Monday 30 December 2013

My Creative Year

This might be a bit self-indulgent but hey, it's my blog...

During 2013, I wrote 6 short stories, 60+ book reviews, half a dozen film reviews, designed several book covers and trailers (via Rude Dude) and created a dozen or more essays/articles for this blog.  I also finally managed to get my novel pitch sorted (with thanks to James A. Moore for the 'kick up the ass').

I had six short stories published:
* Jack In Irons in The Bestiarum Vocabulum: 2 (TRES LIBRORUM PROHIBITORUM), edited by Dean M. Drinkel (available from Amazon)
* The Bureau Of Lost Children in ill at ease 2, (available from Amazon)
* The Glamour Girl Murders in Anatomy of Death (available from Amazon)
* Mr Stix in For The Night Is Dark, edited by Ross Warren (available from Amazon)
* Falsche See, On the North German Plain in The Demonologia Biblica: 1 (TRES LIBRORUM PROHIBITORUM), edited by Dean M. Drinkel (available from Amazon)
 * The Witch House in Urban Occult, edited by Colin F. Barnes (available from Amazon)

Conjure was published in print and digital editions by Greyhart Press and is available from Amazon

Anatomy of Death, the PenthAnth anthology I edited for Hersham Horror Books, was well received and I was well served by my writers - Stephen Bacon, John Llewellyn Probert, Stephen Volk and Johnny Mains - who helped it to garner respectable sales and some great reviews.

ill at ease 2 finally appeared, the second 'co-operative' anthology from PenMan Press, adding new writers to the original trio - the newcomers were Shaun Hamilton, Rob Mammone, Val Walmsley and Sheri White.

PenMan Press also produced a 10th Anniversary Special Edition of my Strange Tales collection.

Fog On The Old Coast Road, which appeared in Ian Whates' Hauntings anthology in 2012, received an Honorable Mention from Ellen Datlow

What Gets Left Behind, my Spectral Press chapbook that was published last year, was nominated in the Preditors & Editors poll and came 2nd (to Stephen King & Joe Hill) in the This Is Horror Awards.

* * *

In his Ginger Nuts Of Horror Christmas Gift Guide, Jim Mcleod included Conjure in the readers "who love their horror with an emotional punch" section.  The site also awarded me with the "Best Legs In The Genre" prize.

In the second part of his "Best Of 2013" section (anthologies), Jim highlighted Anatomy of Death, making special mention of mine and Stephen Volk's entry

James Everington included The Bureau Of Lost Children, in his "Best Short Stories of 2013 (Somewhat Biased & Woefully Uncomprehensive) list"

Anthony Watson included both Anatomy of Death and ill at ease 2 in his 2013 review

Ross Warren included Anatomy of Death, Mr Stix and The Bureau Of Lost Children in his "Faves Of 2013" list

* * *

I attended two great Cons this year, the first was Andromeda One held at The Custard Factory in Birmingham (full report here) and the second was the mighty WFC, held in Brighton (full report here).

* * *

2013 has been a great year for me, creatively speaking, with fantastic projects and collaborators, not to mention the scores of wonderful people I met at the Cons, so 2014 has got its work cut out to top it.  But with two new novellas coming from Pendragon Press (Drive and The Lost Film), some new short stories, hopefully more on the novel pitch and projects I haven't even started working on yet, I have good feelings about it.

Friday 27 December 2013

Star Wars released (36 years ago today)

1977: Star Wars fever hits Britain
Thousands of people are flocking to cinemas in the UK to watch the long-awaited blockbuster, Star Wars - a movie which is already setting US box offices alight.  Bracing the cold weather, young and old queued from 0700 GMT in London at the Dominion, and Leicester Square cinemas, to snatch up non-reserved tickets which are otherwise booked until March.

Star Wars, which was first released in America seven months ago, has taken audiences by storm and outstripped last year's blockbuster Jaws to gross $156m (£108m) at the box office.

Carrie Fisher, Sir Alec Guiness and little known Harrison Ford star in this fairytale set in space.

Produced by Gary Kurtz, written and directed by George Lucas who directed American Graffitti, the U-classified sci-fi film is a classic epic of good versus evil.

It has enthralled audiences under a dazzle of special effects with wizards, heroes, monsters in "a galaxy far, far away".

This is part of an article originally published by the BBC on December 27th 1977 (full article on this link)
photo by Klaus Hiltscher, printed under creative commons from his Flickr 

It is impossible today to over-state just how big a deal "Star Wars" was back then.  I didn't see the film until early 1978 (you literally couldn't get a ticket when it first opened), but it absolutely blew me away and remains my favourite film of all time.

