 is so important (and, sadly, the words ring as true today as they did forty years ago).

All three are competently written (and Bulmer continues his fascination with Bodie’s ‘famous’ face and mobile lips) and feature some nice bits of poetic prose when describing a London that has mostly long since disappeared.  The action scenes are deftly handled as are the locations (judging by certain aspects - the constant rain in The Rack, for example - it seems they were written from the shooting scripts rather than seeing the episodes) and there are some smart little character pieces that flesh the dynamic duo out well (it’s mentioned again that Doyle paints).  Brisk, violent, occasionally amusing, I’m not sure how these would work if you’d never seen the programme but as an unabashed fan of the series, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Recommended.

The novelisation is "based on the original screenplays by Brian Clemens, Anthony Read and Gerry O'Hara" (taken from the title page)

* * *
from left - Doyle (Martin Shaw), Cowley (Gordon Jackson) and Bodie (Lewis Collins)
The Professionals ran for five series, from 1977 through to 1983, shown on ITV.  Brian Clemens, perhaps best known for The Avengers, created the series (which was originally to have been called The A-Squad) and became executive producer with his business partners Albert Fennell and Laurie Johnson (who also provided the excellent theme music) for London Weekend Television (LWT).  The first series was produced by Sidney Hayers with Raymond Menmuir producing the rest, with 57 episodes made in total.

Although the first series used a lot of studio-based filming (to the extent Cowley had a secretary), Menmuir did away with standing sets and the remainder of the series was filmed in real buildings and homes.  This lent a grittiness to the programmes and now, forty years later, provides a wonderful snapshot of a London that's mostly been lost to progress.  The series focussed on the exploits of CI5 (Criminal Intelligence 5), led by George Cowley (Gordon Jackson) and centred around his two best agents, Doyle (Martin Shaw) and Bodie (Lewis Collins).  The two actors, whose initial abrasiveness towards each other led to their casting, worked well together and a lot of episodes included dialogue ad-libbed by them.
While earlier episodes (certainly series one through to three) saw a wide range of plots and scripts, with some good directors involved (Martin Campbell was both a main and second unit director), the later ones used more script devices as time wore on.  The final episodes were filmed in May 1981, by which time Collins and Shaw both stated publicly they thought the show had grown stale, though the final broadcast run ended in February 1983.

The series is repeated often on ITV4 in the UK and is well worth a watch, though the Network Releasing Blu ray restorations are your best bet.  These not only have great quality image and sound but thorough production notes (in book form) by Andrew Pixley.
The Corgi collection.  I had the bigger model (with figures) when I was a kid but didn't pick up the smaller version until a couple of years ago

* * *
From 1978 through to 1982, Sphere released 15 paperback novelisations (with seven of them also receiving hardback release), adapting 38 of the series' 57 episodes.  Ken Blake was the house-name covering all of these with Kenneth Bulmer writing the majority of them and Robert Holdstock contributing numbers 10, 13, 14 and 15.

(Henry) Kenneth Bulmer was born on 14th January 1921 in London and worked in the paper industry before serving with the Royal Corps of Signals during the Second World War.  Having been a fan of sf before his service, when demobbed in 1946 he began writing for fan magazines and his first novel, Space Treason, was published in 1952 (and co-written with A Vince Clarke).  Turning freelance in 1954, he wrote dozens of novels and comic strips, a prolific output he maintained throughout his career.  In the 70s, as part of the Piccadilly Cowboys group, he wrote across genres for various series (including The Professionals) under a host of pen and house names, whilst also publishing a substantial amount of work under his own name.  In addition, he edited nine volumes in the New Writings in Science Fiction anthology series during the 70s, succeeding John Carnell.

He suffered a stroke in 1997 which halted a writing career that saw over 160 novels (and countless short stories) published.

Awarded the TAFF in 1955 (a fund to send prominent fans to international conventions), he was the British Guest Of Honour at the World SF Convention in Cleveland, Ohio and made a life member of the British SF Association in 1974.  He married Pamela Buckmaster in March 1953, with whom he had two daughters and a son but they were divorced in 1981.

Kenneth Bulmer died on 16th December 2005.

for further bibliographical details, the SF Encyclopedia has a good entry on him and the Guardian has a thorough obituary
For a few years now, after finding out charity shops sometimes pulp old books because the market for them is so small, I've been collecting 70s and 80s paperbacks through secondhand bookshops, car boot sales and ebay.  I set up a thread for the horror titles (which you can see here) but novelisations were a rich vein in those decades, before the advent of home video, when viewers wanted to revisit the adventures of their favourite TV show or film.  I realise we might not be talking great art here but, on the whole, I think these books deserve to be remembered.

