Monday, 20 June 2022

Phoenix, by Steve Byrne - Redux Reviews 1

Welcome to the start of a new thread where I'll revisit reviews of books by friends and writers I admire, to highlight the works for readers who might have missed them the first time they appeared.

We'll begin with Phoenix, a novel by Steve Byrne I originally reviewed in 2013.

Vietnam 1967.
Something monstrous has risen from the ashes of war…
When the US marines enter the hidden village of Mau Giang, they unleash an ancient darkness from within its temple walls. A fearful secret kept for generations by the native Montagnard tribespeople. 
Abraham Curtis travels to Vietnam to visit his sister Jenny, an aid worker in Saigon. Together they join a humanitarian convoy into the Central Highlands, where Jenny is to adopt a child orphaned by the conflict.

But the influence of the breached temple is spreading its contagion across the combat zones of Vietnam like gangrene through flesh, and soon it will destroy Bram’s world. Pursued by a bloodthirsty cult, he must search for his missing sister through the war-torn wastelands, his only companions deserters, rebel soldiers and a woman who may not be quite human.
Across the world, protestors line the streets. The battle lines are drawn - war and peace, hawk or dove. Is this the apocalyptic coming of the Man of Blood, prophesised by Nostradamus, or a delusion brought about by Post-traumatic Stress? On panic filled streets, during the Fall of Saigon, Bram will find his answer.
Forget truth. Forget innocence. There are only casualties.

Bram Curtis is in Saigon in 1967, to visit his sister Jenny who works in an orphanage.  He’s left England, disillusioned and wants to try and find himself in this new country - listen to Hendrix, smoke pot and see what life has to offer.  When he discovers Jenny is planning to adopt a young girl called Lai, he gets roped into the aid convoy to go and reach her, headed by the urbane General Hoan.  After things take a decided turn for the worse (like Hoan himself) and Bram becomes embroiled in the Tet Offensive, the narrative jumps to May 1970 as he searches for his now-missing sister.  His pursuit leads him further in-country and into the orbit of the mysterious - and potentially dangerous - Qui, taking us up to 1975 (there’s a much later coda too), when he must finally confront the Man Of Blood, a supernatural entity that is teased throughout the novel.  
Since my entire knowledge of Vietnam is limited to memories of lessons at school and movies from the 80s and 90s, this isn’t the kind of novel that I would have picked up generally but I’m glad I did in this case.  Starting with a bang and never really letting go of the pace - and it’s a long novel - Byrne relays the story of Bram, a drifter who discovers a cause that consumes his life, with real style.  Vietnam is almost a character in herself, with Saigon painted in rich and detailed depth, from the heat and humidity, the texture of skin and sweat and the hundreds of things that are happening in the streets at once, creating a riot of tactile, broiling humanity.  Later, moving in-country, you get a real sense of both the claustrophobia and humidity of the jungle, of the architecture of the churches and the battered and bruised earth, making it occasionally hard to read it’s so well done.  
The book is filled with vivid characters - and this extends to the most minor of roles, not just Bram, Jen, Hoan or Qui - and yet none of them are guaranteed safe passage to the end of the novel, with some of the deaths (as quick and dirty as you’d expect in a war situation) being quite shocking.  Combine this with a dispassionate eye towards the brutality of war - what is seen and what is perpetrated - and you have a narrative that demands attention.  The supernatural elements are used sparingly but are well written and blended easily into the narrative, so you’re as unaware as the character if you’ve witnessed them or not.  Byrne doesn’t skimp on the set pieces either and there are plenty of them, all superbly constructed and choreographed, never overlong and intense enough to make you feel part of them.  The same is true of the last act, a gruelling journey Bram must take into his own heart of darkness that you can’t tear your eyes from, even down to the gut-punch final few lines.
Steve has clearly done his research in all areas - the locations, the equipment, the theatres of war, the culture and the language - and it shines through perfectly, with nothing coming across as heavy handed or expositional.  Everything the reader learns  - about Vietnam or the horrors - comes through the character, with no obvious info-dumps.
This is a wonderfully constructed novel, tightly edited and with a cracking pace and it deserves a big readership.  Highly recommended.

The book can be found on Amazon here as a paperback and here as an ebook whilst Steve Byrne's website can be found here.

Steve Harris (the man behind Mr Byrne) & I go back a long way, first corresponding in the late 90s when he produced a newsheet called The Inner Circle.  I didn't actually meet him for several years, finally plucking up the courage at one FantasyCon to introduce myself with "are you the Steve Harris who did The Inner Circle?”

