Monday, 11 October 2021

Writing News!

I have some exciting writing news that, to be perfectly honest, I'm chuffed to bits with.  As of last week, when I signed the contract, I became a writer for The Book Folks.

Although the bulk of my published work is horror, I got some great feedback on my novellas Drive and Polly, both of which were dark thrillers.  To that end, as long-time readers of the blog will know, I've spent the last few years working on mainstream thriller novels and going through every writers nightmare of submission and rejection (and rejection, trust me, absolutely does not get any easier whether it's the first, the tenth or the fiftieth).

But now my books have a home and I couldn't be happier.

JENNY WAS A FRIEND OF MINE will be published in early 2022.  Here's the tag-line I put together as part of the submission package.

Forced to confront a dark secret she’s spent fifteen years trying to bury, Beth discovers that sometimes, the past is murder.

Set in Seagrave, a British seaside town that feels very much like Great Yarmouth and is, indeed, just down the coast from Lowestoft, the novel is told in two timelines and was great fun to write.  I started it just before the pandemic and it (the story and the town) became a lovely place for me to visit, to get away from reality for a while and ended up at 208k words in first draft (the fourth draft, which Erik at The Book Folks accepted, was 95k words).  Plotted out with my good friend David during a walk one Friday evening, it took a few twists and turns in its progress from idea to finished tale and features tension and suspense, some scary parts, some funny bits and a few sad moments too.  I'm really proud of it and very pleased it will start my career with The Book Folks.

JENNY will be followed by:



and a fourth novel, which isn't even planned yet.  

A huge thanks to everyone who has helped me get to this point, who's either supported me, listened to me (like poor Dude, who endured countless lockdown walks over the fields, listening patiently as I worked through ideas for JENNY and gave me a few of his own), offered advice or read my stuff and liked it enough to tell me.  And, of course, David for those brainstorming sessions and the Friday Night Walks with Pippa.

Once I have more details on the books and their publication dates, I'll let you know all about them.

Monday, 27 September 2021

Skin For Skin, by Terry Grimwood - review & guest essay

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.  And as a bonus, Terry has contributed an essay explaining where the story came from.

"And Satan answered the LORD, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life." Job 2:4

Troublesome priest Eve Clements is exiled from her North London parish to remote St Jude's, miles from the nearest village.

Carrying childhood demons with her, broken relationships and addiction, she becomes an unwilling pawn in a supernatural battle that keeps her confined within the parish grounds, with a congregation that is not what it seems.

Eve must find her purpose if she is to survive, as terrifying apparitions and her own emotional fragility drive her towards breaking point. 

My review of "Skin For Skin", based on the one that originally appeared in Parsec magazine, issue 1:

When troubled - and troublesome - priest Eve Clements is exiled from her North London parish, she accepts an offer to minister at St Judes, a small church in deepest Suffolk.  Bearing the load of childhood demons and the trauma of a recently ended relationship, she quickly discovers all is not as it seems. St Judes, it quickly transpires, is a focal point of supernatural activity and Eve becomes an unwilling pawn in the centre of an epic battle between good and evil. In order to survive, she must find purpose as terrifying apparitions push her already fragile emotional stability to breaking point.

The novella mostly takes place in and around St Jude’s and Grimwood makes excellent use of the location, situated as it is two miles from the nearest village of Weddon “because of the Black Death”. The narrow roads, ploughed fields, dense hedgerows and hidden copse’s both expand the scope and draw in the claustrophobia, isolating Eve more and more from the reality she’s struggling to deal with. The weather also plays a part, storms locking her in further and reducing visibility until the reader can almost feel the rain striking their skin. The church of St Jude itself is all odd angles and weird stained glass and when we later find out what happened to it in the 18th Century, it’s dislocation makes all the more sense.

Eve’s character is well defined and drawn and opening the novella with a harrowing drugs bust, told entirely from her seven-year-old point of view is a masterstroke, the reader having to fill in the blanks as “The Shouting People” invade her squalid home. It also sets up the course of her life, missing her junkie mother and struggling with New Mum & Dad before entering priesthood, a path we don’t see but encounter when things have already started to go badly wrong. Dedicated to her faith and her flock in the run-down North London parish of St Martin’s, Eve is a thorn in the side of the establishment and when she gets involved with a local mother whose son has died because of drug dealing, it brings her into direct conflict with her bishop. Her growing relationship with local would-be councillor Ruth doesn’t help either. Although we meet the new flock - to say more would give the game away - we only really engage with Angela, the deacon who invited Eve to move and her duplicitous character works well, throwing the reader and Eve off alike, before revealing her true colours in a masterful twist that properly took me by surprise.

Grimwood does a good job, updating and paraphrasing the Job story and although much is made of the religious struggle - both internal and what is actually happening within St Jude’s - this is much more about human relationships and loneliness, especially how people cope with it. It’s never treated sentimentally and never seems manipulative, but being alone and trying to deal with it drives almost all of the characters, from the orphan Eve who has burned every bridge to Ruth, who suffer even when surrounded by supposedly close friends and family. And for those that don’t know (I had to look it up), “skin for skin” comes from Satan doing physical harm to Job, to see if Job will stay faithful to God.
My only gripe is that I didn’t get a real sense of where Eve found her faith that’s strong enough to force her to do things that will, often, only create more agony for her but part of that might be my reading of it (as a long-standing Agnostic).

Told with a decent pace, the twin storylines interweave well and dispense information slowly, giving the reader time to absorb different steps and how they interlink and this is all the better for it. Solidly written, with some wonderful turns of phrase and a keen sense of location and atmosphere, this is a very good read from a writer who gets better with every piece of work. I would very much recommend it.

* * *
Guest blog essay by Terry Grimwood

The Strange Tale of Job, Revisited

So, what’s the story behind my novella Skin For Skin? Is it the product of a fevered imagination? Yes. Are its roots buried deep into my out-in-the-sticks upbringing? Absolutely. Does it owe anything to Hope-Hodgson’s House on the Borderland? You bet it does. And The Book of Job? Most certainly, although not until the story was underway and I began to understand what I was trying to write.