To that end, on an irregular basis, I'm going to review these "old-school" tie-ins with, hopefully, some background material on each one.

Monday, 4 November 2019

The Secret Of Skeleton Island, by Robert Arthur

2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published and, to celebrate, I re-read and compiled my all-time Top 10 (safe in the knowledge that it would be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I posted my list here, having previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here).

Following this, I decided to re-visit some of the books I'd missed on that second read-through, without any intention of posting reviews of them but, as if often the way, it didn't quite work out like that.  Happily, this is on-going and so here's an additional review...
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed between 1968 and 1970), cover art by Roger Hall
The Three Investigators are thrilled when they are invited to star as frogmen in an underwater film - especially as it means a trip to lonely Skeleton Island!

But Jupiter, Pete and Bob soon discover that the island's past hides a sinister secret.  Danger awaits them in the mysterious ocean depths, for the sea-bed is rich not only in fish - but in sunken treasure!

illustration from the Collins/Armada editions,
 by Roger Hall
Sally Farrington tries to complete her turn
on the carousel
Alfred Hitchcock enlists the boys help to travel to Atlantic Bay, on the East Coast, where a production company is having problems finishing off the film they’re working on.  Pete’s dad, a special effects technician, is leading a team on Skeleton Island who are trying to rebuild parts of a long abandoned amusement park, where the climax of the film will take place.  The boys hit trouble as soon as they arrive, stranded on a smaller nearby island called The Hand and, once on the mainland, discover that nothing is quite what it seems.  The local community, suffering with the recent loss of their oyster fishing economy, is struggling and the production company is having problems with theft and treasure hunters.  Then, as Jupiter and the boys delve further, the ghost of a local girl is seen riding a derelict carousel.

The sixth book in the series, this is the first to take place away from Rocky Beach and gets a mention in The Mystery Of The Fiery Eye when, discussing the use of the Rolls, Pete says, “the thirty days ran out while we were back East tangling with the mystery of Skeleton Island”.  By extension, of course, this assumes the events of Skeleton Island take place thirty days after the boys investigate Terror Castle, which made for a very exciting month!  With the relocation there’s no mention of Headquarters and it’s some way into the book before Jupiter gets to show someone the card but Arthur works all this in well, making the disorientation a key part of the first set piece, as the boys are stranded on The Hand group of reefs.

The locations are well realised, from Skeleton Island (which doesn’t feature as much as you’d expect it to) to Fishingport, the town on the mainland where the boys B&B is located.  The Hand is an inspired creation and features a gripping set piece later in the book, a sequence in the underwater cave that is an exercise in tension and suspense.

The use of Fishingport allows Arthur some flashes of social comment, a sad and depressed fishing village decimated by “some tiny red parasite” that has “got into the oysters in this part of the bay”.  Many townsfolk are desperate to find the treasure Captain One-Ear dumped off the island in 1717 as the British closed in on him and one of them is Chris, a young Greek boy who befriends the lads.  Seeking the treasure to raise enough so his sick father can go home for treatment, he’s badly treated by almost every adult in the story - apart from the police chief - but doesn’t let it deter him and he plays a key part in the plot.

Characterisation, as always with Arthur, is very good indeed with the boys all getting a chance to shine, especially Bob and Pete when Jupe is laid low by a cold.  While some of the supporting cast are merely brushstrokes, the stress of the adults - both in the town and on the film - comes out in the dialogue, with most of them (including Mr Crenshaw at times) being generally dismissive of the boys.  Chris is likeable and well-realised, making us root for him before we properly find out the truth of his situation and what the true secret of the island actually is.  And then, of course, there’s the excellent Sally Farrington, forever trying to finish her ride on the carousel, a spooky image (that terrified my sister & I back in 1978) well used in the story and superbly captured by Roger Hall’s illustration.

The Secret Of Skeleton Island is special to me in that, as I wrote about here, it was the book that introduced me to the series (I still have that now-very-beaten-up hardback edition) and was also the final piece of my search to get the first thirty Armada books in format b (as I wrote about here).  With a good pace, suspenseful set pieces and a terrific use of location, this is a cracking read and I highly recommend it.
Armada format a paperback (printed between 1970 and 1979 ), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)
Armada format b paperback (printed between 1981 and 1983), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)

The internal illustrations for the UK edition were drawn by Roger Hall.

