Monday, 30 March 2020

Asking Writers Questions - a round-up

Following on from last weeks Mixtape round-up (which you can read here), as we move further into self-isolation I thought it'd be an idea to collect together some Q&A sessions I've had on the blog with writer friends.  In all cases, I review their latest book and then ask them questions around it (or, in some cases, on completely unrelated topics).  I had fun doing them, all the interviewees are excellent and the books are well worth a read so if you're looking for something new to try, you might just find it here.

As always, stay safe and happy reading!

Craze, by Steve Byrne
A wave of terrifying paranormal phenomena has swept the UK. A virulent plague known as the Red Death has decimated the population. Law and order has broken down.

The Crisis Powers Government, operating from the fortified heart of London, is attempting to regain control, whilst a shadowy terrorist organisation is rumoured to be harnessing the power of darkness for its own ends.

To escape a riot-torn inner city, a group of survivors must band together, but their flight will force a harrowing confrontation with the demonic forces at the heart of society’s collapse.

MW:   How much did the end result differ from the original idea?

SB:   Originally, in that first novel (that was consigned to the bottom drawer, and rightly so) it was really gung-ho, proper pulp—sort of like Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist series from the nineties, if you’re ever encountered that. People, mayhem and guns. Fast paced fun. I hope I’ve kept that feel, but as the characters developed  (particularly the female characters, who actually began to take over the novel), it evolved into what you’ve picked up on—a look at how friendship, love and loyalty are our only respite in a world of depravity.

Read the full post here

The Little Gift, by Stephen Volk
THE NOCTURNAL SCAMPERING invariably signals death. I try to shut it out. The cat might be chasing a scrap of paper or a ball of silver foil across the bare floorboards downstairs, say a discarded chocolate wrapper courtesy of my wife, who likes providing it with impromptu playthings. I tell myself it isn’t necessarily toying with something living, but my stomach tightens.

MW:  The novella seems to be a preferred length of yours, what do you like so much about it?
SV:  It didn’t start out as a novella, it grew from a short story into a longer one (same with many of my novellas, in fact). Generally, I just see how the story evolves, length-wise. Nobody is asking me to write these and nobody is giving me a deadline or word count. Yes, I could have written this as a 80,000 word novel but I don’t think I would have gained anything. Pitching and structuring a novel is entirely different, bulkier, more substantial in terms of the market and visibility, but in creative terms I like to think a good novella has everything a good novel has. Like it’s a novel shrunk down, condensed, but the intensity remains and nothing is wasted.

Read the full post here

The Smallest Of Things, by Ian Whates
There are many Londons. From pomp to sleaze, from sophistication to dark corruption, Chris knows them all. A fixer with a particular set of skills, he can step between realities, piercing the thin veils that separate one London from another to find objects or locate people that have fallen between the cracks.

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

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

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

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

Read the full post here

Hell Ship, by Benedict J Jones
1944, The Malacca Straights; Blood slicks the deck of a Japanese ship as a terrible ritual is enacting to aid the failing Imperial Forces against the Allies. The ritual rends the very fabric of our world giving access to another realm beyond the ken of man.

Nine survivors from the torpedoed Empire Carew are left adrift in a lifeboat but after weeks in the water they find haven on an abandoned ship they find floating in a strange fog – The Shinjuku Maru.

Nine souls are heading straight for hell.

MW:   How much research was involved?

BJ:   A fair bit. Some things I knew already from reading and previous research but I was drawn to find out more about the merchant seamen during World War two. My family is originally from the north east of England and we have strong ties to the Merchant Navy, as well as the ship building industry and the Royal Navy. Once I started researching shipwreck survivors I came across some really interesting accounts and all that fed into Hell Ship – including that of Poon Lim who spent 133 days adrift.

Read the full post here

Closer Still, by Richard Farren Barber
Keep your friend close, and your enemies closer still.
- Origin contested

“Closer Still is about childhood friends and childhood enemies. It is a story about how the two are often not as far apart as one might believe. It is my thoughts on the strength of children to navigate an environment in which they are often powerless. It is about love and betrayal. The casual pain inflicted by friends. It is the visceral cry of youth against the injustice of life.”

MW:   Obvious question but I’m intrigued - have you ever had a supernatural experience?

RFB:  I haven’t had a supernatural experience. The closest I’ve come to was going into St Mary’s Close in Edinburgh and having a ghost tour in the semi-darkness. By the end of the tour I was living on the edge of my nerves – the place was genuinely eerie. I found myself at the very back of the group and constantly looking over my shoulder into the darkness. Did I see anything moving behind me? I don’t think so, but I realised that if anyone had put a hand on my shoulder I would have screamed loud enough to wake the dead.

Read the full post here

A Summer To Remember, by Sue Moorcroft

WANTED! A caretaker for Roundhouse Row holiday cottages.

