Monday, 27 July 2020

Nostalgic For My Childhood - More Summer Specials

A couple of years ago, having had a conversation with Dude (where he expressed amusement over the things I had to contend with when I was his age - including, but not limited to, very few available video games, cameras you had to carry separately and phones that were wired to the wall), I blogged about one great thing I had that he didn’t - the Summer Special (you can find the blog post here).
As I explained then, children’s comics now aren’t a patch on what they were back in the 70s and 80s (and before that, even).  Modern titles, sealed in plastic bags and littered with free gifts, have very little in the way of comic strips or stories (in fact, most seem to consist of quizzes) but back in the day the likes of IPC and DC Thomson produced a raft of weeklies that catered for most tastes (published on newsprint with a splash of colour).

Those weeklies, in turn, gave us the Summer Special to look forward to.  A one-off edition of our favourite title, it was thicker and more colourful and the perfect reading accompaniment to a long car journey or a lazy afternoon in the back garden.

Comics historian Lew Stringer suggests (on his blog) that “today’s retailers dislike them because they occupy valuable shelf space for too many months” which didn’t bother newsagents in the 70s - Summer Specials were especially popular at seaside towns because they were pretty much guaranteed sellers, with a new batch of kids every week who’d need entertaining.

Here are a few more from my golden-era of reading them (the late 70s into the early 80s) - what were your favourites?
1978 - Starlord (which I wrote about here) barely lasted long enough to justify its Summer Special!
1979 - war comics were a big part of my childhood

Once again, thanks to Lew Stringer for the history (see also David Barnett’s excellent blog piece at The Guardian).

Monday, 20 July 2020

Old School Horror 8: Death Tour, by David J. Michael

The eighth, in an occasional thread, of blog posts celebrating those cheesy, sleazy old-school pulp paperbacks from the 70s and 80s, which are now mostly forgotten.  Yes, we’re not talking great art here but these books have their place - for better or worse - in the genre and I think they deserve to be remembered.

This time, I'm looking at a novel that not only appears to switch genres halfway through but is a classic example of exploitation artwork (ie, misdirection!)...
cover scan of my copy - NEL paperback edition, July 1980
It was crazy but it was a story.
The five students who specialised in weird features for the college paper needed a story badly when they heard about alligators infesting the city's sewers.

With a stolen map of the sewer system they climbed down a manhole into an underground world of fetid pools and sludge-filled tunnels.

In a dark territory that played host to black rats and hideous reptiles their reporting mission turned into a nightmare as death sprang from the evil-smelling gloom ...


To start with, I'll address the elephant in the room.  This is called Death Tour and an alligator features on every single cover version there is (see more below).  If you're looking at this thinking "yay, a creature feature!" then, seriously, I'd advise you to move along now.

Still here?  Well that's an excellent decision because I picked this up expecting a creature feature and, far from being disappointed, found a lot to like.

Tom Marsh is a journalism student and member of a campus production group called Five-Star, whose regular feature Touring has become a hit in the University paper.  His partners-in-crime are Mary Malgren (also his girlfriend), overweight (and over-bearing) Cherry, Krevitch who does the photography but seems scared of his own shadow and the mentally impared Hunk who, it later transpires, isn’t a student at all but offered once to help carry their equipment and is now a member of the team.  A stock-in-trade of the horror novel (see also The Losers Club in IT), this little gang of outcasts works well together and we get some nice bits of history, later in the book, fleshing out their back stories.

The group is trying to work out which feature to work on next as Tom walks Mary home.  Clearly in love with her, their relationship is hampered by her father, a misanthropic alcoholic who controls her life and hates intellectuals (and plenty more besides) since his wife left him for a French teacher five years before, who expects Mary to be at his beck and call.  Mr Malgren (who has the great quote "The world is fine, but people stink") is the supervisor at the local sewage plant and, according to Mary, has just been bitten on the leg by an alligator, though he wants to keep that very quiet.  Tom realises this is their next assignment, attempts to butter Malgren up to get enough information on the sewers layout - and Mary secretly photocopies the plans - and then Five-Star launch their expedition.

