Monday, 24 February 2020

Into The River, by Mark Brandi (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and loved, which I think adds to the genre (crime, in this case) and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.
Winner of The Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger and The 2018 Indie Debut Fiction Award

Growing up in a small country town, Ben and Fab spend their days playing cricket, wanting a pair of Nike Air Maxes and not talking about how Fab's dad hits him, or how the sudden death of Ben's next-door neighbour unsettled him. Almost teenagers, they already know some things are better left unsaid.

Then a newcomer arrived. Fab reckoned he was a secret agent and he and Ben staked him out. He looked strong. Maybe even stronger than Fab's dad. Neither realised the shadow this man would cast over both their lives.

Twenty years later, Fab is going nowhere but hoping for somewhere better. Then a body is found in the river, and Fab can't ignore the past any more.


I came to this without knowing anything about it - I was browsing in The Works and saw the cover blurb by my friend Louise Jensen - and I'm pleased about that, because if I'd known the issue at the heart of the story, I might have passed on it.  I'm so glad I didn't.

Ben and Fab are best friends, ten-year-olds growing up in a small town in Northern Australia at the tail end of the 80s (though this isn't specified until later).  They spend their days watching TV (including The A-Team, which I thought was a brilliant touch), playing cricket and yabbying in the local creek.  What they don't do is talk about how Fab’s dad hits him or how the death of Ben’s next door neighbour Daisy unsettled him, certainly once the awful rumours start.  Then someone new moves in, a loner called Ronnie with a flash car and the shadow he casts over both boys lives will be felt for a long time to come.

The situation between Ben and Ronnie is harrowing but the worst of it happens off the page which, I think, makes the drama even more intense.  Brandi captures the dry and hot atmosphere of a country town well, so you can almost feel the parched pavements and gardens and his characterisation of the ten year olds feels accurate - they’re smart, but not as clever as they think they are while their relationship is boisterous and natural.  The adults are seen through their eyes, involved but aloof and Fab’s homelife is nicely done, the violence countered by his wonderful mum (who Ben falls for).  The book is split into three parts, with the first told from Ben's POV (he knows there's a problem with Ronnie, he just can't see what it is) and once that storyline has built to its horrific conclusion, Feb takes the next part, as an adult clearly damaged by life and barely scraping by.  So when the past does return - as heralded by the prologue - things start to crumble.

I liked this a lot, it’s tense but often funny, real and harrowing but mostly hopeful, that friendships do conquer fear sometimes.  Engaging, briskly told and well paced, this is a cracking novel and thoroughly deserving of its acclaim.  Highly recommended.



Monday, 17 February 2020

Looking For Rachel Wallace, by Robert B. Parker, at 40

Forty years ago this month, Robert B Parker published the sixth Spenser novel, Looking For Rachel Wallace.
cover scan of my 1987 Penguin edition
Spenser is hired to look after the campaigning lesbian-feminist author Rachel Wallace.

Her new book is going to dish the dirt on people in high places, but its publication brings death threats.  The reluctant Rachel doesn’t like macho wise guys like Spenser and a clash of personalities is inevitable.

After Spenser is fired, Rachel Wallace is kidnapped but the Boston private eye feels honour-bound to find her.

As I wrote in my appreciation of Robert B. Parker (from 2014, you can read it here), I got into crime fiction in the late 80s, starting with Raymond Chandler (after watching The Long Goodbye on Alex Cox’s wonderful Moviedrome thread) who led me to Sara Paretsky’s V I Warshawski series, the Hannah Wolfe novels from Sarah Dunant and various stand-alone titles.  In early 1988, while browsing in Kettering W H Smiths, I picked up - quite by chance - Parker’s Promised Land and fell in love with it (I wrote about it here), becoming an instant fan and working my way through the series until Double Deuce in 1992 (when we parted company).  The earlier novels, in my opinion, are definitely the better ones and I was really pleased to find Looking For Rachel Wallace, on re-reading, still stands up perfectly well, sexual politics and all, being a cleverly constructed mystery with great characters.

Hired by her publisher, Spenser is assigned to protect the feminist-lesbian writer Rachel Wallace, who is ruffling feathers left and right with her new book, Tyranny, that exposes prejudice in high office and business in the Boston area.  When his macho ways include getting into a fight to protect her, Rachel fires Spenser and when, three weeks later she’s kidnapped, he feels duty-bound to find her.  Told with engaging wit and nicely playing the whole spectrum of sexual politics, this sees Parker fitting into the rhythms he’d use for the remainder of the series and promotes Susan Silverman to full partner (she plays a considerable role in the story too).  The characters are well rounded, the mystery falls into place well and Quirk and Belson have much more to do than usual (though Hawk doesn’t make an appearance, more’s the pity).  In keeping with the timeline, this is more violent (Spenser kills two people at one point) than the later books, but Parker also tries to explain the ‘male code’, which is interesting (and sets up a nice relationship with a young cop called Foley).  With a cracking climax - Spenser staging a break-in - that takes place against a blizzard which has brought Boston to a stand-still, this zips along at a rapid pace and is never less than interesting.  Well worth a read!
Robert B. Parker
There really is a lot to like in this.  Spenser and Susan work well together, without a lot of the over-the-top relationship material which tends to overpower the story in later novels and Parker smartly allows Susan to add weight to Spenser’s interplay with Rachel Wallace.  The writer is a terrific creation, strong, smart and resilient and although she and Spenser will never see eye-to-eye, you get a sense of mutual respect from the midpoint (certainly towards the end) and Rachel would re-appear in A Catskill Eagle (1985), Stardust (1990) and Sudden Mischief (1998), developing a strong relationship with Spenser.

