Monday, 14 June 2021

The Art Of British Comics (in the 70s) - part 4

In his excellent autobiography about editing 2000AD and others, The Mighty One, Steve MacManus writes that the traditional age range for comics readers in the late 70s was the 8-12's (making my golden period 1977- 81).  Looking back at that period of British comics reveals a lot of impressive cover art, much of which remains vivid in my mind.

Since my previous posts (in 2018, 2019 and 2020) I've collected a few more issues and I'm still struck by the high quality of the artwork, both for the strips themselves and the covers and it's a real shame you don't see this kind of thing any more.

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

My favourite childhood comic, I wrote an appreciation of Bullet which you can read here
I wrote an appreciation of Starlord, which you can read here
I wrote an appreciation of Tornado, which you can read here
I wrote an appreciation of The Crunch, which you can read here
Misty gets absorbed...
"Exciting news for all girls who like a good read", code for "your favourite comic is about to disappear".  In this case, this was the last issue of Jinty before it was absorbed into Tammy

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

Monday, 7 June 2021

Novelisation Review 5: Dead & Buried, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

The fifth in an occasional thread celebrating old-school paperback novelisations from the 70s and 80s, which are now mostly forgotten.  We're not talking great art but these books have their place - they were a fantastic resource from a time when you couldn't watch your favourite film or TV show whenever you felt like it - and I think they deserve to be remembered.

This time, I'm looking at Dead & Buried, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, adapted from one of my favourite horror films of the 80s, which was released 40 years ago.

front and back cover of the Warner Books paperback, 1980 (cover scan of my copy)

The coastal town of Potter’s Bluff is small, insular and friendly, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and outsiders are easy to spot.  So when dead bodies start to turn up - burned beyond recognition - Sheriff Dan Gillis doesn’t have a great deal to go on, except that his wife seems to be tied up in it.  As the threads of his investigation start to come together, he realises his neighbours might not be everything he’d thought they were…

Based on the screenplay to the excellent film - though not, it appears, the shooting script - this is a decent attempt to create a suspenseful novel from a story that, I think, works best visually.  In the film, we see the characters and get a sense of the almost surreal nature of what’s happening, while Yarbro is forced to explain bits and pieces that don’t really work once they’re laid out.  Having said that, she writes well and the pace clatters along, with Dan taking the lion’s share of the POV - Janet, his wife, gets short-changed the most unfortunately, while others characters seem there purely to serve the plot.  The suspense set-pieces - such as the out-of-town family pursued through a deserted house - are very well done and there’s a nice creepy sense over the piece, that lingers well into the last quarter where everything appears to turn on its head (no spoilers here).  With a great eye for location - a small town with lots of sea mist - and atmosphere to spare, this is a worthy companion to the film (different enough to make it an interesting and intriguing read in its own right) and if you liked the movie, I’d very much recommend this.

* * *
Dead & Buried was released in 1981 (shown uncut, it received an X-certificate at the cinema but somehow ended up caught in the initial sweep of Video Nasties in 1983, the EMI video only being dropped from the list in January 1985), though I didn’t catch it until 1985, when I watched it with friends on Betamax.

At the time, I was intrigued by the cover art (the same as the poster and book), the taglines - “The writers of Alien bring a new terror to earth” and “A new dimension in horror” - and the link with Alien as well as the actors (I knew Melody Anderson from Flash Gordon and James Farentino from Blue Thunder).

Directed by Gary Sherman (it would be some years before I got to see his Deathline, which I also loved - “Mind the doors!”), the screenplay was written by Ron Shusett and Dan O’Bannon, based on one by Jeff Millar & Alex Stern but changed enough the original writers only got a ‘story by’ credit.

Lisa Blount in the middle of the ocular mayhem scene...
The film works very well, though it was beset by behind-the-scenes problems with the production company from the start and Sherman’s directors cut - he was  aiming for a more black comedy type feel - was apparently destroyed.  Interestingly, the problems with the production company led to a wait for the films distribution which meant the novelisation was released first.  A 'surprising success'*, its popularity meant 'many people presumably thought the film was actually based on the novel, rather than vice versa'.

