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)

Monday, 5 April 2021

Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man, by William Shatner (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 (biography, in this case) and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan (though if you were a fan, you've probably already read this...)

Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner first crossed paths as actors on the set of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Little did they know that their next roles as Spock and Captain Kirk, in a new science fiction television series, would shape their lives in ways no one could have anticipated. In seventy-nine television episodes of Star Trek and six feature films, they grew to know each other more than most friends could ever imagine.

Over the course of half a century, Shatner and Nimoy saw each other through personal and professional highs and lows. In this powerfully emotional book, Shatner tells the story of a man who was his friend for five decades, recounting anecdotes and untold stories of their lives on and off set, as well as gathering stories from others who knew Nimoy well, to present a full picture of a rich life.

As much a biography of Nimoy as a story of their friendship, Leonard is a uniquely heartfelt book written by one legendary actor in celebration of another.

I wasn’t ever the biggest Star Trek fan (although I watched the TV show and enjoyed the original cast films) but picked this up after reading Shatner’s making of book for the fifth film.  I was aware of him from a great many things, but Nimoy was more of a mystery to me and I found that intriguing.  My first hint he wasn’t just Spock was reading in Starburst magazine that he was in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (and he’s very good in it) and if him being in a horror movie was a surprise, equally so was jumping forward a decade or more to the fact he directed the very entertaining (and very successful) Three Men And A Baby.  So I took to the book not knowing quite what to expect but thoroughly enjoyed it.  Although Shatner charts Nimoy’s life from his beginnings in Boston and right up to his death, he also charts his own life (the ups and the downs, with Nimoy being of particular help when Shatner’s alcoholic wife took her own life) but this doesn’t feel crammed in and makes the friendship between the two men that much more special.  In fact, friendship is one of the driving factors of the story, with Shatner lamenting he doesn’t find it with many people and that he and Nimoy shared an extremely strong one, after a rocky start.
Nimoy is painted as a hugely creative and driven man (and troubled too, with alcoholism and family issues, both of which he thankfully worked through), working hard to establish himself and being true to his vision, even if it got him into trouble.  Shatner’s memories, aided by those of Adam Nimoy and other friends, paint a wonderful warts and all portrait of Nimoy, told in a brisk and breezy style (you can almost imagine him sitting across from you, having a chat) that ensures this is a quick read.  

Honest with his own feelings and the issues between them throughout, in the final two chapters as Nimoy’s health worsens, Shatner reveals there was a falling out he never properly understood and it’s with this bitter-sweet realisation the book ends (he clearly laments the loss).  

Lovingly related and very moving at times, I thoroughly enjoyed this and would highly much recommend it even if you’re not that big a Trek fan.


Monday, 29 March 2021

The Joy Of Fango

I was aware of Fangoria magazine long before I finally found a copy, sometime in the mid-80s, most likely from mentions in Starlog magazine, the Young Ones episode Nasty and the furore around the Video Nasties.  Recently, I managed to re-connect with my past and picked up - from ebay - the first issue I ever read.

Fangoria magazine was launched in 1979 as a companion to Starlog, which covered sci-fi films.  The first issue, published in July, was edited by “Joe Bonham” (Ed Naha and Ric Meyers) after which Robert “Uncle Bob” Martin took over.  Initially focusing on fantasy films, the magazine didn’t really gain traction until positive audience response was noticed for an article celebrating effects artist Tom Savini (and his gruesome work for Dawn Of The Dead (1978)), at which point Martin was given the chance to shift focus.  The seventh issue, with a cover story of The Shining (1980), was apparently the first to achieve a profit and set a formula the magazine stuck with for at least as long as I read it.  Martin remained as editor until 1986 (he left to work with Frank Henenlotter on the screenplays for Frankenhooker (1990) - still a real favourite of mine - and Basket Case 3 (1991)) and was eventually replaced by Tony Timpone, who successfully steered Fangoria through to the 2000’s.  Chris Alexander took over in 2010 but the magazine was caught up in various strifes of the publishing company, leading to sporadic issues, radical design changes and lack of focus.  After being missing in action for a while, it’s apparently up and running again now but has never tempted me back.

I discovered the magazine in a newsagents on Newland Street in Kettering, popping in so often to check for new issues I ended up friendly with the man who ran the shop.  I bought almost every issue from there, so much so that Alison & I always referred to it as The Fango Shop (something Dude picked up too - he’d come in to buy “Dad’s horror comic” with me, though he never read it), though sadly the shop’s now under new ownership.  Much later, when I discovered The Cinema Store in London, I was able to pick up some back issues for reasonable prices but, sadly, that place has now long-since disappeared too (it's almost like there's a trend, eh?).

But back then, Fangoria turned out to be everything I ever wanted it to be - and more!
I think my first regular issue was Fango 58 (I wish I could be sure but, sadly, lent a friend my entire run, from 1986 to 1990 or so and have never seen them again) and it was just perfect for me - full of interesting behind the scenes articles, news, book reviews, wonderfully gory colour pictures and a complete love for the types of horror films that I adored.  It made stars of the make-up effects people (like Rick Baker, the afore-mentioned Tom Savini, Rob Bottin, the KNB boys and many more), the writers and directors of the types of films you’d see with gaudy covers in video shops and the lesser known actors who made those films so damned watchable.  