Since then we've developed a great friendship, which often involves us talking for hours at Cons about all things horror.  At FantasyCon 2012 (in Brighton, which I wrote about here), he told me about Phoenix, which he was publishing through his own imprint PunkLit and I jumped at the chance to read it.

The first Crusty Exterior gathering - London, April 2015
from left to right - James Everington, Phil Sloman, Steve and me

Monday, 6 June 2022

Planning & Editing: A guest post by Richard Farren Barber

My fine friend Richard Farren Barber has a new novella out from Crystal Lake Publishing called Twenty Years Dead (it's very good) and to help celebrate it, he's contributed the following guest post.

After twenty years in the ground, the dead briefly rise. At his father’s grave, this is Dave’s last opportunity to discover why a man would abandon his wife and young son. Against the protests of his mother and his girlfriend, Dave is determined to learn what happened all those years ago. Sometimes you have to risk everything, but the dead don’t give up their secrets so easily.

Twenty Years Dead is a novella of quiet horror, which explores families and their secrets.

Come listen when the Dead speak...

* * *
You'd have thought after thirty plus years (gulp) I'd have a handle on this writing malarkey. Write. Edit. Publish.


And sometimes that's exactly how it works. My most recently published novella is Twenty Years Dead and that was a straightforward delivery. The first draft was written in 4 weeks and then it took a few more weeks for editing before it was ready to go out.

Not so much the current novella. It's not hideously complex but I've already had to pull it apart and restructure it, shifting around scenes, deleting chapters and adding new material. And still it’s very, very wrong.

It’s not necessarily the chronology of the story which creates complications – in both cases the story follows a conventional storyline, but sometimes it’s clear from reading the first draft that something has gone awry. For me it’s often about character motivation, or development. It’s often the case that something just doesn’t feel right.

There's a part of me which loves the dissection: it’s very satisfying taking something apart, figuring out how it actually works and how it should work. But here's the thing; once you start messing with the order of your first draft it quickly unravels. It reminds me of times as a child when I took apart a toy only to discover I couldn't put it back together again. After a few hours of focussed play you find yourself with a handful of plastic pieces and a knot of wires and rubber bands.

(Quick aside for those brought up in the seventies: The Casdon tabletop football game used a *lot* of strings to make those players move. Who knew?)

You put your story together in what you think is the right order and suddenly characters gain knowledge they can't possess, or reference events which have not happened. It's amazing how complicated simple things can become.

When I'm sitting there staring at my disembowelled story there is a temptation to shove all the guts back in and just hope no-one notices. Even when the major structural work is done and all the scenes are in the right order the details continue to trip me up. It can be something as miniscule as realising you’ve referenced a building which no longer exists, or by introducing characters in a different order they need to change their view on events.

I often find myself wondering whether any reader would spot the inconsistencies or whether I'm self-flagellating. I suspect someone would, but in truth I don't know. But I’d know, and I think that’s the only thing I can offer as a writer: integrity.

Every time I am editing a story I wish I planned my tales better and I promise myself next time I'll write a proper outline. Outlining seems like the Holy Grail as a writer. When I begin writing a new story I usually have a very clear vision of the beginning and an understanding of the end but the middle tends to be hazy. Some of the characters in Twenty Years Dead were known to me from the outset while others bloomed into existence as the pages racked up. For me, that discovery during the first draft is one of the real joys of writing; I just need to find a way to do it before I start page one.

* * *
Me & Richard in Nottingham during a Crusty Exterior
meet-up in April 2019 I wrote about here
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 published, seven novellas: “The Power of Nothing”, “The Sleeping Dead”, “Odette”, “Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence”, “Closer Still”, “All Hell.” , and “Twenty Years Dead.” His two novels are: “The Living and the Lost” and “The Screaming Dead” (Co-authored with Peter Mark May).

Richard can be found online at the following links:

Monday, 23 May 2022

Frenzy, at 50

Frenzy, Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s 52nd film as director, opened in the UK on 25th May 1972.  It was produced by William Hill, written by Anthony Shaffer (from the novel by Arthur La Bern) and the director of photography was Gil Taylor.  Syd Cain was the production designer, Albert Whitlock supervised the visual effects and John Jympson was the editor.

After the brutal murder of his ex-wife, down-on-his luck former RAF pilot Richard Blaney is suspected of being the ‘Neck Tie Murderer’, a vicious serial killer terrorising London. With the help of his friends, Blaney goes on the run, determined to prove his innocence.