Aside from the excellent set direction and strong acting, the excellent make-up effects from Stan Winston were a major draw for me, especially in the hitchhiker sequence where Winston performed the hands close-ups in place of the actor.  He utilised a lot of puppet work to up the gruesome factor and one scene in particular, featuring a nurse and patient, had us teens howling as we watched it (ocular trauma with a needle) and years later, even after the effect had been explained to me, I couldn’t watch it without wincing.  In fact, Winston’s excellent work only serves to highlight the problems, where the production company brought in a less competent team to create an acid effect that’s so bad you want the camera to cut away out of embarrassment, rather than fright.

It does have its downsides, of course but it remains creepy and effective, a genuinely good horror film that really does make you wish they still made them like this today. If you get a chance to see it, I would urge you to do so.

* quotes taken from the liner notes of the Anchor Bay DVD

* * *
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro was born on 15th September 1942) in Berkeley, California and attended San Francisco State College (now University).  She began writing professionally in 1961 as a playwright for a children's theatre company and switched to writing stories in the mid-60s.  Perhaps best known for the Count Saint-Germain novels, she has worked in a wide range of genres, from science fiction to westerns, young adult adventure to historical horror.

A ‘skeptical occultist’ for more than forty years, she’s been honoured by the Transylvanian Society of Dracula (the 1997 literary knighthood), the World Horror Association (2003 Grand Master), as a ‘Living Legend’ by the International Horror Guild and won Life Achievement Awards from the Horror Writers Association (in 2009) and the World Fantasy Convention (in 2014).

More details can be found at her website here

For a few years now, after finding out charity shops sometimes pulp old books because the market for them is so small, I've been collecting 70s and 80s paperbacks through secondhand bookshops, car boot sales and ebay.  I set up a thread for the horror titles (which you can see here) but novelisations were a rich vein in those decades, before the advent of home video, when viewers wanted to revisit the adventures of their favourite TV show or film.  I realise we might not be talking great art here but, on the whole, I think these books deserve to be remembered.

To that end, on an irregular basis, I'm going to review these "old-school" tie-ins with, hopefully, some background material on each one.

Monday, 24 May 2021

I Ran The World, 35 years ago

Sport Aid, supported by Band Aid and UNICEF, organised Run The World on Sunday 25th May 1986, timed to coincide with a UNICEF development conference.  It was a worldwide event where, at 3pm GMT, a total of 19.8m runners ran, jogged or walked 10km to support African famine relief charities.
Coming up the hill out of Rushton, heading for Rothwell.  Mark Guyett & I are in the centre of the picture (he's on the left).
Official events were held in 274 cities over 76 countries - 200,000 Londoners completed the course in our fair capital, 50,000 ran in Barcelona, 30,000 in Athens, 20,000 in Dublin and 10,000 in Melbourne.  The leg of it that I ran, with my friends Nick Duncan and Mark Guyett, started and ended in Desborough, going through Rushton and Rothwell on the way.  I remember that it was a warm day, I remember the happy atmosphere and camaraderie amongst us all and I especially remember the seasoned runners coming back from the finish line as we passed Montsaye School and calling out “only another mile to go” as they went.
Nick and me, in training.  As hard as it might be to believe now, those shorts were in fashion at the time.
Over $37m was raised and it apparently still holds the record as the sporting event with the most participants in history.  I’m proud to have been part of it.

As I recall, entry was contingent on you buying a t-shirt and they were iconic at the time - most of us wore them for some time afterwards.  I kept mine and tried it on for the 30th anniversary and was chuffed to find that it fitted me!  There's no picture evidence but it still fits today!
Me, in 2016
The t-shirt front and back

Monday, 17 May 2021

Under The Italian Sun, by Sue Moorcroft

Regular blog readers will know I've been friends with Sue Moorcroft since we met at the Kettering Writers Group in 1999 (the group leader was of a more literary bent, so we genre writers were consigned to the back of the room, where we had great fun).  Since then she's gone from strength to strength, hitting number one in the Kindle Bestseller charts (with The Christmas Promise), becoming a Sunday Times Best Seller and her 2019 novel, A Summer To Remember (which I wrote about here) won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award 2020.  As well as featuring her a lot on blog (to see more, click this link), I'm also pleased to be one of her beta-readers and thoroughly enjoyed her latest novel, Under The Italian Sun, now available in paperback and as an e-book.

A warm, sun-baked terrace.

The rustle of verdant green vines.

The sun slowly dipping behind the Umbrian mountains.

And the chink of wine glasses as the first cork of the evening is popped…

Welcome to Italy. A place that holds the answer to Zia-Lucia Costa Chalmers’ many questions. Not least, how she ended up with such a mouthful of a name.