The 80s was also a boom time - the slasher cycle might have been running down slowly but horror was big news, with Freddy and Jason and Re-Animator (1985) and all else.  I was going to the cinema, watching these things on double bills with friends, catching up with titles I’d missed on VHS and often on the recommendation of Fango, whose articles had whetted my appetite.
Not that the magazine wasn’t misunderstood.  Since my kid sister Sarah was only about 3 or 4 at the time and frequently wandered into my bedroom to see what I was doing, I had to hide Fango away lest I scar her for life.  Years later, Alison tolerated it well but I remember my sister-in-law once asking me if a picture she saw was real.  I enjoyed the Fango sense of humour and community - I felt like I belonged - but it really wasn’t a mainstream gang by any means and I was perfectly alright with that.

The Bloody Best, I can see now, is a money-making compilation but as a greatest hits package, it worked brilliantly.  Just look at the articles in the issue - David Cronenberg, Tom Savini, Dick Miller, Brian DePalma, Wes Craven, George Romero, Elvira, Re-Animator, Nightmare On Elm Street (Englund and his make-up) as well as Stephen King and Peter Straub.  It’s difficult in this day and age, where everything is online and we know about films as soon as they’re announced, to fully convey the size of its impact but imagine being a teenaged horror fan, opening up a treasure trove like this.

As I mentioned, I found the magazine (in a bundle with Bloody Best 3 and 4 too!) on ebay and bought it with birthday money from my parents (I told them they’d bought me Fango and Dad, with a smile in his voice, said “is it still gory…?”) and re-reading it has been wonderful.  The magazine is filled with articles that instantly throw me back to 1986, that I read so often I could practically quote them and pictures so vivid they’ve never left my minds eye.  

While you can’t go back (and I have absolutely no intention of seeking out the latest Fango), occasionally you can visit the old days and sometimes that’s just as good.

Monday, 22 March 2021

"The Exercise", a novella

My horror novella, The Exercise, is now available...

The Fens, August 1943.

Forced to seek medical attention, Corporal Ray Ward and his squad are warmly welcomed at Sinclair House, a rehabilitation unit dealing with solders suffering from shell-shock.

But Sinclair House isn’t what it appears to be. Out in the orchards, blood-chilling screams can be heard from the locked Nissen huts and the sheer volume of armed, clearly agitated military personnel around the property seems excessive. Ward and his men know something very wrong is happening at this isolated country estate and soon find themselves caught up in the middle of terrifying events…

An excerpt:

Robin had never been in Sinclair House but it looked very posh from his vantage point, hidden behind a bush.  It was old fashioned, stone-built, with fancy gargoyles on the roof and lots of windows, all X’d against bombing raids.  There were even some windows in the attic!  The wide expanse of lawn he could see wasn’t so posh though, it needed mowing.  To his left, a gravel drive led from the gate to the front door, which you had to go up steps to.  He’d seen some lorries drive up, dropping off and picking up whatever they were dropping off and picking up.  To his right was where the grounds really opened up - about a hundred yards away was the large chicken run and beyond that were four Nissen huts, just inside the tree-line of the orchard that ran to the back of the property.

Prisoners, people said.  Robin had never seen a German in real life, though he was sure he’d know one because they were snivelling cowards who shot you in the back, but the area was prepared for them and their attack, with several pill-boxes between here and the coast.  He and his gang sometimes played around them, especially when the younger Home Guard were on, because they remembered being children.  The older Home Guard were more serious and would quite happily chase off young boys, shouting threats and gesturing with rusty old bayonets strapped to their rifles.

Movement caught his eye and he ducked behind the bush as a lone soldier came from the drive, carrying a Sten gun.  He stopped when he reached the lawn, slung the gun over his shoulder and took a crumpled pack of smokes from his breast pocket.  Something made him twist around quickly and Robin watched him look this way and that, turning slowly, until he was seemingly satisfied enough to light his cigarette.  The harsh, sweet smell drifted over to Robin who inhaled hopefully.  A chicken squawked.
The soldier smoked his cigarette where he stood, finally stamping it out on the grass and throwing the tiny butt into the bush.  He coughed, took one last look around then walked back to the drive and out of sight.

Robin took that as his cue and, with his back to the wall, edged along until he’d cleared the bush.  The chicken coop was about fifty yards away and he could hear them, clucking at one another quietly.  There were some shapes on the grass he couldn’t quite make out properly but thought they looked like eggs.

Robin slipped his knapsack off and, crouching low, duck-walked to the coop.  He was halfway there when he heard someone shout - he couldn’t make out what they said, but it didn’t sound happy.  He looked up towards the Nissen huts.  People seemed to be moving about.  There was another shout, louder this time and unmistakably angry.  Running footsteps sounded on the gravel behind him.  He was caught in the middle.

“Bollocks,” he said, feeling a terrible cold sweat on his forehead.

More footsteps on the gravel.  It wouldn’t be long until they reached the lawn and saw him.  There was an angry shout from the Nissen huts and something else, a sound like a crowd at a football match.  Robin pushed away from the coop and its potential eggs, aiming for the bush.

“Stop!” someone yelled and he froze, his heart thudding in his chest and wrists.  What would he say, what could he say?  This was the cane, for sure and probably a proper leathering from Dad too.

“I said stop!” yelled the same voice.  Robin hadn’t moved, which meant he hadn’t been seen so he quickly pushed himself back.