Although Hawk doesn’t appear (which is a shame, as I love his character), Lieutenant Martin Quirk and Sergeant Frank Belson do, with fairly big roles (Belson especially) and there’s a well played flare-up between Spenser and Quirk where both men are aware that our hero has slipped up (he fails to make a connection between the villains and a character we already know).  Indeed, the novel’s not afraid to show Spenser making mistakes, not least in his indirectly allowing Rachel to be kidnapped and I think this is one of the few occasions where he loses a fight (though, to be fair, it is against four people) and suffers the physical pain for it.  We also meet the neatly drawn Foley, a young policeman who proudly wears his Vietnam War decorations and clearly follows the same moral code as Spenser & Hawk.

Boston, as ever, is well captured with Parker presumably giving us some of his own thoughts on the city, especially the Boston Public Library at the start of chapter 19:

"The main entrance to the Boston Public Library used to face Copley Square across Dartmouth Street. There was a broad exterior stairway and inside there was a beautiful marble staircase leading up to the main reading room with carved lions and high-domed ceilings. It was always a pleasure to go there. It felt like a library and looked like a library, and even when I was going in there to look up Duke Snider's lifetime batting average, I used to feel like a scholar.
Then they grafted an addition on and shifted the main entrance to Boylston Street. Faithful to the spirit, the architect had probably said. But making a contemporary statement, I bet he said. The addition went with the original like Tab goes with pheasant. Now, even if I went in to study the literary influence of Eleanor of Aquitaine, I felt like I'd come out with a pound of hamburger and a loaf of Wonder bread."

One nice touch, I thought - Spenser & Rachel meet Susan for dinner at Rosalie’s restaurant in Marblehead which is not only a real place, it’s still operating.  As for the blizzard, Boston really was brought to a standstill by one in 1978 (you can read more about it here, at the Boston Globe) which would make sense in terms of the time Parker was writing the novel.

Part of the clash between Spenser and Rachel is her assertion she has no sense of humour and his frequent quipping.  There’s usually plenty of wisecracks in the series but this has some really smart lines.

After being introduced to Rachel she grills him and Spenser reckons “if I’d had tires, she’d have kicked them.”

When he meets Rachel’s publisher, John Ticknor, the man comments he’s been told Spenser is “quite tough.”

“You betcha,” I said. “I was debating here today whether to have the lobster Savannah or just eat one of the chairs.”

Ticknor smiled again, but not like he wanted me to marry his sister.

Crossing a picket line at the Belmont Public Library, one of the demonstrators yells “Dyke!”

I said, “Is he talking to me?”

Rachel Wallace said, “No.”

The Belmont library scene also includes a nice touch in that the audience is under-appreciative, which happens a lot more than non-writers would imagine and it only gets worse later when they go to a book signing and Rachel has to contend with “where do you get your ideas?”

Lastly, in Chapter 10, while guarding Rachel’s hotel room, he’s approached by Callahan, the house detective (he also re-appears in other novels) who asks him for identification.

I handed him my license. He looked at it and looked at me. “Nice picture,” he said.
“Well, that's my bad side,” I said.
“It's full face,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.

hardback third edition (1980) from Delacorte Press (New York)
If you’re intrigued by the Spenser series and looking to get into it, then I envy the enjoyment you have to come.  Although I would, of course, recommend Promised Land (wholeheartedly) or this as starting points, it’s worth bearing in mind the books sit in a chronological timeline so it’s perhaps best to start at the beginning with The Godwulf Manuscript.



Sources:
Bullets And Beer: Looking For Rachel Wallace

Monday, 10 February 2020

Devil Inside, by INXS

Since it's 32 years old this week, I'm taking a look at INXS' Devil Inside, a single I think best encapsulates not only the excellent Kick album but also the time period.
Devil Inside, the second single (following Need You Tonight) from Kick (which I wrote about here), was released on 8th February 1988 in Australia and 13th February 1988 for the rest of the world.  Recorded at Rhinoceros Studios in Sydney during 1986, it was written by Andrew Farriss & Michael Hutchence, produced by Chris Thomas and mixed by Bob Clearmountain.

It’s highest worldwide chart position was number 2, on the US Billboard Hot 100 for a fortnight (held off the top spot by Billy Ocean’s Get Outta My Dreams and Whitney Houston with Where Do Broken Hearts Go), going on to spend seventeen weeks on the chart.  It peaked at number 6 in Australia, 20 in France, 25 in Ireland and 47 in the UK (spending five weeks on the charts here).

Here come the world
With the look in its eye
Future uncertain but certainly slight
Look at the faces listen to the bells
It's hard to believe we need a place called hell

The song, part of the first batch for Kick, was written in July while the band was on the If You Got It, Shake It World Tour in 1986.  Andrew Farriss said, “The band was staying at a hotel in Edgware Road in London.  That’s where I wrote the riff - I put it on a demo in my room.  I worked out the chords, played everything for Michael and he said, ‘That’s really good, let’s run with it.’”

The band enjoyed playing the song live - “if you know the right parts,” Farriss said, “you can pretty much play this song as a bar band” - and Chris Thomas managed to preserve that in the recording.  The song quickly became a staple of concerts and it closed the Summer XS gig at Wembley in July 1991.
Joel Schumacher directed the video, a situation which arose from the soundtrack for his film The Lost Boys, released in 1987.  INXS contributed two songs, both of them collaborations with Jimmy Barnes - Good Times (a cover of the Easybeats song from 1968) and Laying Down The Law (co-written by INXS and Barnes) - which were originally recorded to publicise the Australian Made concerts from December 1986 to January 1987.  Since the music budget for the film wasn’t big enough but Schumacher wanted INXS, he agreed to direct a music video for them and they held him to the offer.