I was 8 in 1977 and I'd seen enough in my comics (Look-In especially) and on the TV that I knew this was a film I had to see.  During the summer I collected the trading cards (which always came in wax packets with bubble-gum that lost its taste within a minute or so of chewing), I got the comics, I got the making-of magazine and I read the novelisation.

In 1977, my "Star Wars" experience therefore consisted pretty much of my imagination, spurred on by stills and clips (Clapperboard was another good source of these), with even the Palitoy figures not appearing until summer of the following year.

And with that in mind, here's a trawl through stuff that meant a lot to me, before I got to see the film that would go on to mean much more to me.

The Star Wars novelisation was published in the UK by Sphere Books on September 8th 1977 as "by George Lucas" (though it was actually written by Alan Dean Foster).  The artwork was by John Berkey, who apparently never saw the film.

I read the novel eagerly, though I doubt I understood a lot of it and I certainly didn't envisage it in my head as it played out for me much later on the cinema screen.

The "16 pages of fabulous colour" photos were great though!

The novel follows the shooting script - Luke is Blue 5, rather than Red 5 - and therefore includes scenes that were never in the film, including Biggs, Camie & Deak at Tosche Station and Jabba meeting Solo at Docking Bay 94.  Jabba is described as being 'a great mobile tub of muscle and suet topped by a shaggy scarred skull'.

The trading cards, produced by Topps, were launched in 1977.  Each waxed pack contained seven cards (all of which had blue borders with stars) and a stick of chewing gum, with 66 cards in the set.  Some of the card backs had movie info, some related the story, some had other images which made up a bigger, jigsaw-style picture.  I loved the cards and still have my 'almost-complete' collection today.

1978 would bring much more - so much more - but I was a happy kid in 1977.  And as an equally happy, young-at-heart 44 year-old, I'm going to sit down today with Dude (who's 8) and re-watch the film.

May The Force Be With You!

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Merry Christmas!

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish readers of this blog (and their loved ones) a very Happy Christmas, with all best wishes for the New Year.

Thank you all very much for your continued support and interest, let’s hope 2014 is as good to us as we want it to be!

Friday 20 December 2013

The Fifth Annual Westies - review of the year 2013

Well this year seems to have whipped by (even quicker than last year, if that's possible) and so, as we gear up for Christmas, it’s time to remember the good (and not so good) books of 2013.

Once again it was a really strong field this year (or a sign that my reading choices are generally pretty good) and places in the top 20 were hard-fought.  So hard fought, in fact, that for the first time ever I had four books that were all - in my opinion - five star reads.  Since I couldn't separate them, I've decided to have a joint first place between all four.

So without further ado, I present the Fifth Annual Westies Award - “My Best Fiction Reads Of The Year” - and the top 20 looks like this:

Joint first:
The Year Of The Ladybird, by Graham Joyce
Joyland, by Stephen King
I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
The Language of Dying, by Sarah Pinborough

5:  Path Of Needles, by Alison Littlewood
6:  House of Small Shadows, by Adam Nevill
7:  The Bones Of You, by Gary McMahon
8:  Is This Love? by Sue Moorcroft
9:  Stir Of Echoes, by Richard Matheson
10: The Latchkey Children, by Eric Allen
11: The Shelter, by James Everington
12: Shiftling, by Steven Savile
13: Invent-10n, by Rod Rees
14: Pale Kings and Princes, by Robert B. Parker
15: Phoenix, by Steve Byrne
16: Bite, by Gardner Goldsmith
17: Necromancer: Necropolis Rising 2, by Dave Jeffery
18: Guns Of Brixton, by Paul D. Brazill
19: The Fox, by Conrad Williams
20: Urban Occult, edited by Colin F. Barnes

The Top 5 in non-fiction are:

1:  Rod, The Autobiography, by Rod Stewart
2:  The Making of Return Of The Jedi, edited by John Philip Peecher
3:  Parallel Lives: Blondie, by Dick Porter & Kris Needs
4:  The Making Of Scarface, by David Taylor
5:  The Star Wars Archives, by Mark Cotta Vaz

Stats wise, I’ve read 65 books - 34 fiction, 7 non-fiction, 12 comics/nostalgia/kids, 2 I co-edited/edited and 10 Three Investigator mysteries.

Of the 55 books, the breakdown is thus:

3  biographies
21 horror novels
4  film-related
5 drama (includes chick-lit)
5 crime/mystery
7 sci-fi
2 nostalgia
8 humour

All of my reviews are posted up at Goodreads here

Just in case you’re interested, the previous awards are linked to from here:

Wednesday 18 December 2013

"ill at ease 2" reviews

Three recent reviews of the PenMan Press anthology "ill at ease 2", which features my story "The Bureau Of Lost Children".