A single shot was fired, which filled the night with sound and made the silence that followed it even noisier.  Nobody moved on the gravel but he could hear someone running, the heavy thud of their step indicating they were moving fast.  A shape came towards him from the orchard, arms flailing as if trying to keep balance.

“I said stop!” yelled the voice, “or I’ll fire.”

The runner kept moving and the guns responded.  There were several single shots, probably from Lee Enfield number fours.  Robin knew his guns, he knew what they sounded like and prided himself on his knowledge.

The Sten guns rattled into life.  Several 9mm bullets thudded into the wall behind Robin, showering him with stone dust.  He flinched, covered his face.

The runner bumped his leg against the side of the chicken run, the limb flicking out at an odd angle and cartwheeling the man across the lawn.  More bullets hit the lawn, ripping holes into the grass.  Robin was three feet away from the bush and, it seemed, still in the firing line.

A searchlight burst into life from the roof, its beam quickly directed onto the lawn.  Robin closed his eyes against the glare but the imprint of the man running towards him, his left leg moving at an impossible angle, stayed with him.  There were more shouts, more gunshots, then someone yelled “There’s a child!”

* * *
The Exercise began life in January 2015, when I was invited to contribute to a wartime anthology and - having never written a war story before - I readily agreed to contribute.  I came up with the basic plot on an evening walk then sat down with Mum & Dad (he’s a real WW2 buff) to ask him some technical questions and throw around more ideas (my Mum came up with the concept of how they get to the house).

The characters in the squad took a while to gel in my head but, once they had, they fitted together well (and allowed for some nice little bits of comedy) and the writing was quite fast (for me) and generally good fun.  

The anthology, Darker Battlefields, was eventually launched at Edge-Lit 5 in Derby in 2016 (I wrote about it here).  Published by Terry Grimwood’s theEXAGGERATEDpress and edited by Adrian Chamberlin, it featured four other novellas and a cracking Ben Baldwin cover but, for whatever reason, didn’t gain much traction.  I’ve always thought that was a real shame, which led me on the path to re-publishing this.

* * *
The Exercise went up for pre-order last week and thanks to everyone who RT'd my Tweets and shared my Facebook update (I really appreciate your support!), it had quite a good day for itself, gracing the upper half of the Amazon Best Sellers (Horror Short Stories) and hitting Number 1 in the Hot New Releases.  Easily pleased, I was well chuffed!

The Exercise, published by PenMan Press
Revised text
Story Notes
Acknowledgements

Universal book link - https://pge.me/TheExerciseMarkWest



Monday, 15 March 2021

"The Exercise" available to pre-order

 Out next Monday, my horror novella, The Exercise, is now available to pre-order as an ebook...

The Fens, August 1943.

Forced to seek medical attention, Corporal Ray Ward and his squad are warmly welcomed at Sinclair House, a rehabilitation unit dealing with solders suffering from shell-shock.

But Sinclair House isn’t what it appears to be. Out in the orchards, blood-chilling screams can be heard from the locked Nissen huts and the sheer volume of armed, clearly agitated military personnel around the property seems excessive. Ward and his men know something very wrong is happening at this isolated country estate and soon find themselves caught up in the middle of terrifying events…

* * *

A horror novella from Mark West, author of The Mill and DriveThe Exercise was originally published in Darker Battlefields from theEXAGERRATEDpress in 2016.  It now appears, in a revised version, from PenMan Press, available in both ebook and paperback editions.

* * * 
Mark West lives in Northamptonshire with his wife Alison and their son Matthew.  Since discovering the small press in 1998 he has published over eighty short stories, two novels, a novelette, a chapbook, two collections and six novellas  (one of which, Drive, was nominated for a British Fantasy Award).  He has more short stories forthcoming and is currently working on a crime/thriller novel.  

Away from writing, he enjoys reading, walking, watching films and playing Dudeball with his son.

He can be contacted through his website at www.markwest.org.uk and is also on Twitter as @MarkEWest





Monday, 8 March 2021

Ormeshadow: A Q&A with Priya Sharma

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 chilling/weird genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.

Acclaimed author Priya Sharma transports readers back in time with Ormeshadow, a coming-of-age story as dark and rich as good soil.

Burning with resentment and intrigue, this fantastical family drama invites readers to dig up the secrets of the Belman family, and wonder whether myths and legends are real enough to answer for a history of sin.

Uprooted from Bath by his father's failures, Gideon Belman finds himself stranded on Ormeshadow farm, an ancient place of chalk and ash and shadow. The land crests the Orme, a buried, sleeping dragon that dreams resentment, jealousy, estrangement, death. Or so the folklore says (Orme is the Old English for worm or dragon). Growing up in a house that hates him, Gideon finds his only comforts in the land, where he will live or die in the shadow of the Orme, as all his family has.

This is a beautifully observed, utterly absorbing tale that grabs hold of you from the off and doesn’t let go even after you’ve read the last word.  Strong and bold, this is a dark coming-of-age tale, full of familial deceit, recriminations and abuse, but also has some lyrical touches of brightness to it.  The characterisation is vivid and understated, the use of locations is masterful and the pacing is pitch-perfect, with just enough told.  Even better is the elegant writing, a turn-of-phrase here, an small mention there, burying the complexity of the tale in apparently simple language that must be read to be believed.  I absolutely recommend this book, a masterpiece in the making - I loved it. 

