Monday, 19 November 2018

The Smallest Of Things, by Ian Whates (a review and Q&A)

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 (sci-fi thriller, in this case) and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.
There are many Londons. From pomp to sleaze, from sophistication to dark corruption, Chris knows them all. A fixer with a particular set of skills, he can step between realities, piercing the thin veils that separate one London from another to find objects or locate people that have fallen between the cracks.

When a close friend, Claire, comes to him fearing for her life he is forced to use his abilities as never before, fleeing with her through a series of ever stranger Londons, trying to keep one step ahead of the men who murdered her boyfriend and are now hunting her.   

At some point, Chris hopes that he and Claire can pause long enough to figure out why these mysterious figures from another London want her dead, but right now they’re too busy simply trying to stay alive.

Taking as its central conceit that there are multiple Londons, co-existing in different dimensions and each distinctive from the other, this follows Chris, who can travel between them.  He’s a fixer, a troubleshooter who can find people or things that have fallen between the cracks, a sort-of Robin Hood (as one character calls him).  When his old friend Claire gets in touch, fearing for her life as she’s just witnessed her boyfriend being murdered by men in brown coats, he’s called upon to help her escape from these mysterious strangers who will seemingly stop at nothing to catch her.

Told with skill and poise, this paints a picture of modern London quickly and vividly, casting dark shadows onto places we all see every day.  With Chris and Claire, fully formed characters who leap off the page as soon as they’re introduced, we drop straight into the story and the pace doesn’t let up, slowly revealing plot points that build brilliantly.  The men in brown coats are cleverly used and the cast of supporting characters, who assist Chris in various ways, are given just enough history to make an impression without clouding the main story.  As for the Chris and Claire backstory (I’d love to see more of it, to be honest), that feels fully formed and just out of sight, with plenty of mentions of Chris’ previous jobs that all sound as exciting as this one.  The different Londons are excellent - a high-tech one with wide roads and trams, another a smog-filled Dickensian nightmare and others, including ones very similar to ours - and again feel fully formed, though they’re not revelled in, there’s no “look at what I made here” indulgence, we see just enough to realise we’re in a different place and then we’re off again.  Filled with well realised set pieces, some terrific action scenes and a nice line in humour, this works on every level and is greatly assisted by the brisk pacing (though I’d have preferred it to be much longer).  An excellent sci-fi thriller, this is a great read (with a brilliant last line) and I’d highly recommend it.

* * *

I enjoyed the story so much, I decided to ask Ian some questions about it and he was gracious enough to answer.

MW:   What’s the story behind this novella and how did it come about because it feels like we’re seeing something that has a very complete backstory.  What came first, Chris or the concept of the alternate Londons?

IW:   Chris came about a few years ago, following a day of wandering around numerous shops in central London. While my better half, Helen, continued with the retail therapy, I sought refuge in a pub close to Covent Garden, where I began jotting down notes on the various characters we’d encountered during the day.

As I did so, I reflected on the manner in which London possesses so many different faces: the political hub of the nation, the financial centre, the home of pomp and ceremony, celebrity restaurants and high-end dining, exclusive boutiques and prestigious department stores, cockney heritage and the spirit of the Blitz, nightclubs and all-night bars, markets and street entertainers, red buses and tourist attractions, and so on… I found myself thinking: what if there were other Londons, less apparent, more difficult to find? Londons that brush alongside the city we know without quite intersecting, hidden from view by the facets we’re so familiar with that catch the light and sparkle.

Those notes, scribbled while sipping a pint or two of Young’s Special, became a story called Knowing How to Look, which marked Chris’ debut. It featured a succubus and a curse, but I realised immediately that this premise of different Londons would enable me to play around with aspects of science fiction, fantasy and horror, mixing and matching as I chose, because there are an infinite number of alternative Londons and anything could be possible somewhere. Making a cameo appearance in this first story was a character called Claire, based on a tall, vibrant young woman we had come across earlier that day serving in a Berwick Street shop …

MW:   PS have done a fantastic job with the novella.  How much fun was the launch at FantasyCon?