When Zia discovers that her mother wasn’t who she thought she was, she realises the time has come to search out the Italian family she’s never known.

However, as she delves into the secrets of her past, she doesn’t bargain on having to think about her future too. But with local vineyard owner, Piero, living next door, Zia knows she has a serious distraction who may prove difficult to ignore…

This summer, join Zia as she sets out to uncover her past. But can she find the future she’s always dreamed of along the way?

My review:
A warm, sun-baked terrace. The rustle of verdant green vines. The sun slowly dipping behind the Umbrian mountains. And the chink of wine glasses as the first cork of the evening is popped.  Welcome to Italy...

A big fan of Sue's writing anyway, I enjoyed this a great deal. The story rolls along with a good pace, Zia and Piero are wonderful leads (equally feisty and damaged, they spark off one another nicely), the locations are well used and evocatively described, with a nice callback to One Summer In Italy too. The ‘baddies’ (for want of a better term) are smart and hissable, the older characters are superbly observed (and brilliantly funny too) and the plot is tied in well. The emotional side, as always, is pitch perfect and really tugged at the heartstrings, especially towards the end with hints of sad family lives (the boy at the bar and “be happy” particularly) but is solid all the way through. 

Another winner, this is an excellent read that I highly recommend.

* * *
With the pandemic still here, Sue and I weren't able to have our regular get-together at The Trading Post (and oh, how I've missed that, though we did manage to fit in a socially distanced walk over Christmas), but went virtual instead as we discussed her new novel.

MW:   As always, there’s a very real sense of place in Under The Italian Sun and it’s clearly an area of the world you love.  What made you decide to “go back to Italy”?

SM:   The idea of a British woman named  Zia-Lucia, and Zia Lucia in Italian translating to Aunt Lucia, was part of it. The spark for the book, writing about someone who almost had the same name as someone she didn’t know, just hit me one day. It proved a happy chance as the pandemic would have made on-the-ground research of a new place impossible, whereas I’ve visited the region of Umbria in Italy. For the past seven years I’ve led courses and writing retreats for Arte Umbria, so I had a lot of experiences and photos to draw on. I had planned to write a chunk of the book at Arte Umbria but, of course, the retreat had to be postponed.

MW:   Your work always has a serious topic at its heart, what made you choose the family issues that dominate this one?

SM:   I’m not sure why I wrote about a woman searching for her birth father, other than it being an intriguing idea. I always knew my own dad and my lovely parents stayed together, so it’s not like I had a story of my own to tell. I was interested in the story of a friend who was adopted and I spoke to her at length on her feelings about identity. I used those feelings rather than her history because her search had different, serious consequences, which didn’t belong in Under the Italian Sun.

I do know why I wrote about postpartum psychosis. Some years ago I joined several friends for a literary lunch and as I sat down someone said, ‘Mind the baby under the table.’ I looked under the table, and there was a baby sleeping peacefully in his car seat. He was the nephew of one of my friends. She was looking after him because her brother’s wife, the baby’s mum, was suffering from postpartum psychosis. I’d never heard of postpartum psychosis and was astonished to learn of the awful effects of this rare condition. I always thought I’d write about the baby under the table at some time. It didn’t happen exactly as I’d first envisaged but that’s often the way my books develop. I explore ideas and my plotty head tells me which way to take them.

By coincidence, I saw a film called Irene’s Ghost made by Iain Cunningham  of It was about his search for information about his own mum, who died when he was very young, and who had suffered from postpartum psychosis. I tweeted him to say how much I’d enjoyed the film and that I was writing about the same subject and he offered to chat. He was kind enough to offer insight into how Zia might feel to realise her past wasn’t quite what she’d thought it.

MW:   There’s a wonderfully hissable villain in this (who isn’t the person you originally suspect) and it feels like you had great fun writing him.  Was that the case?

SM:   I suppose it was! Brendon was originally just a boyfriend who’d cheated on Zia. Ending the relationship, and her redundancy, provided her with the opportunity to look into living in Italy. Finding the father she’d been told was Italian seemed the place to start because kinship could make it easier for her to obtain citizenship. There are traditional roles for ex-boyfriends. Maybe the heroine misses him; maybe she’s been bruised by him; maybe he shows her what she doesn’t want in a man. With Brendon, I decided to make his role subtler. I heard someone talk about a relationship where the guy was the one who cheated but couldn’t bear being to blame for the end of everything. He was like a kid whining, ‘I don’t want it to be my fault!’ He tried to romance the woman back because, to his mind, it would change the narrative to ‘You overreacted to a meaningless encounter.’ Then he’d feel better about himself. I thought a person like that would make a much more interesting ex.