* * *

Phil Sloman, Priya and me at Edge-Lit 5 in 2016 (which I wrote about here)
As I'm lucky enough to know Priya, I decided to ask her some questions about the book and she graciously agreed to answer them.
(note - since this interview took place, Ormeshadow deservedly won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novella).

MW:   It's an excellent read, but where did Ormeshadow come from? 

PS:   It started as notes for a short story. I was walking up on the Great Orme, a headland above the Welsh town of Llandudno. It’s a beautiful place with dramatic views.  Orme is Old Norse for worme or dragon.

I had the image of a small boy taking refuge in a cave that formed the sleeping dragon’s ear. A lonely boy who’d been hurt and the Orme was his only friend and confidant. That’s where the story started. 

MW:   How much research did you have to do because, as a reader, it felt very authentic?

PS:   Thank you! I love researching for stories. The trick is to know how much (or little) to use, so as not to bog down the reader, isn’t it?  I was thinking a lot about Thomas Hardy’s novels when I wrote this. There’s so much darkness in his characters and their relationships.

The one thing I was careful to research was the sheep farming aspect. I have a friend who had a small holding with a few sheep, which was useful. You can learn a lot from the internet, but I love talking to people – you get details about how things feel and smell.

MW:   I loved the dragon aspect, what led you to that? 

PS:   The Orme was such a gift- it was presented to me on a plate from my visits there. The dragon allowed me the fun of inventing a mythology around it and root the family history element even deeper as I knitted them together. 

MW:   The family elements - especially the terror and the desire for love - are beautifully conveyed. Did that come out stronger in the writing than you’d planned, or did it work exactly how you wanted it to?

PS:   Thank you!

I had to trim the story down to submit it to Tor during their open period for novellas. I lost a good 5000 words, which I found difficult. I worry that some of the nuances of the relationships were lost. I had a strong sense of Gideon and his parents at the outset, but they developed as I wrote and rewrote. It’s  an old piece, so has had a lot of reworking.

There are things I worry that I’ve not fully conveyed when I look at it now. Perhaps I’d edit it differently. For example, Maud craves female friendship and there’s a burgeoning friendship between her and Clare, before Thomas stamps all over it. I had to cut a whole chapter set in church, where Eliza is being shamed for being unwed and pregnant. The father is the abusive schoolmaster. I wonder if I’m too light handed with my signalling for that in the schoolroom chapter.

I don’t judge my characters. They are what they are. If I’ve given the reader that impression, that’s a failing in my writing.

MW:   You didn't give this reader than impression, I can honestly say!  So what are you working on now?

PS:   I’ve just finished a short story based on a work by William Blake. I won’t name it for now, but I’ve always wondered what it meant. It’s monstrous and surreal. I enjoyed the process of researching it and figuring it out for myself. He was an interesting character- abolitionist, antimonarchist, feminist and visionary. I was also interested in his wife, Catherine Blake. She’s becoming more and more recognised as an integral part of the work they produced together- from its design to its execution. 

MW:   Good luck with that and thanks for being on the blog!

PS:   Thanks so much for having me here. 

This is her official bio, but I'd also add that she's wonderful company and has the best handwriting of anyone I've ever met.

Priya Sharma’s fiction has appeared venues such as Interzone, Black Static, Nightmare, The Dark and Tor. She’s been anthologised in several of Ellen Datlow’s  Best Horror of the Year series and Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror series, among other.  She’s also been on many Locus’ Recommended Reading Lists.  She is a Grand Judge for the Aeon Award, an annual writing competition run by Albedo One, Ireland’s magazine of the Fantastic.

Priya is a Shirley Jackson Award and British Fantasy Award winner, as well as a Locus Award finalist and her collection, All the Fabulous Beasts, was published by Undertow Publications.

Monday, 1 March 2021

There Goes Pretty, by CC Adams (review and Q&A)

With the publication of his new novella, There Goes Pretty, from the ever reliable Dark Minds Press, I decided to ask CC Adams some questions...
For Denny and Olivia, life is good. In a lavish wedding, the couple have taken another step forward, with a beautiful honeymoon and bright future to look forward to.
 
Like many relationships, theirs is one that needs love, trust and commitment – qualities that are slowly and surely tested, with insidious forces at work. And, gradually, the couple and their relationship will start to suffer, as the cracks begin to show.
 
...as does something else.

* * *
My review: 
Denny and Olivia seem to have it all, they’re deeply in love, they’ve just got married and they have a wonderful honeymoon and life to look forward to.  Except there’s something else in the house, something that clearly doesn’t like Olivia.

Opening with their wedding, this follows the early part of Denny & Olivia’s married life, both of them full of life and happy until Olivia wakes up one night to find a featureless ghost in bed with her.  From there, cracks rip through the relationship and these are handled well, with a nice sense of realism.  Olivia worked well as a character, believable and strong, but I wasn’t so sure about Denny (he’s very much of the TOWIE generation, which I’m clearly not) and that made it hard for me to sympathise with him as his life literally went to hell.  The ghost story aspect is well-handled (though it shifts at the end, so who you think is being haunted isn’t) but I might have preferred them to be a little more shocking than they’re presented.  London is well used as a location and there’s a definite sense of place about the whole thing, rooting the supernatural aspects into a hard reality which helps ground them.  On the downside, it felt a little too long and at least one character seemed superfluous, but these little glitches don’t detract from the whole.  Well paced and told, if you’re looking for a very London ghost story, this might be just your thing.
* * *

MW:   CC, thanks for agreeing to answer some questions.  Where did the initial spark of the idea come from?