Much of my fiction has a religious undercurrent. My plays, Tattletale Mary, Jar of Flies and The Bayonet all have ministers as key characters. Soul Masque is a somewhat brutal look at the war between God and the Devil. Deadside Revolution features a fallen angel and a conflict in Hell, and my novella, Joe, explores the agony of trying to reconcile sexuality with religious belief. 

I come from a long line of Baptists, so religion, by which I mean Western Christianity, has played some part in my life for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, I was a regular at an Anglican Sunday School and was even educated at a Church of England-funded primary school. 

At the age of 10 or 11, however, I voluntarily transferred my spiritual obligations to one-service-a-week at the Baptist Chapel my parents attended, because continued Sunday School membership meant joining the church choir. There was no way I was going to wear a dress, frilly collar, and sing in a girl’s voice (no disrespect to girls’ voices, they are beautiful, but I think you know where I’m coming from). Such was my need to escape, I was prepared to endure interminable, ancient hymns, ground out on an equally prehistoric harmonium and hour-long sermons delivered by a regular cycle of thee-and-thou preachers who had stepped straight out of the Edwardian era. I love those old hymns nowadays, by the way. There’s power in their language.

So, the idea of God, Jesus, the Bible, prophets, apostles and all the rest were inculcated into my system from my first awareness. Predictably, I kicked against it when a teenager, embraced it with great fervour in my early twenties, then watched my faith slip like sand from my tightly clenched fist as I entered my thirties.

I still believe, but can no longer subscribe to the organised structures of the faith I once cherished. They are riddled with too many tightly-tangled philosophical conundrums that I cannot simply shove aside. Yet the wonder of it remains. Think about it. A being so vast, ancient and powerful it could create and sustain a universe. The enigmatic references in the early chapters of The Bible to the “Sons of God” who came down to Earth to take human women to wife. Enigmatic characters such as Enoch who simply “walked with God and was not” and yet, looms large over ancient Biblical history. Nimrod the Hunter, who or what was he? A catastrophic global flood, the sun travelling backwards in the sky. Plagues. A sea being ripped part into two towering walls of water to allow safe passage for an entire nation. 

And Job…

Ah, yes, the strange and terrible story of Job.

A rich, devout man, he seems to have caught the attention of Satan, who comes before God to issue a challenge. Take everything from Job, leave him ruined and broken, and he will “curse thee to thy face”. Astonishingly, God gives Satan permission to rip Job’s life apart, which he does with great enthusiasm. Job’s entire family and all his livestock are killed, his home demolished and his crops destroyed. Job, himself, is afflicted with sores and left to rot. It is an act of immense cruelty, a life trampled into the dust simply to settle a dispute.

History or parable, the story of Job portrays God as more concerned with scoring a point than caring about one of His creations. Yes, ultimately Job was rewarded for his steadfastness, but why did the poor guy and his family have to suffer all this in the first place? 

Like most of my extended fiction, Skin For Skin evolved from a completely different idea, then found a life of its own. It always feels to me as if stories already exist and it is the writer’s task to uncover them. If that is the case, then this one was buried deep. I found myself being drawn deeper into the heart and soul of the main protagonist, Eve, and realised that she is, in many ways, the personification of my own bruised spirituality. 

Unlike me, she is a courageous, difficult and principled person who was born into terrible poverty and neglect. The darkness of her early childhood is the engine for her faith, and passion (if not obsession) for helping those in trouble. Crushed by the enormity of the burden, her own sense of right and wrong and then by the religious establishment who see her as a troublesome priest determined to disrupt the status quo, she is exiled to a remote church, located in a storm-ravaged, otherworldly landscape - the same lonely East Anglian landscapes I walked as a child.

Like Job, Eve’s life is shattered through no fault of her own. She chooses what she sees as the Right Path and ends up broken and cast out. Then, once in exile, she discovers that she is once more to be a used as a pawn in The Game.

I think that the root of my religion-themed writing is anger at the idea that the complex, wondrous entities God has created, beings capable of beautiful art, mind-bending technology and acts of immense compassion, are simply cannon fodder in the war between “good” and “evil” and damned to Hell if they don’t subscribe to this or that point of doctrine. I don’t believe that to be the case. Any God big and powerful enough to create an infinite universe can fight His own battles. We, as the end of Skin For Skin declares, are here for each other.

* * *
Terry Grimwood is a writer, electrician, college lecturer, actor, amateur theatre director and musician, who, in what little spare time he has, has published a number of novels and novellas.  

His short fiction has appeared in many anthologies and magazines and has been collected in two volumes, The Exaggerated Man and There Is A Way To Live Forever

He directed the first performances of his own plays, The Bayonet, Tattletale Mary and Tales From The Nightside, the scripts for which are available from theEXAGGERATEDpress and in addition to fiction, has co-written a number of engineering and electrical installation text books. 

He likes to misquote the legendary Football manager Bill Shankley by claiming that writing is not about life and is much more important than that.

Terry can be found online at theEXAGGERATEDpress website and on Facebook.

Monday, 13 September 2021

The Year Of The Ladybird, by Graham Joyce

In another edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I love.  This review originally appeared on the blog in 2013 but, following a long overdue re-read, I feel the need to - once again - let as many people know about it as possible.  Back then, Graham was still with us but as that's sadly no longer the case, I've included a biography of the wonderful writer and thoroughly nice bloke.  
A ghost story with a difference from the WORLD FANTASY and multiple BRITISH FANTASY AWARD-winning author of SOME KIND OF FAIRY TALE.

It is the summer of 1976, the hottest since records began and a young man leaves behind his student days and learns how to grow up. A first job in a holiday camp beckons. But with political and racial tensions simmering under the cloudless summer skies there is not much fun to be had.

And soon there is a terrible price to be paid for his new-found freedom and independence. A price that will come back to haunt him, even in the bright sunlight of summer.

As with SOME KIND OF FAIRY TALE, Graham Joyce has crafted a deceptively simple tale of great power. With beautiful prose, wonderful characters and a perfect evocation of time and place, this is a novel that transcends the boundaries between the everyday and the supernatural while celebrating the power of both.

