Monday, 17 May 2021

Under The Italian Sun, by Sue Moorcroft

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

A warm, sun-baked terrace.

The rustle of verdant green vines.

The sun slowly dipping behind the Umbrian mountains.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MW:   So what’s next?

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

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

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

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

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



Monday, 10 May 2021

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Even More Comic & Magazine ads

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

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

Here, then, are a few more ads of our childhood, I hope they spark some memories for you...
1974
I don't remember the ad but I do remember the lolly.  And I still love that a vampire - a quite frightening image of one, to boot - is used for a kids advert.  Clearly, we were a hardier breed then!
1976
 Action Man!  Palitoy!  Staples of my childhood!
1977
I was eight when this appeared and we didn't have a dog, but I do remember thinking "why didn't he tell his Mum or Dad?"
1978
Draw a space-ship or a film star's dream house?  I'll draw a space-ship crashing into a film star's dream house, reply loads of nine-year olds...
1978
I still like Wagon Wheels and yes, they really are smaller now.  Also - 1978 was the year the UK became skateboard crazy (the first time around).
1978
Not just Dracula, we get the whole bunch here as Smiths sail close to the rocks of copyright with Boris Karloff's Mummy and Lon Chaney Jr's Wolfman!
1978
Science-fiction was huge in 1978 (the year Star Wars hit the UK) and King Kong had just been at the cinema.  I wonder if this Warlord is anything to do with the comic?
1978
I remember having a fingerprint kit, but not this one.  I also kept 'secret files' on people, though since I only knew my friends and family members (and had to ask their permission to get their fingerprints), I wasn't exactly Interpol (but does explain why, still in my archives, there's a card for my Uncle Philip).
1979
"Dad?"
"Yes son?"
"When we're going to shopping, do you need any petrol...?"
"New Smurf out?"
"Oh yes..."

1979
Forty-two years later and I still don't get the appeal of licorice...
1979
More Dracula!  We used to use Signal but I don't remember this (and free fangs and a horror book aren't things ten-year-old me would have easily passed by).
1979
Star Wars, Palitoy and Brian Bolland.  A winning combination!
1980
I was (and remain) a huge fan of The Professionals (I wrote about them here) and had the large and small versions of this.  The latter still sits on my bookshelf in the study (the larger version is safely in my toy box) - I still have the figures too, though the ad here has mis-labelled them.
1980
Join the fight against Nick O'Teen.  This was part of a huge campaign and because I liked Superman so much, I wrote off for the poster (which didn't show lungs, like this one does).
1983
Video games were really starting to make in-roads by this time and I remember people raving over Pole Position.  I wonder what the kids of today would make of it?


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

Monday, 26 April 2021

Dark Missives, a Q&A with Dan Howarth

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MW:
   What got you into writing? 

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

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

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

DH:   Good question! 

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

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

MW:   So what’s next?

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

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



Monday, 19 April 2021

Matryoshka, by Penny Jones

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.
There’s something wrong with her husband, Mark. Lucy had heard all the rumours about him, the whispered warning behind her back. The half heard Chinese whispers seemed to haunt her, mocking her wherever she goes. Now it appears that whatever’s the matter with Mark is spreading; tainting, infecting both strangers and those that she loves the most. So, Lucy will go to any lengths to protect both her young daughter and her unborn child.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MW:   And what’s next?

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

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

* * *

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


Monday, 12 April 2021

The Mystery Of The Talking Skull, by Robert Arthur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.