CC:   Probably from the notion that a wedding – at least, if it’s done right – should be a happy day. How then does something that joyous lead into something so horrific? I guess there’s some wishful thinking in there – as yet, I'm not married but I think about the kind of wedding that would move me; push the ring slowly onto her finger, lose ourselves in our first kiss as husband and wife. I love romance, I won’t lie. London’s a big enough place; I just picked a venue that spoke to me as something romantic and wondrous, something I’d want for my wedding.
 
Of course, in the realm of the story, that euphoria doesn’t last.

MW:   Without giving too much away, there’s a smart little shift/twist towards the middle of the book - was that in place before you started writing or did it come to you as the story unfolded? 

CC:   I guess a little of both. Partly because people in relationships rarely see eye to eye on everything; so they might compromise. That’s what comes with having different viewpoints as different people. So I had in mind from the off that things would come between them and test them. The other aspect to it is that, yes, I outline my work – I’m not a ‘pantser’ – but there’s room in there to improvise as I’m writing. Again, people won’t always see eye to eye, and they sure as hell won’t agree on everything. That, and the fact that people can still be driven apart without interacting with each other.

Me and CC, chatting horror, at the 2017 FantasyCon in Peterborough
(you can read my Con report here)
MW:   London is almost a character in itself - how important was it to ground the novella in the reality of the city?

CC:   You know, I’m glad you say that. And it’s something I pride myself on – the vast majority of my work is set here in the capital. There are exceptions where my work takes place in other countries, or at least elsewhere in the UK but my work is mostly set here. As someone born and raised in the capital and proud of it, it’s very important. My work is very much the everyday nudged – or shoved – to darker places; anything from off-kilter to downright terrifying. And because those tales are set against the everyday, so the everyday needs to be detailed, nuanced and authentic. All of which serves to make the eventual threat(s) more authentic and, hopefully, more terrifying.
 
London’s my territory. I’m hoping now that those across the globe don't harbour the clichéd idea that it’s a cockney place; all about The Queen, Big Ben, fish and chips, etc. You’ve got one of the major cities on the planet that’s host to distinctive transportation (London Underground/the tube), nightlife, restaurants (don’t get me started), bars, fashion, scenery, cultural diversity, music, entertainment. The Shard, The London Eye, St. Paul’s Cathedral, South Bank, Covent Garden, et al. – the landscape across the city. Those slices of the capital I show you in my work barely scratch the surface. But as someone who loves this city and is proud to call it home, I’d be doing a grave injustice if I didn’t bring it to life in my work.

MW:   Have you ever experienced anything supernatural?  I have - though it didn’t put me on the path to being a horror writer - and I’m endlessly curious about it.

CC:   There was an example I used to cite from childhood, back when Mama used to put up the Christmas tree in December. I don’t think I was any more than ten years old, but here’s the thing. Back then, we used to have a mirror hanging behind the door of the living room, which was where Mama put the tree, by the window. So I’d gone into this room, in the dark to look at the tree glowing with all the lights on. But I didn’t figure on this ghostly shape, hovering behind the door, the classic/cliché ‘hiding under a sheet’ look. I don’t know whether it was my mind and/or the mirror playing tricks on me, but I ran back out. But now, with that buried by the weight of years, I’m not sure how genuine that was.

The more recent example is more disconcerting. Out in Toronto a few years back, and lying face down in bed in my hotel one night, I woke up feeling myself pushed down into the mattress, a force between my shoulder blades. Right now, I can guess it might have been cramp (which I think was unlikely) but there and then? Disturbing, for sure.

MW:   What’s next for CC Adams?

CC:   Currently outlining the next novel. When that’s done, I might move on to outlining and writing the next novella, partly because of juggling work for submission windows from different publishers, as well as what speaks to me. What I’m also overdue on is working on a collection. And I don’t mean a random assortment of stories dumped in a goodie bag, like ‘here you go’ - no. Something more than that, where the stories have a common theme, and they’re interlinked.
 
What I’m mindful of, as productive as I might be, is that what takes me weeks and months to write is something a reader would devour in a fraction of the time. Which means I’m usually working on something. Suffice it to say you shouldn’t have to wait too long before I bring you something new. Hopefully nasty.
* * *


Photo by Clem Onojeghuo


London native C.C. Adams is the horror/dark fiction author behind books such as But Worse Will Come, Forfeit Tissue and Downwind, Alice. A member of the Horror Writers Association, he still lives in the capital. This is where he lifts weights, cooks - and looks for the perfect quote to set off the next dark delicacy. 

Visit him at www.ccadams.com, or on Twitter















Monday, 22 February 2021

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Mr Benn at 50

David John McKee was born (on 2nd January 1935) and brought up in Tavistock, South Devon.  He studied at the Plymouth College of Art and, after he left, supported himself by painting as well as selling one-off cartoons to the national press.  His first book, Two Can Toucan, was published by Abelard-Schuman in 1964.
He was approached in 1970 by the BBC who wanted him to produce something for the Watch With Mother strand of programming.  He told The Guardian in 2017, “I showed them the first Mr Benn book I’d written and they requested 13 stories. When they asked how it would be animated, I just said: “I’ll ask somebody.” It was complete innocence.”