David Barwise is a 19 year old student who, against the better wishes of his Mum and step-dad, gets a summer job as a greencoat on a holiday camp in Skegness.  Set against the scorching summer of 1976 - and the subsequent ladybird invasion - David is led into two love affairs, one with the wife of an apparent monster, one with a lovely Yorkshire lass, as he tries to find his feet amongst the staff of the camp - some theatrical, some racist, some thuggish and some genuinely nice - and the ever present punters, adults and child alike.  He is not only there to escape from home, he’s also trying to find details about his long-since-dead father, the only photograph of whom shows him on a Skegness beach.  And then, in between getting caught up in the rise of the National Front, he begins to see ghosts on the beach and on the camp, of a suited man and his young charge.  

This is a glorious novel, full of wit and invention (and a nice line in dry humour) that is told is a deceptively simple style.  Perfectly capturing both the 1976 summer and the start of the slow decline of the east coast seaside resort, this crackles with energy and pathos.  The characterisation - David narrates the story - is pitch perfect, often delivered with the lightest of touches - Pinky and the way he dresses, Tony and his exuberance, Colin and his chilling demeanour - but always spot on and always human, with none of the characters ever behaving in a way that seems out of place.  David is first drawn into the web of Colin, a thuggish and boorish man, and his wife Terri, who sings like an angel but is apparently abused into submission at home.  Attracted to her, the relationship between him and his older, secret lover, is fantastically played with neither David or the reader quite sure of what’s going on.  A surer, safer bet is Nikki, a beautiful half-caste dancer, painfully aware of her own shortcomings (which aren’t really, to David or the reader) and it’s this relationship that we want to see work, the coupling that makes this the perfect coming-of-age novel.  

Because that’s what this is, at the end of the day.  It’s a social and political observation - the holiday camp, the members of the National Front and what it’ll mean to people like Nikki (and how she reacts, when she realises David has been duped into attending a meeting, a stigma that remains with him for the bulk of the novel) - but it’s also about spreading your wings, finding love (the first erotic interlude, with David and Nikki, is wonderfully erotic whilst being almost mundane) and loss and setting out onto the path of adulthood.  

There are supernatural elements - and the denouement of that particular plot strand is obvious but also heartbreakingly beautiful - but this isn’t a supernatural novel, it’s not a horror novel, it is instead a perfect drama about a young man, finding his way in 1970s Britain.  

It speaks to me on a couple of levels, in that I love coming-of-age stories and the east coast seaside (and follows my reading of the similarly themed (in terms of nostalgia and love) “Joyland”), but also because I was seven in 1976 and my family holidayed in Ingoldmells, a few miles north of Skegness and it’s a town that I still visit on occasion today.  

A truly beautiful work of art (that had me in tears towards the end), populated with characters that I grew to love (and I so desperately want to know that the central love story carried on beyond the seventies), this is an incredible read and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Graham Joyce was born the mining village of Kerseley, near Coventry, on 22nd October 1954, where he grew up.  He obtained his bachelor’s degree in education at Bishop Lonsdale college, an MA in English and American Literature at the University of Leicester and in 2004 was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University.

In 1988, he quit his job and went to live on the Greek island of Lesbos, to concentrate on writing.  His first novel, Dreamside, funded travel to the Middle East and he went on to write fourteen novels, five young adult novels, and an autobiographical book about his experiences as goalie for the England Writers' football team (which, by the way, is excellent).  He also wrote numerous short stories.

Over his career, he won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel five times, the World Fantasy Award , the French Grand Prix De L'Imaginaire twice and the prestigious O Henry award for his short story An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen. In 2008 he was awarded the Honorary degree of Master of Letters by the University of Derby.

He continued to write and teach creative writing at Nottingham Trent University until his death on 9th September 2014.

Biography from the Graham Joyce website

I was lucky to meet him on several occasions and we got to know each other well enough we'd chat and share a laugh whenever we were in the same place (usually at FantasyCon).  I saw him at WFC (he was heading downstairs, I was heading up, he said "Hello mate!" and changed direction so we could walk and talk for a while) in Brighton and got to tell him how much this novel meant to me and he seemed genuinely moved when I told him it made me cry.  However, when I asked him if he was going to write a short story, detailing the love affair after the novels end, he told me to bugger off!  

I miss his presence and his writing.

Monday, 30 August 2021

Kiss The Dirt (Falling Down The Mountain), by INXS, at 35

In August 1986 (a year I thoroughly enjoyed, as I wrote about here), INXS released the superb Kiss The Dirt (Falling Down The Mountain), the third single from the excellent Listen Like Thieves album.
Kiss The Dirt (Falling Down The Mountain) was written by Andrew Farriss & Michael Hutchence and released in Australia on 3rd March 1986 - in the UK we had to wait until 30th August.  It was backed with Six Knots, written, performed and produced by Kirk Pengilly (it lasted 51 seconds) and The One Thing (Live), written by Farriss & Hutchence and mixed by Mark Opitz.

The third of four singles from the album (following This Time, released in 1985 in the US and Europe and What You Need in August 1985 - the first Australia/New Zealand release - and followed by Listen Like Thieves, released in the UK in 1985 but 1986 in Australia), it peaked at number 15 in Australia, 42 in New Zealand and 54 in the UK.

Falling down the mountain
End up kissing dirt
Look a little closer
Sometimes it wouldn't hurt

The video was filmed in South Australia in two locations.  The white salt lake was at Lake Heart, while the red desert scenes were filmed at Moon Plains, which was also the location for Mad Max 3.  It was directed by Alex Proyas who started his career making pop videos before moving to Hollywood and making, amongst others, The Crow (1994), Dark City (1988) and I, Robot (2004).

Listen Like Thieves was released on 14th October 1985 and is widely considered to be the international breakthrough album for the band.  It was produced by Chris Thomas, who had previously worked with The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols (on Never Mind The Bollocks) and Elton John and of whom Richard Clapton said, “INXS met their match - he was the only producer they've ever had who told them what they needed to hear.”  Michael Hutchence later said, “This is what we've been trying to do one way or another for a few years now, that is to make an album that is purely just form and function of the songs. It has no artistic pretensions.”  The album was recorded at Rhinoceros Studios in Sydney from June to August 1985, after initial sessions in March, finishing in August 1985 and including a break for a South American tour.  The album spent two weeks at number 1 on the Australian Kent Music Report Albums Chart, peaked at number 11 on the US Billboard 200, 24 on the Canadian RPM 100 Albums and 46 on the UK charts.  I wrote about the album here, on its 30th anniversary.