IW:   Yes, PS have done their customary fabulous job, and I must thank everyone involved; also huge kudos to Ben Baldwin, who produced the cover art. Nicky Crowther at PS first proposed a map of London tearing to allow a man to step through. I then added the suggestion that part of the map could be in flames, as if lit by a match, and Ben ran with that, taking our suggestions and pushing them one step further. I love the result, which couldn’t be more appropriate.

The launch at Fantasycon was great fun. Thankfully, not everyone attending came up only for Ramsey Campbell and Stephen Volk’s signatures, and sufficient copies of The Smallest of Things were purchased to keep me busy.

MW:   A lot of Chris’ previous adventures are alluded to in the novella, have you written any of these?

IW:   This is actually the fifth of Chris’ adventures I’ve written (though the first at this length). One of the others, frustratingly, has been lost somewhere along the way without ever being submitted for publication. The first story, in which Chris attempts to save his sister’s life, is the safest in some senses, because it’s set entirely in our reality, although it relies on interaction with beings from other Londons (it’s currently available in my first collection Growing Pains). I wrote the second, which involves the Green Man (the creature of folk lore, not the pub), for an Alchemy Press anthology, and that’s now in my third collection Dark Travellings. The fourth, The Yin Yang Crescent takes us to the London that’s home to Jed, who has a cameo in the new novella. That one sold to an American publication a few years ago but for various reasons they never published it. I subsequently sold the Spanish language rights and it featured earlier this year in the excellent Windumanoth magazine, but has yet to appear in English.

Claire doesn’t feature in either of these tales, but the (ahem) missing story centres on a gig by her band Quiet Catastrophe. The frustrating aspect of this being lost somewhere between computer change-overs is that I wasn’t convinced the idea would work as a story. It did, and I was quite chuffed by the result. My fear is that if I try to rewrite the piece, I’ll never get it to work again.

MW:   The alternate Londons are beautifully constructed though you don’t dwell on your world building, we see them as briskly as the characters do which is fantastic.  How many Londons did you create and what drove you to use the ones you chose?

IW:   To be honest, I conjure up the different Londons as needed. I spent six years attending school in the City, so have a strong affinity and reasonable familiarity with London (and during that period won the Lord Mayor’s Prize for English, open to every school in the capital, with an essay called ‘London: the Living City’, which drew comparisons between London and a living organism). Yes, the city changes constantly and often dramatically, but I can still recognise the London I know and adapt my knowledge of it to each altered incarnation.

With the Londons that Chris and Claire encounter in The Smallest of Things, I wanted to depict contrasts, so I started with a glimpse of a city very like ours but where trams are an established form of public transport, and followed that with a version where the industrial revolution still holds sway, where pollution is rife and the infamous London smogs are still a thing, another hi-tech version where human transport is apparent but no person is ever seen (a tip of the hat towards the concept of technology distancing us from our own humanity) and finally one where prejudice and suspicion of ‘others’ leads to mob rule.

MW:   The action sequences are gripping, punchy and well-paced, did you have to do a lot of planning with them?

IW:   Thank you, I’m glad they work. Most of the action centres on two chase sequences. Knowing there were to be two of these – the first when Chris first meets up with Claire and learns of the people hunting her, the second after they’re surprised by a trio of ‘brown coats’ at Claire’s flat – I wanted to avoid repetition by making them markedly different. Escalation was important: the first had to be sufficiently tense to hold the reader’s attention, but the second had to out do it in every way; so I kept the first to this reality, drawing on Chris’ knowledge of London and its people. The second was where I let rip, and had Claire and Chris pursued across a series of starkly contrasting realities.