The animation style, in collaboration with Ian Lawless, helps add to the series charm in that it relies on simple camera moves - pans and zooms - across detailed McKee drawings, though the characters do ‘walk’ after a fashion.
Festive Road, artwork by David McKee
Mr Benn lives at 52 Festive Road, which McKee based on his own street in Putney.  “I changed Festing Road to Festive Road, because Festing sounded too much like festering,” he told The Guardian.  The fancy-dress shop, key to Mr Benn’s adventures, was “based on a dusty junk shop in Plymouth. I went into it once, to ask about something in the window, and the owner really did appear ‘as if by magic’, as the narrator in the series says.”

The book and television versions of Mr Benn share the same format.  Always dressed the same, in a black suit and bowler hat, Mr Benn visits a fancy-dress costume shop where the fez-wearing shopkeeper suggests he try on a particular outfit (usually linked to something that happens early in the story, such as a game children are playing in the street).  Mr Benn leaves the shop through a magic door at the back of the changing room and has an adventure, tied in to whatever costume he’s wearing, before the shopkeeper reappears to lead him back to the changing room.  In a clever move, although Mr Benn has returned to his normal life, he has a small souvenir from the adventure.
“I wanted Mr Benn to be Mr Everybody. Bowler hats were more common in the early 1970s. There was a respectability to them, plus Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy are favourites of mine,” McKee told The Guardian.  “I was heavily influenced by fables, because of their apparent simplicity. I like stories with a moral, that have a reason for being there – I don’t like a character to wake up and realise it was all a dream. That’s why I introduced the souvenir that Mr Benn always takes back with him, to say that it really did happen.”

The music for the series was composed by Duncan Lamont (using the pseudonym Don Warren) while Ray Brooks provided the narration (and for a long time, whenever I saw him act, as soon as he spoke I just saw Mr Benn).  “Grandmas come up to me and say their grandchildren are fed up with today’s cartoons,” he told The Guardian, “but they love the simplicity of Mr Benn, the fact that he’s very moral, always sorting out people’s problems – including dragons.”

Each episode, directed by Pat Kirby and made by Zephyr Films, lasted for 15 minutes.  The first six episodes, starting with The Red Knight, were broadcast on Thursday afternoons on BBC1 at 1.30pm from 25th February to 1st April 1971.  The last seven were shown on Friday afternoons on BBC1 at 1:30pm from 21 January to 31 March 1972.  The series was then repeated, twice a year, for the next twenty-one years.
The episodes were The Red Knight, Hunter, Clown, Balloonist, Wizard, Spaceman (my favourite), Cook, Caveman, Zoo Keeper, Diver, Cowboy, Aladdin and Pirate.  A 14th episode called Gladiator, based on McKee’s 2001 book Mr Benn - Gladiator, was broadcast in January 2005 on the Noggin channel.

In its 2001 poll for their 100 Greatest Kids TV shows, Channel 4 ranked it number six.

“The BBC dropped [the Watch With Mother name] later,” McKee told The Guardian, “but for me it was important: it made you conscious the audience wasn’t just children.”

David McKee went on to make films for Save The Children and wrote more books then, in 1980, co-created King Rollo.  The TV series of the same name was written by him, with narration from Ray Brooks and music by Duncan Lamont and produced by King Rollo Films, which McKee co-owned.  The company also achieved success with other series including Eric Hill's Spot the Dog, Lucy Cousins' Maisy and Tony Ross' Towser as well as the animated stories within the Fimbles programme.  McKee also wrote Not Now Bernard (which I read to Dude as a bedtime book when he was small but found it really sad) and created and wrote the Elmer The Patchwork Elephant series of books.


Happy birthday, Mr Benn and thanks for all those childhood adventures!

sources:
The Guardian: How We Made Mr Benn 
The Guardian: Mr Benn Back To Life
Wikipedia

Monday, 15 February 2021

The Screaming Dead, by Peter Mark May & Richard Farren Barber

As their new novel, The Screaming Dead, is launched, I hand over the blog to a guest post with a difference from my old partners-in-crime Richard Farren Barber and Peter Mark May.

In the afterlife, the loudest sound is the screaming of the dead.

Death isn’t always the end or the answer. Sam thought his suicide would be the end of his suffering, but he was wrong, as he wakes up in a never-ending graveyard. He soon realises he has an opportunity to be reunited with his departed twin brother, Paul. Yet they must cross through the many planes of the afterlife to find each other. They will need to escape the hordes of the dead, survive forests where burning corpses are nailed to trees, and navigate the feuds and machinations of the people who promise to help them along the way.

Can Sam and Paul find each other in hell, or will the afterlife claim another two souls?


This discussion between Richard Farren Barber and Peter Mark May was recorded on Thursday 11th February 2021 in a Covid-secure manner and without their knowledge.

RFB: You still have the negatives? I assume the deal is we hand them over to Mark once he’s posted a glowing review of The Screaming Dead on his blog, and not a moment earlier?

PMM: They’re in the safe, only accessible with both our retina scans.

RFB: Pete, if Mark asks, what first attracted you to the prospect of working with handsome, charming, witty, stellar author Richard Farren Barber?