Of course, nothing goes right and that’s not even counting the stories of people going missing in the tunnels.  Frightened by a turtle and “oversized goldfish” (a carp) in one of the holding tanks (more pet shop crazes, flushed away by their owners), they then derail an underground train before discovering they’re not alone in the sewers, as a shambling, white-haired troll who eats roasted rats seems intent on killing them.

The first half of the book enjoys a leisurely pace, taking its time to introduce the characters and their situation and works really well, especially their interplay.  Once they move underground, the pace picks up and Michael uses the locations and atmosphere well, especially the “things” in the water and the first appearance of the troll.  As the body count starts to rise (it’s obvious who the survivors will be from fairly early on, but at least one of the deaths took me by surprise), there’s a neat little twist that shifts the emphasis of the book and then we head off into proper horror territory, the victims pursued by a mad killer.  Brisk and to the point (the edition I read is all of 156 pages), this is good fun (so long as you don’t expect it to be a creature feature), populated by characters you care about and gleefully gruesome in its set pieces, while never outstaying its welcome.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

* * *
Not much is known about David J. Michael, even from the usual reliable sources (such as Will Errickson’s excellent Too Much Horror Fiction), though he published at least one other book, A Blow To The Head, in 1970 (reviewed favourably, as his first novel, in volume 30 of Best Sellers: From the U.S. Government Printing Office).  The New York Times Book Review liked it (check out the cover blurb - "Sheer, shuddering horror!") and the San Francisco Examiner wrote "Terrifying, it's a spine chiller" (on the back cover) while Kirkus were less complimentary, though our views on the first half are very similar.

The book is mentioned (along with a full-page reproduction of the Don Ivan Punchatz cover) in Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks From Hell and even makes an appearance in Stephen King’s excellent Danse Macabre (which I wrote about here) - when discussing Harlan Ellison’s excellent Croatoan, he calls Death Tour a “funny/horrible novel”.
Bobbs-Merill hardback, 1978
The novel appeared in hardback, from Bobbs-Merrill Co, in August 1978 and in Signet paperback (with the Punchatz artwork) in 1979.  New English Library, with cover art by Bob Martin, published the novel in July 1980.
Signet paperback, 1979
I wonder what Mr Michael did next...?

For a few years now, I've been collecting old 70s and 80s paperbacks (mostly horror), picking them up cheaply in secondhand bookshops and at car boot sales and slowly building a collection.  My friend (and fellow collector) Johnny Mains once told me that charity shops sometimes pulp old books like this because the market for them is so small - I understand why but I think it's terrible.  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 (too much cheese isn't good for anyone's diet), I'm going to review these "old-school" horrors (and perhaps include some bonus material, if I can find it).

Monday, 13 July 2020

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Poster Magazines part 2

Last year, I blogged about "poster magazines" I remembered from the 70s and 80s (you can read the post here).  It seemed to touch a chord but I was just as surprised to find people my age who'd never heard of them, so I thought I'd show a few more.

Poster magazines were essentially A4 glossy colour magazines which folded out into a (large) A1-sized sheet.  One side would be the magazine (with articles and plenty of photographs) while the reverse would be a giant poster and, depending on what you’d bought, the image might be a person, an action scene or the film poster.  I had several and most kids I knew had at least one huge poster on their wall.
A selfie (with my disc camera) from 1986, featuring the
For Your Eyes Only poster
The possibilities were endless.  Dez Skinn (before he created Starburst magazine) produced Monster Mag which featured gory movie stills from the likes of Hammer Films and Amicus.  Music was a big draw (singers and bands alike, as well as musical styles - my friend, the writer Mark Morris, remembers having punk ones on his wall).  You could pick up magazines devoted to TV series like Star Trek (a whole run of them), The Six Million Dollar ManDoctor WhoSpace: 1999The ProfessionalsThe HulkBattlestar Galactica and Planet of the Apes.  Film tie-in's were especially popular - if it was a blockbuster (and the 70s and 80s were full of them), there'd be a poster magazine on the newsagents shelves sooner rather than later (featuring the likes of Star WarsSuperman and James Bond).

spacemonstersmag reckons the magazines died out in the 1990's, which is a shame.  I still have a few in my collection (though not on the walls of my study) and think they’re great fun, another nostalgic item for film and TV fans of a certain age.