The video was filmed over two nights in mid-November 1987 at the Balboa Island Arcade & Boardwalk in Newport Beach, Southern California.  The production utilised three locations - the Balboa Saloon, as well as the Playland and Funzone arcades - and shot from 8pm to 4am (INXS had to leave for Canada after the second night of shooting for a concert).  The boardwalk was kept open to the public who were encouraged to be involved as unpaid extras, whilst the bodybuilders, bikers, businessmen, the fortune teller and the transvestite were all actors brought in for the shoot.

Kirk Pengilly said, in interview, that he didn’t like the video feeling it was “too American” but I love it and the song equally - both, to me, pretty much encapsulate the 80s in terms of sound and vision.

Devil Inside was nominated for Best Editing in a Video at the 1988 MTV Video Music Awards, but lost out to Need You Tonight (which swept the awards, winning five trophies).

The song was issued on vinyl and CD.  The 7” single and a 12” Maxi-single both contained the single version (at 5:11, the album version run 3:55) and On The Rocks, with the 12” version also including a Devil Inside remix (6:36).  The CD single was identical to the 12”.
Kick was released on 19th October 1987 and remains the bands most successful album, with almost 14m units sold.  It was produced by Chris Thomas (his second of three INXS albums) and recorded at Rhinoceros Studios in Sydney and Studio De La Grande Armée in Paris.  It spent 85 weeks on the ARIA album chart (peaking at number 2), 81 weeks on the US Billboard chart (peaking at number 3) and 103 weeks on the UK album chart (peaking at number 9).  I wrote extensively about the album on its 30th anniversary and you can read the blog post here.

The albums was supported by the enormous Kick World Tour which started at East Lansing in Michigan on 16th September 1987 and took in America, Canada, the UK, Europe, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.  The tour ended on 13th November 1988 at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, having played to more than 3 million people.

This performance was shot at Summer XS, Wembley Stadium, 13th July 1991 - a concert I was lucky enough to attend - and later released on the "Live Baby Live" DVD, directed by David Mallet.  Talk about a great way to close a show!


Monday, 3 February 2020

Ten Favourite Covers: Golden Age 2000AD

According to Steve MacManus’ thoroughly entertaining autobiography, The Mighty One: My Life Inside the Nerve Centre, the key age-range for comic readers in the late 70s was the 8-12’s (putting my own ‘golden period’ from 1977 to 1981).  As I’ve been re-discovering 2000AD over the last few years - through Steve’s book, The Judge Dredd Case files and Future Shocks - I thought the comic would make an ideal subject for my occasional Ten Favourite Covers thread.

I hope, if you were a fellow fan, you see a favourite of your own here too…
1977, art by Don Lawrence and Carlos Ezquerra (Judge Dredd) - the first copy I read
1977, art by Evi
1978, art by Dave Gibbons
1978, art by Mike McMahon
1978, art by Kevin O'Neill
1979, art by Carlos Ezquerra
1980, art by Brian Bolland
1980, art by Massimo Bellardinelli
1981, art by Brian Bolland
1981, art by Dave Gibbons

Carlos Sanchez Ezquerra (12th November 1947 - 1st October 2018) was born in Zaragoza, Spain.  He began working in UK comics in 1973, starting with girls romance titles before moving onto westerns and various strips for D. C. Thmson.  In 1974, he was recruited by John Wagner & Pat Mills to work on Rat Pack for Battle Comic.  For 2000AD he co-created, with John Wagner, the characters of Judge Dredd and  Johnny Alpha (Strontium Dog) and also drew the adaptions of Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat novels (wherein Jim DeGriz looked remarkably like James Coburn).
wraparound cover art by Carlos Ezquerra, 1980
Evi, according to comicvine, is the “mysterious cover artist for early issues of weekly British sci-fi anthology comic 2000AD”

David (Dave) Gibbons was born in London on 14th April 1949.  Self-taught, he began working for IPC Media as a letterer and worked on 2000AD from Prog 1.  He drew the first twenty-four episodes of Harlem’s Heroes and was a prolific contributor beyond that, co-creating Rogue Trooper with Gerry Finley-Day.  Perhaps best known for co-creating Watchmen with Alan Moore, he also featured in photographs as superhero Big E, the editor of the short-lived Tornado comic (itself merged in 2000AD after 22 issues - I wrote about it here).

Mick McMahon is a British artist who worked on the first Judge Dredd strip in Prog 2 (co-creators John Wagner & Carlos Ezquerra had both walked away because of a dispute) and is credited with creating the ‘bigboots and crumpled clothes’ that have characterised him since.  He drew the bulk of the first Dredd serial, The Cursed Earth, sharing episodes with Brian Bolland (their styles were radically different), then worked on Ro-Busters, ABC Warriors, The Judge Child and Sláine.

Kevin O’Neill was born in England in 1953 and began working for IPC on Buster comic.  When he found out about 2000AD, he went to see Pat Mills (who was putting the thrill-zine together) and asked to be transferred to it.  As well as working on Ro-Busters, he co-created Nemesis The Warlock and Marshal Law (both with Pat Mills) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (with Alan Moore).  His story Shok!, co-created for the Judge Dredd Annual 1981 with Steve MacManus, formed the (uncredited until there was a court case) basis for Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990).
wraparound cover art by Kevin O'Neill, 1986
Brian Bolland was born in Lincolnshire on 26th March 1951 and is my favourite of the 2000AD artists.  After studying graphic design at Norwich University of the Arts, he began working on British underground magazines and became friends with Dave Gibbons.  The pair collaborated on a strip called Powerman which was only sold in Nigeria and when Gibbons went to work on 2000AD, Bolland soon followed (his first cover was Prog 11).  A self-confessed slow artist he was "by far the slowest of the rotating Judge Dredd artists" choosing to "take as long as I needed and do a half-way decent job" (he gets the mickey taken out of him for it in the Judge Dredd case files).  Credited with creating the look of Judge Death and Judge Anderson, Bolland later began drawing for DC Comics in the US and is perhaps best known for his work on Batman: The Killing Joke with Alan Moore as well as becoming a much-in-demand cover artist.
wraparound cover art by Brian Bolland, 1981
Massimo Belardinelli was born in Rome on 5th June 1938 and, inspired by Fantasia (1940), went into animation.  After moving into comics, he began working in the UK from the mid-1970s.  For 2000AD, among other strips, he drew Meltdown Man (written by Alan Hebden) while John Wagner & Alan Grant created Ace Trucking Co. to exploit his “fevered imagination”.  He stopped working for UK comics in 1993 when his agent died and passed away on 31st March 2007.
wraparound cover art by Massimo Bellardinelli, 1983

Thanks to Barney, keeper of the 2000 AD database.