In the story, Chris utilises a number of trinkets he’s accumulated during various jobs, including hi-tech gadgets and lo-tech charms. For the story to work as intended, I needed to ensure that my villains the Faramund (brown coats) were biologically different from us in a subtle way, and I wanted to make that difference scientifically plausible. To ensure it was, I ran my thinking past a former member of the Northampton SF Writers Group, Dr. Steve Longworth (an MD), and his input was invaluable in getting that aspect right.

MW:   I liked the characters of Chris and Claire a great deal, partly because of their close friendship and shared history.  Can we expect to see more of them?

IW:   That’s certainly the intention (and thank you, I’m fond of them too). I’m delighted to say the PS Publishing have commissioned a new novella to follow on from The Smallest of Things, which I’ll be writing next year, and, you never know, I may yet bite the bullet and re-write that lost story.

MW:   What’s next for you?

IW:   All manner of projects with NewCon Press – I’m currently committed to publishing 35 titles over the next two years, a mix of novels, novellas, anthologies, and single author collections. At the same time, I’m determined to find space for my own writing. I have a commissioned novella to finish for Shoreline of Infinity (this one is fantasy); my fourth short story collection (in English – I also have another collection out in Spanish) is due from Luna Press next summer; I’m determined to finish the third volume of my Dark Angels space opera trilogy of novels for release next year; and I have a literary fantasy novel called Twelve Faces of Beauty sitting with my agent, which he’s asked me to revise but I simply haven’t found time to as yet. Doubtless there’ll be one or two short stories along the way as well, but I reckon that should be enough to keep me occupied.

* * *
Ian at FantasyCon 2018 in Chester, at the Smallest Of Things PS launch
Ian lives in a sleepy Cambridgeshire village with his partner, Helen, and a manic cocker spaniel called Bundle. A writer and editor of science fiction, fantasy, and occasionally horror, he is the author of seven novels (four space opera and three urban fantasy with steampunk overtones), the co-author of two more (military SF), has seen some seventy of his short stories published in a variety of venues, and has edited more than thirty anthologies. His work has been shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award and twice for BSFA Awards. His novel Pelquin’s Comet, first in the Dark Angels sequence, was an Amazon UK #1 best seller, and his work has been translated into Spanish, German, Hungarian, Czech and Greek. His fourth short story collection in English, Wourism and Other Stories, will appear via Luna Press in 2019.

Ian served a term as a director of SFWA (the Science Fiction Writers of America) and is a director of the BSFA (the British Science Fiction Association) an organisation he chaired for five years.  In 2006, Ian founded multiple award-winning independent publisher NewCon Press by accident, and he continues to be baffled by the number of titles the imprint has produced.

Ian can be found online at www.ianwhates.co.uk



Monday, 12 November 2018

Starburst memories

Apart from news programmes on TV, my first major source for behind the scenes information on films was Look-In magazine (which I wrote about here).  As my tastes expanded, so did my quest for information and then, in late 1978, I discovered a publication that gave me more than I even realised I was after.
issue 1 (which I've never seen in real life) with a wraparound Brian Lewis cover.  The image of Spock was added, apparently, because Marvel had the Star Wars licence in the UK and 20 Century Fox were worried they might get upset with another Star Wars covered magazine on the stands.
Starburst magazine was created in 1977 by Dez Skinn who published the first three issues through his own company, often scooping other film magazines with some of his articles.  When he was taken on by Marvel UK as their Editorial Director in late 1978, they inherited Starburst and began to publish it from issue 4 onwards.  He would go on to edit the magazine until early 1980 (his final issue was 19) when he left Marvel, with Alan McKenzie, who already worked on the title, taking over the reins.  Marvel sold the magazine in 1985 at issue 88 and Visual Imagination took it over, publishing it until 2009 when they went out of business (with issue 365).  Starburst continued as an online zine and was revived in print in 2012 with issue 374 by Starburst Magazine Ltd, who still publish it today (making it “the world’s longest running magazine of Sci-Fi, Horror and Fantasy”).