In 1970, looking for a new project after Topaz (1969), Sir Alfred Hitchcock was given a copy of Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square by Arthur La Bern and he later told journalist Rebecca Morehouse “I was attracted by the market [scenes] and by the central figure, an Air Force man who is always a loser. Today is the day of the non-hero, isn't it?”  Excited by the novel and its location, he pitched it to Lew Wasserman and Edd Henry at Universal over a lunchtime meeting and they agreed to make it, on a $2.8m budget.

Hitchcock decided it would be best to make the film in London with an all-British cast and rang playwright Anthony Shaffer, whose Sleuth was then a hit on Broadway, to ask him to adapt the novel.  After Shaffer (who originally thought the call was from friends playing a joke) agreed, the two men met in New York in January 1971 to discuss the adaption, before going to London to scout locations, looking over Hyde Park, Leicester Square, Piccadilly, Oxford Street, Bayswater, Hammersmith and Covent Garden Market.

The script meetings continued throughout February and several parts of the novel were cut back, such as the court scenes, or excised altogether, such as Blaney's escape to France.  In addition, Hitchcock insisted on using phrases from his childhood (spent in London), as Shaffer explained to Donald Spoto, “[he] was intractable about not modernising the dialogue of the picture, and he kept inserting antique phrases I knew would cause the British public a hearty laugh or even some annoyance.”

The downbeat ending of the book was changed to a more satisfying conclusion and Hitchcock and Shaffer added a recurring theme of food, along with biblical references to the Garden of Eden and Original Sin. The part of Chief Inspector Oxford was also enhanced and light relief added during mealtime scenes with his haute cuisine interested wife who was busy carrying out culinary experiments.  Although Shaffer wrote the screenplay on his own, which was completed well before filming began, Hitchcock had a firm idea of where he wanted the story to go and co-wrote the 55-page treatment the 160-page script was based on.
Mrs Oxford (Vivien Merchant) serves up another delight for Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen)
Casting for actors and crew began in May and Hitchcock renewed some old professional acquaintances.  Cinematographer Gil Taylor had been clapper-boy on Number Seventeen (1932), sound mixer Peter Handford worked on Under Capricorn (1949) and Elsie Randolph (who plays Gladys the hotel clerk) had appeared in East Of Shanghai (1931).

Hitchcock cast seasoned British actors for the other roles, recognised in the UK but relatively unknown in Hollywood at the time.  Alec McCowen (Chief Inspector Oxford), Barry Foster (Bob Rusk), Billie Whitelaw (Hetty Porter), Anna Massey (Barbara Milligan), Vivien Merchant (Mrs Oxford) and Barbara Leigh-Hunt (as Brenda Blaney) from the stage were joined by TV stars Bernard Cribbens (Felix Forsythe), Michael Bates (Sergeant Spearman), Clive Swift (Johnny Porter) and Jean Marsh (Monica Barling).  As he had with Psycho (1960), where Norman Bates is much older than Anthony Perkins, Hitchcock cast the much younger Jon Finch as the anti-hero Richard Blaney (who, named Blarney, is nearly fifty in the novel) though when he later openly criticised the script to journalists, Hitchcock was close to recasting - he'd wanted Michael Caine for the Rusk role but the actor turned it down (“I don’t want to be associated with the part”). Hitchcock had seen both Foster and Billie Whitelaw in Twisted Nerve (1968).
Bob Rusk (Barry Foster, on the right) helps out his old friend Richard Blaney (Jon Finch)
With regard to the look, Hitchcock told Gil Taylor he wanted “a realistic nightmare, rather than a ‘Hammer Horror’” with Covent Garden as the backdrop, referring back to a selection of Vermeer paintings.  The son of a Covent Garden merchant, Hitchcock was keen to film at the market and, perhaps aware its working days were numbered (it remains a thriving tourist part of London today), to document it too.

Hitchcock’s wife, Alma, had flown to London intending to spend a few weeks in England before embarking on a European tour with their daughter Patricia and granddaughter Mary.  After a weekend break to Scotland, Alma suffered a serious stroke and was treated at Claridge’s Hotel by Hitchcock’s personal physician.  She recovered enough to watch dailies with her husband and Barry Foster said later that Hitchcock awaited her reaction “like a schoolboy, showing his homework to the teacher.” Alma flew home to Los Angeles in October to receive further treatment.
Hitchcock on the Thames
Filming began in the last week of July 1971 with assistant director Colin Brewer heading the second unit, as well as handling many of the first unit set-ups for Hitchcock, who was suffering badly with arthritis.
Hitchcock in Covent Garden with Gil Taylor (centre) and Colin Brewer
Filming progressed smoothly and though a lot of the exteriors were filmed around Covent Garden, plenty of other London locations were utilised including Tower Bridge and County Hall (for the opening sequence), the Coburg Hotel on Bayswater Road, Hyde Park and the London Hilton on Park Lane.  Brenda Blaney’s flat is in Ennismore Gardens Mews and her matrimonial agency is at Dryden Chambers (since demolished), just off Oxford Street.  Filming also took place at New Scotland Yard, Wormwood Scrubs and St Mary Abbot’s hospital and the production was granted permission to film inside the Old Bailey the first full weekend in August.  The interiors were filmed at Pinewood Studios, with sets often on stand-by to serve as ‘weather cover’.
Hitchcock with Anna Massey