MW:   The plot has plenty of twists and turns, can you talk me through your process a little, on how you kept track of everything?

SM:   I usually begin a book by exploring the characters of my hero and heroine and how various people in the book view them. I research themes, goals and conflicts. My brother helps me here as I send him a list of things I’m interested in and questions I need answered and he provides me with answers, links and related reading. He’s good at this and it saves me valuable time. I start working on goals and conflicts, what characters want consciously and sub-consciously, what’s going to get them together and what’s going to keep them apart. Then I make a list of things I see happening. And that’s about the extent of the plan. I start writing. I often feel like one of those people who have fifty plates spinning at once. As the book develops, I make notes on paper, notes on my notes app, notes on the manuscript itself … I’m lucky I have a reasonable memory so it somehow all comes together. In the second draft I sort out knots and stupidities then I send it to my editor to see if she can find any others. (She always does.)

MW:   So what’s next?

SM:   A winter book. It has the working title of Christmas Now and Then and is due out in the UK on 28th October 2021. It’s set in Middledip, the English village that exists in my head (there’s a map on my website, too). Laurel Hill returns to the village after an absence of nineteen years because her sister, Rea, is struggling with agoraphobia. This is making life difficult for her fourteen-year-old daughter, Daisy. Trouble is, Laurel left Middledip for a reason - and he still lives there.

Thank you for inviting me for a chat, Mark. It’s always a pleasure.

Sue Moorcroft Sunday Times bestselling author and has reached the coveted #1 spot on Amazon Kindle UK as well as top 100 in the US. She’s won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award, Readers’ Best Romantic Novel award and the Katie Fforde Bursary. Sue’s emotionally compelling, feel-good novels are currently released by publishing giant HarperCollins in the UK, US and Canada and by an array of publishers in other countries. 

Her short stories, serials, columns, writing ‘how to’ and courses have appeared around the world.

Born into an army family in Germany, Sue spent much of her childhood in Cyprus and Malta but settled in Northamptonshire at the age of ten. An avid reader, she also loves Formula 1, travel, family and friends, dance exercise and yoga.

Monday, 10 May 2021

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Even More Comic & Magazine ads

For the fourth installment of this long-running occasional feature (you can read entries from 2017 here2019 here and 2020 here), here's another selection of print ads for the toys, sweets, books and games of my youth.

I still think, as always, there's a lot of charm on display here - the ads are often hand-drawn and with muted hyperbole - as well as a lovely sense of wistful innocence, though that might be more the reminder of stamped, addressed envelopespostal orders and things costing pennies.

Here, then, are a few more ads of our childhood, I hope they spark some memories for you...
I don't remember the ad but I do remember the lolly.  And I still love that a vampire - a quite frightening image of one, to boot - is used for a kids advert.  Clearly, we were a hardier breed then!
 Action Man!  Palitoy!  Staples of my childhood!
I was eight when this appeared and we didn't have a dog, but I do remember thinking "why didn't he tell his Mum or Dad?"
Draw a space-ship or a film star's dream house?  I'll draw a space-ship crashing into a film star's dream house, reply loads of nine-year olds...
I still like Wagon Wheels and yes, they really are smaller now.  Also - 1978 was the year the UK became skateboard crazy (the first time around).
Not just Dracula, we get the whole bunch here as Smiths sail close to the rocks of copyright with Boris Karloff's Mummy and Lon Chaney Jr's Wolfman!
Science-fiction was huge in 1978 (the year Star Wars hit the UK) and King Kong had just been at the cinema.  I wonder if this Warlord is anything to do with the comic?
I remember having a fingerprint kit, but not this one.  I also kept 'secret files' on people, though since I only knew my friends and family members (and had to ask their permission to get their fingerprints), I wasn't exactly Interpol (but does explain why, still in my archives, there's a card for my Uncle Philip).
"Yes son?"
"When we're going to shopping, do you need any petrol...?"
"New Smurf out?"
"Oh yes..."