I have to confess, I haven’t bought a copy in a long time and didn’t stick with it too far into the 80s either, as I felt it focused too much on TV for my liking and I was never that big a fan of Dr Who.  But those early editions were amazing and I read them eagerly from cover to cover, often picking up stray spares wherever I could (I remember finding one - no. 52, with the Krull front cover - at a Bring-and-Buy sale held at my school).  Starburst was perfect for me, not only keeping me well informed but also acting as an important stepping stone, bridging the gap from Look-In to my later discoveries of Photoplay and Premiere (and then Empire and Total Film beyond those).

Looking back at the issues in my collection now, some 40 years after the fact, they still seem as fresh and exciting as they were then.  It doesn’t matter that they were produced without the huge technological leaps in magazine publishing we've experienced since then or that the lay-out is a bit blocky (those were the typeset days, after all, with titles produced with sheets of Letraset), the content more than made up for it.

The news section (called "Things To Come", it featured, among a fair amount of gossip, some real gems - I hadn’t remembered that we knew The Empire Strikes Back was called that as early as 1978), the articles and book reviews, in-depth features and film reviews (that weren't afraid of saying exactly what they thought), the design and writing, all of them gave Starburst a distinct identity.  Wonderful writers - like John Brosnan and Tony Crawley, amongst many others - were opinionated and enthusiastic, genre-savvy and full of confidence and their words dance off the page.  Sometimes things clunk badly - John Brosnan wasn’t the biggest fan of Empire and Tony Crawley didn’t think Halloween (1978) would endure but had a good feeling about The Black Hole (1979) - but you can’t deny the passion with which they made those statements.  In fact, the only thing that hasn’t worn well is the reproduction quality of the photographs, which look a bit washed out and are sometimes hard to discern.  Certainly, whilst the coverage of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978) is thorough and well-written, the photos make it seem a bit seedy (which I like) while one of an explosion is little more than a blob of white.  But regardless, reading Starburst made me feel as if I belonged to a group of like-minded folk, in the same way that reading early Fangoria issues later on in the 80s would.

I got a lot out of Starburst as the 70s eased into the 80s (and looking at some of the films covered, it truly was a wonderful time to be a genre fan) and re-reading them now in celebration has been a lot of fun (and illuminating, in a few cases).  40 years on, it’s clear to see the debt owed by today’s film magazines but I wish they had at least half as much swagger as Starburst did back in the day.

Happy birthday Starburst and thank you, for showing a young film fan the promise of a much bigger world out there.
issue 5, December 1978 (the first one I remember owning)
issue 8, March 1979 (this includes those wonderfully seedy images from Invasion Of The Body Snatchers)
issue 12, July 1979 (including a fantastic 5 page interview with the great Derek Meddings)
issue 14, September 1979
issue 22, May 1980 - this must have seen my first brush with David Cronenberg (never heard him described as the King Of Fantasy before...)
issue 23, June 1980 (in which John Brosnan reviews Empire thoroughly - he wasn't overly keen, especially on it being open-ended.)
issue 24, July 1980 - Star Wars, Alfred Hitchcock AND Caroline Munro?  Wow!  The Hitchcock appreciation by Tony Crawley is wonderful and the Mark Hamill and Caroline Munro interviews are interesting.
issue 33, April 1981 - what a terrific cover!  And nice to see David Cronenberg has been promoted to the King of Horror!)
issue 34, May 1981
issue 40, November 1981 - I love the juxtaposition of this cover, the incredible bloodiness of American Werewolf (which I wrote about here) alongside Disney.  Would a print magazine get away with that cover now?
issue 51, October 1982 - not a big fan of the new logo
issue 52, November 1982, the one I found at the bring-and-buy sale
issue 53, December 1982 (Tony Crawley, whose writing and style I liked, wrote the terrific biography The Steven Spielberg story", published in July 1983, which I read a lot)
issue 61, August 1983 - probably one of the last issues I bought


scans from my collection except issue 1 from Dez Skinn

sources:
Dez Skinn on Starburst
Starburst at Crivens! Comics & Stuff

Monday, 5 November 2018

The Last Temptation Of Dr Valentine, by John Llewellyn Probert (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 horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.
Six Years Ago…

The city of Bristol is rocked by a series of horrific murders, each more gruesome and outrageous than the last, and all in the style of horror films starring Vincent Price.