The four singles released from the album all had accompanying videos.

This Time was directed by Peter Sinclair and produced by Godley & Crème

Kiss the Dirt (Falling Down the Mountain) was directed by Alex Proyas and produced by Andrew McPhail.

What You Need and Listen Like Thieves were directed and produced by Richard Lowenstein, continuing the successful collaboration that had started on the previous album, The Swing, with his videos for Burn for You (which won the 1985 Countdown Music and Video Awards for Best Promotional Video), Dancing on the Jetty and All The Voices.  Lowenstein would go on to establish a long term relationship with the band until Hutchence’s death.

INXS: Story to Story: The Official Autobiography, by INXS & Anthony Bozza
Burn: The Life and Times of Michael Hutchence and INXS, by Ed St. John
Official Charts (UK) information
Discogs release information

Monday, 23 August 2021

Starlog 49, August 1981

This came out forty years ago (it really, really doesn’t feel it) - look at the range of terrific films it covered!
Starlog wasn’t a magazine I picked up a lot - my film reading at the time was focussed more on Starburst (which I wrote about here) - but I did when they had great covers and content like this.  I mean, any magazine that has Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Escape From New York and For Your Eyes Only on the cover has to be worth a read, doesn’t it?
The issue features, amongst others, articles on the launch of the Space Shuttle, a guide on publishing a fanzine, storyboarding the FX sequences in Raiders with Joe Johnston, a piece on Mind Warp (a film I don’t remember at all but which had James Cameron as production designer) and a feature on previous James Bond films effects (Bond presumably being an honorary SF community member because of Moonraker).

There are also interviews with George Lucas (part 2 of 3, it's quite amusing in places), Derek Meddings on his For Your Eyes Only effects (interesting and thorough) and George Takei.

They don’t make them like this any more…

If you're intrigued, the magazine can be read online here

Monday, 2 August 2021

900th blog post!

Blimey, welcome to my 900th post!  After deciding to stick to a regular posting schedule (every Monday), I've thoroughly enjoyed working on the blog (especially in the depths of the pandemic) and, as ever, I'm surprised at how much I've managed to fit in since the last milestone catch up.
Since the 800th post (back in July 2019), life has been a bit weird (to say the least), but the blog's been consistent and something very nice for me to get lost into.  In that time, I've had two short stories published, Mr Stix came out as an e-book and I self-published my novella The Exercise (which became, briefly, the No.1 Amazon Hot New Release!).  I also wrote another thriller novel (the previous two didn't attract agency interest, sadly) and remembered my first time in print

I went to Edge-Lit 8 and reminisced about FantasyCon, since all other cons were disrupted by covid and, bloody hell, I've really missed them), The Crusty Exterior revisited horror firsts (on video) and celebrated its 5 Year Anniversary, I got to interview Sue Moorcroft at Rothwell Library and I celebrated my creative years in 2019 and 2020 (along with the 'novels' teenaged me wrote).  I also presented two sets of the Westies (in 2019 and 2020).

On the blog, I've written some book reviews, some behind-the-scenes essays (on movie miniatures and matte paintings), had fun researching some retrospectives (on The Six Million Dollar Man, Looking For Rachel Wallace, Skeleton Crew, Will You, by Hazel O'Connor, Dark Forces, edited by Kirby McCauley, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, For Your Eyes Only at 40, Raiders Of The Lost Ark at 40), carried out some Q&A's (with Gary McMahonSue MoorcroftPeter Mark May & Richard Farren BarberCC AdamsPriya SharmaPenny JonesDan HowarthSue again (for Under The Italian Sun)), discovered an obscure gem, 1978's brilliant The Silent Partner and checked out the real-life locations of my novella The Mill.

I caught up with some Three Investigators book reviews, shared a love of novelisations (with The ProfessionalsThe A-TeamThe Six Million Dollar Man and Dead & Buried and looked at another Old School Horror (the cracking Death Tour), as well as highlighting Halloween Top Trumps.

I've written some Nostalgic pieces (on posters magazines in 2019 and 2020, the joy of Christmas Annuals in 2019 and 2020the Usborne Book Of GhostsThe Empire Strikes Back Letraset, Summer Specials in 2020 and 2021Starburst magazine, More Comic & Magazine ads (in 2020 and in 2021), Mr BennFangoria magazine) and wrote about the INXS singles Burn For YouDevil Inside, Suicide Blonde and Just Keep Walking, for their various anniversaries as well as the band's 1991 Summer XS gig at Wembley (the first time I saw them).  I also celebrated 5 years of the King For A Year project and continued the Ten Favourite Covers thread (with some Hitchock anthologiesMore Childhood TerrorsThe Golden Age of 2000AD and The Three Investigators).  I enjoyed some cover art from Bullet comicLook-In and 70s British comics (in 2020 and 2021) and also celebrated The Art Of... Bob Larkin and Bryan Bysouth.

The past two years have been an odd time, with more than half of it spent in various forms of lockdown and I've really missed the interaction of friends and family.  Stay safe and healthy and here's looking forward to post 1000.

Monday, 26 July 2021

The Making Of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, by Derek Taylor (a review)

Regular readers will know I'm always fascinated by the behind-the-scenes process of films, especially special effects work with miniatures (which I've blogged about here), matte paintings (which I've blogged about here) and making-of books.  I also love Raiders Of The Lost Ark (and wrote a retrospective piece on it, which you can read here) which, unbelievably, turns 40 this week (released on 31st July 1981 here in the UK).  So while this isn't the most up-to-date review I've ever posted, it was the perfect book for me this week.
Already a fan of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg then, I went to see it that summer with my best friend Nick and loved it.  We both did, though it took him a long time to stop making fun of me because I got scared when the pretty ghost turned into a monster after the Ark had been opened.