Hitchcock puts in his traditional cameo appearance during the opening scene at County Hall, where he’s in the middle of the crowd wearing a bowler hat.  Teaser trailers showed his dummy floating in the River Thames.

The final three weeks of filming were taken up with the complex sequence on the potato truck and principal photography ended after thirteen weeks on 14th October, though the second-unit worked for another week.

The celebrated tracking shot out of Rusk's flat, which is as stunning now as it was then, was filmed using a camera dolly since the steadicam wouldn’t be invented for a couple of years.  The interior was filmed at Pinewood Studios, the exterior (the edit masked by a passing porter) at 3 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden.
During the shoot, Hitchcock was reportedly happiest when filming around Covent Garden, a place he hadn’t visited in decades but where he’d spent time with his father.  Anna Massey later said, “It’s a brutal film, but full of things Hitchcock loved - like food, and London - and it’s a very loving portrayal of Covent Garden market.”

In interview, Anthony Shaffer said, “An old chap made his way up to Hitchcock at the market...and said, ‘I remember your father here, in all this mud.’ Hitchcock was delighted, took the man for an expensive lunch and had a long talk to him about his dad.”
Hitchcock, at Pinewood Studios, works with Barry Foster (left) and Alex McCowen
The film also included this incredible Albert Whitlock matte painting of Covent Garden - the only 'live' section is the space between the green door and the truck.

Hitchcock returned to Los Angeles on 26th October and he and John Jympson created the rough cut of the film during November.  The editor then flew back to London to supervise post-synching of the dialogue and Henry Mancini began work on the score.

Best known for Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) and the Pink Panther series, Mancini had also scored The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) and Touch of Evil (1958).  He told Catherine Scott of The Guardian, “‘Frenzy’ is very low-key picture about a neck-tie murderer, and what I have done is to just cut off the orchestra round middle C. There is none of the screeching, high, intense sounds that would be thought a little melodramatic today. It is very sparse... there's not a lot going on, but what there is will, I trust, sound pretty spooky.”

Hitchcock attended the London recording sessions in mid-December and then rejected the completed score outright.  Mancini later said, “he decided that it didn’t work, [he felt] the score was macabre, which puzzled me because it was a film with many macabre things it in. It wasn't an easy decision to accept, and it was crushing when it happened...”  Unlike his acrimonious split with Bernard Hermann over the rejected score for Torn Curtain (1966), relations remained amicable and Mancini mentions in his autobiography that Hitchcock sent him a case of Château Haut-Brion magnums.

Hitchcock then hired British composer Ron Goodwin, providing him with thorough instructions and notes regarding the new score.  The recording sessions for this took a week, beginning Monday 31st January 1972.  By mid-February, Jympson had edited in Goodwin’s score and the film was sent back to Los Angeles where small adjustments were made before the end of the month.

Due to the content - it’s the first Hitchcock film to show nudity and the sex killing was very strong for the time (it still is, to be honest) - this was the first of the director’s films to receive an ‘R’ rating in the US and an ‘X’ in the UK.
Hitchcock in Cannes
Frenzy was shown, out of competition, at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1972 where it was hailed as a “late-career masterpiece”.  He’d been worried - as hard as it is to believe now, there were people at the time who believed Hitchcock was becoming irrelevant - but the critical praise buoyed him.  At a screening in Paris, Francois Truffaut (a great fan and terrific director in his own right) said the Hitchcock touch was much in evidence and that the old master was “still experimenting”.

Alma, with the dummy Hitchcock head 
The trailer also features Hitchcock, in amusing mood.  “This,” he says, “is the scene of a horrible murder - it’s the famous wholesale fruit and vegetable market, Covent Garden. Here, you may buy the fruits of evil and the horrors of vegetables.” At that point, a foot sticks up out of a potato sack.