PMM: Stevie King kept snubbing my emails. 

RFB: I’ve warned you not to call him Stevie, he doesn’t like that! And I bet he drank that beer in the fridge. Anyway, I’m glad he turned you down. You came up with the initial idea for the novel, and I loved the outline you sent to me. How did you feel about sharing your idea? And how do you cope when your co-writer takes the story off into a different direction to the way you may initially have intended?

Thanks to the pandemic, the last opportunity we had to get together was in Bedford,
on November 30th 2019.  We've chatted online since but it's not the same as meeting
up, scouring secondhand bookshops and having a pizza together.  I miss these two...
PMM: As the owner of Hersham Horror Books, I’m used to sharing good ideas for others to write and run with. With you taking the story off in different directions, it was a challenge in a good way. Trying to steer it the long way back to my ideas, sometimes going in a fresh direction, or simply reinventing large part of the plot, was a great writing challenge.  How did you find the process of writing alternative chapters of approximately 1000 words? Did you write ahead only to be foiled by my next off-kilter chapter and dramatic story direction changes?

RFB: Yes I did! (I can laugh now, but at the time I cursed you. It seemed almost intentional!) But I learned from my mistakes. I would often finish writing a scene and send the file back to you, but by then I was in the zone and I’d carry on writing into the next scene for my set of characters… only to get the document back and discover you’d thrown me a curveball. A few times I could re-use what I’d written, but sometimes I had to stop and rethink where we were going after I got your response. I suppose that is what comes of writing together for the first time. What would you say are the attractions and challenges with collaborative writing when compared to writing alone?

PMM: Doing half the work to write a full book appealed. The challenges were, waiting for the next chapter and finding out either my ideas or the plot you had in mind had to alter or be thrown out the window totally. I enjoyed the dire cliff-hangers I left you with at the end of most of my chapters. Thinking, ‘how is he going to get out of this’ like some old black and white Flash Gordon serial, but you batted them back well. Did any stump you at all?

RFB: Hopefully not, but maybe we’ll get an irate email from a very Cock-a-Doodie reader telling us we cheated because he didn’t get out of the car. (To be fair, and hopefully not giving away too much of a spoiler given that it’s clear from the blurb that if the character in front of you isn’t dead, they will be soon…. We sorted that particular issue by making sure no one gets out of any car alive!)

At Edge-Lit 6, Derby, July 2017 with my collection.
I wrote a report about the Con here.
PMM: What was your favourite chapter to write, any chill you?

RFB: I loved the scenes in the graveyard when the horde churns around and around as a new arrival enters the afterlife. But the one which affected me the most was one you came up with of the dead forest and… well, let’s not give too much away about what happens in there! How about you, do you have any particular favourite scenes from the book? 

PMM: The sky-train of death (no spoilers) was a vivid image I had in my head when writing certain chapters. The chains, death shadow, blood and cow-catcher all unnerved me. That and a certain scene with the baby.

RFB: Oh yes, that scene!

PMM: The story is all about death and the afterlife. Did it stir up personal views, or beliefs in what happens after we die? Did they influence the plot at all?

RFB: Hmm, good question! I don’t recall any particularly strong responses to the storyline in terms of life-after death. I do remember that for me one of the strongest emotions came from the idea of the brothers being separated and that filial urge to get back together. But I do think one of the strengths of horror fiction is the ability to pose the big questions: What is the point of life? Is there anything after this world? I don’t have any answers, but I’m fascinated by exploring the possibilities.

PMM: How does it feel to have something you have writing, turned into audio? 

RFB: It’s a very weird experience! I suppose in some ways it is not dissimilar to producing a script and then handing it over to a team to manage. During the writing process I have a clear idea of what the characters sound like, and so it’s fascinating for someone else to pick that up and give their own interpretation.

We’d better stop now, before someone finds us. Can you send Mark a couple of the images…. Just to keep him focussed! And remind him The Screaming Dead is available in paperback, eBook, and Audiobook.
* * *

Richard Farren Barber
was born in Nottingham in July 1970. After studying in London he returned to the East Midlands. He lives with his wife and son and works as a manager for a local university.
 
He has over 80 short stories in publications including: Alt-Dead, Alt-Zombie, DarkFuse, ePocalypse – Tales from the End, Fever Dreams, Horror D’Oeuvres, Murky Depths, Midnight Echo, Midnight Street, Morpheus Tales,  Night Terrors II, Siblings, The House of Horror, Trembles, When Red Snow Melts, and broadcast on Tales to Terrify, Pseudopod, and The Wicked Library.
 
Richard has six novellas published: The Power of Nothing, The Sleeping Dead, Odette, Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence, Closer Still (which I wrote about here), and All Hell.  His debut novel The Living and the Lost was published in 2019.

Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
His website can be found here www.richardfarrenbarber.co.uk


Peter Mark May is the author of nine horror novels and one novella Demon, Kumiho, Inheritance (written as P. M. May), Dark Waters (novella), Hedge End, AZ: Anno Zombie, Something More Than Night, Forky’s House, The End of All Flesh Book 1: The Flood in 2019 and The End of All Flesh: Book 2: The Red Death in 2020. 