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)

Monday, 28 October 2019

Halloween - Top Trumps

It's Halloween, when all the ghosts and ghouls come calling (usually for chocolate), when the evenings are dark and the air smells of woodsmoke and the thoughts of us all turn to the idea of watching or reading something scary and creepy.
For my third Halloween post (previously I wrote about VHS cover art and behind the scenes special effects shots), I've decided to highlight something that makes perfect sense (especially to monster loving kids, as I was) but also makes you wonder how they got away with it.

Top Trumps, launched in 1977 by a company called Dubreq (who also made the Stylophone), was a hugely popular children’s game in the UK particularly with kids who delighted in the statistical nature of it.  There were eleven different packs initially, each featuring 32 playing cards, themed around cars, sports stars, planes and military hardware amongst others, highly collectible and pocket-money-priced at 50p.  Eight at the time, I was an avid fan and one of my favourites was the Horror pack.
In fact, there were two versions, Dracula (the one I had) and Devil Priest (can you imagine a kids toy being sold under that name today?), which appeared in 1978.  Apparently the origins of the sets are shrouded in mystery - no-one seems to know who devised them, or created the bizarre artwork - and while they're put together in a slightly slapdash fashion, I like to think whoever was involved had a great deal of fun with the project.

Some of the stats make little sense (how can Death only have a Killing Power of 95?), some of the drawings even less so (why is The Phantom Of The Opera represented by The Abominable Dr Phibes, when he appears on two other cards) but to me that just adds to the delirious charm.  Some pictures are clearly lifted from films (how on earth did they get away with that?), others are epics of invention (Granite Man, anyone, or how about Circus Of Death), some are puzzling (why is Godzilla wearing a shirt and bow-tie?) while others, like the Zetan Warlord, just make you smile.  The scoring is also highly eccentric - King Kong understandably scores 100 on Physical Strength but his Horror Rating of 70 is beaten by the (much smaller and, to my mind, less horrific) Two-Headed-Monster who rates an 89.
The Hangman and Lord Of Death are clearly taken from The Phantom Of The Opera (1925) with Lon Chaney while the actual Phantom card is illustrated with a masked Vincent Price from The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)
Full of “gleeful crudity and unashamed gore”, these were the ideal accompaniment to Denis Giffords’ A Pictorial History Of Horror Movies, a seminal rite-of-passage for horror fans of a certain age.  My original set, much loved and played with, is long since lost but I picked up one of the Waddingtons re-issues recently and shared a thoroughly enjoyable hour with Dude playing it (he had as much fun as I did, even if he’s not a monster kid like I was).
More homages, with The Madman from "Doomwatch" (1970-1972), The Freak from "The Reptile" (1966) and the Two Headed Monster some wonderful Rick Baker make-up from "The Thing With Two Heads" (1972)
Just in case Top Trumps passed you by, the rules were very simple.  Each game consisted of several players (2 to however many you wanted) being dealt a hand, one picking a statistic to compare and whoever won (ie, they had Dracula and played the Horror Rating - his was 100), collected the other cards in the round and went again.  The game continued until one player held all the cards.
Taken from "The Incredible Melting Man" (1977)
Another appearance by Lon Chaney, this time from "London After Midnight" (1927)
The card back
Dubreq was taken over by Waddingtons in 1982 and the popularity of Top Trumps continues to the present day.

As for us, Dude & I will be settling down for a game of this (the perfect Halloween activity) and I’m thoroughly looking forward to it.  I just hope I get Dracula and King Kong in my first hand...

Happy Halloween!

with thanks to Hypnogoria for some of the history

Monday, 21 October 2019

The Crusty Exterior Videotape Of Terror

The Crusty Exterior is a group of friends, united in their love for the horror genre, books and, of course, a good curry.  The core of the group - James Everington, Phil Sloman, Steve Harris and me - met up for the first time at Andromeda Con in 2013 (see my report here), though Steve & I go back much further, first corresponding in the late 90s when he ran a newsletter called The Inner Circle.

Another topic of conversation, of course, is the horror film and I thought (in the same vein as my Mixtape posts) it'd be interesting to see which movie it was that struck us so much, at an early age, to put us firmly on this horror loving path.  This, then, is the result (John plays a bit fast and loose with the rules) and I think it makes for an intriguing mixture.

Do you see an old favourite among the titles?  What set you on the horror path?

Don't Look Now (1973)
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Written by Allan Scott & Chris Bryant, based on a story by Daphne du Maurier
In the great, defining war of the previous generation, my Dad was on the wrong side. My Dad chose Betamax.