The first, from Anthony Watson at his Dark Musings blog, concludes with the comment "a high quality collection of stories, Ill at Ease 2 is highly recommended".  The review can be found in full at this link.

The second review, posted to Goodreads, comes from Ross Warren and his positive, four-star review can be found in full at this link.

The third review, posted at his website "Welcome to the Hellforge" by Matthew Fryer, is another positive one which can be found at this link.

Shaun's "The Shuttle" and my tale were also mentioned in James Everington's "Best Short Stories of 2013 (Somewhat Biased & Woefully Uncomprehensive)" list, which you can find at this link.

In addition, Ross Warren included my story in his yearly round-up.  The full list can be found at this link.

Thanks to them all and don't forget, if you've read it, it'd be great if you left a review!

Following on from the critical success of “ill at ease” comes volume 2, featuring seven original horror short stories, all of them guaranteed to give you the chills.

Joining the original trio of Stephen Bacon, Mark West and Neil Williams this time are Shaun Hamilton, Robert Mammone, Val Walmsley and Sheri White.

You will descend into an underground train station to uncover a dreadful secret and watch in horror as a paradise holiday turns sour.  You will see a bullied boy who’s helped by local history and share the anguish of a father, losing his child in a shopping centre.  You will take a trip with a cancer sufferer and share the pain of a couple, desperate for a child.  You will discover that history needs to be kept somewhere.

Seven stories, seven writers and you.

Prepare to feel “ill at ease” all over again.

cover designed and produced by Neil Williams
ebook built by Tim C. Taylor at Greyhart Press

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Anatomy of Death (still getting noticed)

It's coming to that time of year when bloggers and reviewers are putting together yearly round-ups (mine is due later in the month).

I'm really pleased with how Anatomy of Death (in five sleazy pieces) turned out - from my initial concept a couple of years ago, to pulling together the stories through 2012, to publication this year, it's been great fun.  I chose my contributors well, read some terrific tales, had fun with the cover art and it's been well received - for my editorial debut, I couldn't really ask for more, could I?

Jim Mcleod at Ginger Nuts of Horror has posted his anthology round-up for the year and there's AoD, holding its own, with my story "The Glamour Girl Murders" ('tense and brilliant [it] captures perfectly the sights smell and sounds of the era') and "The Arse Licker" by Stephen Volk highlighted.  The full round-up and comments can be read at this link.

Anthony Watson, whose review can be seen below, also included the anthology in his round-up of the year.  You can read the full article at this link.

Ross Warren, whose review can be seen below, has also included the anthology in his round-up.  The full list can be found at this link.

Here's a sample of some of the reviews it's already received:

Anthony Watson, at Dark Musings - "Anatomy of Murder is fine addition to the Hersham back catalogue. Horror is indeed a broad church as Mark says in his introduction. Tastes may change, the genre will evolve (as it has to) but at the end of the day you can’t beat a bit of pulp."

Walt Hicks, at Hellbound Times "Anatomy of Death is a ruthless, doleful (and yet often playfully satirical) paean to those glorious days of the 70’s and 80’s when horror was campy, bloody, violent, gory and gratuitously sexual.  The selections are certainly well-written, provocative and extremely diverse, which may be problematic to some: the Mains and Volk stories are brutally graphic; Bacon and Probert wield a slightly less gory scalpel, while West's tale occupies more of a middle ground.  Readers may find this wide range of styles and intensity slightly jarring, but then again, that's what horror is supposed to do. The easily unsettled or offended will probably want to go elsewhere, because this ain’t no ‘quiet’ horror anthology."

Matthew Fryer, at Welcome To The Hellforge - "I really enjoyed Anatomy of Death; in fact I demolished it in one sitting. “Just one more, then I’ll get up and do stuff…” was the repeated cry, but this slim, well-ordered volume had other plans. It’s deftly edited, the genre tropes are handled with affection, and there’s plenty of variation despite the specific theme. The stories shine with the quirks and particular strengths of each author, and if you’re not familiar, you could do worse than getting acquainted here."

Paul Holmes, at The Eloquent Page, - "This collection is a wonderful homage to all the horror it pays tribute to. Sometimes violent, often gory and in-your-face, this can be unforgiving stuff. You can rest assured Anatomy of Death is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I have no doubt that some will consider it politically incorrect or perhaps even potentially offensive. Personally, I think it does quite an impressive job of dancing right up to the boundaries of good taste but never actually crosses the line. I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys his or her horror unashamedly raw."

Adam Millard, at This Is Horror - "Back in the 1970s, thanks to Hammer, Amicus, NEL, Futura et al, the horror genre evolved into something altogether more exploitative and sleazy. Book covers were filled with lurid and often gory images, and movie posters contained visuals that would give the BBFC dreadful nightmares. The films themselves contained more breasts than scares; it was, for fans of the genre, a truly wonderful and sordid time. With Anatomy of Death: In Five Sleazy Pieces, the essence of that remarkable era is fully restored in the guise of five entirely divergent short stories."