WHERE? Nelson’s Bar is the perfect little village. Nestled away on the Norfolk coast we can offer you no signal, no Wi-Fi and – most importantly – no problems!

WHO? The ideal candidate will be looking for an escape from their cheating scumbag ex-fiancé, a diversion from their entitled cousin, and a break from their traitorous friends.

WHAT YOU’LL GET! Accommodation in a chocolate-box cottage, plus a summer filled with blue skies and beachside walks. Oh, and a reunion with the man of your dreams.

PLEASE NOTE: We take no responsibility for any of the above scumbags, passengers and/or traitors walking back into your life…

MW:   Where did the idea come from? Clancy is another in your line of strong, if slightly wounded heroines.  What prompted you to make the choices for her character you did?

SM:   The spark for the story, which also formed a chunk of Clancy’s issues, was a Tweet. It depicted a couple caught in an intimate moment on the guy’s video conferencing software which, somehow, he’d managed to leave running. Because he was fully dressed it wasn’t pornographic but the activity in which they were engaged couldn’t be mistaken. I began to wonder whether the man and woman were single or, if not, who they were cheating on. How did the video, or a still from it, make it onto social media? Where were these people employed? Did they lose their jobs? Did it cause embarrassment to the employer as well as to the couple? Or, as the still didn’t show faces, did they get away with it? Who else had been involved in the video call?

Read the full post here

And because it never fails to make me smile (we look like a boyband the world's forgotten, just about to launch a new tour), here's a picture of me with Richard (plus Stephen Bacon and Wayne Parkin, taken by Sue), at FantasyCon Scarborough, September 2016 (you can read a full report of the Con here)
from left - Richard, Steve, me and Wayne

Stay safe, people and happy reading!

Monday, 23 March 2020

Mixtape round-up

When I curated the King For A Year Project during 2015, a lovely side-note to it was the occasional email from readers saying a review had prompted them to pick up a book they wouldn't have tried otherwise.  Following this, I decided to set up a similar project that, while smaller in scale, definitely wasn't in scope.  Harking back to the 80s glory days of the homemade mixtape (that wonderful teenage rite-of-passage), I began creating Mixtape posts, compiling a list of horror short stories sorted around a particular theme.

The intention was to create a list - some you might have heard of, some might be new to you - picked and reviewed by a rotating crew of friends from the horror writing community.  Thankfully, the idea struck a chord and I got some great feedback, especially that we managed to introduce new favourites to people.  So, with the current situation of people self-isolating against the Corona Virus, here's a round-up of those Mixtapes and almost 150 suggestions of great stories to read.

The Brit Horror Mixtape (from 2016)

The leader of the pack, this collected 24 tales by British writers.
You can read the whole Mixtape here.

The American Horror Mixtape (from 2016)

Arriving two months after the Brits, this collected 30 stories by a variety of US writers.
You can read the whole Mixtape here.

The Women In Horror Mixtape (from 2017)

To coincide with Women In Horror month, this collected 38 tales.
You can read the whole Mixtape here.

The Stephen King Mixtape (from 2018)

Going back to the well, this collected 28 stories from the man who kept so many of us on the horror track.
You can read the whole Mixtape here.

The 70s/80s Horror Mixtape (from 2019)

Harking back to the period of time when I (and a lot of my friends) first discovered horror, this collects 28 stories from a variety of writers.
You can read the whole Mixtape here.

As always, I hope these posts bring something new to your attention and, who knows, your new favourite short story could be included here!

Stay safe!

Monday, 16 March 2020

The Art Of Bob Larkin

Back in the 70s, as an avid reader of Starburst, I saw an ad for a film called Shockwaves and the image - drowned Nazi zombies - was incredibly striking.  I saw the film, many years later and whilst it didn’t (in true exploitation art terms) quite live up to the promise of the poster, it certainly had its moments.  As part of my research, I discovered that the man who drew it also created the poster art for Kingdom Of The Spiders (which I wrote about here), the cover of Marvel’s adapation of The Empire Strikes Back and the poster for Joe Dante’s excellent Piranha (which I covered here).

So here’s a celebration of Bob Larkin and his artwork.
1974 - 1st issue of the comic published in the UK
1977 - film poster
1977 - film poster
1978 - comic
1978 - film poster
1978 - comic collectors edition (one of two variant covers)
1980 - Marvel cover (also used on the annual)
1980 - the UK title of "Humanoids From The Deep"
1980 - comic (is it just me, or does Dracula here look like George Hamilton?)
1984 - paperback
1986 - UK quad poster
1988 - paperback
2015 - trading card
c.1970s - The Universal Monsters
Bob Larkin was on July 10th 1949 and attended High School with the son of Bantam Art Director Len Leone, from 1964 to 1967.  Larkin showed Leone some of his artwork and was told, “Down the road, if you get really good at it, I will hire you.”
Bob Larkin with his son Ken in 1979
Bob was a big fan of the Doc Savage series as he grew up and Leone was instrumental in Bantam reprinting the books and making it a success.  The original cover artwork was created by James Bama and when he decided to move on, he handpicked Bob as his successor.  This began a long and fruitful collaboration between artist and publisher, starting in 1977 and continuing for many years.