The London premiere was held on 25th May 1972 and critical reception was generally very good though several complained it was distasteful.  One of these was Arthur La Bern who wrote, in a letter to the editor of The Times, “Sir, I wish I could share John Russell Taylor's enthusiasm for Hitchcock's distasteful film. The result on the screen is appalling.”  The issue of the films graphic nature was discussed widely and both the US and UK censors had required minor cuts to the murder sequence (though Hitchcock and Shaffer had toned down the violence from the novel).

By this time, Alma had recovered sufficiently well that she was able to accompany Hitchcock on the publicity tour which lasted well into the year.

Frenzy received four Golden Globe Award nominations - Best Motion Picture - Drama, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Original Score - but didn’t win any.  It ended 1972 listed at number 33 in Variety’s “Top 50 Grossing Films of the Year” list, with a box-office take of $4.8m.  On a budget of $2.8m, to date it has earned over $21m.

Happy anniversary, Frenzy.  As Bob Rusk might say, “lovely...”

sources: Locations
About time magazine
Once Upon A Screen
Covent Garden: Frenzy

Monday, 16 May 2022

Summer at the French Café, by Sue Moorcroft

Regular blog readers will know I've been friends with Sue Moorcroft since we first met at the Kettering Writers Group in 1999 (we genre writers were consigned to the back of the room, where we had a great laugh).  Since then she's gone from strength to strength, hitting number one in the Kindle Bestseller charts (with The Christmas Promise) on her way to becoming a Sunday Times Best Seller, while her novel A Summer To Remember 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, Summer At The French Cafe, which has just been published in paperback and e-book.

Sparkling sun, strolls in the gorgeous French countryside, that first sip of cool, crisp wine – Summer is Kat’s favourite season. And this year should be no exception…

As soon as Kat Jenson set foot in the idyllic French village of Kirchhoffen, she knew she’d found her home.

Now she has a dreamy boyfriend, a delightful dog and the perfect job managing a bustling book café in the vibrant Parc Lemmel.

But when she learns her boyfriend isn’t all he seems, it’s the start of a difficult summer for Kat. Vindictive troublemakers, work woes and family heartache follow, and the clear blue sky that was her life suddenly seems full of clouds.

Then she gets to know the mysterious Noah, and her sun begins to shine brighter than ever. But Noah has problems of his own – ones that could scupper their new-found happiness. Together, can they overcome their many obstacles, and find love again?

The perfect summer read for fans of Trisha Ashley, Sarah Morgan and Carole Matthews.

Katerina ‘Kat’ Jenson manages the the bookshop Livres et Café at Parc Lemmel, on the edge of Muntsheim, in the Alsace region of France.  When it turns out her boyfriend is not only a family man but his wife is a computer whizz who’s perfectly happy to cause havoc, Kat swears off men.  But then she meets Noah - who comes with his own baggage - and finds herself falling for him.

Another winner from the ever consistent Sue Moorcroft, this is a quick and heartening read filled with the usual mixture of romance, raunch, good humour and grit that she does so well.  Sue is very good at creating instantly believable characters and Kat is exceptionally well realised (she reminded me a little of Cleo from the excellent All That Mullarkey. Kat's character never has a false step and she's equally matched by Noah, who's new to the area as he tracks down his mildly autistic daughter Clemence.  It turns out, his ex-wife Florine is being controlled by her new husband Yohan, who wants a new family in his own image and the little girl is caught up in the middle.  

With Kat’s family and the bookshop owners causing their own issues, the summer is a mixture of incidents and excitement and very soon, you’ll be rooting for this well developed couple to prosper.  

Told with a keen eye for detail, a wonderful grasp of location and a pace that is absolutely pitch-perfect, this is a fantastic read that I heartily recommend.

Sue Moorcroft is an international bestselling author and has reached the #1 spot on Kindle UK. She’s won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award, Readers’ Best Romantic Novel award and the Katie Fforde Bursary. Published by HarperCollins in the UK, US and Canada and by other publishers around the world.

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, 2 May 2022

Old School Horror 9: Tendrils, by Simon Ian Childer

The ninth, in an occasional thread, of blog posts celebrating those cheesy, sleazy old-school pulp paperbacks from the 70s and 80s, which are now mostly forgotten.  Yes, we’re not talking great art here but these books have their place - for better or worse - in the genre and I think they deserve to be remembered.

This time around, I'm looking at a novel that relishes being 'sick'...
cover scan of my copy - published in 1986 by Grafton Books


It started when a Hertfordshire drilling team struck something funny underground - a space where there should not have been a space.  'Hairs' where there should have been rock.