Monday, 27 January 2020

Making A Monster, by Al Taylor and Sue Roy - a review

I have a list in my head, of books that I would love to read (that goes back decades) and I never seem to forget the entries on it.  Sometimes I'll prowl online sites, to see if I can spot a bargain (one of the issues of wanting to read old books is that sometimes they're very expensive), but mostly I frequent 2nd hand bookshops and keep my eyes open.  A few weeks back, I met my good friend Steve Bacon in Leicester and we called into the Loros Bookshop and I made a major discovery.  Even better, Making A Monster - which I've been looking for since discovering it existed in the late 80s - was only £4 so I snapped it up.
 A behind-the-scenes look at the great film makeup artists, their careers and creations, from Frankenstein to Star Wars, with revealing information on how to make your own monsters.

As regular readers of the blog will know (and if you don’t, this thread might interest you), I have a keen interest in the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts that go into the making of a film, everything from matte paintings to miniatures and all points between.  Back in the mid-70s, as a big fan of the TV series (my parents even bought me a plastic ape mask), I was given the Brown Watson Planet Of The Apes annual for Christmas and read it eagerly.  I loved the whole thing but one piece in particular, a section near the back called ‘How To Make A Monkey Out Of Roddy McDowall’, really grabbed me.

So Roddy McDowall was actually a man?  The apes, chimps and orangutans in the TV show weren’t really apes, chimps and orangutans - they were people, made up to look like them!  My six-year-old mind was blown.

In the 80s, as home video allowed me to watch films I'd only read about and I discovered the glory of Fangoria, I read as much as I could about make-up artists, becoming a huge fan of Rick Baker in the process (I wrote a post about him, which you can read here).  While I was devouring as much of this information as I could, I heard about Making A Monster and was keen to read it but it seemed to constantly be slipping out of my grasp.  Until now.


Back then, I imagined it would be full of instructions on how to create monsters (as the title would suggest) but it’s so much more, a roll-call of make-up greats from the start of the film industry up to Rick Baker.  Twenty-five artists are interviewed, some more interesting than others, but thanks to the timing (most of the early stalwarts were still alive when the book was published in 1981) there’s only a few who didn’t get to contribute some thoughts or anecdotes.

There's a good deal of information away from films and it was particularly heartening to read of the likes of Jack Dawn (who built prosthetic appliances for injured soldiers returning from World War 2), Gordon Bau (who created prosthetics for amputees after the war) and Howard Smit (who made up a team of undercover policemen trying to track down criminals mugging old ladies).  The John Chambers segment (he of Apes fame) is fascinating - as well as his credited make-up work in films, it appears he did a lot for other films without credit (including the head in the boat sequence from Jaws) in addition to a lot of work with wounded soldiers and people who'd suffered life-altering injuries and became the first make-up artist to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.  The book finishes with Stan Winston and Rick Baker, two men just starting out at the time (most of Baker’s section covers King Kong and goes into details of his stressful time on the film), who would go on to do great things - as the book was published, Baker was a year off creating his An American Werewolf In London effects that would win him an Oscar.
John Chambers works (with his assistant Tom Burman, who gets a chapter to himself) on the Planet Of The Apes make-up
Competently written and well laid out, it’s clear Sue Roy (who apparently did most of the work) interviewed her subjects thoroughly and it’s nice to see the changes in the film industry over the span of the twentieth century, with the newcomers building on the work of those who came before - and being reverential about it.  The book does have some glitches - the aforementioned Dawn is given full credit for the Creature From The Black Lagoon make-up, completely ignoring Milicent Patrick while Jacqueline Pearce who is mentioned as being the eponymous reptile in the Hammer film is shown, in a photograph, with the actress being menaced given her name - but these kind of add to its charm in a strange way.
The great Rick Baker at work creating the Incredible Melting Man
I found this completely fascinating, explaining difficult processes in a clear and easy way and really giving these technicians a chance to shine.  I’m glad I finally managed to track down a copy and if, like me, you’re interested in movie make-up, I’d very much recommend it.
The back cover collage shows the various stages Christopher Lee went through to become Frankenstein's monster
If you're interested in further reading, I wrote a blog post about make-up effects in films which you can read here.

Long out-of-print, you can find an online version of the book at archive.org on this link.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Mick & Sarah At The Pictures

I can’t remember now which Con Andrew David Barker & I first met at - though I’m going to assume it was an Edge-Lit - but I was already aware of him.  Thanks to Ross Warren and James Everington raving about it, I picked up The Electric (which I’ve been putting off reading, oddly enough, because I want to have time to properly savour it) and then Dead Leaves (which I wrote extensively about here).  A gifted writer with a great ear for dialogue and a nice line in nostalgia (always a winner with me), we were talking at Edge-Lit a couple of years ago about his next project, Mick & Sarah At The Pictures.  Part of the Unbound Books process, I was intrigued at the in’s-and-out’s of the project and eagerly pledged my support early on.
In the autumn of 1970, Mick and Sarah meet at their local cinema, The Rex, and go and see a Hammer horror double bill. They are nineteen and the future seems wide open. But they have no idea what kind of a decade they are about to grow into.