Although he worked for DC Comics, Peter Pan Records, National Lampoon and Warren Publishing, he is chiefly known for his painted covers of Marvel magazines during the 1970s and 1980s.  His many credits include Crazy Magazine, Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu, The Hulk, Planet of the Apes, Savage Sword of Conan, The Tomb of Dracula, Spider Man, The Punisher, Vampirella, Creepy, Eerie and more.

As well as his Doc Savage work, he produced other covers for Bantam Books as well as Ace Books, Simon & Schuster, Random House and Penguin.  He also created film posters for the likes of Columbia Pictures, Universal, New Line Cinema and Troma.

He continues to paint.

A partial list of Bob Larkin's artwork can be found here

Camera Viscera
Bob Larkin: The Illustrated Man

Monday, 9 March 2020

The Mystery Of The Fiery Eye, 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 between 1969 and 1971), cover art by Roger Hall

The Black Moustache Gang are after ‘The Fiery Eye’.  So are the Three Investigators and they manage to outwit the thieves, or so they think...  

But when Jupe holds the gem at last, four gunmen emerge from the darkness!  Black Moustache has caught up again...

illustration from the
Collins/Armada editions, by Roger Hall
At the suggestion of Alfred Hitchcock, The Three Investigators agree to help English lad August August (who’s called Gus by his friends) try and crack the riddle he’s been left by his great Uncle Horatio August.  Horatio (who Gus never met) went sailing on a ship to the South Seas and wasn’t seen again but now a lawyer has been in touch with the family, to pass on a letter he left for his great nephew.  As they try to figure out the riddle - it’s a race against time, since Horatio’s old house is being knocked down - the boys come into contact with ‘Three Dots’, Rama Sidri Rhandur of Pleshiwar in India and his sword cane, who is searching for The Fiery Eye, a fabulous ruby that was stolen from his temple.  They also come into contact with the Black Moustache gang, who appear to be on the trail of the jewel themselves.

This is the seventh book in the series by Robert Arthur and features the pay-off for the use of the Rolls Royce (“thirty days of twenty-four hours each”) which was set up in The Secret Of Terror Castle.  Pete points out that “the thirty days ran out while we were back East tangling with the mystery of Skeleton Island”, which means that the first six books took place in the space of a month!  The dilemma stumps the boys for a while but the resolution, mentioned in several of the books after this but not in detail, is nicely played.  In further continuity, there’s also mention of Blackbeard, who still appears to be in his cage in Headquarters.  The central mystery is convincing - Arthur wrote a good riddle - and the processes of detection are smartly made, with a couple of decent twists along the way.  Bob ends up at the library a couple of times, cutting him off from the action but he does end up discovering some clues and his Dad also helps out again.

Although a lot of the book takes place at The Jones Junkyard, it also encompasses Hollywood and Dial Canyon, just north of the city, which is atmospherically described and well used, especially after dark.  The book also briefly features a young called Liz Logan, who is desperate to be an investigator and thrilled to meet Bob.  Arthur clearly has fun writing her and, in an interview, his daughter Elizabeth confirmed that Liz is based on her.  I wish we’d seen more of Miss Logan, she certainly shows potential here.

The characterisation is as strong as ever from Arthur, with the menacing Three Dots balancing up the rougher Black Moustache gang (their horn-rimmed glasses and fake moustaches are pretty silly disguises) who are barely distinguishable other than by name.  The boys enjoy some good interplay, though with less humour than usual, Hans & Konrad have decent parts, but we get an ‘Alfred Hitchcock Speaking’ end chapter, rather than the normal meeting, which doesn’t work so well.  The book does, however, allow Arthur to show his appreciation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Horatio apparently met him as a young man) and the plot pays homage to The Adventure Of The Six Napoleons, which Jupiter mentions.  Well constructed, with some great set pieces (Jupe and his chair, especially), this is a great read and I’d highly recommend it.
Armada format a paperback (printed between 1971 and 1979), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)
Armada format b paperback (printed between 1981 and 1984), 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)

Monday, 2 March 2020

Review Round-up, for World Book Day

Regular readers will know I take my reading seriously (check out my Westies posts - now up to number eleven! - rounding up what I've read in a particular year), I take book collecting seriously (my sleazy paperback library is something teenaged me would have been proud of) and I'm a real advocate for people losing themselves in a book.
So do yourself a favour - as it's World Book Day on Thursday go out and pick up a book.  You don't have to spend a lot of money on a glossy hardback, go to the library (if you have any left near you, he wrote sarcastically) or buy a paperback, or download an ebook, or go into a second hand or charity shop and pick up something for 20p.