Graeme Reynolds, at Goodreads - Anatomy of Death won't be to everyone's taste, but despite the slight missteps of the first two stories, manages to successfully reproduce the sort of low budget, over the top shock-horror that was so prevalent in the 1970's.  Recommended reading if you have a strong stomach.

Ross Warren, at GoodreadsTo paraphrase the advertising slogan of a well known brand of varnish, Anatomy of Death does exactly what it says on the cover.  All in all it is a strong collection of five stories with no bad entries and a couple of superb ones.

If you're intrigued, the book is available from the following sources:

Amazon UK - print and Kindle  /  Amazon US - print and Kindle

Support the small press!

Monday 16 December 2013

Nostalgic for my childhood (a round-up)

This year I posted a few blogs about things from my childhood with this leader:

Reading has played an important part in my life for as long as I can remember and I want to use this ‘thread’ to discuss books that, in their own way, shaped not only my future reading habits but also my future writing habits. 

This is a round-up of those posts, just in case you missed any of them.

My Three Investigators collection
Seth Smolinske, a fellow Three Investigators fan, has pointed out that 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the series first being published - he has correspondence dating from August 1963 between Robert Arthur (the series creator) and Walter Retan (the series editor) discussing the series - and with that in mind I think I’ll hold off until next year my planned “Nostalgic For My Childhood” post about the Three Investigators and also the remainder of my Top 10 re-read - hey, you have to celebrate these things.  In the meantime, this is my collection.

Roger Moore and the Crimefighters, by various
Roger Moore and the Crimefighters was a series of six slim paperbacks, published by Alpine/Everest in the UK through 1977.  A clear attempt to try and cash in on The Three Investigator market, Roger Moore is the Alfred Hitchcock equivalent here, his name a prominent part of the cover whilst he has only has a cameo (as himself) at the end, when the Crimefighters explain their latest adventure to him.

The Adventures Of The Black Hand Gang, by H. J. Press
The stories are great fun and the illustrations still have the power to transport me back in time, making it lovely to revisit them as an adult (whilst trying hard not to guide Dude into finding the clues, but letting him have as much fun with finding them as I did at his age).  My copy, 35 years old this year, still stands proudly on my bookshelf, a little beaten up (at one point, we used it as an initiation to the investigators group Claire Gibson and I were going to set up during the summer of ’78) but still much loved.

The Restless Bones, by Peter Haining
The killer story for me was “The Voice in the Graveyard”, wherein teenaged Richard, in 1964 Wisconsin, accepts a challenge to spend the night in a graveyard, all on his own.  As I write this, on a sunny afternoon in July 2013, far removed from the nine-year-old me reading it over the 1978 summer holidays, I can still remember the frisson of fear that ran through me when Richard hears a whispering voice plead, “…help us…”

Bullet Comic
I loved Bullet at the time and treasured my pendant, though it has long since been lost to the sands of time.  I did pick up a few copies of the comic through eBay (where they are sold for considerably more than their 7p cover price) and it was a really nice, nostalgic blast reading through them (and I was amazed at how much of the artwork I could remember).  I have noticed that certain comics lines are having old strips re-published in large format editions and I’d love to see something similar happen for Bullet.

Friday 13 December 2013

Year round-ups by others

It's that time of the year, when people start putting together blog posts proclaiming their favourite reads/films/songs of the year.  It's always nice to get a mention and, already, I'm in two.

First up with we have Jim Mcleod who runs The Ginger Nuts of Horror website, which is a great resource for genre fans and writers alike.  A long-standing supporter of my work, I'm always chuffed to see myself mentioned anywhere at all on the blog (Jim picked "The Mill" as 'one to read' last year) and this year I get two mentions.  One means a great deal to me indeed, the other I am equally thrilled with though I won it with what my mother gave me!

First up is "THE GINGER NUTS OF HORROR CHRISTMAS GIFT GUIDE" (which can be found at this link).

In the "FOR THOSE WHO LOVE THEIR HORROR WITH AN EMOTIONAL PUNCH" sub-section, he's chosen "Conjure" along with "Where You Live", by my friend Gary McMahon.  Really chuffed to see my book in there, really glad it worked for Jim and it's a thrill to be listed alongside Gary.  Great stuff!