Did you have any?  Which ones were on your wall?
I think I might have mentioned before that I was a huge fan of The Six Million Dollar Man.
I reckon the first thing that went through your head when you saw this was either "Flash, ah-ah..." or "Gordon's alive?"
As you can see from the picture above, I had this on my wall for quite a few years.  I wrote a retrospective on the film, which you can read here.
One of the first "properly scary" horror films I saw on video, which I wrote about here.
As well as the posters, this also included 50 behind the scenes nuggets (with pictures) - I was in my element!  I previously wrote about Return Of The Jedi here.

you can read the previous poster magazine post here

Monday, 6 July 2020

Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin (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 (autobiography, in this case) and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan (though if you were a fan, you'd probably read this long before now...)
Steve Martin has been an international star for over thirty years. Here, for the first time, he looks back to the beginning of his career and charmingly evokes the young man he once was.

Born in Texas but raised in California, Steve was seduced early by the comedy shows that played on the radio when the family travelled back and forth to visit relatives. When Disneyland opened just a couple of miles away from home, an enchanted Steve was given his first chance to learn magic and entertain an audience. He describes how he noted the reaction to each joke in a ledger - 'big laugh' or 'quiet' - and assiduously studied the acts of colleagues, stealing jokes when needed. With superb detail, Steve recreates the world of small, dark clubs and the fear and exhilaration of standing in the spotlight. While a philosophy student at UCLA, he worked hard at local clubs honing his comedy and slowly attracting a following until he was picked up to write for TV. From here on, Steve Martin became an acclaimed comedian, packing out venues nationwide. One night, however, he noticed empty seats and realised he had 'reached the top of the rollercoaster'.

BORN STANDING UP is a funny and riveting chronicle of how Steve Martin became the comedy genius we now know and is also a fascinating portrait of an era.

I'll start this with the confession that I missed Steve Martin's stand-up - the golden period of Saturday Night Live and his groundbreaking shows came before I was able to either see or properly understand them.  Delving back into memory, I think I was first aware of him from The Jerk and The Man With Two Brains, two films that really tickled me at the time and continue to do so. The former was probably on BBC2 one night, the latter featured Kathleen Turner and following her turns in Romancing The Stone and Body Heat, she was a major crush of mine in the early 80s, who led me to a lot of interesting films.

Having read Wild & Crazy Guys by Nick DeSemlyn (ostensibly about SNL it also features quite a bit on Martin), I decided to pick up his autobiography and I'm really pleased I did.  A slim volume, it charts his early life in the 40s and 50s, in a home dominated by a father generous in everything but his affection.  Martin escapes as soon as he can in the 60s, first to Disneyland where he works in the magic shop and learns the craft and then to San Francisco, where he starts performing.  His act slowly develops as he sticks to his guns and goes against the grain (he writes his stand-up was “10 years spent learning, 4 years spent refining, and 4 years spent in wild success”), finally hitting the big time in the mid-70s.  Around his burgeoning career, he was also in right place at the right time for a lot of things, from his girlfriends (he dated Mitzi Trumbo and was invited to dinners with her dad Dalton) to his comedy friends, while being part of (but slightly removed from) the zeitgeist.

Told with a lovely dry wit and a searing honesty, this is a cracking book, not only revealing Mr Martin as painfully shy but also a genuinely nice bloke, while proving how tough comedy can be (he tapes his acts, then reviews and analyses them in depth to work out what got laughs and what didn’t).  His decision to stop stand-up in 1981 and move into films is explained and the book pretty much ends there, which really made me eager for volume 2 of the biography (which, as of writing this, hasn’t appeared).  He does, however, complete the story to date (the book was published in 2007) explaining the situation with his family, which is both heart-warming (with his sister) and made me well-up (his parents).

Interesting, intriguing, funny and sad, this is the perfect autobiography and I’d highly recommend it.

