Monday, 14 October 2019

Ten Favourite Covers: More Childhood Terrors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magnet Books was the children's imprint of Methuen

Monday, 7 October 2019

The Dream Zone 4 (first print appearance)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 30 September 2019

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

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

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

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

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

* * *
My review:

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

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

* * *
5 Questions With Sue Moorcroft:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MW:   What was your favourite thing about Switzerland?

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

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

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

MW:  Great answers, thanks Sue!

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

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

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

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

Facebook: sue.moorcroft.3
Facebook author page:
Twitter: @suemoorcroft
Instagram: suemoorcroftauthor
Amazon author page:

Monday, 23 September 2019

The Godwulf Manuscript, by Robert B. Parker (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 know adds to the crime genre and that I think you’ll enjoy you’re a fan.  Of course, since this book is almost fifty years old (published in 1973), you might have already heard of it.
cover scan of my copy, 1987 Penguin edition
For Spenser, that most unorthodox of private detectives, no case is ever straightforward and the theft of a fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript proves no exception.  His investigation soon leads him into organised crime, dope-pushing, theft, radical politics, adultery and murder.

The Boston private eye is seldom at a loss, however and with the best left hook since Bulldog Drummond and the neatest line in patter since Philip Marlowe, Spenser takes on all comers.

Spenser (“I was living that year on Marlborough Street, two blocks up from the Public Garden”) is hired by a Boston university to recover a rare medieval manuscript, stolen from their library.  His investigations lead him to SCACE (the Student Committee Against Capitalist Exploitation) whose secretary, Terry Orchard, is living in rebellion against her rich and prominent parents and when she’s framed for her boyfriends murder, she calls Spenser for help.

As the book that began the series, this is the most hardboiled Spenser I’ve read and it’s interesting to see how elements we’d later take for granted are still finding their feet though the bulk of Spenser’s traits - his code, the humour, the cooking, the doggedness - are all very much in evidence.  This is made more vivid because his usual support team - Susan Silverman and Hawk especially - are missing (Susan won’t appear until the next novel, Hawk arrives in Promised Land), while the book shows him meeting Lieutenant Quirk for the first time (with an abrasive start that slowly calms down) and establishes he already knows Sergeant Belsen.  Spenser is harsher here (Susan’s influence definitely softened his character), sleeping with both a mother and daughter (at separate times) and killing several people, while his interaction with Brenda Loring (mentioned later in The Judas Goat) brings a nice touch of hope to the melancholic finale.  Secondary characters, as ever, are well observed (especially, in this case, Iris Milford and Phil, the enforcer for crime boss Joe Broz), there’s excellent use of location (the sequence at Jamaica Pond, where Spenser gets into real trouble, is excellent and doesn’t shy away from either the boredom or the brutality of the private detective’s lot) and the pace trots along wonderfully.

As always, there’re some nice touches of humour such as when he meets Terry’s stockbroker father and is asked, “Spenser, do you know who I am?'
“I guess you're Terry Orchard's father.”
He hadn't meant that. “Yes,” he said. “I am. I am also senior partner of Orchard, Bonner, and Blanch.”
“Swell,” I said. “I buy all your records.” 

There’s also a beautiful little piece, when Terry takes a drink at Spenser’s apartment.
“She let the smoke slip slowly out of her nose as she sipped her drink, holding the glass in both hands. The smoke spread out on the surface of the bourbon and eddied gently back up around her face. I felt my stomach tighten; I had known someone a long time ago who used to do just that, in just that way.”

For a book that’s almost fifty years old, it stands up very well to a modern read and only some elements - namely the fashion and some of the dialogue from the younger, radical characters - age it.  Otherwise it’s a fantastic crime novel, bracing and harsh and amusing, a cracking start to an excellent series.
1976 Penguin edition
I’ve long been a fan of Robert B. Parker and his Spenser series.  As I wrote in my appreciation of Parker (which you can read it here), I first discovered him in the late 80s as I got into crime fiction (inspired by seeing The Long Goodbye on Moviedrome), having started with Raymond Chandler’s novels, then Sara Paretky’s V I Warshawski series and Sarah Dunant’s Hannah Wolfe novels.  After thoroughly enjoying Promised Land (which I wrote about here), I worked my way back to the beginning.

Robert Brown Parker was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on September 17th, 1932, the only child of Carroll and Mary Parker.  After earning his BA from Colby College in Maine, Parker served in the US Army in Korea and in 1957 earned a Master’s degree in English Literature from Boston University (BU).  He worked in advertising and technical writing and earned a PhD in English Literature from BU in 1971 with a dissertation titled “The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality”, which discussed the exploits of fictional private-eye heroes created by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald.  He wrote his first novel in 1971, became a full professor in 1976 and turned to full-time writing in 1979 after five Spenser novels had been published.

In addition to the Parker series (he eventually wrote 41 novels, the last two published posthumously, the final completed by literary agent Helen Brann), his prolific output included nine Jesse Stone novels, six in the Sunny Randall series, four in the Cole & Hitch series (including Appaloosa), two Philip Marlowe novels and seven stand-alones.

Parker received three nominations and two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, the first for Promised Land, the second being the Grand Master Award Edgar for his body of work in 2002.  In 2008 he was  awarded the Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award.

Robert B. Parker died suddenly of a heart attack, sitting at his desk at home, on January 18th, 2010. He was 77.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Game Over, by Dan Whitehead (a review and reminisce)

I picked this book up on the off-chance from HMV recently, taking advantage of a price reduction because I was buying some more vinyl.  I've never been that big a gamer but, as long-time readers of the blog will know, I'm quite nostalgic for the 80s and loved the home computer revolution that began in that decade.
Remember the days of bad graphics, glitchy software and seemingly pointless games? What were we thinking? How did we cope? 