Tastes vary but here are some suggestions, based on books by friends I've read over the past couple of years and liked enough to blog about.

Closer Still, by Richard Farren Barber

“Closer Still is about childhood friends and childhood enemies. It is a story about how the two are often not as far apart as one might believe. It is my thoughts on the strength of children to navigate an environment in which they are often powerless. It is about love and betrayal. The casual pain inflicted by friends. It is the visceral cry of youth against the injustice of life.”

I thoroughly enjoyed Barber’s previous novella Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence and this is equally as good, if poles apart.  A perfectly paced ghost story that turns up its horror - both real and supernatural - as it goes, this benefits greatly from having Rachel as the narrator (unreliable at times), with Barber capturing her voice exceptionally well.  School life feels real and raw with the sense of being alone in a crowded classroom or playground, the demeanour of the teachers which can be threatening or benign but never fully on your side, the smell of the rooms and corridors, the terror of being trapped in a toilet block.  Exceptionally well written, with a great sense for location and atmosphere, this is a perfectly realised ghost story.
* * *

A Summer To Remember, by Sue Moorcroft
(full review - and Q&A - here)

WANTED! A caretaker for Roundhouse Row holiday cottages.

WHERE? Nelson’s Bar is the perfect little village. Nestled away on the Norfolk coast we can offer you no signal, no Wi-Fi and – most importantly – no problems!

WHO? The ideal candidate will be looking for an escape from their cheating scumbag ex-fiancé, a diversion from their entitled cousin, and a break from their traitorous friends.

WHAT YOU’LL GET! Accommodation in a chocolate-box cottage, plus a summer filled with blue skies and beachside walks. Oh, and a reunion with the man of your dreams.

PLEASE NOTE: We take no responsibility for any of the above scumbags, passengers and/or traitors walking back into your life…


I'm a huge fan of Sue's and have reviewed all her books but, for me, this just pips the others as the best of the lot.
* * *

Hell Ship, by Benedict J. Jones

1944, The Malacca Straights; Blood slicks the deck of a Japanese ship as a terrible ritual is enacting to aid the failing Imperial Forces against the Allies. The ritual rends the very fabric of our world giving access to another realm beyond the ken of man.

Nine survivors from the torpedoed Empire Carew are left adrift in a lifeboat but after weeks in the water they find haven on an abandoned ship they find floating in a strange fog – The Shinjuku Maru.

Nine souls are heading straight for hell.

The Shinjuku Maru has been there before…

Scary, thrilling, often amusing (especially in the interplay between some of the characters) but above all relentless, this has a great pace and a superb sense of location, which is well realised and maintained.  If you’re looking for a grim and gruesome horror novella, this is ideal.
* * *

Naming The Bones, by Laura Mauro

First there was darkness…

Alessa Spiteri survives a bombing incident on the London Underground only to discover that the horror she experienced there is only the beginning of the nightmare.

As she struggles to rebuild her life, she finds herself haunted by grotesque, shadowy creatures – monsters Alessa believes are hallucinations, born of her traumatised mind until she meets Casey, also the survivor of an Underground bombing, who tells her she can see the monsters too.

Together, the women plan their fightback against the creatures, a course of action which takes Alessa back into the tunnels beneath the city.
Back into the darkness. 

Hugely enjoyable, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the tube - and, indeed, Central London - is well used and becomes genuinely oppressive as the story reaches its conclusion.  Original, full of tension and very scary.
* * *

The Summer Of Impossible Things, by Rowan Coleman

If you could change the past, would you?

Thirty years ago, something terrible happened to Luna’s mother. Something she’s only prepared to reveal after her death.

Now Luna and her sister have a chance to go back to their mother’s birthplace and settle her affairs. But in Brooklyn they find more questions than answers, until something impossible – magical – happens to Luna, and she meets her mother as a young woman back in the summer of 1977.

At first Luna’s thinks she’s going crazy, but if she can truly travel back in time, she can change things. But in doing anything – everything – to save her mother’s life, will she have to sacrifice her own?

A wonderful novel, full of love and friendship and vitality, this doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of life though there is always hope and it’s told with an assured style that drags the reader through at breakneck pace. Beautifully constructed, fantastic in every aspect and moving, I loved this.
* * *

Dead Leaves, by Andrew David Barker
(full review here)

To Scott, Paul and Mark, horror films are everything.