Read the full list here

Secondly (and in a decidedly lighter mood), Jim presents "THE GINGER NUTS OF HORROR AWARDS 2013" (which can be found at this link)

Amongst various awards (including Willie Meikle winning for best beard, Gary for best ginger, the elegant John Llewellyn Probert picking up best use of a smoking jacket, in addition to sharing best couple with Thana Niveau, Simon Marshall-Jones (of Spectral Press) winning best bald head Best and Johnny Mains walking away with Genre Scotsman), I picked up "Best Legs in the genre".


(this is the picture that clinched it - me, at Rushden transport museum in 2012, picture by Dude)

The next blog is James Everington's Scattershot Writing who, again, has been a great supporter of my work (and I got to spend a day hanging out with him this year at the Andromeda One convention (which I blogged about here)).

James is presenting his "Best Short Stories of 2013 (Somewhat Biased & Woefully Uncomprehensive)" list and includes my "The Bureau Of Lost Children", from "ill at ease 2".  I'm thrilled to be in such great company (including my "ill2" cohort Shaun Hamilton) and chuffed to be included.

Thanks Jim and James!

Thursday 12 December 2013

The Latchkey Children, by Eric Allen

Another book review and an unusual one this, since the short novel in question is 50 years old this year, not horror and is probably best classed as a childrens book (there was no YA then!).  It was purchased after spotting it (and vaguely recognising the title) when I was browsing on ebay.

The Latchkey Children of the title are a gang of kids (who are around 11 years old or so), most of whom live on the St Justins Estate on the Thames Embankment and meet in the park after school.  Their focal point is an old tree so when the council decides to get rid of it - and replace it with a concrete railway engine (“but that’s for kids!”) - the children decide to mount a protest.  The story follows them on this protest - and in various adventures along the way.

Although this was originally published in 1963, it hasn’t really dated at all (aside from some phrases the kids use - “I say!” - and the currency) and could easily apply to the childhoods of 70s and 80s kids (ie, me).  It treats social issues head-on - Mr Jellinek, the Estate Manager, was in a prison camp before escaping to this country - and there are kids of various races and religions about, most of them treated fairly normally, though the kids do overhear racist comments.  Initially, the gang consists of four friends - Janette Stone (known as Etty), William Benjamin (known as Billandben), Gordon Frogley (known as Froggy) and J. J. Greavy (known as Goggles) - with Goggles the unofficial leader (though he lives across the river, with his aunt and is very conscious of his loner status).  The group later expands to five with the arrival of Duke Ellington Binns, who helps Froggy escape from bullies and slowly becomes his friend - Binns likes England well enough but misses - and talks often of - his hometown Port Of Spain, in Trinidad.  The group has a rival gang, the kids from the Peabody Estate, led by Bletchley who does his best to cause as much trouble as possible (he’s currently on probation for putting a box on a railway line).

When the kids go into London to start the protest, Goggles goes to see his MP whilst Etty and Billandben, failing at seeing the local council, take a trip up to Hampstead Heath.  Which attempting to rescue a cat there, they are helped by Malcolm McCrae, a TV reporter and they get him involved in the fight too.  Things soon escalate, until Duke’s Dad gets involved and the resulting industrial action which spreads across London highlights the fight for the tree and the novel ends on a hopeful note.  It also ends with a sense of melancholy too, as they all realise that the end of the summer holidays means them going to new schools and making new friends, thus having everything they know change.  The last exchange, between Goggles and Froggy, is at once funny and touching and it’s the perfect way to leave the story.

This is a terrific book which, even though it’s clearly for children (my edition is the 1982 Heinemann hardback), it has a refreshing attitude both in terms of how the kids are with each other (they make friends and fall-out and none of it feels contrived) and also that it doesn’t treat the adults are complete idiots.  Certainly, the kids are in control of the story but most of them make the philosophical connection that they can’t really engender change until they’re older as most adults won’t listen to them.  The dialogue has a natural pace to it, the amusing moments are played well but so are the more poignant ones, especially those of Goggles and Etty, the two characters who seem to have more of the weight of the world on their shoulders.

Briskly written, whilst never short-changing dialogue or description, this has a good pace throughout and several brilliant set pieces and you really feel for the kids and their plight.  The book also contains plenty of line drawings from Charles Keeping (he also did the cover art), though some of the illustrations make the characters look quite grotesque.  Overall, this is a great read and I’m really glad that I not only found it but also that I took a chance on it.  Well worth a read.

nb - The title comes from the term given to children who go home from school to an empty house (wearing the keys on a chain around their neck) because their parent or parents are at work.  Whilst it was originated during the Second World War, it came of age in the 60s and beyond.

As a kid who went to the Saturday morning pictures in the 70s, there were parts that I thought would have made an excellent Childrens Film Foundation movie but it actually appeared in two incarnations on ITV.  The first was as a two-parter under the “Books To Enjoy” adaptions series in 1970 and then again, as a six-part series, in 1980.  I only have vague memories of the latter (none of them enough for situations in the book to ring any bells) aand whilst researching this on Google, I think some of that might come from the Look-In cover I found.  Interesting to see that the series started the careers of Indra Ove and Kwame Kwei-Armah.