Last week, I got a chance to chat with Andrew about the book and everything else.

MW:   Hi mate, thanks for taking the time with this.  So to start off with, can you tell us what the book’s about?

ADB:   Mick & Sarah At The Pictures is a love story told in glimpses, snapshots over the course of a decade as my eponymous stars visit their local fleapit cinema, The Rex, and fall in and out of love during the movies. Each chapter takes place in a different, successive year, from 1970 to ’79, and features a different film they go and see.

They are two downtrodden working class kids in a dead end Midland town finding sanctuary in the images on the screen, and in each other.

It moves from glam to prog to punk, from Edward Heath to Margret Thatcher… about a Britain that is long gone, mostly for the better, but in other ways, it’s a disappeared England that I kind of yearn for.

It is the story of two young people and the old picture house that shapes their hopeless lives.

MW:   How did the idea come about - and how much research did you have to do?

ADB:   This is my third novel to be about the movies, or more to the point, about how cinema can effect our lives, shape our imaginations, and give us the pull, the need to get out of the drab streets of industrial towns. Seems that’s kind of my thing. This novel, I believe, is a more mature work. The kids in The Electric were 15, in ‘Dead Leaves they were 17, and in this one, I chart Mick and Sarah’s life from the age of 19 to 29. An age of huge change. I’m probably just building up to my middle-age novel.

I knew I wanted to explore the nature of love and how it can be held onto, what happens when it begins to drift, and what are the things in life that can bind us. That bind us forever. In Mick and Sarah’s case it’s the movies down at their local fleapit. I had the idea while writing The Electric while imagining the lives of the two lovers in that novel who build the haunted cinema. It took awhile to find the period I wanted to use. I think my original idea was to meet the characters every ten years and it move from childhood in the 1930s/40s up to present day, but that was just too unwieldy.
I arrived at the 1970s because I’m interested in that period of British history, both culturally and politically, as it was such a turbulent time and yet, such a vibrant time. The 60s were well and truly over and there was the three day week, and rubbish piled up in the streets, and loads of bombings, and blackouts and such political turmoil, but hey, the music was great, for the most part, and so were the movies.

Yet, the 1970s may be seen as the golden age of American movies, but in provincial picture houses up and down the country they weren’t necessarily showing The Godfather or Jaws, but film adaptations of TV sitcoms such as On the Buses or Up Pompeii! and of course the Carry On films. These used to pack ‘em in. Also there were the British sex comedies, such as the Confessions series and Can You Keep It Up For a Week? starring Boba Fett! All this stuff was just naughty seaside postcards writ large and viewing them now it’s incredible people paid to see them at the cinema. But they sure did.

I was interested in the historical context of these films and how they played into the society and the sexual mores of the times.  As I was writing about a certain year one chapter at a time, I didn’t research that year until I started each chapter. So I kind of went through the decade with Mick and Sarah. It was fascinating. I was born in 1975, so my memories of the decade are soaked in a brown and yellow-patterned wallpaper haze. I talked to my mum quite a bit about the world then and she gave me some great insights. It was a strange time, on the one hand the country was on its knees, yet there seemed to be a great sense of community and social connection. I say that knowing that wasn’t the case for minorities at all. It was grim on that side of things.

MW:   Why did you choose to go the crowdfunding/Unbound route?

ADB:   I am interested in all new platforms, new ways to get work out to audiences. On the film side I’ve embraced streaming; I embrace self-publishing, I embrace using platforms like SoundCloud, Spotify and such to get your music out there. Anything goes now. It’s all in flux and it’s all up for grabs. No one knows what the media and entertainment landscape will look like in 5 years, let alone 10. Everything is changing and the old guard, the old ways of doing things are slipping.

That said, I’m still chasing that large publishing deal, that agent. I’m GenX and still clinging onto the old Empire in a lot of ways, but I also know it’s not going to last. Unbound appealed because they are a hybrid between crowdfunding and traditional publishing, plus their produced books are very beautiful, and their reach is ever widening. Coming from self-publishing and the small press world it felt like the next step up the ladder, but I’m not sure if I was kidding myself there.
At Edge-Lit 7 in July 2018, Andrew & I with Kevin Redfern - you can read my report on the event here
MW:   How have you found the campaign and need to market?

ADB:   The campaign has been tough, I won’t lie. I recently wrote a piece about facing potential failure on this project (which you can read here). Being very English about it, I’m not comfortable asking people for money. It’s a hard thing to do, especially for a book that has no fixed release date. It’s basically a pre-sale for something that might not be in your hands for another year, and I know that’s a big ask. I also know that times are tough and extra money is not something most people readily have. But I felt I had to take the chance.

I’ve a few friends, writers and filmmakers, who have crowdfunded and most have been successful. I like it in principle; I like that it is putting the project right in the audiences’ hands. The reality is a lot tougher.

I want to give everything I can in doing it this way. It is an experiment, and it’s still got a long road ahead, but we’ll see. 

MW:   You’re a multi-hypenate when it comes to creative projects, having written and directed short films too.  What’s your favourite creative process and do ideas present themselves in a concrete way, ie “this should be a book” or “this is definitely a film”?

ADB:   I did return to filmmaking in 2018 after being out of it for a long while after my feature film, A Reckoning (which you can see on YouTube here), went into the ditch. That’s a long story which I won’t cover here, but the films I made recently are short films and were designed to be as simple as possible. Basically designed to get me going again. I wrote and directed the simple, two-men-talking-in-a-pub short Two Old Boys and the more elaborate and fantastical Shining Tor in quick succession, and both have gone onto do really well on the festival circuit - Shining Tor in particular, which has won quite a few awards. So those were specifically designed to be made as short films, as where the subsequent shorts I’ve written.