The year is 1983, the boom of the video revolution, and Scott Bradley is seventeen, unemployed and on the dole. Drifting through life, he and his friends love nothing more than to sit around drinking, talking about girls, and watching horror movies.

But things are about to change.

As the ‘video nasty’ media storm descends, their desire to find a copy of the ultimate horror film – The Evil Dead – is going to lead them to the most significant days of their young lives. As the law tightens and their way of life comes under threat from all quarters, they come to learn what truly matters to them – and what doesn’t.

A heartfelt story of friendship, loyalty and youthful rebellion, Dead Leaves is a darkly funny and brutally honest depiction of aimless life in a Midland town, and perfectly captures the impact those first few years of video had on a generation.

I love coming-of-age tales, I love the 80s and I love horror - this was absolutely the perfect book for me and I thought it was a superb read, a paen to the teenage years of horror fans wherever they might have grown up, a This Is England for the Fango crowd.

Monday, 24 February 2020

Into The River, by Mark Brandi (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and loved, which I think adds to the genre (crime, in this case) and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.
Winner of The Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger and The 2018 Indie Debut Fiction Award

Growing up in a small country town, Ben and Fab spend their days playing cricket, wanting a pair of Nike Air Maxes and not talking about how Fab's dad hits him, or how the sudden death of Ben's next-door neighbour unsettled him. Almost teenagers, they already know some things are better left unsaid.

Then a newcomer arrived. Fab reckoned he was a secret agent and he and Ben staked him out. He looked strong. Maybe even stronger than Fab's dad. Neither realised the shadow this man would cast over both their lives.

Twenty years later, Fab is going nowhere but hoping for somewhere better. Then a body is found in the river, and Fab can't ignore the past any more.

I came to this without knowing anything about it - I was browsing in The Works and saw the cover blurb by my friend Louise Jensen - and I'm pleased about that, because if I'd known the issue at the heart of the story, I might have passed on it.  I'm so glad I didn't.

Ben and Fab are best friends, ten-year-olds growing up in a small town in Northern Australia at the tail end of the 80s (though this isn't specified until later).  They spend their days watching TV (including The A-Team, which I thought was a brilliant touch), playing cricket and yabbying in the local creek.  What they don't do is talk about how Fab’s dad hits him or how the death of Ben’s next door neighbour Daisy unsettled him, certainly once the awful rumours start.  Then someone new moves in, a loner called Ronnie with a flash car and the shadow he casts over both boys lives will be felt for a long time to come.

The situation between Ben and Ronnie is harrowing but the worst of it happens off the page which, I think, makes the drama even more intense.  Brandi captures the dry and hot atmosphere of a country town well, so you can almost feel the parched pavements and gardens and his characterisation of the ten year olds feels accurate - they’re smart, but not as clever as they think they are while their relationship is boisterous and natural.  The adults are seen through their eyes, involved but aloof and Fab’s homelife is nicely done, the violence countered by his wonderful mum (who Ben falls for).  The book is split into three parts, with the first told from Ben's POV (he knows there's a problem with Ronnie, he just can't see what it is) and once that storyline has built to its horrific conclusion, Feb takes the next part, as an adult clearly damaged by life and barely scraping by.  So when the past does return - as heralded by the prologue - things start to crumble.

I liked this a lot, it’s tense but often funny, real and harrowing but mostly hopeful, that friendships do conquer fear sometimes.  Engaging, briskly told and well paced, this is a cracking novel and thoroughly deserving of its acclaim.  Highly recommended.

Monday, 17 February 2020

Looking For Rachel Wallace, by Robert B. Parker, at 40

Forty years ago this month, Robert B Parker published the sixth Spenser novel, Looking For Rachel Wallace.
cover scan of my 1987 Penguin edition
Spenser is hired to look after the campaigning lesbian-feminist author Rachel Wallace.

Her new book is going to dish the dirt on people in high places, but its publication brings death threats.  The reluctant Rachel doesn’t like macho wise guys like Spenser and a clash of personalities is inevitable.

After Spenser is fired, Rachel Wallace is kidnapped but the Boston private eye feels honour-bound to find her.

As I wrote in my appreciation of Robert B. Parker (from 2014, you can read it here), I got into crime fiction in the late 80s, starting with Raymond Chandler (after watching The Long Goodbye on Alex Cox’s wonderful Moviedrome thread) who led me to Sara Paretsky’s V I Warshawski series, the Hannah Wolfe novels from Sarah Dunant and various stand-alone titles.  In early 1988, while browsing in Kettering W H Smiths, I picked up - quite by chance - Parker’s Promised Land and fell in love with it (I wrote about it here), becoming an instant fan and working my way through the series until Double Deuce in 1992 (when we parted company).  The earlier novels, in my opinion, are definitely the better ones and I was really pleased to find Looking For Rachel Wallace, on re-reading, still stands up perfectly well, sexual politics and all, being a cleverly constructed mystery with great characters.