He’s had short stories published in genre Canadian & US magazines and UK & US horror anthologies such as Creature Feature, Watch, the British Fantasy Society’s 40th Anniversary anthology Full Fathom Forty, Alt-Zombie, Fogbound From 5, Nightfalls, Demons & Devilry, Miseria’s Chorale, The Bestiarum Vocabulum, Phobophobias, Kneeling in the Silver Light, Demonology and Tales From the Lake Volume 5.

He also writes historical crime under the name Alexander Arrowsmith, his first two a series of novels - The Athens Atrocities and The Medousa Murders - published in 2019.

He also runs Hersham Horror Books and has published 30 books so far. 

His website can be found here http://petermarkmay.weebly.com/


Monday, 8 February 2021

I Spit Myself Out, by Tracy Fahey

To mark the publication of her next collection, I Spit Myself Out, here's a guest post from my friend Tracy Fahey

Eighteen unsettling narratives map the female experience from puberty to menopause.

I Spit Myself Out is a collection of female-voiced stories exploring the terror that lurks beneath the surface of the skin. In this collection, an Anatomical Venus opens to display her organs, clients of a mysterious clinic disappear one by one, a police investigation reveals family secrets, revenge is inked in the skin, and bodies pulsate in the throes of illness, childbirth and religious ritual.

Disturbing and provoking in equal turns, I Spit Myself Out reinvents the body as a breeding ground of terrors that resurface inexorably in the present.


This February 13th, my collection, I Spit Myself Out, is born. It’s a weird, hybrid selection of stories that respond to the themes of body-based terror and the female experience. It’s influenced by autoethnography, by female rituals of blood from puberty to menopause. But a large part of its conception lies in my abiding love for morbid anatomy, a history that goes back decades.

I grew up in superstitious, Catholic, rural Ireland, with its syncretic blend of Christian and pagan heritage. There, church rituals centred around blood and sacrifice; tales of miraculous relics, of supernatural cures and the potency of saints’ bodies. Irish people are bizarrely comfortable with the spectacle of dead bodies; coffins are routinely uncovered and exposed, the better to stand and talk around at traditional wakes, as in the story, ‘The Girl Who Kissed The Dead.’ As a child I was familiar with the miraculous properties of saints’ bodies; in the cathedral in nearby Drogheda I saw the decapitated, burned head of Blessed Oliver Plunkett, a saint who became both a symbol of colonial resistance and of Catholic martyrdom. Down the road from me in Faughurt was St. Brigid’s stone which boasted a hole burned into it by the eye she plucked out. In this collection, ‘I Kiss The Wounds’ is possibly the most overtly Catholics of these stories, centring on the cult of Padre Pio (an Italian saint from Puglia adopted by Irish Catholics) which celebrated his heavenly stigmata, his sacred wounds. The Cure’ is a testimony to the dying tradition of the holy cures passed from generation to generation.‘Noli Me Tangere’ reflects a childhood of churches, staring at the stained glass windows depicting sun-dazzled scenes from the life of Christ, while ‘Reducing’ speaks to the powerful belief in St. Anthony (yet another adopted Italian saint) beloved of older Irish people as a finder of what is lost. Later in life, I returned to this early obsession with visits to foreign catacombs; tangled and wondrous architectures of monastic bones, jewel-encrusted bodies of saints, preserved in all their glittering magnificence.

This fascination with morbid anatomy also stems from a short-lived stint I spent working in a museum of pathology in Dublin. This was a cornucopia of diseased limbs, lovingly rendered in linen and wax by 19th century artists for their medical peers to study. Within the murky waters of the glass jars drifted strange and terrifying facsimiles of legs, arms, organs, foetuses; identifiable but  completely other. This fascination led to my discovery of wax creations the Anatomical Venus and her sisters, the Slashed Beauty and the Dissected Graces – all moulded in the same spirit, to probe the boundaries of anatomy. From this obsession, the opening story of the collection unfolded, ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror,’ an exploration, step-by-step, into the secret recesses of the female body. Likewise, the closing story of chimeras, ‘I Spit Myself Out,’ is a dark reflection of those yellowed jars of strange specimens in that long-ago museum of pathology.

Morbid pathology also interests me as part my own experience of chronic illness; an apprenticeship of living in an abnormal body that is perpetually straining to conform to normal standards of health. ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ and ‘Love Like Blood’ both explore what it means to live in a Gothic body, forever in flux, forever fighting mortality.

And so in this collection, I draw together these myriad influences—mystical Catholicism, strange anatomy and chronic illness—to present the reader with recurrent motifs within this collection, signposts to my own strange obsession with the body and all its secrets...


You can pre-order the collection here, or you can order directly from the Sinister Horror Company here.


Tracy Fahey is an Irish writer of Gothic fiction.  

In 2017, her debut collection The Unheimlich Manoeuvre was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award for Best Collection. Her short fiction is published in over thirty American, British, Australian and Irish anthologies. She holds a PhD on the Gothic in visual arts, and her non-fiction writing is published in edited collections and journals. She has been awarded residencies in Ireland and Greece.

Her first novel, The Girl In The Fort, was published in 2017 by Fox Spirit Press while her second collection, New Music For Old Rituals was released in 2018 by Black Shuck Books.  Her mini-collection, Unheimlich Manoeuvres In The Dark, was published in 2020 by Sinister Horror Company. 
Her new collection, I Spit Myself Out is published by the Sinister Horror Company in February 2021