To help celebrate the anniversary, I’ve been on a bit of a Raiders jag and one element was this making of.  First published in paperback in 1981, it includes a batch (32 pages) of “spectacular behind-the-scenes photos” (all black and white) and is a real old school making-of, the kind that’s almost as much a memoir as anything else.  It’s also the kind that doesn’t get published these days.
Richard Amsel's iconic poster, which adorned my bedroom wall for a long time.
Derek Taylor writes well and he really is our guide, explaining the situation (in laymans terms), the script as he sees it, the troubles with the locations and the pace of the production.  As if you were sitting together as he caught you up on news, he relates chatting with various actors and crew members and they all come across as being really lovely - Harrison Ford remembers him from the Monterey pop festival, he goes for a walk with Karen Allen and Ronald Lacey befriends holidaymakers at the Tunisian hotel where the main crew and cast (but not the writer) are staying.
Karen Allen, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford on location in Tunisia
Taylor interviewed a lot of people and most of the twenty-three chapters (there’s also a prologue and epilogue) contain at least one with Spielberg and Lucas themselves, as unguarded in interview as I think I’ve ever read.  Chapters are devoted to interviewing (in order) Howard Kazanjian (the co-executive producer), Frank Marshall (producer), Norman Reynolds (production designer, who Spielberg is particularly enamored of due to his work on Star Wars) and Tom Smith (the make-up designer).  The stand-ins get their say and interviews continue with Robert Watts (producer), Harrison Ford, David Tomblin (assistant director, who’s a big presence in the behind-the-scenes documentaries for both this and Return Of The Jedi), Terry Leonard (stunt man), Martin Grace and Wendy Leach (the stunt doubles in England - Leach would go on to marry Vic Armstrong, who also did some of the stunts for Indy here and took over completely for the next two films), Karen Allen, Roy Charman (sound man), Kit West (special effects) and Douglas Slocombe (the director of photography).  Taylor also visited ILM (and clearly didn’t really understand any of the processes Richard Edlund talks about) and attended some of the scoring with John Williams.
The amount of detail that comes across is impressive, some of it amusing forty years down the line.  Kit West, for example, talks about creating black smoke cheaply by buying tyres “for pennies” and setting fire to them, rather than using more expensive (but more environmentally friendly) smoke pots - different times indeed.
Filming on Norman Reynolds' island set at Elstree Studios
Hugely comprehensive and yet still chatty, this is a terrific read, faithfully following a huge crew with one aim who seemed to get on very well together and, as we know, produced a fantastic film.  If you’re used to the modern coffee-table style of making of book (which I also love, except those that feature page after page of technicians sitting in front of computer monitors), this might not be to your taste, but for a proper old-school approach, celebrating a proper, old-school action movie where pretty much everything you see actually happened, I don’t think you could do much better.  Highly recommended - the book and film (and, if you can get hold of it - as I did, to satisfy my Raiders thirst - I’d also recommend the 180g vinyl re-issue soundtrack double album).
Lunch in Tunisia, with executive producer Howard Kazanjian on the far left
Derek Taylor (7th May 1932 - 8th September 1997) was an English journalist, writer, publicist and record producer.  The Beatles press officer (he was sometimes called ‘the Fifth Beatle’), he also worked as a publicist for the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Mamas and Papas, helped organise the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and headed up publicity for Apple Corps from 1968.  After working for Warner Brothers during the 1970s he then moved to Handmade Films with his close friend George Harrison (while editing Harrison’s 1980 autobiography I, Me, Mine) and wrote several books, including the Raiders making of.  Returning to Apple Corps in the 90s, he was working on the Beatles anthology book at the time of his death.
This iconic shot features in the narrative, a lucky accident that Spielberg saw the sunset and decided to incorporate it
Taylor is surprised at the size of the Tunisian dig set - and at how the extras are treated.  After he informs Spielberg (who wasn't aware), changes are quickly made.
The final sequence, with the "complicated" ILM work included

Happy 40th, Indy!

Monday, 19 July 2021

The Damocles Files Vol 1: Ragnarok Rising, by Benedict J. Jones & Anthony Watson

To mark the publication of their new novel, Ragnarok Rising, I hand over the blog to a guest post from my friends Benedict Jones and Anthony Watson.

As the fires of conflict engulf the globe and empires vie for dominance, a secondary shadow war is being fought for control of the worlds occult treasures, among them the keys to the prisons of long forgotten, sleeping gods. Allied academics join forces with soldiers in a desperate race to halt the machinations of the Axis powers and shadowy cults with their own agendas.

Welcome to the world of Damocles.

BJJ: What started out as an attempt to write a joint collection of horror stories themed around the second world war quickly escalated into something bigger. Why don’t we link all the stories in some way? An overarching narrative perhaps… Well, I do have this one idea… The next thing we knew we were well on our way to 110,000 words and found ourselves building a whole world. In creating this world we knew from the off that we wanted to anchor the dark fantastic in the real history of the second world war; major events still occur when they did, units and regiments are where they were at a specific time. But, behind these real events other, darker, things are occurring.

In drawing up the characters who make up the Damocles organisation and populate the world around them we wanted to make sure that they were all too human with all the fragility which that brings. These are people plucked from the worlds of academia and the military and thrust into life or death conflicts with forces they can barely comprehend. Soldiers and scholars are dispatched to be used as cannon fodder for “the greater good”, mirroring the sacrifices made in the actual war, and we wanted to try and showcase the effects that this would have upon our protagonists. The true facts of the conflict are hidden from some of those involved, the truth being simply too terrible. Scholars, book hounds, assassins and occultists mix with bureaucrats, hobbyists, criminals and squaddies. It was important to us that their stories, with an eye to realism, were told as well as that of the epic struggle to prevent Ragnarok.

Location. Location. Location. Whether it is musty libraries in London, the streets of Istanbul, the desert wastes of north Africa, cave systems in the outer Hebrides, the barren arctic, or war-ravaged Berlin we wanted to imbue each tale with a real sense of place. This was done to try and illustrate the scope and range of the second world war. It truly was a global event that touched almost every corner of the world in one way or another.

The influences that we drew upon in developing the world of Damocles were wide ranging, drawing upon spy literature, historical sources, action and adventure pulps, Lovecraftian cosmic horror, and Norse mythology to name but a few. The Hellboy universe provided some touch points of inspiration as did various other works that involve “weird world war two”. Structure wise we aimed for a fractured narrative with characters coming into and out of the story at various points. The steampunk novel The Difference Engine helped with this in some ways, being an example of where this had been done before. Stories within stories and tales within tales. There is a heroic undercurrent to many of the stories but we tried to temper this by showing the real, often damaging, results of such heroism. One of the wonderful things about creating our world from scratch meant that we were able to draw upon a multitude of sources for influence as well as providing us with ample scope for the freedom to create and add our own inventions.