Hired by her publisher, Spenser is assigned to protect the feminist-lesbian writer Rachel Wallace, who is ruffling feathers left and right with her new book, Tyranny, that exposes prejudice in high office and business in the Boston area.  When his macho ways include getting into a fight to protect her, Rachel fires Spenser and when, three weeks later she’s kidnapped, he feels duty-bound to find her.  Told with engaging wit and nicely playing the whole spectrum of sexual politics, this sees Parker fitting into the rhythms he’d use for the remainder of the series and promotes Susan Silverman to full partner (she plays a considerable role in the story too).  The characters are well rounded, the mystery falls into place well and Quirk and Belson have much more to do than usual (though Hawk doesn’t make an appearance, more’s the pity).  In keeping with the timeline, this is more violent (Spenser kills two people at one point) than the later books, but Parker also tries to explain the ‘male code’, which is interesting (and sets up a nice relationship with a young cop called Foley).  With a cracking climax - Spenser staging a break-in - that takes place against a blizzard which has brought Boston to a stand-still, this zips along at a rapid pace and is never less than interesting.  Well worth a read!
Robert B. Parker
There really is a lot to like in this.  Spenser and Susan work well together, without a lot of the over-the-top relationship material which tends to overpower the story in later novels and Parker smartly allows Susan to add weight to Spenser’s interplay with Rachel Wallace.  The writer is a terrific creation, strong, smart and resilient and although she and Spenser will never see eye-to-eye, you get a sense of mutual respect from the midpoint (certainly towards the end) and Rachel would re-appear in A Catskill Eagle (1985), Stardust (1990) and Sudden Mischief (1998), developing a strong relationship with Spenser.

Although Hawk doesn’t appear (which is a shame, as I love his character), Lieutenant Martin Quirk and Sergeant Frank Belson do, with fairly big roles (Belson especially) and there’s a well played flare-up between Spenser and Quirk where both men are aware that our hero has slipped up (he fails to make a connection between the villains and a character we already know).  Indeed, the novel’s not afraid to show Spenser making mistakes, not least in his indirectly allowing Rachel to be kidnapped and I think this is one of the few occasions where he loses a fight (though, to be fair, it is against four people) and suffers the physical pain for it.  We also meet the neatly drawn Foley, a young policeman who proudly wears his Vietnam War decorations and clearly follows the same moral code as Spenser & Hawk.

Boston, as ever, is well captured with Parker presumably giving us some of his own thoughts on the city, especially the Boston Public Library at the start of chapter 19:

"The main entrance to the Boston Public Library used to face Copley Square across Dartmouth Street. There was a broad exterior stairway and inside there was a beautiful marble staircase leading up to the main reading room with carved lions and high-domed ceilings. It was always a pleasure to go there. It felt like a library and looked like a library, and even when I was going in there to look up Duke Snider's lifetime batting average, I used to feel like a scholar.
Then they grafted an addition on and shifted the main entrance to Boylston Street. Faithful to the spirit, the architect had probably said. But making a contemporary statement, I bet he said. The addition went with the original like Tab goes with pheasant. Now, even if I went in to study the literary influence of Eleanor of Aquitaine, I felt like I'd come out with a pound of hamburger and a loaf of Wonder bread."

One nice touch, I thought - Spenser & Rachel meet Susan for dinner at Rosalie’s restaurant in Marblehead which is not only a real place, it’s still operating.  As for the blizzard, Boston really was brought to a standstill by one in 1978 (you can read more about it here, at the Boston Globe) which would make sense in terms of the time Parker was writing the novel.

Part of the clash between Spenser and Rachel is her assertion she has no sense of humour and his frequent quipping.  There’s usually plenty of wisecracks in the series but this has some really smart lines.

After being introduced to Rachel she grills him and Spenser reckons “if I’d had tires, she’d have kicked them.”

When he meets Rachel’s publisher, John Ticknor, the man comments he’s been told Spenser is “quite tough.”

“You betcha,” I said. “I was debating here today whether to have the lobster Savannah or just eat one of the chairs.”

Ticknor smiled again, but not like he wanted me to marry his sister.

Crossing a picket line at the Belmont Public Library, one of the demonstrators yells “Dyke!”

I said, “Is he talking to me?”

Rachel Wallace said, “No.”

The Belmont library scene also includes a nice touch in that the audience is under-appreciative, which happens a lot more than non-writers would imagine and it only gets worse later when they go to a book signing and Rachel has to contend with “where do you get your ideas?”

Lastly, in Chapter 10, while guarding Rachel’s hotel room, he’s approached by Callahan, the house detective (he also re-appears in other novels) who asks him for identification.