Monday 9 December 2013

Book highlights of the year

During the course of the year, I've blogged several times about books that I've read and loved, which I think add to the horror genre (apart, of course, from the one Chick Lit book on the list!) and will be enjoyed by my fellow fans.  As we come to the end of the year, here's a round-up of them (listed in order of my reading, latest last - my Top 10 post is still to come) with snippets of my reviews.

The Language of Dying, by Sarah Pinborough
Quite simply, this is a beautiful novella, a deeply felt and very moving exploration of family bonds and the ways they can be twisted, strained and - maybe - broken by death (even if that event hasn’t happened yet).

Not a novel for everyone, certainly, this is poignant and raw, loving and tender, brutal and beautiful and it will reward the reader who engages with it and, I think, it’ll stay with them for a long time after they’ve put it down and cleared their throat and wiped their eyes.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Bite, by Gardner Goldsmith
Featuring a Las Vegas that hopefully none of us will ever see - where the dregs go to die - this is stark and dirty and unforgettable, with the desert haze and grit almost present on the page and a pace that never slackens.

Brutal, beautiful, elegant and kinetic (sometimes in the same sentence), with a real heart and soul, this is a refreshing take on a sub-genre that has been flooded with sparkly, friendly vampires of late.  But if you like your vampires and their hunters old school (as I do) I can’t recommend this highly enough - I loved it.
The Shelter, by James Everington
With an afterword that explains where the story came from, which is interesting in itself, this is an excellent novella.  It has good pace, believable characters, a nice use of location and a sureness in the telling that pulls the reader through.  A wonderful exploration of powerful, quiet horror, this is well worth a read and highly recommended.

House of Small Shadows, by Adam Nevill
Nevill creates a wonderful sense of otherworldliness about the house and some of his set pieces - looking around the village, the small faces at the window, the beekeeper where there are no bees - are genuinely unnerving whilst a sequence with Catherine, who may or may not have been drugged, trying to find light in the house is brilliantly written, playing well on our claustrophobic fear of the dark.  As with “Last Days”, he has created an intense and intricate mythology - cruelty plays - that constantly nips at the narrative and adds weight to the fantastical elements of the plot.

Necromancer: Necropolis Rising II, by Dave Jeffery
Moving at a cracking pace and never once letting up, this is filled with characters you quickly care about and it’s safe to say that nobody comes out of the chaos unscathed in one way or another.  The zombie action is minimal but it works better for that, the sequences where they’re on the rampage being brutal and brisk, whilst The Risen’s ability to retain information is well explored.  Beyond all this, Jeffery knows how to write action and his major set pieces are all superbly staged, dragging the reader along in a tumble of incidents.

Shiftling, by Steven Savile
Nostalgia is used wonderfully - and since Savile & I are the same age, our cultural reference points are the same - and builds a real sense of safety and comfort around the characters.  In the 80s, who didn’t try to raise money by cleaning cars, who didn’t know the dance to Prince Charming or understand Blakes Seven and - around Rothwell, at least - who didn’t get called “you pilchard!” when they’d done something stupid.  But all of this is just masking the fact that things are going to get very bad indeed and it’s nice to see the personification of that evil, the Shiftling of the title, being so well realised (is it really there?) with as much of its presence and physicality not told as is explained.  
A cracking story, told with great skill and affection.

The Year Of The Ladybird, by Graham Joyce
It speaks to me on a couple of levels, in that I love coming-of-age stories and the east coast seaside (and follows my reading of the similarly themed (in terms of nostalgia and love) “Joyland”), but also because I was seven in 1976 and my family holidayed in Ingoldmells, a few miles north of Skegness and it’s a town that I still visit on occasion today.  

A truly beautiful work of art (that had me in tears towards the end), populated with characters that I grew to love (and I so desperately want to know that the central love story carried on beyond the seventies), this is an incredible read.

Phoenix, by Steve Byrne
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. 
I won’t spoil anything but there’s a shocking incident at one point which turns a lot of what has already happened on its head and suddenly you’re wrong-footed, not at all sure of where McMahon is going to lead you next and that’s both exhilarating and terrifying. 

Dark and driving but with moments of real hope, this is not as bleak as some of McMahon’s previous material but works all the better for it. 