Monday, 29 June 2020

The Real Life Mill

In 2011, Greyhart Press published my novelette The Mill as a stand-alone title.  It was originally published in the acclaimed Pendragon Press anthology We Fade To Grey in 2008, edited by Gary McMahon (who, in asking for it, succeeded in pulling me out of a writers block that had consumed me for two years).  A story about grief, guilt and coughing ghosts, Mark Morris in his introduction called it "one of the most moving pieces of writing I have read in a long time".
Almost everything about The Mill has a touch of autobiography, not least the key location and The Folly, as we called it, can be found at the end of Shotwell Mill Lane in Rothwell,  From above (thanks Google), it looks like a very small wooded area but within it are the ruins of the old mill.  When I was growing up, in the 70s and 80s, we often played down there (war games worked particularly well, with the old cellars and walls) and it wouldn't be unusual, during the summer holidays, to head down with your mates and discover four or five other groups of kids there.
The River Ise separates Rothwell and Desborough and The Folly is shown in the centre of the photograph
In 2012 (you can see the post here), I explored the site with Dude and found it extremely overgrown and difficult to navigate - it obviously wasn't used as a playground any more.
Dude, in 2012, standing in front of the right hand cellar
During the lockdown period, two things happened.  My wife and I, trying to find long walks in a relatively small town, followed an old footpath map and discovered several places I didn't even know existed, one of which led us to walk back by The Folly.  It was a lovely day, no-one was about and so I took the chance to grab a few photographs.
The same cellar Dude is standing in front of in the other photo - so those trees have sprouted well in the past 8 years...
Further around from the cellars, I wonder what the grave-shaped opening is for?
If you've read the story, I hope you found the Mill itself to be quite a scary place.  I've never been to the real location in the dark but, with its well out of the way location and the whispering trees, I can imagine it's quite eerie.  When I was researching the idea, in an attempt to lend as much truth to the descriptions as I could, I looked everywhere to try and find a photograph of the original mill.  I failed and so made the whole thing up (or, I suppose, did what a writer is supposed to do).  Then, quite by chance, my mum spotted a picture (she remembers the building before it was demolished) someone had posted on a Rothwell Facebook page.

This originally appeared in the Kettering Evening Telegraph in December 1939 and, to my delight, Shotwell Mill looks as creepy as I've always hoped it would.  What do you think?
Kettering Evening Telegraph, 22nd December 1939
Sometimes, it appears, real-life can be even more creepy than a horror story...

You can find more details about The Mill here

Monday, 22 June 2020

Skeleton Crew at 35

Skeleton Crew, the second of Stephen King’s short fiction collections, was published on 21st June 1985 by Putnam in the US and Macdonald in the UK.  It features nineteen short stories, a novella (The Mist), two poems (Paranoid: A Chant and For Owen), a chatty introduction and some marvellous story notes.
cover scan of my copy, the 1986 Futura edition
The stories, collected from a variety of magazines and anthologies, spanned seventeen years from The Reaper’s Image (King’s second professional sale) to The Ballad Of The Flexible Bullet (completed in 1983) and three were previously unpublished - the two poems and Morning Deliveries (Milkman No. 1), adapted from an unfinished novel, The Milkman.

I got the 1986 Futura paperback which appeared around about the time I started work at Hunters Foods in Corby and for many weeks it was my book of choice at lunchtimes.  I was already a big fan of Stephen King (and 1986 would cement that, with the publication of IT, which I wrote about here) and I went into Skeleton Crew full of enthusiasm.  Thankfully, it delivered everything I wanted it to.  Obviously, some of the pieces didn’t work for me (the poems, certainly, along with the more sci-fi orientated stories) but a handful were so special they’ve long remained favourites of mine.

The Mist opens the collection.  Perhaps the best known of the stories here, it’s a fantastic read exceptionally well told, perfectly constructed and scary as you like.  Alongside it, I’d place Here There Be Tygers, The Raft, Nona, Uncle Otto’s Truck, Gramma and the gleefully gory Survivor Type which King mentions in his excellent non-fiction book Danse Macabre calling it an example of a story he didn’t think he’d ever be able to publish.

from Fangoria #42, February 1985
Written as the diary, it charts the final days of Richard Pine, a disgraced surgeon who was attempting to smuggle a large amount of heroin on a cruise ship.  He finds himself marooned on a tiny island in the Pacific with very few supplies, no food but all the heroin he could ever need and our self-proclaimed “survivor type” charts his day-to-day activities as he succumbs to isolation and starvation.  After being forced to amputate his foot, he realises he can eat it to survive and things go downhill from there.  Like I say, I loved the story and I really loved the last line (which I won’t spoil for you).