I handed him my license. He looked at it and looked at me. “Nice picture,” he said.
“Well, that's my bad side,” I said.
“It's full face,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.

hardback third edition (1980) from Delacorte Press (New York)
If you’re intrigued by the Spenser series and looking to get into it, then I envy the enjoyment you have to come.  Although I would, of course, recommend Promised Land (wholeheartedly) or this as starting points, it’s worth bearing in mind the books sit in a chronological timeline so it’s perhaps best to start at the beginning with The Godwulf Manuscript.

Bullets And Beer: Looking For Rachel Wallace

Monday, 10 February 2020

Devil Inside, by INXS

Since it's 32 years old this week, I'm taking a look at INXS' Devil Inside, a single I think best encapsulates not only the excellent Kick album but also the time period.
Devil Inside, the second single (following Need You Tonight) from Kick (which I wrote about here), was released on 8th February 1988 in Australia and 13th February 1988 for the rest of the world.  Recorded at Rhinoceros Studios in Sydney during 1986, it was written by Andrew Farriss & Michael Hutchence, produced by Chris Thomas and mixed by Bob Clearmountain.

It’s highest worldwide chart position was number 2, on the US Billboard Hot 100 for a fortnight (held off the top spot by Billy Ocean’s Get Outta My Dreams and Whitney Houston with Where Do Broken Hearts Go), going on to spend seventeen weeks on the chart.  It peaked at number 6 in Australia, 20 in France, 25 in Ireland and 47 in the UK (spending five weeks on the charts here).

Here come the world
With the look in its eye
Future uncertain but certainly slight
Look at the faces listen to the bells
It's hard to believe we need a place called hell

The song, part of the first batch for Kick, was written in July while the band was on the If You Got It, Shake It World Tour in 1986.  Andrew Farriss said, “The band was staying at a hotel in Edgware Road in London.  That’s where I wrote the riff - I put it on a demo in my room.  I worked out the chords, played everything for Michael and he said, ‘That’s really good, let’s run with it.’”

The band enjoyed playing the song live - “if you know the right parts,” Farriss said, “you can pretty much play this song as a bar band” - and Chris Thomas managed to preserve that in the recording.  The song quickly became a staple of concerts and it closed the Summer XS gig at Wembley in July 1991.
Joel Schumacher directed the video, a situation which arose from the soundtrack for his film The Lost Boys, released in 1987.  INXS contributed two songs, both of them collaborations with Jimmy Barnes - Good Times (a cover of the Easybeats song from 1968) and Laying Down The Law (co-written by INXS and Barnes) - which were originally recorded to publicise the Australian Made concerts from December 1986 to January 1987.  Since the music budget for the film wasn’t big enough but Schumacher wanted INXS, he agreed to direct a music video for them and they held him to the offer.

The video was filmed over two nights in mid-November 1987 at the Balboa Island Arcade & Boardwalk in Newport Beach, Southern California.  The production utilised three locations - the Balboa Saloon, as well as the Playland and Funzone arcades - and shot from 8pm to 4am (INXS had to leave for Canada after the second night of shooting for a concert).  The boardwalk was kept open to the public who were encouraged to be involved as unpaid extras, whilst the bodybuilders, bikers, businessmen, the fortune teller and the transvestite were all actors brought in for the shoot.

Kirk Pengilly said, in interview, that he didn’t like the video feeling it was “too American” but I love it and the song equally - both, to me, pretty much encapsulate the 80s in terms of sound and vision.

Devil Inside was nominated for Best Editing in a Video at the 1988 MTV Video Music Awards, but lost out to Need You Tonight (which swept the awards, winning five trophies).

The song was issued on vinyl and CD.  The 7” single and a 12” Maxi-single both contained the single version (at 5:11, the album version run 3:55) and On The Rocks, with the 12” version also including a Devil Inside remix (6:36).  The CD single was identical to the 12”.
Kick was released on 19th October 1987 and remains the bands most successful album, with almost 14m units sold.  It was produced by Chris Thomas (his second of three INXS albums) and recorded at Rhinoceros Studios in Sydney and Studio De La Grande Armée in Paris.  It spent 85 weeks on the ARIA album chart (peaking at number 2), 81 weeks on the US Billboard chart (peaking at number 3) and 103 weeks on the UK album chart (peaking at number 9).  I wrote extensively about the album on its 30th anniversary and you can read the blog post here.

The albums was supported by the enormous Kick World Tour which started at East Lansing in Michigan on 16th September 1987 and took in America, Canada, the UK, Europe, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.  The tour ended on 13th November 1988 at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, having played to more than 3 million people.

This performance was shot at Summer XS, Wembley Stadium, 13th July 1991 - a concert I was lucky enough to attend - and later released on the "Live Baby Live" DVD, directed by David Mallet.  Talk about a great way to close a show!