Joyland, by Stephen King
“Joyland” is a beautiful book, a well paced and gripping read, full of humanity and light and darkness and topped with an ending that made me cry.  If you only know Stephen King as a horror writer then you would be doing yourself a favour to discover this loving nod to life, to growing up and falling in love and, yes, to getting older.
Is This Love? by Sue Moorcroft
A welcome return to Middledip and Sue Moorcroft does it again, skilfully blending romance and passion (this is probably her raunchiest book yet), with a keen eye for family life and coping with disabilities and topping it all off with pacey thriller elements.   Great characterisation, a keen sense of location and time and a gripping pace all add up to another winner.  Highly recommended.

Friday 6 December 2013

Jack In Irons

The Bestiarum Vocabulum: 2 (TRES LIBORUM PEOHIBITORUM) is published today, from Western Legends Publishing.  The brainchild of super-editor Dean M Drinkel (and a follow up to his “The Demonologia Biblica: 1 (TRES LIBRORUM PROHIBITORUM)”, which I blogged about here), this is another massive anthology of 26 stories, dealing with mythic beasts and demons.

Cover illustration by James Powell

The book is available in paperback from Amazon UK here and Amazon US here

The book is also available as a Kindle ebook from Amazon UK here and Amazon US here

Following on from my story in the Demonologia Biblica, Dean asked if I’d like to contribute to another, this time dealing with monsters.  I readily agreed, was given the letter J and found an English legend called Jack In Irons.  As per the quote I use as source at the end of the story, he is a “mythical giant who haunts lonely roads, is covered with chains and wears the heads of his victims. He wields a large, spiked club and may be seen at any time after dark, appearing suddenly in order to carry off unwary pedestrians to unknown regions.”  And that was me done.

I did some research on Jack (and found this picture of him too) but most of the moors stuff comes from our holiday the year before we had Matthew.  I did check Google maps but the views and the roads are all my personal recollections of the Lake District and the moors, all rolled into one and the name of the village - ‘isenhelm’ - is the Old English word for iron (helmet).

As before, I’m in great company - my fellow writers are Emile-Louis Tomas Jouvet, Jan Edwards, Martin Roberts, Lisa Jenkins, Peter Mark May, Raven Dane, Joe Mynhardt, Rakie Keig, D.T. Griffith, John Palisano, Amelia Mangan, Robert Walker, Christine Dougherty, Tim Dry, Nerine Dorman, Dean M. Drinkel, Christine Morgan, Tej Turner, D.M. Youngquist, Jason D. Brawn, Lily Childs, Andy Taylor, Sandra Norval, Adrian Chamberlin, and Barbie Wilde.

I enjoyed writing the story and, once again, I’m pleased to be involved in such a great project.

Friday 29 November 2013

The Language of Dying, by Sarah Pinborough

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book that 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.

Tonight is a special, terrible night.

A woman sits at her father’s bedside watching the clock tick away the last hours of his life. Her brothers and sisters – all traumatised in their own ways, their bonds fragile – have been there for the past week, but now she is alone.

And that’s always when it comes.

As the clock ticks in the darkness, she can only wait for it to find her…

Quite simply, this is a beautiful novella, a deeply felt and very moving exploration of family bonds and the ways they can be twisted, strained and - maybe - broken by death (even if that event hasn’t happened yet).  On a personal level, I found some of it difficult to read and I’m not certain it’s something I could re-read, but that’s not to the detriment of the craft on display.  Indeed, Sarah’s writing is so assured, the flow of the language is so right, that you read on even when you desperately want to look away or wipe at your eyes.

The unnamed narrator is the middle of five children.  Paul is feckless, a man who goes with the flow and shuts down or runs away when life turns on him and Penny is glossy and keen on appearances, someone willing to suffer just so long as she doesn’t make a scene.  The younger siblings, Simon and Davey, are twins who have taken a different path to their brother and sisters, becoming addicted to various things.  The narrator weaves amongst them - she’s telling the story to their father, who is dying of cancer - as everyone gathers at the old family home for their Dad’s last days and old bitternesses and comradeships are rekindled.  The narrator feels kinship with her Dad, a man whose life never quite worked out how he wanted it to and even though we only get to see glimpses of him pre-cancer, he’s vividly portrayed.  In fact, the characterisation is the books key strength, with even minor players - the narrators ex-husband, the various nurses - so clearly defined that they remain vivid long after their part in the story is over.  Paul is a fleeting character, present more by name and memory than physical being (as is Simon), whilst Penny is sad and funny and scared and strong.  Davey, addicted and conflicted, really comes through as the story progresses, a kid who took a wrong path and the adult who’s still trying to make better.

But the story stands and falls by its narrator and she’s a wonderful creation.  Still tortured by the abandonment of her mother when she was ten (with a childs perception of the event - “we all know in our hearts that it’s our fault for not staying little for long enough.”) she patiently awaits the return of a wild unicorn she believes she saw on that night, whose pounding hooves and breathing she keeps listening out for.  She’s also very aware that everything is in flux and that once their father goes, things will change forever and not necessarily the better -“Buried in the scent of fresh sheets and the warmth of my sister, I store each second safely away so that I can savour this time in the years to come.”