He was wrong about that, although it took him years to admit it. We couldn’t get Betamax from the shop where we lived, they only stocked VHS, so we had to drive out to a petrol-station that had a few tapes in the back. In my memory, Betamax already seemed obsolete, the tapes with their faded, sun-bleached covers already historical curios.

Because they didn’t have much choice, I think my Dad sometimes rented out films I wasn’t yet the right age for. One, in particular, I remembered for years. I didn’t remember the plot, or even the title, but I remembered the tone of it, the visual style, certain key images:

The colour red (I remembered that most of all).
A photo that seems to bleed, to seep colour into the reality around it.
A place I may or may not have recognised at that age as Venice.
A sex scene that, when you’re watching it with your parents, seems to last forever.
And a young girl, drowning. A girl dressed in red, drowning while a photo seems to seep blood into the reality around it…

It would be wrong to say I remembered the film completely, or even accurately, but I certainly remembered it vividly. Maybe not often, but periodically, I would recall that girl drowning, that sex scene, that photo blurring with blood, and a father screaming. Remember as if from a dream, uncertain as I was what the film was even called.

Years later, at university, I read a description of a film that was going to be shown that evening and I realised it must be the same one. Don’t Look Now it was called, and maybe I shouldn’t look, shouldn’t watch, because how could it compare? How could it be as good as the muddled and Chinese-whispered memories of it a decade on?

But I did watch it, and it did compare—it was magnificent. You all know the reasons why; it’s a brilliant piece of film making and after that second time of seeing it I already thought it might be my favourite film ever.

And now that I knew what it was called, I went and bought my own copy.


chosen by James Everington

The Beyond (1981)
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Written by Lucio Fulci, Giorgio Mariuzzo and Dardano Sacchetti
I could always tell when a VHS movie was going to be a good one - tracking lines, caused by constant rewinding and reviewing, would appear at the top and bottom of the screen whenever decent gory or scary scenes were due.

My copy of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond was so thoroughly scanned by previous renters that tracking lines flickered throughout, and the tape was so stretched that the soundtrack warbled.

It was the early eighties, and massive top loader video players were so expensive that people hired them for the night with their movies. A huge machine perched before me on the coffee table, clicking and humming like a piece of equipment from a 1950s Russian power station.

The first VHS movie I ever watched was John Carpenter’s The Thing. To say I was blown away was an understatement. But it didn’t scare me.

The Beyond, however, certainly did.

It was a revelatory experience, and it kindled my enduring love of outrĂ© horror. I’d never seen an Italian horror movie before. The strange dubbing jarred. The actors weren’t all pearly toothed and well groomed like they were in Hollywood. That strained-by-use, warbling soundtrack added to the unease. There was something amateurish about the production, something forbidden, like a cheap porno. The pruriently rendered scenes of gore were almost fetishistic. Narratively, nothing made sense. Odd people were doing odd things in one long, unnerving fever dream - the opening flashback scenes of murder, the grody hand sticking out of the wall in the hotel cellar, the weird blind psychic, killer spiders climbing out of people’s mouths. What in hell’s going on? When will I recover?

The answer was I never would. I constantly re-watch. I just can’t get enough of this unsettling, nightmarish and truly great horror movie.

chosen by Steve Harris

The Beastmaster (1982)
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Written by Don Coscarelli and Paul Pepperman
Now at first glance you might be surprised to see The Beastmaster, the sword and sorcery epic, feature in a list of first films to scare the bejesus out of you. But this is a Don Coscarelli film, he of Phantasm and Bubba-Ho Tep horror fame and he litters the film with plenty of horror.

I watched The Beastmaster at some point in the mid-80s which would put me somewhere around 10 years old, maybe a little older or a little younger. My father used to take us to the local video store and we would pick out our Saturday evening viewing accompanied with a portion of fish and chips from the shop round the corner.

As a kid I remember there being a lot more plot to The Beastmaster  than there is when rewatching it as an adult. But that doesn’t matter, it is still a fantastically fun romp with Marc Singer’s oiled torso making up for a lack of acting skills, Tanya Roberts there to play the love interest and Rip Torn camping it up as the villain of the piece with prosthetic hawk-nose.

As far as the plot goes, there is a prophecy that one day Dar (Marc Singer) the as yet unborn son of King Zed will go on to kill the evil High Priest Maax (Rip Torn) who has a thing for killing young children in the name of his God but we’re not quite sure why. Along the way Dar is stolen from his mother’s womb, brought up by peasants and discovers he has the ability to psychically communicate with animals. Various escapades happen along the way, a band of heroes forms and we come to our climax.