Monday, 3 February 2020

Ten Favourite Covers: Golden Age 2000AD

According to Steve MacManus’ thoroughly entertaining autobiography, The Mighty One: My Life Inside the Nerve Centre, the key age-range for comic readers in the late 70s was the 8-12’s (putting my own ‘golden period’ from 1977 to 1981).  As I’ve been re-discovering 2000AD over the last few years - through Steve’s book, The Judge Dredd Case files and Future Shocks - I thought the comic would make an ideal subject for my occasional Ten Favourite Covers thread.

I hope, if you were a fellow fan, you see a favourite of your own here too…
1977, art by Don Lawrence and Carlos Ezquerra (Judge Dredd) - the first copy I read
1977, art by Evi
1978, art by Dave Gibbons
1978, art by Mike McMahon
1978, art by Kevin O'Neill
1979, art by Carlos Ezquerra
1980, art by Brian Bolland
1980, art by Massimo Bellardinelli
1981, art by Brian Bolland
1981, art by Dave Gibbons

Carlos Sanchez Ezquerra (12th November 1947 - 1st October 2018) was born in Zaragoza, Spain.  He began working in UK comics in 1973, starting with girls romance titles before moving onto westerns and various strips for D. C. Thmson.  In 1974, he was recruited by John Wagner & Pat Mills to work on Rat Pack for Battle Comic.  For 2000AD he co-created, with John Wagner, the characters of Judge Dredd and  Johnny Alpha (Strontium Dog) and also drew the adaptions of Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat novels (wherein Jim DeGriz looked remarkably like James Coburn).
wraparound cover art by Carlos Ezquerra, 1980
Evi, according to comicvine, is the “mysterious cover artist for early issues of weekly British sci-fi anthology comic 2000AD”

David (Dave) Gibbons was born in London on 14th April 1949.  Self-taught, he began working for IPC Media as a letterer and worked on 2000AD from Prog 1.  He drew the first twenty-four episodes of Harlem’s Heroes and was a prolific contributor beyond that, co-creating Rogue Trooper with Gerry Finley-Day.  Perhaps best known for co-creating Watchmen with Alan Moore, he also featured in photographs as superhero Big E, the editor of the short-lived Tornado comic (itself merged in 2000AD after 22 issues - I wrote about it here).

Mick McMahon is a British artist who worked on the first Judge Dredd strip in Prog 2 (co-creators John Wagner & Carlos Ezquerra had both walked away because of a dispute) and is credited with creating the ‘bigboots and crumpled clothes’ that have characterised him since.  He drew the bulk of the first Dredd serial, The Cursed Earth, sharing episodes with Brian Bolland (their styles were radically different), then worked on Ro-Busters, ABC Warriors, The Judge Child and Sláine.

Kevin O’Neill was born in England in 1953 and began working for IPC on Buster comic.  When he found out about 2000AD, he went to see Pat Mills (who was putting the thrill-zine together) and asked to be transferred to it.  As well as working on Ro-Busters, he co-created Nemesis The Warlock and Marshal Law (both with Pat Mills) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (with Alan Moore).  His story Shok!, co-created for the Judge Dredd Annual 1981 with Steve MacManus, formed the (uncredited until there was a court case) basis for Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990).
wraparound cover art by Kevin O'Neill, 1986
Brian Bolland was born in Lincolnshire on 26th March 1951 and is my favourite of the 2000AD artists.  After studying graphic design at Norwich University of the Arts, he began working on British underground magazines and became friends with Dave Gibbons.  The pair collaborated on a strip called Powerman which was only sold in Nigeria and when Gibbons went to work on 2000AD, Bolland soon followed (his first cover was Prog 11).  A self-confessed slow artist he was "by far the slowest of the rotating Judge Dredd artists" choosing to "take as long as I needed and do a half-way decent job" (he gets the mickey taken out of him for it in the Judge Dredd case files).  Credited with creating the look of Judge Death and Judge Anderson, Bolland later began drawing for DC Comics in the US and is perhaps best known for his work on Batman: The Killing Joke with Alan Moore as well as becoming a much-in-demand cover artist.
wraparound cover art by Brian Bolland, 1981
Massimo Belardinelli was born in Rome on 5th June 1938 and, inspired by Fantasia (1940), went into animation.  After moving into comics, he began working in the UK from the mid-1970s.  For 2000AD, among other strips, he drew Meltdown Man (written by Alan Hebden) while John Wagner & Alan Grant created Ace Trucking Co. to exploit his “fevered imagination”.  He stopped working for UK comics in 1993 when his agent died and passed away on 31st March 2007.
wraparound cover art by Massimo Bellardinelli, 1983

Thanks to Barney, keeper of the 2000 AD database.