Longer story ideas are a bit trickier to decide what form to write them in. For the most part I do know if it’s a novel or a screenplay, but I do currently have a 60 page treatment for a very big project that I don’t yet know how to approach. Is it a novel, or a grand limited series? I can’t decide. Maybe it’s both. Whatever it is, I know it’s a big, big project. Definitely the biggest I’ve ever tackled. So with that one the lines are currently a bit blurred.

As for a favourite creative process… the novel wins I suppose because I love to write prose and I have trouble with the format of the screenplay- the actual nuts and bolts template you have to stick to in that form. That said, I can’t keep away from movies. The great thing about screenplays is that they are pure story, pure structure, everything has to be moving the narrative forward, and I think writing them helps me streamline my novels as well.

I have ideas for more stories set in The Electric universe - basically want it to be my MCU! - and I want to take a very transmedia path with that, given the opportunity. So - novels, short stories, short films perhaps, graphic novels… kind of combining all the stuff I do under one project. That’s what I’d really like to do, but we’ll see how things pan out. I'm ready now for that all-consuming project - the big project of my life.


If this has perked your interest, more details of Mick & Sarah (including how to buy the book in pre-sale and other ways to support Andrew) can be found at the Unbound site here.


Andrew David Barker was born in Derby in 1975 and has worked as a window fitter, a rail track worker, a factory worker, a carpet salesman, a car cleaner, a delivery driver, a bricklayer's labourer, a shop assistant, and a care worker, among others.  None of them stuck.  In the late 90s he played lead guitar in a rock band that got signed, made a single, played London, thought they were famous, and, subsequently, imploded.

He is the author of The Electric, Dead Leaves, and the short ghost story collection, Winter Freits.

As a filmmaker he wrote and directed the feature A Reckoning and the award winning short films, Two Old Boys and Shining Tor.

He now lives in Warwickshire with his wife and daughters, trying to be a grown up and can be found online here and on Twitter here.


Monday, 13 January 2020

Nostalgic For My Childhood - A Formative Read

I’ve written on the blog before about books that had a major impact on my formative reading years (from The Restless Bones, which I wrote about here to my enduring love for The Three Investigators series) and one of them, which I hadn’t seen in ages, was re-published last year.
 This book is for anyone who has shivered at shadowy figures in the dark, heard strange sounds in the night, or felt the presence of a mysterious ‘something’ from the unknown. 

You will meet haunting spirits, screaming skulls, phantom ships, demon dogs, white ladies, gallows ghosts and many more. This book also explains the techniques and equipment of ghost hunting and tells how lots of ‘ghosts’ have been exposed as fakes or explained away as natural events. 

I loved spooky things as a kid and this slim paperback, originally published by Usborne in 1977 and written by Christopher Maynard, was the perfect book for ghost-mad kids like me back in the day.  At that time, as with The Three Investigators, I was the only person I knew who read the book (taking it out of the library, time after time) but through the wonder of social media, I now realise I wasn’t alone.
The book is well illustrated and covers everything from explaining what a ghost is and how they’ve appeared in history, where they’re likely to gather and how literature has presented them, through to a helpful map of a haunted village.  Everything, in fact, for a would-be ghost hunter and this includes a helpful guide for the equipment you’d need to do that too!  There’s a healthy scepticism (it debunks several myths) but it also presents the photographs that terrified me as a child, including the old lady in the back seat of a car (and you can tell me a million times her scarf is over part of the car frame, I still won’t believe you).

The re-print (which is identical to the original, other than the foreword from Reece Shearsmith, another fan) came about when people started discussing the book online.  Anna Howarth, who works for Usborne and was a fan, tells the company website she’d been “banging on” about bringing it back into print for most of the fifteen years she’d worked for the company.  When Shearsmith tweeted his love for the book, she wrote to him and he agreed to write the foreword for any reprints.
Buoyed by public reaction, Anna set up an online petition that quickly sailed past the target of 1,000 signatures and the book was reprinted in time for Halloween 2019, going to number one on Amazon when it was put up for pre-order.

To those of us who remember it from the first time around, it’s a wonderful blast of nostalgia that reads as well as you would hope.  For everyone else with even the vaguest interest in the supernatural, I’d say it’s essential reading.
Enjoy - and beware the things that go bump in the night…


Monday, 6 January 2020

The King For A Year Project, 5 Years On...

It's now five years since I started what I thought was going to be a little project.  It didn't end up quite like that, of course but as Stephen King says in The Mist, "this is what happened..."

I’ve been a fan of Stephen King since my Dad took me into a second hand bookshop in Wellingborough in the early 80s and I picked up a battered copy of Salem’s Lot, which still sits proudly on my shelf.  I used his fantastic non-fiction book Danse Macabre to help navigate my first steps around the horror genre, in print and film and went on to read everything he put out through to Needful Things in 1991 (and dipped back in and out again over the years, falling in love with his work again when I read Joyland in 2013).  When Matthew Craig was discussing on Twitter his proposed #CarrieAt40 project, I jumped at the chance to get involved and reviewed it (since I’d never read that particular novel) and thoroughly enjoyed it.

A little while after my review was published, in April 2014, I had a Facebook discussion with Alison Littlewood, Ross Warren, Anthony Cowin and Andrew Murray and we talked about our personal top 10 favourite King books.  Always keen to make lists, I then posted this...

Here's an idea - Ross, Anthony, Andrew, Alison - how about next year, we declare it a Stephen King year. Twelve of us, we each pick one book and then blog a review/essay on it and link back to each others blog.  What do you think?

As it happened, they all thought it was a very good idea whilst I wondered if I could find seven other people interested enough in the project to take part.  Turns out, that wasn't something I should have worried about at all as within an hour of mentioning it on Twitter, I'd filled all twelve spots.