So, where’s the horror, Phil? Apart from the child killing (thrown into an open fire) there are berserker style warriors imprisoned in the dungeons of Maax’s temple wearing some off-the-rack S&M gear all in black leather and covered in spikes including gimp style face mask. But that wasn’t what warped my impressionable young mind. No, it was the birdmen.

In one scene, Dar comes across a tree at night surrounded by large glowing orbs the size of a human hanging from the branches. A black altar in the shape of an eagle rests in front of the tree and a huge cooking pot bubbles away on an open fire. Overlooking the pot is a teenage boy suspended in a wooden cage. As Dar inspects the cooking pot, a human head floats to the surface but even this was not the terror for me.

Dar releases the boy only for him to run into the arms (wings?) of the birdmen, 7ft tall if not more, faces with eyes and no mouths, and all leathery and evil. Enveloping the boy within its leathery embrace, the boy struggles. As we watch, the boy hidden from view, we see white liquid spilling around the feet of the birdman only for it to open its grasp and let the defleshed bones of the boy collapse to the ground. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what scared the crap out of me in my dreams that evening long after the credits rolled.

chosen by Phil Sloman

Threads (1984)
Directed by Mick Jackson
Written by Barry Hines
Broadcast at 9.30pm on Sunday, 23 September 1984, Threads initially tells the story of Ruth and Jimmy as they prepare for their upcoming wedding. There’s tension in the air between the West and Russia, but not enough to stop people going about their daily lives.

Then without warning the Soviets fire two nuclear warheads over the town, unleashing Armageddon. Buildings are destroyed, people are roasted alive in the flames, their burning bodies tossed into the branches of charring trees, the heat so fierce it melts milk bottles on doorsteps. Those that survive struggle to find food, shelter, other survivors as nuclear winter arrives, the populace descending into primitivism, eating anything they can to survive, including each other. Civilisation is at an end, and the lucky ones died at the start. The End.

I sat there for about ten minutes afterwards in a state of shock, sweating, my hands shaking. Eventually ejecting the DVD, I put it back in its box. Then to my surprise I went online and shared this trauma. An hour later I was still shaking; at one point I couldn’t even bear to have the DVD in the room with me, the eyes of the bandaged and bloodied traffic warden on the cover following me around the room.

I don’t know what I was doing that night in 1984 but I certainly wasn’t watching Threads.  I’d have been in bed or getting ready to go. We didn’t watch horror in our house.  I got into all that later. But when I did… how can I put this without sounding like a heretic? I didn’t find it particularly scary. Exciting? Yes. Disturbing, imaginative, often unintentionally hilarious? Absolutely. But rarely scary.

So the scariest thing I saw as a child? Threads, without a doubt. Aged forty-six.

chosen by John Travis

Poltergeist (1982)
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Steven Spielberg, Mark Victor and Michael Grais (from a story by Spielberg who, some suggest, also mostly directed it)
As I hit my teens in the early 80s, video began to take hold in the UK.  Dedicated shops (my local was Five Star Video) sprang up on high streets across our fair nation, while corner shops, Our Price and garages gave up space to metal racks showcasing glossy covers (almost always painted, almost always vivid and almost always not representative of what they were advertising) for films we’d heard of but never been able to see at the cinema.

Tapes were far too costly to buy but renting was easy - you’d get a snazzy card (generally paper but sometimes plastic) and, after perusing the racks, you’d take your title to the shopkeeper and hand over your money.  Most of the time, you’d have your membership number entered in a ledger and told to bring the tape back the next day though if you tried to push your luck (I remember, as a thirteen-year-old, trying to rent Emmanuelle), you’d often get sent back to pick something else.

The players were also expensive and it would be years before the West household was graced with one (in fact, I bought my own and later gifted it to my parents when I upgraded my model) but luckily my friend Matt had a toploader Betamax.  Even better, he was as keen on horror as me.

He rang one sunny Saturday morning - somehow (according to my diary, we saw the film in 1983 when I was thirteen so it might have been a pirate copy) he’d got hold of Poltergeist and wondered if I wanted to watch it with him.  I jumped at the chance and went straight round to his house.

So there we sat, in the front room with the curtains shut against the sun, Matt, me and his brother.  We got glasses of orange juice, shared a pack of custard creams and he hit play on the remote control that was attached to the player by a wire.  Nervous excitement filled the air as the film started and after the set-up of the family, things took a turn - we were stunned at the man finding ‘something on his face’ in the mirror, the tension ramping up with the clown, the specters on the stairs, that bloody tree and the swimming pool with poor JoBeth Williams and her fellow swimmers.