The act of writing is generally a solitary one. Writing with someone else can be a very different experience. The act of creation became a shared one in which we could both act as a sounding board for the other and in turn add our own ideas to the mix. These “idea sessions” really allowed for us to spark off each other’s creativity. It allowed us to avoid dead ends and cul-de-sacs of imagination and planning which not only allowed us to speed up the writing process but to create and develop the world around the characters very efficiently and fully. It also made it easier to overcome those writer’s block moments which can stall a work. Particularly difficult scenes for one writer could be passed to the other for completion and we utilised that at several points. The whole process has been one that was, and continues to be, thoroughly enjoyed by us both.

We produced Wings in the Darkness, an expansion on one of the shorter pieces in the novel, as an introduction and access point to the world of Damocles. The novella works well to lay out a lot of the themes and ideas which are expanded upon in the novel, Ragnarok Rising. A second novel, Volume Two, is close to completion (this time turning to the war in the Far East) and various other works set in the same world are also in development.

AW: When Ben first approached me with the idea of co-writing a collection of war/horror stories, agreeing to it was one of the easiest decisions I’d ever had to make. It’s not like we hadn’t worked together before, having already produced two volumes of our horror western novellas series Dark Frontiers so it was a real no-brainer. I set to work thinking of some ideas and had a couple lined up when Ben contacted me again and suggested that we based the stores around a secret organisation he’d thought up, there to investigate and combat occult and supernatural forces…

Cool, I thought, putting my kaiju and ghost stories back on the shelf, that’s a really good idea – and began plotting some new stories. I think we ‘d finished a story each when he came up with the “Let’s make this a novel with an overarching narrative” idea. Thus the Damocles Files were born.

I have to say, I’ve never enjoyed writing something as much as I have The Damocles Files. Once we had the main narrative in place, we could tailor the new stories to fit and retrofit the ones we’d already completed. On the whole, we would write individual stories on our own but one of the stories in the book is a collaboration, as is the novella Last Rites which makes up the novel’s conclusion. It’ll be interesting to see whether readers can tell which of us wrote which story – and whether they can tell which was the co-written one.

Part of the joy of writing these stories was spending time with the characters we’d created. I think Ben is a master at this particular art but it’s something I’m not always that confident about so it was good to be able to take his creations and use them in the stories I was working on. It’s no real spoiler to say that not all of them survive until the end credits and it was actually quite emotional writing the scenes where they meet their fates. Of course, a huge benefit of writing the novel as a fractured narrative spanning many years is that there are big gaps between the stories, gaps which are there to be filled, so characters who might not have made it to the end of Volume One can always be resurrected – which is precisely what we’re doing in Volume Two, and all the standalone stories and novellas we have planned.

Whilst the novel is grounded in reality and historical fact, a huge influence on it personally were the war films I watched as a kid (and continue to watch and enjoy, it has to be said). I’ve a huge affection for those films and the unironic way they portrayed the heroism and valour of their heroes. I’d like to think that that gung-ho spirit is reflected in The Damocles Files; there’s certainly plenty of unapologetic heroic sacrifice and bravery above and beyond the call of duty featured within its pages. It’s a love letter to those films of my youth.

I had a great time writing this book and will be forever grateful to Ben for inviting me along for the ride. I hope everyone gets as much enjoyment from reading it as I had in writing it.

Wings in the Darkness was released on Kindle on the 21st May 2021 and can be purchased here.

The Damocles Files Volume 1: Raganarok Rising is being released in paperback and ebook on 
23rd July 2021 and the Kindle edition can be pre-ordered here.

Monday, 12 July 2021

Summer XS, 30 years on

Following the huge international success of their album Kick, INXS toured it extensively starting in August 1987 and running through to November 1988 (including five UK dates during June).  Understandably burned out by the end, the band took a year off during which most members started musical side projects, before reconvening to record X, which was released in September 1990.
INXS, 1991
from left - Jon Farriss (drums/keyboards), Garry Gary Beers (bass), Tim Farriss (guitar), Michael Hutchence (vocals), Andrew Farriss (keyboards, guitar, harmonica), Kirk Pengilly (guitar, saxophone, vocals)
On the strength of Kick, the profile of the band had been steadily rising and it’s perhaps difficult now to remember just how big INXS were at that time.  Kick peaked at number 2 in Australia, number 9 in the UK and number 3 in the US album charts and was certified Platinum in Australia (x7), the UK, the US and Switzerland, was a Gold record in France, Germany and Hong Kong and Diamond in Canada (a category Tim Farris later admitted he didn’t even know existed - it apparently represents sales of 1m).  Total sales to date are approximately 12.8m copies.

X had a lot to live up to and opened well, reaching number 2 in the UK and number 5 in the US charts, racking up plenty of sales along the way - Platinum in Australia (x2), the US (x2) and the UK, hitting Gold in Germany and France.  Combined with the X Tour, it managed to spend an aggregate of eight months on the UK chart, returning to the Top 40 in July 1991.

In 1988, Michael Hutchence met soap-opera star and singer Kylie Minogue and when they ran away together in 1989, it brought the band to a whole new audience and level of publicity.  In 1991, INXS received a Grammy nomination for 'Best Rock Performance by a Group', whilst USA Today reported they were tied for second place as 'musical artists with the most videos played on MTV' (at the time, they had 37 different clips).  At the 1991 Brit Awards in March, INXS won 'Best International Group' (having previously been nominated in 1989) and Hutchence won 'Best International Male'.  They were also recognised as 'Best International Band' at the first Australian Music Awards.

The X Tour kicked off in October 1990 at the Mackay Entertainment Centre in North Queensland.  It hit the UK on November 25th with two nights at London Docklands Arena, a four night run at Wembley Arena, four nights at Birmingham NEC (where Alison & I would see them in 1997 as part of the Elegantly Wasted Tour), one night each at SECC in Glasgow (should have been two but the first was cancelled by weather), Manchester GMEX, Brigton (The Brighton Centre) and Bournemouth (Bournemouth International Centre) before two nights at The Point Theatre in Dublin.  The UK dates ended in January and, in all, the tour played to 1.2m fans through 80 cities over four continents.