Forty-two years later and I still don't get the appeal of licorice...
More Dracula!  We used to use Signal but I don't remember this (and free fangs and a horror book aren't things ten-year-old me would have easily passed by).
Star Wars, Palitoy and Brian Bolland.  A winning combination!
I was (and remain) a huge fan of The Professionals (I wrote about them here) and had the large and small versions of this.  The latter still sits on my bookshelf in the study (the larger version is safely in my toy box) - I still have the figures too, though the ad here has mis-labelled them.
Join the fight against Nick O'Teen.  This was part of a huge campaign and because I liked Superman so much, I wrote off for the poster (which didn't show lungs, like this one does).
Video games were really starting to make in-roads by this time and I remember people raving over Pole Position.  I wonder what the kids of today would make of it?

If you're interested, more of my Nostalgic For My Childhood posts can be found here

Monday, 26 April 2021

Dark Missives, a Q&A with Dan Howarth

With the publication of his debut collection, Dark Missives, I decided to ask Dan Howarth some questions...

DARK MISSIVES is the debut collection from author Dan Howarth, bringing together 11 stories that encompass the full range of horror.

A holiday camp employee finds himself in the middle of a murder spree. A band’s biggest fan discovers just how far he will go for new music. A detective investigating a series of murders gets pulled into the seedy underbelly of the city. A delivery driver gives in to temptation and opens a suspicious package. The owner of a gallery is determined to leave his own legacy on the art world.

Let DARK MISSIVES take you on a tour of the roads less travelled in Northern England to explore what truly lies in the shadows.

Dan Howarth is a writer from the North Of England (Manchester born but now living on Merseyside).  Co-editor of several anthologies with James Everington, I first got to know him when my story appeared in The Hyde Hotel (2016) and since then, we’ve established a little mutual support group, spurring one another on with our novel writing.

Although his work has appeared in many publications, Dark Missives is his first full-length release and collects eleven short stories.  Away from writing, he enjoys craft beer, German football and BBQ food, which seems a winning combination.

After he kindly interviewed me over the release of my novella The Exercise (you can read the interview at his site here), I jumped at the chance to ask him some questions and this is what happened.

MW:  What can you tell me about your debut collection, Dark Missives?

DH:   Dark Missives collects eleven stories from my back catalogue for the first time and is my first full length book. 

There are four originals and seven stories published or produced elsewhere. I’ve been lucky enough to have my stories produced as podcast episodes at The Other Stories podcast numerous times, so whilst these stories are hitting print for the first time, they have previously made their way to readers/listeners. 
The stories that are original to the collection are generally a bit longer and a bit weirder. Lots of short story markets ask for stories under 5k words. I’ve got a few stories in here that I’m really pleased with, they just never fit a market, word count wise. 

MW:   What made you decide to go the self-published route? 

DH:   I’ve spent the last few years largely writing novels and trying to get an agent. I’ve come pretty close a couple of times but still haven’t cracked it. For a large part of the submissions process (as you’ll know, Mark) you can feel like an outsider looking in. 

But that feeling of being an outsider doesn’t have to be negative. It’s something I’ve channelled. There’s absolutely no reason now for creatives of any kind to let their work die on their hard drives anymore. We’ve all got the skills and the means to get out there. As long as the quality of the output is high, we shouldn’t sit on our stories. 

Inspired by people like Sub Pop and Dischord Records, although more specifically David Moody and his press Infected Books, I decided that things weren’t going to happen for me unless I made them happen. So, I took the first steps. 

I’ve started my own publishing label, Northern Republic. It puts some distance between me and my work. We’ve got a website, we’ve got logos, and we’ve got other books on deck. Northern Republic isn’t a traditional press, but it will be associated with some brilliant books. Hopefully, starting with mine. 

MW:   How did you find the self-pubbing experience? 

DH:   Bewildering at first. Everything is new and everyone has an opinion on every conceivable option you can take for your book. I’ve worked with small presses before, so I know what I like and what I don’t. 

The key thing for me was to get a belting cover. I am fascinated by graphic design, probably because I’m terrible at it. I hired Luke Spooner of Carrion House to do the artwork and he’s been brilliant. A great talent and spot on to work with. He’s been really patient with my dumb questions and turned out a top-notch cover. 