Ross then suggested we have a dedicated blog for the reviews, so I set one up and Willie Meikle gave it the perfect title with King For A Year.  I asked a few more people if they’d like to take part, yet more came forward of their own volition and by the end of that day, I’d filled 24 spots.  By the end of the next day, I had 36 volunteer reviewers.  I asked a couple more people, a few more put their names forward and very soon, we had over 50 interested parties.

It seemed an unlikely (nay, mammoth) undertaking but suddenly, “King For A Year” meant exactly that, 52 people reviewing 52 books over the course of 12 months.  What had started life, mere days before, as a book-a-month blog was now a book-a-week blog.

As Alison said in a later tweet, “from little acorns…”

As curator, I decided on a fairly simple set of rules - each person would pick their own book to write about and the review could be laid out as they wanted (I would only edit for grammar) so we got a good mix.  Some reviews are thorough, bordering on the academic (Ray Cluley’s especially), whilst some are little slices of autobiography where the King book in question reminds the reviewer of happenings in their lives.  I was originally going to look at Pet Sematary (which I hadn’t read in years, certainly not since becoming a father and didn't revisit for a couple of years - see here) but chickened out, which was lucky for the blog because I then got two reviews for it - from a male and female viewpoint.

By the end of 2015 we'd reviewed 64 individual works (a few more than once) over 64 blog posts, contributed by 56 writers and received over 29,000 views in return, which is great.  We had a bit of a coup (noted King scholar Bev Vincent contributed his review of Finders Keepers from an ARC edition, so it published on the same day as the book), featured some first-time reviewers and hopefully included some people who aren’t particularly known for their love of horror (such as best-selling romance novelists Rowan Coleman and Julie Cohen).

For my part, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing (and put books onto my TBR pile based on some of the reviews) and it pleased me immensely that people had a good time re-reading their favourites and writing about them.

The blog was nominated for Best Non-Fiction in the British Fantasy Society Awards in 2016 (it didn't win, unfortunately) and closed once the year was up (even though certain titles never got picked up), though it's still live.  Once again, I'd like to thank all the reviewers, all the visitors (I hope, if you’re a Constant Reader, you had as much fun with the blog as I did), the original gang who helped shape the idea in the first place and, of course, Stephen King without whom…

The Contributors (in alphabetical order):
Stephen Bacon, Jenny Barber, Liz Barnsley, Simon Bestwick, Charlotte Bond, Donna Bond, Kevin Bufton, J. G. Clay, Chad Clark, Charlene Cochrane, Julie Cohen, Rowan Coleman, Anthony Cowin, Matthew Craig, Dean M. Drinkel ,Jay Eales, James Everington, Jay Faulkner, Paul M. Feeney, Gef Fox, David T Griffith, Shaun Hamilton, Kim Talbot Hoelzli, Nadine Holmes, Dave Jeffery, Carole Johnstone, Frazer Lee, Alison Littlewood, Selina Lock, Edward Lorn, Marc Lyth, Johnny Mains, Robert Mammone, Maura McHugh, Jim Mcleod, Gary McMahon, William Meikle, Andrew Murray, Thana Niveau, Wayne Parkin, Kit Power, John Llewellyn Probert, Sharon Ring, Lynda E. Rucker, Christian Saunders, Steve Shaw, Phil Sloman, Robert Spalding, Bev Vincent, Ren Warom, Ross Warren, Anthony Watson, Adele Wearing, Sheri White, David T. Wilbanks, Neil Williams

The blog can be found here

The complete run-down of reviews...

January
The Shining, reviewed by Anthony Cowin
Night Shift, reviewed by Stephen Bacon
The Dark Tower (The Dark Tower vol. VII), reviewed by Jenny Barber
Dr Sleep, reviewed by Wayne Parkin

February
Danse Macabre, reviewed by Kevin Bufton
'Salem's Lot, reviewed by Matthew Craig
From A Buick 8, reviewed by Neil Williams
Thinner, reviewed by Donna Bond

March
IT, reviewed by James Everington
Lisey's Story, reviewed by Dean M. Drinkel
Cell, reviewed by Maura McHugh
The Dead Zone, reviewed by Willie Meikle
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, reviewed by Alison Littlewood

April
Three novellas ("Ur", "Blockade Billy", "Mile 81"), reviewed by Kevin Bufton
On Writing, reviewed by Kit Power
Under The Dome, reviewed by Selina Lock
Rose Madder, reviewed by Rowan Coleman

May
Four Past Midnight, reviewed by John Llewellyn Probert
Christine, reviewed by Adele Wearing
The Regulators, reviewed by Shaun Hamilton
Carrie, reviewed by Lynda E. Rucker

June
Finders Keepers, reviewed by Bev Vincent
Dreamcatcher, reviewed by Kim Talbot Hoelzli
Revival, reviewed by David T. Wilbanks
Misery, reviewed by Jay Eales
Cycle Of The Werewolf, reviewed by Nadine Holmes

July
Joyland, reviewed by Gary McMahon
CUJO, reviewed by Thana Niveau
Skeleton Crew, reviewed by Phil Sloman
Different Seasons, reviewed by Dave Jeffery

August
Mr Mercedes, reviewed by Steven Savile
Gerald's Game, reviewed by Ray Cluley
The Colorado Kid, reviewed by Jim Mcleod
Needful Things, reviewed by Sharon Ring
Duma Key, reviewed by Liz Barnsley

September
Blaze, reviewed by Paul M. Feeney
Nightmare & Dreamscapes, reviewed by Christian Saunders
The Gunslinger, reviewed by Anthony Watson
Full Dark, No Stars, reviewed by Frazer Lee

October
Dolores Claiborne, reviewed by Carole Johnstone
The Dark Half, reviewed by Andrew Murray
A Face In The Crowd, Throttle and In The Tall Grass, reviewed by Kevin Bufton
The Drawing Of The Three, reviewed by Julie Cohen