Then, suddenly, people were dying - eaten away by mysterious acid which gushed out of the ground.

But that wasn't the end of it.  Soon dozens of people were being killed.  Their insides were being dissolved, digested and sucked out until only the skin remained.

From across the boundless wastes of space - millions of years ago, the primitive black TENDRILS had made their way to Earth.  Now they were awake and looking for food - looking for meat to digest.  For the human race, it was to be a close encounter of a truly horrifying kind...

When a drilling company accidentally strikes an alien creature buried deep within the earth it responds by spewing acidic gunk that kills drillers and site protestors alike.  Nobody knows what the thing is and when it moves away, ever closer to London, it leaves a trail of destruction in its wake, reducing people and animals to brittle husks.  The only person who understands the gravity of the situation is a professor who lost his wife to the creature and, teaming up with a young reporter, he tries to stop more death.

Written by John Brosnan and Leroy Kettle (the SIC pseudonym is an in-joke, Brosnan also wrote as Harry Adam Knight - HAK), this slice of Brit horror from 1986 is an almost perfect example of paperback horror from that era.  Told with wit and pace, this has a lot of echoes with 50s horror pulp (you can almost imagine Hammer having a field day with it), with plenty of sex and gore thrown in. 

Using London and the Home Counties as key locations really grounds it and the little vignettes of the victims amp up the suspense and terror but, really, it’s the mayhem that makes this.  Gory, gruesome, funny and occasionally unpleasant (Robin the reporter has something very nasty happen), this races to a thunderous climax and then tops it off with a wonderfully downbeat ending.  

If you like 80s paperback horror, as I do, you’ll likely love it.  If you don’t then, well, I feel sorry for you.

* * *
John Raymond Brosnan was born in Perth, Western Australia on 7th October 1947.  He moved to Sydney in the late 60s and became active in local SF fandom, then traveled with fellow fans to London in 1970, where he settled.  Remaining active in fandom, he began writing non-fiction on SF, fantasy and horror films, most notably in Science Fiction Monthly and Starburst (where I first became aware of him - I wrote about the magazine here and here).  He was also a novelist and wrote science fiction and fantasy under his own name, before branching out into horror (and comics, with 2000AD), utilising several pseudonyms on the way.

* As Harry Adam Knight he wrote Carnosaur (1984) on his own and Slimer (1983), The Fungus (1985), Death Spore (1990) and Bedlam (1992) in collaboration with Leroy Kettle.
* As James Blackstone (in collaboration with John Baxter), he wrote Torched (1986).
* As Simon Ian Childer, he wrote Tendrils (1986) and Worm (1987, with Leroy Kettle).  Worm was published in the US as by Harry Adam Knight.

I haven’t read his sci-fi work, but his horror books fit the times perfectly and their streak of dark humour is reflected in the pseudonyms he chose, with Childer (SIC) and Knight (HAK) reflecting the material.  The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction described Brosnan’s horror work as the “written equivalents of exploitation movies…slightly self-mocking but quite exciting as SF horror.”  In his wonderful piece Torching John BrosnanDavid Langford mentions amusingly that Harry Adam Knight “was praised as "The New Stephen King" in a Starburst movie column whose authorship I shall not reveal)”.

Also a respected film writer and critic, Brosnan wrote James Bond in the Cinema (1972), Movie Magic: The Story of Special Effects in the Cinema (1974), The Horror People (1976), Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction (1978, with a foreword by Harry Harrison), James Bond: For Your 007 Eyes Only (1981, with Tony Crawley - himself a Starburst writer too), The Dirty Movie Book (1988, with Leroy Kettle), The Primal Screen: A History of Science Fiction Film (1991), Hollywood Babble On (1998), Lights, Camera, Magic! (1998), Scream: The Unofficial Guide To The Scream Trilogy (2000) and The Hannibal Lecter Story (2001)

He also wrote most of the film entries for The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979), edited by Peter Nicholls and John Clute.

Some of his books were filmed, the first being Carnosaur in 1993, from Roger Corman’s Concord Pictures.  Beyond Bedlam (also known as Nightscare) was made in 1994 by Vadim Jean and based on Bedlam (notable only, apparently, for being Liz Hurley’s first starring role).  Proteus (1995) was based on Slimer and directed by make-up effects genius Bob Keen but its disappointing box office meant a sequel - which Brosnan wrote the screenplay for - was never produced.

Sadly, Brosnan battled both depression and alcohol abuse for many years.  He died of acute pancreatitis and his death was reported on 11th April 2005 (after friends became alarmed at his absence over Easter), though it might have been several days earlier.