My technical skills are pretty limited, and I leaned heavily on the experience of others. It’s not something I’m ashamed of. Everyone has to learn somehow! Some people have really helped me, particularly Paul Stephenson of Hollow Stone Press was a living legend. He saved me with formatting etc. It’s something I’ll be picking up myself going forward, hopefully. 

The most interesting thing to learn is the marketing. There are so many theories and different ways of promoting your book. Some people lean heavily on ads but I don’t know enough about the route for it be anything other than wasted money right now. 

Instead, I’ve leaned on contacts I’ve already. Made contact with lovely people such as yourself for a bit of a boost. I think that’s an important part of it, exploring the horror community. I’m in touch now with sites that I’ve followed for years and some of them are publishing either reviews or articles I’ve written. 

What’s been amazing is seeing not only how these sites can help me, but what I can give back to the genre as well. How I can help other writers and give them a platform, something I’ve tried to do via the signal boost section on my newsletter and through interviews on my author website. 

   What got you into writing? 

DH:   Stepping fully into the cliché, in some form or another, I’ve written for a very long time. Whether it was terrible songs, terrible scripts or terrible stories, I spent time writing when I was younger. I’d always messed about with words but never took it hugely seriously. 

In 2012, I joined a writing group near where I lived. It was around that time I discovered that horror was where my fiction gravitated to. I didn’t write as much as I should back then. It was only when my daughter was born in summer 2016 that the need to really create and take it seriously bubbled over. 
Since then I’ve written 5 novels, a couple of novellas and a bunch of short stories. I write five days a week, pretty much come hell or high water. I’ve broken the back of resistance and carved out a daily habit, one that I won’t let go of. 

MW:   Tell me about the process for the collection. How did you decide on the stories to include and how did you decide the running order? 

DH:   Good question! 

I always knew I would close the collection with Collaboration. It leaves the reader with something to chew on. I also wanted to start with a bang. Dustin is one of my favourites in this book, so it seemed a natural choice. I feel as though that story was where I really started to find my voice. 

In between, I went by feel really. There was no science or no luck involved. I went through the pieces one by one and moved them around until I felt comfortable. I have my cornerstones and the rest fitted around them naturally really.

MW:   So what’s next?

DH:   Hopefully getting a novel published one way or another. I’ve just finished a novel, a kinda crime/thriller/dystopian piece. I actually really like it, but it needs a thorough edit. For sure. Where that one will land, who knows? 

I’ve just finished a new novella that will likely be my next release from Northern Republic towards the back end of the year. After that, perhaps start to release some of the novels I’ve got under my belt as well as there are some books I’m really proud of there. 

Monday, 19 April 2021

Matryoshka, by Penny Jones

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.
There’s something wrong with her husband, Mark. Lucy had heard all the rumours about him, the whispered warning behind her back. The half heard Chinese whispers seemed to haunt her, mocking her wherever she goes. Now it appears that whatever’s the matter with Mark is spreading; tainting, infecting both strangers and those that she loves the most. So, Lucy will go to any lengths to protect both her young daughter and her unborn child.

Lucy is heavily pregnant with her second child and struggling to cope with her three-year-old Susie.  There’s also something wrong with her husband Mark - she’s heard rumours about him, whispered warning behind her back, mocking her wherever she goes. Now it seems whatever’s the matter with him is spreading, tainting strangers and those she loves the most so Lucy has to do whatever it takes to protect her children.

I went into this knowing very little about it and it worked all the better for it.  Having now read it, I’m not sure of how much to discuss in this review without spoiling the twists and turns that readers need to discover for themselves.  Online, Jones has said the novella is “about child birth, loss of identity and post-partum psychosis”, which it absolutely is and once you realise things are going very badly for Lucy, everything goes downhill.  You can see the signs, Lucy can almost see the signs, but there’s too much forward motion for her to make any changes.  Well told with a pace that doesn’t let up, this feels claustrophobic and oppressive, horrific but realistic and offers no easy get outs.  It also presses a lot of soft spots on the way (I found myself cringing in places), including an excellent sustained sequence in a caravan park that will make any parent sweat.  Lucy is a compelling protagonist, clearly suffering mentally and trying to keep herself together and she has our sympathy, even when she does things that make those around her question her sanity.  With a clever last line, this is well worth a read and I would very much recommend it.

* * *
I'm lucky enough to know Penny and her husband, having hung out with them at various Cons and a Crusty Exterior gathering and she kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.