Although we would go on to see much scarier films - a few summers later, we rented Dead & Buried and Evilspeak on the same afternoon and, one evening, someone got hold of The Exorcist - but Poltergeist was the first film to give me that proper frisson of terror, where I wasn’t quite sure what I was watching and where it was going to go.  It would be a feeling I’d constantly try to re-capture and that’s as true now as I write this (a more worldy fifty-year-old) as it was back in the 80s.

chosen by Mark West

This advert from Starburst magazine in 1984 shows the high prices (that Spider-Man film was two episodes of the Nicholas Hammond series from the 70s, cut together), while Octopussy is resolutely "rental only".

Wellington Street Video Library in Kettering, another of my 'haunts'.  This is from the late 80s (picture by Glyn Dobs) with the shop renting "VHS on one side, Betamax on the other"

The Crusty Exterior in May 2017, having celebrated Steve's 50th with an afternoon at Astley Book Farm, followed by a nice curry.
from left - James Everington, John Travis, Steve 'birthday boy' Harris, me, Phil Sloman and Steve Bacon

You can read about other Crusty Exterior adventures on this link

Monday, 14 October 2019

Ten Favourite Covers: More Childhood Terrors

Following on from last years collection of books that caused some gleeful childhood terror, here's another selection.  I hope you find an old favourite here too...
Originally published in 1968 (this is the fifth edition, from 1974), the Fontana series began in 1966 and ran through seventeen volumes until 1984 (1976 was skipped for some reason).  Christine Barnard edited the first four, Mary Danby took over for the rest.
The third in the series, edited by the wonderful Mary Danby (who I was lucky enough to meet in 2012 at FantasyCon in Brighton, when Johnny Mains introduced us), this features cover art by Peter Archer and twelve stories, including work by M. R. James, Christine Campbell Thomson,  R. Chetwynd-Hayes and Danby herself.
Features eight stories (including a Sherlock Holmes adventure,  The Red-Headed League, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), with the Master Of Suspense lending his name (though there's no note on the editor since, sadly, Hitchcock's regular collaborator Robert Arthur had already passed away).
A selection of true-life ghost stories
With cover art by Tom Chantrell, who created my favourite Star Wars poster, this excellent volume by Denis Gifford is beloved by fans of a certain age...
Originally published by Gollancz in 1975 (this is the 1978 Puffin edition) and ably edited by the excellent Peter Haining (who also edited the fantastic The Restless Bones, which I wrote about here), this features a veritable who's-who of horror fiction, including M. R. James, O. Henry, Algernon Blackwood, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Machen, Daphne du Maurier, Fritz Leiber, Joan Aiken, Ray Bradbury and others.
Edited by the prolific Richard Davis (though Pertwee contributed the introduction and epilogue), this contains nine original short stories.
Hardback edition from Hamlyn, originally published in 1977 as a Beaver paperback (see the last Childhood Terrors) as the Beaver Book Of Horror.
Another selection of true-life mysteries.
I was a huge fan of the TV show as a kid (some of it was scary and it was always fascinating) and I have the BCA edition of this, which is the first place I ever read of the Devil's footprints, a story I still find very creepy.

Puffin Books is the long-standing childrens imprint of Penguin Books and was formed in 1940.

Piccolo Books is the children's imprint of Pan Macmillan.

Armada Books was set up by Gordon Landsborough in 1962 as a paperback imprint of Mayfair Books Ltd, focussing exclusively on books for children to buy with the pocket money.  Collins bought it in 1966 as an imprint to publish books for 10-15 year olds under their Fontana Books paperback arm.  Armada ceased in 1995 but I will always love it because it published The Three Investigators.

Beaver was the children's imprint of Hamlyn which is now part of the Octopus Publishing Group, owned by Hachette Livre.

Fontana was the paperback imprint of William Collins & Sons and is now part of Harper Collins.

Magnet Books was the children's imprint of Methuen

Monday, 7 October 2019

The Dream Zone 4 (first print appearance)

Twenty years ago this month saw my first horror short story in print when Back Above The Clouds appeared in The Dream Zone 4 - I was over the moon about it. 
Since discovering the small press in late 1998, I’d shifted back into writing horror which I hadn’t done since my teens (and wrote specifically to submit, rather than just because I fancied doing it).  My first acceptance came in February 1999 (As Quiet As It Gets, which appeared in Sci-Fright 6 in February 2000), while my first published story was 27:32 in Enigmatic Electronic, the then newfangled online presence of the superb Enigmatic Tales (edited and operated by Mick & Len, 'the ghost story men’ - Messrs. Sims & Maynard, excellent writers and editors who opened the door for quite a few of us).  Back Above The Clouds, though, beat them all to the punch.