After a successful ‘homecoming’ leg in Australia during April and May, INXS returned to Europe for a series of headlining festival shows from 28th June through to 16th July, the highpoint of which (according to most band members) was the 13th July sold-out show at Wembley Stadium.

So the stage was set, with Summer XS taking place six years to the day after Live Aid had been staged at Wembley Stadium, as INXS continued to enjoy rock giant status both in the UK and around the world.  And I was there.
My now slightly sun-bleached ticket - look at that price!
Saturday 13th July 1991 was warm but overcast.  I’d stayed up late the night before to watch the excellent Dogs In Space, which starred Michael Hutchence and was written & directed by Richard Lowenstein, who directed a lot of INXS videos from Burn For You onwards (his latest was Suicide Blonde, from the X album).  I was quite excited, since my then-girlfriend Liz (who had seen INXS at one of their Wembley Arena gigs in late 1990) had talked me into going to see the show and raved about them - slightly older, she was a fan of long-standing.  I knew of them, of course - I started going to nightclubs in 1986 so I was around as Kick broke out - and I bought X on vinyl a couple of weeks before the gig and really enjoyed it.

Me & Liz, 1991 - I wore that t-shirt a lot!
I picked up Liz and then her friends teenaged daughter (who took her friend), we piled into my Fiat Panda and took off down the M1, listening to an INXS mix-tape Liz had made.  By the time we reached the North Circular, we were all singing along as the signs for Jellyfish, one of the supporting bands, started to appear.  In fact, they were on pretty much every lamp-post we passed.

We parked in the multi-storey next to the stadium, crossed the bridge, found our gate and settled down as we waited to be let in.  The girls were chatty, Liz & I talked and watched the world go by, we went on memorabilia buying sprees and ate our lunch.  Finally the gates opened and we legged it - it was the first time I’d ever been to Wembley so of course I took the opportunity to run onto the (covered over pitch) and pretend I was representing England.  As did so many other blokes my age it became silly.

The four of us made our way towards the front and found some seats to the left of the stage, close enough that we could see people up there (if not clearly), though the huge video monitors would also come in handy as the day wore on.  The festival feel was maintained by having a whole host of bands on the programme which started in the early afternoon (INXS came onstage at about 8.45).  Another of my main reasons to go was the fact that Debbie Harry was playing and I’d been a Blondie fan since the late 70s, though I'd been too young to get to any of their concerts.

The Summer XS line-up was:
Jellyfish - don’t remember anything of their set at all, though they were apparently “a melodic San Francisco rock band” (and got in trouble for plastering their posters everywhere)
Roachford - who were excellent, I went onto the pitch for a dance when they played
Jesus Jones - didn’t like them before I went, didn’t like them any better when I left
Deborah Harry - who I adored.  I left the girls in the seats and pushed my way as far to the front as I could possibly get and then rocked out with the best of them.  She played 11 songs and ended her set with the superb “Atomic”.  Fantastic.
Hothouse Flowers - who were better live, I thought, than when I’d heard them on the radio

The INXS show was being recorded as part of the Live Baby Live project, under the supervision of Mark Optiz and the band’s manager, Chris Murphy decided it should be filmed as well.  In an interview at the time, he said that although he thought X was good “the band had grown lazy, the new songs were too slick and too much like Kick.  I was worried.  I knew I had to do something to bring it back to the basics, back to the strengths of the band.  Doing the film and releasing the live record accomplished that.  It was a way to remind the public of how powerful INXS was live, in case they’d written them off as a band who only released pop songs.”

INXS spent £250,000 filming the concert whilst Murphy convinced Polygram, their European record label, to stump up the rest.  On the night, the fact the band was barely breaking even on the show weighed heavily on Andrew Farriss, though he has since revised his opinion.  “I am so glad we did it,” he said in interview with Anthony Bozza.  “Thank God we did, that same band is not here any more.  Michael is not here any more.”  Andrew was so overcome with expectation of the event, he famously escaped to a bathroom where he spent ten minutes alone, enjoying a beer and smoking a cigarette.  In documentary footage, Michael Hutchence comments that the gig is making £1m and he was only getting £5k of that.

Murphy hired David Mallet to film the concert and he used sixteen 35mm cameras, including two on roving helicopters, to capture everything.  At the time, Mallet was an up-and-coming talent who’d cut his teeth on promo videos for Queen (Bicyle Race in 1978 and I Want To Break Free in 1984, which Brian May credits with the band losing US fans), Blondie (Hanging On The Telephone in 1978), a host of Bowie videos (including the iconic Ashes To Ashes in 1980) and many more.  His work on Bowie’s Glass Spider tour in 1988 and Madonna’s Blond Ambition in 1990 convinced Murphy he was their man.  Mallet also shot the video for Shining Star in 1991 and has since gone on to a strong career in concert films.
By the time INXS came on stage, I was ready.  Opening with two big songs from Kick got me into it straight away and they followed up with a few songs from X that were fresh in my mind but it was Original Sin that locked it for me, vibrant and alive with the all-out jam session at the end.  I do remember loving the rest of the gig, I remember being invigorated by the whole thing though I must confess that most of my memory of the show itself now comes from the DVD.  But no matter - as Mark Opitz said in interview, the band were incredible on the night and they were.  In fact, watching the film again (as I did when I wrote this post), they were clearly on fire and for a first gig by a band relatively new to me, I couldn’t have asked for anything better!
Lately (with a beautiful sax part opening from Kirk Pengilly) followed Original Sin in real life but it was never filmed (it’s an extra on the DVD).  Then came The Loved One, which remains one of my all-time favourite songs and it was launched with an introduction from Hutchence.  “This is a big gig.  Really happy to be here, la-di-da-di-dah - this is the biggest pub we’ve ever played.  Is this what they call a fucking rave or what?
The show is superb - in sound and vision - and Mallet’s cameras catch it well, with plenty of highlights to savour.  During the opening to Mystify, the crowd sing along so Hutchence stops and holds out the microphone towards them and they bounce around once the band kicks in.  How cool must it be to see an audience do that for one of your songs?  There’s the moshpit run during Wild Life, the crowd going mad for Suicide Blonde, Hutchence kissing Andrew Farriss at the start of What You Need (which also includes the "play the fucking riff, Timmy!” incident).  Kick, Need You Tonight and Never Tear Us Apart sound huge and the set concludes with the best version I’ve ever heard of Devil Inside - the band always used to close on Don’t Change and whilst that would have been good, it really works well as it is.