This humorous yet fond look at gaming of old is sure to have gamers shaking their heads in wonder and chuckling at the craziness of what we had to put up with. And yet there is no denying that many of the games we played back in that golden era have helped to shape the world of gaming and brought us to where we are now.

Starting with the announcement 2018 was the 40th anniversary of “Space Invaders”, this charts computer/video gaming from its infancy in the 50s and 60s through to today, though it spends a lot of time in the boom of the 70s and 80s, which worked perfectly for me.

The format is simple, each double-page spread commenting either on a particular game, system or historic incident, with Whitehead making for a good host.  He gets across plenty of facts with a good sense of humour, so this reads almost as though you’re sitting down with a more knowledgeable mate and having a nostalgic chat about the computers of your teens.  The games are discussed broadly - though the programmers are almost always named - and the systems are put into context of what they led to, while the artwork is a mixture of screengrabs, cassette covers and production art.

Funny, occasionally enlightening (I didn’t know there were Spectrum games built around James Herbert’s The Rats or The A-Team) and always readable, for someone who came into gaming in the 80s (I had a ZX81), this was an excellent read and I would highly recommend it.

* * *
When Dude was a lot smaller, I introduced him to the joys of Donkey Kong and Frogger via simulators on the laptop and he thoroughly enjoyed them (he wasn't quite a dab hand with his Nintendo DS then), though some of that may have been down to me saying I'd played them when I was a teenager.

Back then, you see, we did think this stuff was cool because - at the time - it was cutting edge.  I remember going to Wicksteeds Park and finding they had the original Atari Star Wars game cabinet where you sat to pilot your (never seen) X-Wing down the wire-frame Death Star canyons (can you imagine that now with photo-real games?).  I loved it and, probably, contributed a significant chunk to the Wicksteeds profits for that summer.

What follows is some idea of what we had to look forward to in the early 80s.  Talking to Dude now, who has a PS4 in his bedroom and spends a lot of time watching other people play on YouTube, he can't believe life was ever this primitive.

"Oh yes," I tell him, "but back then, this was all unbelievably exciting!"

1981 advert for the ZX81 - 16k RAM pack add-on!  Thermal printer!  It was all mod-cons!
from the 1982 Argos catalogue, a good range of electronic games.  I had Demon Driver and loved it - I really wanted Tin Can Alley but, to this day, I've never had a go on one
My friend David Roberts still has his C64, though I don't think he's used it in a while. 
Taken from the Argos catalogues of 1983 (right) and 1984 (left)
The ZX Spectrum, from the 1985 Argos catalogue.  £119.95 was a hefty sum then.
All those games (ad from 1984), all those brand names!

February 1983 - me, my much loved ZX81 and the portable TV you had to tune to the stations.
In 1983 I was part of the Rothwell Parish Church Youth club quiz team that competed in a grand Quiz Championship at the YMCA centre in Northampton with loads of other teams from the Midlands and East Anglia.  We reached the final and the last round, with everything to play for, was on films.  It was one of my specialist rounds and as the question-master cleared his throat, my team mates looked at me.  I looked at them and tried not to appear worried.  All I remember now is that the last three questions were based on E.T. and I was the only kid in the room who'd seen it.  We won the cup and I was absolutely thrilled.
David with the BBC Micro
I took Computer Studies as a class at school and the room had a handful of BBC Micro's for us to use and I remember them as being relatively easy to program (I passed my exam that year, having written a learning game for infants school pupils).  In 2018, David & I went to the National Video Games Museum in Nottingham with Dude (he was lured in by the Space Invaders cabinet and we didn't see him for ages) and found a machine, all hooked up and ready to program.  We spent a wonderful 15 minutes or more, typing in variations of 10 PRINT "WE WERE HERE" 20 GOTO 10.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Poster Magazines

Back in the 1970s and 80s, a publication I really enjoyed was the “poster magazine”.  The format was always the same, an A4 glossy colour magazine which folded out into a (large) A1-sized sheet.  One side would be the magazine itself, the covers and articles with plenty of photographs.  The reverse side 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.  They were really popular and most kids I knew had at least one huge poster on their wall.

me, in 1978, with a poster of my hero
Dez Skinn (who later created Starburst magazine) produced Monster Mag from 1973 to 1977 which featured gory movie stills from the likes of Hammer Films and Amicus.  TV series offered one or two editions (though some, like Star Trek, ran to series) and you could pick up issues devoted to The Six Million Dollar Man, Doctor Who, Space: 1999The ProfessionalsThe Hulk, Battlestar Galactica and Planet of the Apes.  Music got in on the act too but even more popular were the film tie-in’s, featuring the likes of Star Wars, Superman, James Bond, Jaws, Alien and Buck Rogers - if it was a blockbuster, there’d be a poster magazine on the newsagents shelves sooner rather than later.

I haven’t seen one for sale in years (spacemonstersmag reckons they died out in the 1990s) but 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.

Which ones did you have on your wall?
 As I may have mentioned before, I was a huge fan of The Six Million Dollar Man (as the picture from 1978 duly proves, showing the poster from this magazine on my wall...)
Star Wars was a natural fit for the poster magazine, hugely popular and full of fantastic imagery.  This continued through The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi (one of the issues for that featured a 50-facts breakdown of the special effects which I loved).
 Then and now, I'm a huge fan of The Professionals
I like Moonraker (and wrote about it here)
 One of my favourite films, I wrote about Raiders here

with thanks to spacemonstersmag