The story, my third acceptance, came to me as I was lying in bed.  The Dream Zone editor, Paul Bradshaw, had recently rejected my story Sleep Deeply and I was trying to come up with a new idea when I had an image of hundreds of people floating in a dome (it was actually the Cine-2000 - which has long-since disappeared - at Wicksteeds Park).  That image, the magic of being able to fly, linked with my day-dreaming during a particularly boring meeting that afternoon and the story pretty much rolled out on its own.  According to my notes, I had the idea on Tuesday night, wrote it on Wednesday, revised it on Thursday and had it accepted (by post) the following Tuesday.

And here's the appearance...
Click on the picture for a larger image
The Dream Zone, stapled, features some names in the issue who, I’m pleased to say, are still involved with writing today.

Simon Logan, Paul Edwards and Rhys Hughes are still publishing, DF Lewis and Peter Tennant concentrate more on reviewing now (the latter highly regarded for his work on Black Static), while Tim Lebbon is doing really rather nicely for himself.  My fine friend and fellow Crusty, Steve Byrne, is also still publishing and I've reviewed his novels Phoenix and Craze on the blog.

I came to the small press, initially, through David Sutton & Stephen Jones’ Dark Voices 5 which I picked up in late 1998.  Thrilled to discover people were still publishing short horror fiction, I bought the latest Best New Horror and used the 'useful addresses' at the back of that, from which I discovered The Third Alternative (the original version of Black Static) and its sister publication Zene.  Zene was a listings magazine, a treasure trove of small presses, magazines and anthologies filled with markets, guidelines and addresses for me to explore and I did so with relish.

As it turns out, I was lucky enough to just get in to what turned out to be the final golden days of the small press during the print zine phase, a glorious time of desktop publishing where hardy editors and publishers put together some terrific physical magazines.  Often featuring vivid artwork, the editions were sometimes perfect bound, sometimes stapled, but always great fun to read and I subscribed to as many as I could find (and submitted to most too).  The end was already in sight though as e-zines were starting to appear and if you weren’t around then, imagine black backgrounds, white or red writing, loads of animated gifs (dripping blood and spinning skulls and the like) and you’re pretty much there.

That first year of my being published I appeared in five publications.  As well as those titles mentioned above, Infantophobia appeared in the superb Sackcloth & Ashes (edited by Andrew & Lisa Busby, very nice people who also set up the first Con I ever went to, in Wigan, where I first met Paul Finch), All The Rage was in Unhinged, edited by Paul Lockey and the black comedy Thank You For The Music appeared in Planet Prozak, edited by Stephen Bennion. As Quiet As It Gets, that first acceptance, was in Sci-Fright, edited by Sian Ross-Martin.
Sackcloth & Ashes #6 and Unhinged #4, both published December 1999
Planet Prozak #9 was published in December 1999, Sci-Fright #6 was published in February 2000

Infantophobia appeared in my first collection, Strange Tales (details here)
All The Rage appeared in my second collection, Things We Leave Behind (details here)

27:32, Back Above The Clouds, Thank You For The Music and As Quiet As It Gets have never been re-published

Twenty years - where did all that time go, eh?

Monday, 30 September 2019

Let It Snow, by Sue Moorcroft - review and Q&A

Regular readers of the blog will know Sue Moorcroft and I have been friends for a while, having met at the Kettering Writers Group in 1999 (the group leader, of a more literary bent, consigned we two genre writers to the back of the room where we had a lot of laughs).  Since then Sue's gone from strength to strength, hitting number one in the Kindle Bestseller charts (with The Christmas Promiseand also becoming a Sunday Times Best Seller in the process (with The Little Village Christmas).  With her latest (the fourth) Christmas novel, Let It Snow now out in ebook (and appearing in paperback on 14th November), I'm pleased to be taking part in the book's blog tour.
This Christmas, the villagers of Middledip are off on a very Swiss adventure…

Family means everything to Lily Cortez and her sister Zinnia, and growing up in their non-conventional family unit, they and their two mums couldn’t have been closer.

So it’s a bolt out of the blue when Lily finds her father wasn’t the anonymous one-night stand she’d always believed – and is in fact the result of her mum's reckless affair with a married man.