PJ:   Hi Mark, thanks for inviting me to prattle on about my new novella, I was so nervous when you said you were reading it. I get really bad impostor syndrome every time I have anything published, and as this book was written entirely during lockdown, my mind weasels have been working overtime.

MW:   It's good to have you here!  So where did the original spark for Matryoshka come from? 

PJ:   The story is very loosely based on a patient I nursed years ago who developed post-partum psychosis during the last two weeks of their pregnancy. It was a terrifying time for all involved, but for the mother to be it was like she was living through a horror movie. She believed that there was a family curse, that her own mother had actually given birth to twins and that the twins were given away at birth as they were evil, and that her twin was out there slowly swapping each member of the family with their evil twin. Imagine finding yourself forced into a psychiatric hospital, locked up, believing that your four year old son had been replaced, that your mother was not your mother, that your husband was under the spell of your own evil twin and that they were only waiting for the birth of your daughter to steal her away as well. For her family and for the medical professionals involved in her care it was terrifying: she was refusing medication and she wouldn’t eat or drink because she was sure we were poisoning her. She was a flight risk but we couldn’t restrain her because of the advanced stages of her pregnancy, she actually did manage to escape from the hospital and ended up barricading herself in her attic, no one could get up there and she only just fitted, so even if we got up there, no one would have been able to safely get her down again. I decided against adding the attic ending to my novella as I thought my readers would have found it far-fetched. In case anyone is worried, she had a healthy baby (though labour did start in the attic, it did not finish there) and following the birth she accepted treatment and when she came back to see us six months later mother, baby and family were all doing well.

MW:   Well that's reassuring!  Lucy is a fantastic character, did she appear fully formed or did you have to develop her?

PJ:   As I said in the previous question the story is loosely based on a patient of mine, and Lucy herself definitely draws attributes from several of the women I have nursed over the years who have had post-partum psychosis and depression. Rosemary from Rosemary’s Baby was also a strong influence in the character of Lucy and in the writing style I used for her. I was aiming for that unstable narrator throughout Matryoshka

But as with a lot of my characters there is a whole lot of me in there as well. I feel for a character to be fully formed there has to be a level of truth to their actions and behaviours. When I originally pitched the idea to Peter Mark May at Hersham Horror, I said my main concern was that I didn’t want the reader to feel cheated, as another nurse was fond to say I didn’t want to be a Dirty Birdy with my story. So I tried to put myself in Lucy’s shoes, took off my author head and tried to write her reactions as if they were my own in the same situation, as if I as the writer didn’t know if what was happening to Lucy was real or a slow descent into madness.

The Crusty Exterior in Ye Old Trip To Jerusalem, April 2019
from left - Wayne Parkin, Penny, Simon Jones, me, Ross Warren, Phil Sloman and James Everington

MW:   In your story notes, you mention that children scare you.  Did you find that factor helped or hindered you with this?  For what it’s worth, I read this as a parent dreading what might happen next.

PJ:   Children do scare me. I think they are an excellent trope that can never be overused in the horror genre. There is something innately alien about them, something other, an uncanny valley where their whole persona is so slightly off kilter from our own. They mimic us (both our good and our bad traits) to learn how to be functioning member of society. And there is something both comforting and terrifying in watching someone trying to be you (Vivarium builds the tension in this symbiotic relationship brilliantly). I am aware though that children in horror can be also be very divisive for readers. There are some readers who won’t be interested in the parent / child dynamic, and there will be those who will read it through the eyes of parents, fearful for the child, and there will be those who will read it fearful of the child. Each person’s own relation with the children in their life will colour the way they read a book with children at the heart of it, and it is balancing the story so that it can resonate with as many readers as possible without losing its central concept that is most tricky. I know that I am scared of children, but what I think is terrifying, someone else will see as endearing. So that balance of behaviours being both realistic and unnerving is really difficult to get onto the page.

MW:   Your pacing with this is very good, do you find the novella length works best for you?

PJ:   This was actually my first novella, I usually write short stories, and they tend to be short, short stories, my sweet point is only about 4,000 words. But I always knew this was going to be a novella length piece as there was too much to tell in a short story, but I thought it would loose its ambiguous horror if it was novel length. I really enjoyed writing it and I certainly have one other novella length piece that I want to write. 

MW:   And what’s next?