Four Years Ago…

The journalists who wrote about the case begin to die horribly, this time in the style of Hammer horror movies.

Now…

A Hollywood film company has arrived in Bristol to make a movie about the murders. Nicolas Cage is planned to star, and the screenplay bears little resemblance to what actually happened.

And someone isn’t happy about any of that. Someone who plans to use some of the most creative death scenes in classic British horror films to show these modern
film-makers just what a terrible mistake they have made.

The world’s most resourceful and flamboyant maniac returns…


John Llewellyn Probert is incapable of telling a bad story and his highly distinctive voice (both in real life, at one of his readings, as well as in print) is a real treat for a reader especially if you like your horror on the 'broader' end of the scale.

John has "been watching British-made horror films since he was ten years old, when he saw Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972) and Witchfinder General (1968) on a Vincent Price season on ATV. He was probably a bit too young for that second film, but the first influenced him to an extent that is still being felt by readers to this day..." and so he & I mesh wonderfully.  When I edited my anthology, Anatomy Of Death, which featured stories inspired by British horror from the 70s, we were on common ground and he supplied me with a wonderful tale that fully embraced the Hammer ethos.

Dr Edward Valentine, a surgeon driven to madness, is probably my favourite creation of his and appeared in two previous volumes, The Nine Deaths Of Dr Valentine and The Hammer Of Dr Valentine, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.  Now republished in an omnibus edition by Black Shuck Books, I was lucky enough to pick up the Last Temptation hardback at FantasyCon and also got to see John's reading.

This fantastic novella featuring “the world’s most resourceful and flamboyant maniac” is not only a worthy addition to the canon but (as much as I loved the other two) probably pips them both as the best of the bunch.  This time around the good doctor bumps off his victims in and around Bristol (with a wonderful interlude to Weston Super Mare) and it’s a marvellous feast of British horror movies from the 50’s to the 70’s (with a nice touch to a much more modern film as well).  Told with great wit and style, this delirious tale of murder and mayhem races from one set piece to the next, each more inventive than the last, as Valentine attempts to up the body count while avoiding the attentions of his long-suffering nemesis, Inspector Longdon, brought out of retirement to take on the case by DS Jenny Newham.  Firing on all cylinders - in-jokes are salted away on almost every page and I wish the chapter titles were listed to show how funny they are - and told with an astonishingly quick pace, John has somehow managed to convey a film of this era in print and I read most of it with a grin on my face.  If you like your horror quiet and studious then it’s probably not for you, but if you’re prepared to throw your lot in with a writer who not only knows his stuff but can convey it perfectly, you’re going to have a great time.  Very much recommended.

The book also features "The Last Afterword Of Dr Valentine", where John lists the films that are homaged in the text, with a nice mixture of review, opinion and autobiography - and makes me wish I'd known the writer when we were kids (when I was ten or eleven, I didn't know anyone else who loved this kind of horror film).

I'll leave you with this, which appears on page 92 and - to me - perfectly sums up the tone of the piece.

"Well I think you're right on both counts, Newham.  We've got a crazed producer intent on risking his and his team's lives to finish his project, and a crazed killer intent on stopping them in the style of old British horror movies from the 1970s, but apart from that we have no idea how or where or when he might strike next."

"So what do we do next, sir?"

The sun was up, now.  Longdon pointed to a cafe on the corner.

"Breakfast."

And now you can experience the full Probert experience as John's wife, Thana Niveau, filmed his FantasyCon reading - and I'm participating fully in all that laughter...