November
Hearts In Atlantis, reviewed by Robert Mammone
Rage, reviewed by Johnny Mains
Pet Sematary, reviewed by Marc Lyth
Desperation, reviewed by J. G. Clay
Desperation, reviewed by Kit Power
11.22.63, reviewed by Chad Clark
11.22.63, reviewed by Kim Talbot Hoelzli
Insomnia, reviewed by Ross Warren

December
Duma Key, reviewed by Ren Warom
The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole, reviewed by Gef Fox
Just After Sunset, reviewed by Edward Lorn
Pet Sematary, reviewed by Charlotte Bond
Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption, reviewed by David T Griffith
The Green Mile, reviewed by Simon Bestwick
Bag Of Bones, reviewed by Charlene Cocrane
The Eyes Of The Dragon, reviewed by Jay Faulkner
Firestarter, reviewed by Paul M. Feeney
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, reviewed by Steve Shaw
Black House, reviewed by Robert Spalding
Everything's Eventual, reviewed by J. G. Clay
The Stand, reviewed by Sheri White

Monday, 23 December 2019

My Creative Year 2019

Continuing a tradition (the seventh occasion!), here's my annual look back at the year from a creative standpoint.
During the year I wrote two short stories (one of which Phil Sloman was kind enough to ask me for, see below for details) and a lot of essays for this blog (which is always enjoyable).  Most of my creative time was focussed on novels and all the attendant work to do with the admin of submitting them.  The second thriller novel, with the working title Hunted, went out to a lot of agencies and got some decent feedback but no bites.  I revised my first novel Hangman and re-sent that out too.  In the meantime, I started work on Novel 3 (I'm calling it Death At The Seaside but that won't stick) and, once again, hugely enjoyed the plotting process while out walking with David Roberts and Pippa.

* * *
I had one short story published.

Compass Wood appeared in The Woods, a Hersham Horror Books PentAnth anthology edited by Phil Sloman.  It was launched at Edge-Lit 8.
At the launch of The Woods, on stage at Edge-Lit 8 with, from left - James, Penny Jones, me, Cate Gardner, Simon B and Duncan Bradshaw (pic courtesy of Laura Mauro)

* * *
Ellen Datlow, as part of her Best Horror Of The Year anthology, included my short story Brooks Pond (which I wrote about here) in her Recommended Reading/Honorable Mentions List.  I was amazed and even more chuffed to see I got a mention in her round-up too and you can see more of her recommendations here.


* * *
My short story Mr Stix, originally published in For The Night Is Dark (edited by Ross Warren) and reprinted in my 2017 collection Things We Leave Behind, has been republished by PenMan Press as an e-chapbook available on Kindle.
When Sam Murphy's seven-year-old daughter Janey starts to suffer night terrors, he does his best to assure her that Mr Stix - a voice from the shadows who says "mean things" to her - can't hurt her.

Sam later finds the grotesque Mr Stix in the family bathroom and then his terrified wife tells him the story of her own childhood night-time fears.

If you're not in the UK, you can use this link - http://viewbook.at/Markwestmrstix

* * *
Jim Mcleod, at Ginger Nuts Of Horror, included The Woods in his Picks Of Year, calling Compass Wood a "fast-paced and action-filled tale".  You can read his full listing here.

Drive was reviewed by Andrew Hook at Goodreads who wrote: "If there's a definition of a page-turner, then this novella is it."  You can read the full review here.

Brooks Pond from The Black Room Manuscripts 4 was reviewed by Chris Hall at DLS Reviews who wrote: "the sort of story that keeps you on your toes, thinking you know where it’s going, only for it to unexpectedly shift course.  And the ending.  What an ending!  It’s dark, twisted and executed to absolute perfection." You can read the full review here.

Compass Wood was reviewed by Ben Walker at Kendall Reviews, who wrote: "delivers some decent frights [and] the image of the lunatic in pursuit of the story’s lead character stuck in my head for a while after the punchy ending."  You can read the full review here.

* * *
The Crusty Exterior - or constituent parts - managed two gatherings.

The first, which Phil Sloman unfortunately couldn't get to, was a meet-up in Leicester for my 50th birthday and I wrote about it here.

The second, organised by James but without Steve Harris, saw a gang of us meet up in Nottingham to sample bookshops, the Paupers' graves and a fine curry house.  I wrote about it here.
Crusties in Leicester, 2nd February 2019
 from left: John Travis, Sue Moorcroft, me, Steve Harris, Linda Nagle, David Roberts, James Everington & Steve Bacon
Birthday meal at Carluccio's Leicester with me, Sue, Linda, Steve, John, Steve, James & David

Crusties in Nottingham, 15th April 2019
from left - Wayne Parkin, me, Simon Jones, Penny Jones, Selina Lock, Richard Farren Barber, James Everingon, Phil Sloman and Jay Eales
* * *
To help celebrate the publication of her 15th novel, Let It Snow, I interviewed Sue Moorcroft at Rothwell Library in November.  A hugely enjoyable evening, we had a good turnout, a lively Q&A session and Sue did a reading - it also helped benefit the library, which I was really pleased about.  You can read my report on the event here.
Me and Sue Moorcroft, Rothwell Library, 13th November 2019
* * *
I only attended the one Con this year, Edge-Lit 8, held at The Quad in Derby on 13th July (see my report here).  Sledge-Lit was postponed for the year and FantasyCon was held in Glasgow, but the time-off requirements to travel proved sadly beyond me.
from left - me, Sue Moorcroft, Ross Warren, Peter Mark May, James Everington

from left - Simon Clark, John Travis, Steve Harris, Linda Nagle and me
* * *
I'm feeling confident for 2020 too, as I crack on with the thriller novel and, whatever happens, I'll keep you updated as to how things go.

As always, thank you so much, dear readers of this blog, for all your support in 2019, especially those who bought, read and liked my work - I really do appreciate it.