PJ:   I’m currently working on what I think will be a novel, though unlike my first novel, which I wrote very specifically on a traditional story arc and which came out at a traditional novel length of 90,000 words. This one I’m allowing some freedom to it, so if it ends up as another novella I won’t be disappointed. I’ve actually planned this story out, which is something I never do, though how useful that will be I have no idea, as so far I have missed out the second of my chapter post-its, and now I’m on post-it four, I’ve decided that the previous chapters probably aren’t needed. My elevator pitch for the story is Bridget Jones meets The Wicker Man.

MW:   Well that sounds very intriguing!  Good luck with it!

* * *

Penny Jones knew she was a writer when she started to talk about herself in the third person (her family knew when Santa bought her a typewriter for Christmas when she was three). Penny’s debut collection Suffer Little Children published by Black Shuck Books was shortlisted for the 2020 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer, and her short story Dendrochronology published by Hersham Horror was shortlisted for the 2020 British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story.

Monday, 12 April 2021

The Mystery Of The Talking Skull, by Robert Arthur

2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published and, to celebrate, I re-read and compiled my all-time Top 10 (safe in the knowledge that it would be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I posted my list here, having previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here).

Following this, I decided to re-visit some of the books I'd missed on that second read-through, without any intention of posting reviews of them but, as if often the way, it didn't quite work out like that.  Happily, this is on-going and so here's an additional review...
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed in 1970 and never reprinted), cover art by Roger Hall
Excitedly they searched the old chest.  Jupiter was sure they would find a vital clue from the post.  Suddenly Bob exclaimed: "Look!  Under that purple cloth!"  Before them lay a gleaming white skull...

There are surprises for The Three Investigators when they buy an antique trunk.  For its spooky contents lead them on a thrilling treasure hunt - and into the middle of a sinister plot...

illustration from the Collins/Armada editions,
by Roger Hall
The boys meets with Chief Reynolds in his office (the
only time we see him in the whole series, I think)
Jupiter Jones decides to visit an auction and, whilst there, purchases an old trunk for one dollar.  It turns out to have once belonged to a magician named The Great Gulliver, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances (following a bank robbery he was innocently mixed up in) and now his trunk is attracting a lot of interest, from gypsies, fellow conjurors and some unpleasant thugs.  When the boys find the set piece of Gullivers act, a talking skull called Socrates, it leads them to several clues and a race against time to find the stolen money before it is lost forever.

This was the last Three Investigator book written by the series creator Robert Arthur (he passed away in May 1969, the year this was published) and is a fitting tribute to him.  Playing on a similar, smaller canvas as his previous title, The Mystery Of The Screaming Clock, this works well and there’s a nice, nostalgic atmosphere to the whole thing.  It sticks close to home - a lot of the action takes place in the Jones Junkyard - but when the book ventures into Los Angeles, it’s to the more rundown areas of the city (“…everything needed paint and repair.  The few people on the street were quite old.  It seemed to be a street where elderly people with small incomes lived”).  This tinge of melancholy is echoed when the boys are on the trail of the money, with a house “that moves”, where Arthur bemoans the fact that old neighbourhoods are being torn down to make way for yet more freeways.

Characterisation, as ever, is spot on with some good repartee between the boys and it’s nice to see Uncle Titus play a much larger role than usual (Aunt Mathilda’s involved too).  Of the supporting cast, Chief Reynolds has a good part (and a nice counterpoint in his stand-in, Lieutenant Carter, who wants nothing to do with the boys) and the criminal gang - Three-Finger Munger and his associates Leo The Knife and Babyface Benson - are played admirably straight.  There’s also a nice nod to The Secret Of Terror Castle with Zelda the gypsy (though in that book, Zelda was comrade-in-arms to Gypsy Kate).  As with all Arthur stories, the mystery is solid and well-thought out and although there are no Sherlock Holmes references this time, Jupiter does allude to a real book - Lord Chizelrigg's Missing Fortune, by Robert Barr - which is a nice touch.  With a good pace, strong atmosphere and a wonderful use of location, this is a very enjoyable read and I’d highly recommend it.

I like both of the paperback covers Peter Archer produced (different angles of the same scene), particularly because they give us a view of the junkyard which - bearing in mind its importance as a location in the series - is rarely seen in the artwork.
Armada format a paperback (printed between 1973 and 1980), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)
Armada format b paperback (printed between 1981 and 1983), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)

The internal illustrations for the UK edition were drawn by Roger Hall.

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)