For a few years now, I've been collecting old 70s and 80s paperbacks (mostly horror), picking them up cheaply in secondhand bookshops and at car boot sales and slowly building a collection.  My friend (and fellow collector) Johnny Mains once told me that charity shops sometimes pulp old books like this because the market for them is so small - I understand why but I think it's terrible.  We might not be talking great art here but on the whole, I think these books deserve to be remembered.

To that end, on an irregular basis (too much cheese isn't good for anyone's diet), I'm going to review these "old-school" horrors (and perhaps include some bonus material, if I can find it).

Monday, 18 April 2022

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Yet More Comic & Magazine ads

For the fifth installment of this long-running occasional feature (you can read the previous entries from 2017, 2019, 2020 and 2021 on these links), here's another selection of print ads from comics and magazines, for the toys and sweets, books, games and badges of our youth.

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

Here, then, are a few more ads of our childhood, I hope they spark some memories for you...
I liked these a lot, though the fighting action was never as described.  The wooden leg hidey hole was also great, though you didn't get a lot of room in there...
An electronic calculator in 1976 would have been a big deal - I wonder how many got nicked during lessons?
One of my childhood heroes (as I've written about here), I always wanted the repair station but never got one.  I did have the figure though and treasured him.
42 years ago, as I write this and apart from The Wombles, Furry Friends and Paddington Bear, all of those products are still sold.
These ads were little (half-page) ongoing adventures, running across a range of comics.  I always thought they were really cool.
My parents bought me this Star Wars annual (which I still have) before we went on holiday (my sister & I were always bought a magazine to read on the way, usually the Summer Special of whatever comic we liked at the time).  I loved it.
Ah, Corgi Superkings, James Bond and the wonderful The Spy Who Loved Me (which I wrote about here).  Bliss...
Skateboarding was huge in 1978 and so, clearly, were Tom & Jerry.
"Seriously son, we're not going anywhere near a National garage..."
Not the most obvious connection, obviously...
Ah, the Sinclair Spectrum and the Commodore Vic 20, fondly remembered (and rightly so) by people of a certain age.  Now sure how far you'd get today with 16k though...
I remember the advertising push for this film (which was competing with Connery's rival Never Say Never Again) and gleefully picked stuff up like this.
Choose Your Own Adventure books were a big part of my childhood reading and one of the first things we teens programmed when home computers became a reality.  I often wrote an adventure in the morning, plotting out the lines and making sure everything linked properly, only to discover - more often than not - that it didn't save properly so I'd have to start again from scratch the next day.  Happy days...
As video tapes began to take a hold (and the whole VHS/Beta battle unwound), lots of places turned into video libraries (especially corner shops).  I remember going into Our Price and checking the rental racks, because to buy your own copy was prohibitively expensive (as you can see here).  That Spider-Man film, by the way, is cobbled together from two episodes of the Nicholas Hammond series, first shown in the late 70s.
You mean we can take our music wherever we like?  Wow, the future truly is here...
The Sony Walkman was expensive, most of us made do with cheaper versions (mine was made by Alba).

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

Monday, 4 April 2022

Visions Of Ruin is out now!

I'm pleased to announce that my horror novella, Visions Of Ruin, was published on March 30th by NewCon Press.

A week in a seedy caravan at 'The Good Times Holiday Park' is not exactly the holiday sixteen-year-old Sam has been dreaming of, but he knows his mum is struggling and doing the best she can. At least he meets someone his own age to hang out with – Polly – but neither of them is prepared for the strangeness that ensues. 

Beautifully paced and full of deft touches that bring the 1980s setting to life, Visions of Ruin is set during a rainy weekend at a caravan park on the edge of rundown seaside town. 

Me, on a Surrey bike, just outside Holimarine Corton, summer 1986.
Picture by Nick Duncan, who shared a lot of seaside adventures with me back then.
Having spent the last four years writing three mainstream thriller novels (the first two of which, DON'T GO BACK and
ONLY WATCHING YOU, have now been published by The Book Folks), I've only dipped a toe back into horror when people have asked for short stories.  But the genre is in my blood and when Ian Whates asked if I'd like to write a novella for him, I jumped at the chance - I like and respect him a lot and I'm proud to be associated with NewCon Press.

I started writing this just after I finished DON'T GO BACK and the idea took a little while to come together until I realised I could combine two of my apparent obsessions - teenagers in the 80s and a rundown east coast British seaside resort. Once that had clicked in my head I was off and running and the writing process itself (as well as drawing several maps of the caravan park central to the story) was hugely enjoyable and brought back a lot of good memories of holidays in the 80s.