The story was first published in Terrors (1982), edited by Charles L. Grant and in a Monsterland Magazine interview between them in May/June 1985, King says “as far as short stories are concerned, I like the grisly ones the best. However the story Survivor Type goes a little bit too far, even for me."  In his story notes, he writes “I got to thinking about cannibalism one day - because that's the sort of thing guys like me sometimes think about - and my muse once more evacuated its magic bowels on my head. I know how gross that sounds, but it's the best metaphor I know, inelegant or not...”

Released in the middle of the King boom, a lot of the Skeleton Crew stories were adapted for film and television.  The Raft became part of Creepshow 2 (1987), Word Processor Of The Gods was an episode of Tales From The Darkside series in 1984, Gramma was an episode of The New Twilight Zone (with a screenplay by Harlan Ellison) in 1986, The Mist became a 2007 film written and directed by Frank Darabont and then a TV series in 2017 while Gramma was adapted into the feature film Mercy in 2014.

The collection also followed Night Shift (which I wrote about here) with several Dollar Baby films (a deal whereby students could make an adaption after buying the rights for $1).  These were Here There Be Tygers (1988 and 2003), Cain Rose Up (1989), Paranoid (2000), The Jaunt (2007), Survivor Type (2011) and The Reaper's Image (2013).  The Mist was also adapted into a 90-minute full-cast audio production as well as a text-based video game from Mindscape.

1985 turned out to be a very busy year for Stephen King.  He began publishing his fan newsletter Castle Rock, which ran until 1989 and Cycle Of The Werewolf, a previously limited edition, was published as an illustrated mass market paperback in April (the film version of it, Silver Bullet, was released in October).  April was also the month his pseudonym, Richard Bachman, was exposed, which led to Misery becoming a Stephen King novel. Production began in June on Stand By Me (based on his novella The Body, from Different Seasons (1982) and in July, King began filming Maximum Overdrive (his sole directorial credit, based on Trucks from Night Shift) while also working on revisions to IT.  He made the cover of Time magazine in October.

Skeleton Crew published with a first printing run of 500,000 copies, would sell a total of 720,000 by the end of the year and another 100,000 before 1990.

The collection was nominated for the 1986 World Fantasy Award and won the Locus Award.
Macdonald hardback edition dust jacket, 1985
Table Of Contents
The Mist (1980)
Here There Be Tygers (1968)
The Monkey (1980)
Cain Rose Up (1968)
Mrs. Todd's Shortcut (1984)
The Jaunt (1981)
The Wedding Gig (1980)
Paranoid: A Chant (1985)
The Raft (1982)
Word Processor of the Gods (1983)
The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands (1981)
Beachworld (1984)
The Reaper's Image (1969)
Nona (1978)
For Owen (1985)
Survivor Type (1982)
Uncle Otto's Truck (1983)
Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1) (1985)
Big Wheels: A Tale of The Laundry Game (Milkman #2) (1980)
Gramma (1984)
The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet (1984)
The Reach (1981)

Skeleton Crew is a solid collection of horror fiction and even if it doesn’t quite measure up to the standard King himself set with Night Shift, it’s still an excellent piece of work.  If you haven’t read it before then I envy you the experience - if you have, why not read it again?

Grady Hendrix at
Too Much Horror Fiction

Monday, 15 June 2020

The Art Of British Comics (in the 70s) - part 3

According to Steve MacManus' excellent autobiography The Mighty One, the traditional age range for comics readers in the late 70s was the 8-12's (making my golden period 1977- 81).  Looking back at that period of British comics reveals a lot of impressive cover art, much of which remains vivid in my mind.

Since my previous posts (you can read the 2018 one here, the 2019 one here) I've collected a few more issues via ebay, retro shops and picked up a couple of reprint collections from Rebellion too.  Time and again, I'm struck by the high quality of the artwork, both for the strips themselves and the covers and I still think it's a real shame you don't see this kind of thing any more.

So, to once again make up for the lack of hand-drawn colour on comic shelves these days, here's another selection of covers from the 1970s (and sneaking into the 80s).

My favourite childhood comic, I wrote an appreciation of Bullet which you can read here
I wrote an appreciation of Starlord, which you can read here
I wrote an appreciation of The Crunch, which you can read here

If you enjoyed this, I'd highly recommend Great News For All Readers and A Resource On Jinty, two excellent comic blogs