“We had already headlined at plenty of stadiums and festivals, but this was different. Wembley is the most prestigious stadium in Europe - if not the world - and it was going to be magical. There were 16 cameras, 72,000 extremely psyched people and some great opening bands and we were ready to turn Wembley Stadium into the biggest pub on the planet.”
- Kirk Pengilly

“For us as Australians, Wembley was always thought of as one of those places you knew you that you wanted to play - if you were lucky.  To even have the opportunity to perform there was a dream.  There were something like 200 people backstage which was a bigger crowd than some of the pubs we'd played in! It was nuts and I couldn't really take it all in.”
- Andrew Farriss

“This gig was a prize; it meant that all those years of touring, playing gigs the world over paid off this one night.  We had played many concerts that were bigger but selling out Wembley Stadium was a prestigious hallmark for us, especially considering England’s affection towards INXS took years to develop.”
- Jon Farriss

“When we took part in Live Aid in 1985 it was made all the more special knowing that our performance was being projected onto the large screens at Wembley Stadium.  Wembley was the pinnacle of venues around the world, the place you read about in music magazines growing up in the 60’s and 70’s.  To sell out Wembley Stadium was certainly a dream come true.”
- Garry Gary Beers

“It was INXS Day on BBC Radio, MTV, you name it, we were everywhere you looked or listened, it was kind of surreal, which is always a good thing.  The whole gig was kind of like a big pressure cooker of 'let's see just how nervous we can make the band', but the tension had the opposite effect on me. I had to struggle to keep the smile off my face.”
 - Tim Farriss

Selling out Wembley Stadium was a big deal - AC/DC are the only other Australian band to do the same.  INXS had played the venue before, supporting Queen during the “Kind Of Magic” tour in July 1986 (which I didn't see, though had the opportunity to - really wish I had done now).

According to Billboard magazine, the concert grossed £1,426,617 and the audience was a sell-out capacity of 73,791.

The day after arguably one of their biggest gigs ever, the band and Mark Opitz recorded Shining Star (which Andrew Farriss had written on the road) at London’s Metropolis Studios.

* * * * *
Live Baby Live, the live CD and concert film video, were both released on 11th November 1991 (when I bought my copies). The film, which looks glorious but isn't in widescreen (presumably since TV's weren't set up for that then)  is well-edited and perfectly captures the scale of the event (shots of the crowd and stadium) without missing any of the intimate bits - such as the little nods between Kirk Pengilly and Tim Farriss (plus the fabulous ear signals during What You Need as Hutchence sings “Hey you, don’t you listen” and Kirk gestures to Tim, who had screwed up his riff).  It also captures the sheer energy of the show, the tightness of the musicianship and the real sense of camaraderie amongst the band.  For me, watching it on VHS back in the day was a revelation - I thought I’d picked up a lot from the video monitors (and I thought Kirk was the coolest thing ever in his red suit and black shades) - but I clearly hadn't.  I'm happy to say that even now I still find new bits every time I watch it.

Track Listing:

"Guns in the Sky"
"New Sensation"
"I Send a Message"
"The Stairs"
"Know the Difference"
"By My Side"
"Hear That Sound"
"Original Sin"
"The Loved One"
"Bitter Tears"
"Suicide Blonde"
"What You Need"
"Need You Tonight"
"Never Tear Us Apart"
"Who Pays the Price"
"Devil Inside"

On the re-issue, there’s an excellent 40 minute behind-the-scenes documentary which shows the band in preparation for the gig with a real sense of nervous excitement about them all, which is refreshing to see.

The Live Baby Live album reached number 8 in the UK, number 3 in Australia and number 72 in the US (though it sold over 1m copies there).  Shining Star, the single recorded directly after the concert and the only new material on the album (it’s heard over the closing credits of the DVD), was released on 2nd November.  It reached number 31 in the UK, number 21 in Australia and 14 in the US Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.  The CD single was backed with live versions of Send A Message (from Summer XS), Faith In Each Other (Sydney 1990) and Bitter Tears (Paris 1991).

The album - produced by INXS and Mark Opitz - featured several songs recorded at Wembley, as well as highlights from gigs in Paris, Dublin, Glasgow, Rio de Janeiro (“Hey, hey Rio?” before launching into Suicide Blonde), Montreal, Spain, Switzerland, Melbourne, Sydney, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Las Vegas.
Track Listing:

"New Sensation"
"Guns in the Sky"
"By My Side"
“Shining Star”
"Need You Tonight"
“One X One”
“Burn For You”
“The One Thing”
“This Time”
"The Stairs"
"Suicide Blonde"
"Hear That Sound"
"Never Tear Us Apart"
"What You Need"

Summer XS memorabilia - taken from the DVD insert

Part of the DVD documentary, showing the audience gathering.  I wonder if I'm in one of those shots?

An excellent gig and an excellent memory, a great band at the top of their game and I'm chuffed to have been there.

* * *
The show (with Lately now included) was released on vinyl in 2019 and so was the film, re-edited in HD from the original negative to give a proper widescreen presentation.  Alison & I went to see if at the Northampton Filmhouse and it was bloody brilliant (I wrote about it here).

We were just six blokes from Australia that treated Wembley Stadium like just another pub gig,” Tim Farriss wrote in the liner notes.  “We went in with a PA and a few lights and played our asses off. No ego ramps, no back-up singers, no props, no grand pianos, just the six of us – and the audience went nuts! That’s all we needed!

band interviews from the Live Baby Live DVD re-issue liner notes, no credit (released by Sanctuary Visual Entertainment)
INXS: The Official Inside Story Of A Band On The Road, text by Ed St. John
Gig information from Billboard Magazine
Story To Story: The Official INXS Autobiography, by INXS and Anthony Bozza