The book is available as ebook and paperback editions and there's also a 60 copy Limited Edition  hardback which I thoroughly enjoyed signing the book plates for.
pictures by Dude
Being published by two companies has meant a bit of a "it's like buses" situation at the moment with my writing but I was really happy to see the early response to this and was thrilled when it hit Number 1 in the Hot New Releases (Teen & YA Ghost Stories) Amazon chart.
Amazon - 31/3/22

When he announced it in the NewCon Press newsletter, Ian wrote: "I am delighted to welcome Mark West back to NewCon Press' publishing schedule. Mark's short fiction has appeared in several of our anthologies over the years, including Ten Tall Tales and Hauntings, but this time he contributes a longer piece, Visions of Ruin, which will be the 9th entry in our NP Novella series. I rate this as Mark's most accomplished work to date, and was bowled over by it on first reading."

“A taut ghost story that transported me back to the 80s, with plenty to intrigue and unsettle along the way. A pleasure to read, with a terrifically neat ending.” 
 Alison Littlewood

Visions Of Ruin can be ordered directly from the NewCon Press website here.

£3.99 (ebook)
£9.99 (Paperback)
£19.99 (Signed Hardback, LTD ED)

Thanks to Ian Whates for both asking for and then enjoying the story enough to want to publish it, Nick Duncan for sharing all those adventures with me on the east coast in the 80s, Teika Marija Smits who helped push me to start, Alison Littlewood for her kind words and, as always, David Roberts & Pippa for the Friday Night Walks and the mammoth plotting sessions. 

Monday, 28 March 2022

Only Watching You, by Mark West

I'm pleased to announce that Only Watching You, my second mainstream thriller published by The Book Folks, is now available.

Cryptic, intimate threats make a woman question everyone close to her…

Claire Heeley has been getting her life back on track after separating from her cheating husband, when she is almost run over.

This is the first in a series of incidents that lead her to believe she has a stalker.

Someone has daubed a hangman symbol outside her home, and each day letters are being added to the game.

Whatever the writing on the wall, something spells serious trouble.

Can Claire find out who has it in for her before a death sentence is written out?

ONLY WATCHING YOU is the second suspense thriller by bestselling author Mark West. Look out for his first, DON’T GO BACK, also available FREE with Kindle Unlimited and in paperback.

Following an acrimonious separation, Claire Heeley joins a local social group meaning to start a fresh chapter in her life.  But as she begins to make new friends, other areas of her life take a sinister tone.  As well as seeing hangman images wherever she goes, with one game seemingly to use her name as the answer, she’s being followed by a mysterious stranger and terrifying messages are left on her car.  When the persecution increases, Claire must protect her family as she strives to uncover the truth.

Tell all your friends!

Monday, 21 March 2022

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Poster Magazines part 3

When I blogged about "poster magazines" before (you can read the 2019 post here and the 2020 post here), it certainly struck a chord but I was surprised to find people my age had never heard of them.  So, here's a few more...

Me, in 1978, with my hero
Poster magazines were essentially A4 glossy colour magazines which folded out into a (large) A1-sized sheet.  One side would be the magazine (with articles and plenty of photographs) while the reverse would be a giant poster and, depending on what you’d bought, the image might be a person, an action scene or the film poster.  I had several and most kids I knew had at least one huge poster on their wall.

The possibilities were endless.  Dez Skinn (before he created Starburst magazine)  produced Monster Mag which featuredgory movie stills from the likes of Hammer Films and Amicus.  Music was a big draw (singers and bands alike, as well as musical styles - my friend, the writer Mark Morris, remembers having punk ones on his wall).  You could pick up magazines devoted to TV series like Star Trek (a whole run of them), The Six Million Dollar ManDoctor WhoSpace: 1999The ProfessionalsThe HulkBattlestar Galactica and Planet of the Apes.  Film tie-in's were especially popular - if it was a blockbuster (and the 70s and 80s were full of them), there'd be a poster magazine on the newsagents shelves sooner rather than later (featuring the likes of Star WarsSuperman and James Bond).

spacemonstersmag reckons the magazines died out in the 1990's, which is a shame.  I still have a few in my collection (though not on the walls of my study) and think they’re great fun, another nostalgic item for film and TV fans of a certain age.

Did you have any?  Which ones were on your wall?
1978 (clearly a bumper year for Poster magazines!)


You can check out the previous posts, from 2019 and 2020 here