Confused, but determined to discover her true roots, Lily sets out to find the family she’s never known; an adventure that takes her from the frosted, thatched cottages of Middledip to the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland, via a memorable romantic encounter along the way…

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My review:

Lily Cortez finds out, by accident, that her real father has just died.  Growing up with her sister Zinnia in a two-mum household, she’d assumed - and made her peace with the fact - her father was a donor but now it appears her birth-mother, Roma, had a fling which her mum Patsie, wasn’t best pleased about.  To try and establish links with her “other” family, Lily moves to (Sue's wonderful town of) Middledip to work in the pub her half-brother Tubb runs.  But when he takes a sabbatical to Switzerland, in order to recuperate from a heart attack, Lily finds herself smitten with new bar manager Isaac though, as always in a Sue Moorcroft novel, things don’t run smoothly.

I liked this a great deal - Lily is a fantastic character and her interplay with Isaac is nicely handled, as is her friendship with Carola (from The Little Village Christmas).  It’s always great fun to spend time in Middledip (and revisit a lot of characters from Sue’s previous books) and, this time, the action moves further afield as a big chunk of the novel is set in Switzerland at Christmas, when snow is all around.  The pacing is spot on, the characters and atmosphere and perfectly realised and there’s a well-maintained suspense to the will-they-won’t-they.  Highly recommended.

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5 Questions With Sue Moorcroft:

I decided, on one of our regular get-together's at The Trading Post, to take the opportunity to quiz Sue about the book.

MW:   Let It Snow is a great title, I love that song.  Was it enjoyable fitting the phrase into the novel?

SM:   My publishers suggested it and one other title. I chose Let it Snow because I like the song too. Until then, the favourite song of the singing group in the book, the Middletones, was White Christmas. I changed it.

MW:   Brilliant! The book features a timeline shift where some characters are in Switzerland and some in the UK.  How did you manage that?

SM:   With a giant headache, most of the time. Timelines aren’t my biggest talent so I keep an electronic timetable, which I update as I write the first draft and then again whenever changes occur in subsequent drafts or edits. As well as the characters being in two countries, I had to weave in the timetable for medical treatment of Isaac’s ex-girlfriend Hayley and also the work rota of all the staff at the pub, The Three Fishes. I also had a Google calendar with different characters showing up in different colours.

And yet … when I was on a writing retreat in Italy in the summer I received an email from Avon saying the proofreader thought she’d found an anomaly or two … OK, it was three. I was so sure I’d got it right this time I almost sent the electronic timeline and asked her to check for herself. I’m glad I didn’t because the proofreader was right twice and I was right only once.

While on her research trip, Sue finds one of her novels in German
MW:   Why did you choose to set this novel in Switzerland?

SM:   My friend and fellow author Rosemary J Kind sometimes lives in the UK and sometimes Switzerland. We were talking about her driving to Switzerland in Messenger and she said, ‘If you want to set a book there, you can come with me.’ I got straight on to my editor to see if she thought it was a good idea and, happily for me, she did! Ros and I immediately began planning the trip. I’m indebted to her because she introduced me to her Swiss friends and took me to most of the Christmassy things you find in the book as well as picking me up and driving me through England and France to Switzerland.

MW:   What was your favourite thing about Switzerland?

SM:   The beautiful parts. Lakes, mountains, architecture … everywhere you look is another gorgeous view or elegant building. Also, they really know how to do Christmas. The lights and Christmas markets were breathtaking.

MW:   Do you prefer Middledip in the summer or the winter?

SM:   Winter does make the village look like a Christmas card with frost on the cottages but I don’t mind what the season is, to be honest. I return there with a feeling of pleasure at visiting a place I know well and wondering who I’ll encounter this time. I already know my Winter 2020 book will be set between Middledip and Sweden.

MW:  Great answers, thanks Sue!

SM:   Thanks very much for inviting me onto your blog, Mark, and also for joining the Let It Snow blog tour.

Enjoying a meal in Derby with writing friends (from left, Peter Mark May, Lisa Childs, Richard Barber and Ross Warren), July 2019
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In other news, I was part of the team who have helped keep Rothwell Library open, following the inability of Northampton County Council to conduct themselves in a professional manner.  As we were planning out the activities, I mentioned that Sue & I had done a few library events together and one thing quickly led to another, until we came up with this...

If you're local, we'd love to see you!

Sue Moorcroft is a Sunday Times and international bestselling author and has reached the coveted #1 spot on Amazon Kindle. She’s won the Readers’ Best Romantic Novel award and the Katie Fforde Bursary, and has been nominated for several other awards, including the Romantic Novel of the Year Awards.

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