With her own life - and innerself - in a state of turmoil (her failed, abusive marriage is painfully detailed and the image of her lying, bleeding, at the bottom of the stairs is one that’ll stay with me for a long, long time), the book ratchets up the tension as the siblings leave and their father grows ever weaker.  Trying to help him as he lies in bed, the narrator moves her fathers arms under the covers and worries she’s hurting him - “Sorry, Daddy,” I whisper, “I’m sorry, Daddy.” - and that did it for me, even though it’s not the end.

Not a novel for everyone, certainly, this is poignant and raw, loving and tender, brutal and beautiful and it will reward the reader who engages with it and, I think, it’ll stay with them for a long time after they’ve put it down and cleared their throat and wiped their eyes.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

More details here

This novella originally appeared in a  limited edition by PS Publishing in 2009 but is now being published by Jo Fletcher books (the edition I read) on 5th December, as a beautifully designed hardback.  Whilst it's presented as a horror novel (and there are elements of horror in it, but all of the real kind), this only has mild supernatural elements and is on a par with the fine work of Graham Joyce.  The only reason I mention this is that if you don't read a book because "well, it's horror", then you should really take a chance with this.

Monday 25 November 2013

In memory of Tracy, after ten years

Ten years, in terms of anything, is a long time.  People look back over decades and think ‘wow, is that when it happened?’ and then they wonder how that time could pass by so quickly.  I think that often.

It was ten years ago that I was sitting in the canteen at work with a colleague, when the telephone rang.  It was Mum.  She told me she had bad news and I paused, expecting to hear something about my Gran having fallen over or something.  But it was much worse than that.  Mum told me that she was at Leicester hospital, walking back to the car with my Dad and that my sister Tracy was dead. She was 32.

Tracy was two years younger than me and I think we spent most of our childhood (and a good chunk of our teens) fighting like cat and dog, though we were also fiercely protective of one another.  She developed MS late, a few months into 2003 and suffered upwards of six relapses as the year wore on.

An active person - she was a riding instructress - I can’t imagine how awful the lengthy hospital stays must have been for her, but I never really heard her complain about it.  At the time, Alison & I were trying for a child and Tracy kept track of our appointments at the hospital, asking how things were going and trying to gee us up as each month passed. Visiting her at Leicester Infirmary was often a difficult experience - I loved to make her laugh and would do pretty much anything in the pursuit of that - and it was painful to see her try and do things as her body rebelled against her.

But things seemed to be improving - we saw her on the Sunday and she was sitting up in bed, bright and lucid and Mum & Dad found the same thing on the Monday evening.  We had high hopes for these signs of recovery but on the morning of November 25th, 2003 (my Dad’s 60th birthday), she collapsed beside her bed.  The cause of death was later given as a pulmonary embolism.

I left work, got Alison and we went straight to Mum & Dad’s house that day.  Our younger sister Sarah was in Derby at Uni at the time so I drove us all up there to deliver the news. We arrived just before she got home and she got out of her car and seemed excited, as if we’d all gone up to see her for Dad’s birthday. Until Dad went across the road and told her the real reason.

Tracy’s funeral service was held in the Parish church in Rothwell - I’ve never seen so many people in there - and I read the eulogy. The burial was held at the little cemetery on the edge of town and it was a cold, dank day. Afterwards, we went back to the Trinity Centre for tea and some food. Nick was with us (he and Tracy got on really well), staying overnight at ours and supervising the taped music at the service. At the wake, he busied himself making sure that everyone had a drink and something to eat, whilst the rest of us just seemed to reel around and try to connect with people.

Since then, Dad hasn’t been keen to celebrate his birthday, which is understandable and instead we have a quiet gathering of the family, which has grown in ten years - Sarah married Chris and they had Lucy & Milly, we had Dude.  A lot has happened since then but it really does seem like only yesterday.

I miss Tracy a lot, as do Mum & Dad and Sarah and Alison.  Matthew never met her but he knows who she was and what she meant to me and he keeps an eye out for Snoopy stuff because he knows she loved it.

That’s all I can do, I think - talk about her and make sure that her memory continues to burn brightly and I will try and do that forever.

Ten years and gone too soon, I miss you Tracy.

Alison, Mum, Tracy and Dad, on the London Eye, March 2003

Friday 22 November 2013

More matte paintings

Following on from my other blogs about matte paintings (here, here (the Return of the Jedi one), here and here), I couldn't resist doing some more research and so here's another one, from the last great surge of glass and paint art, before everything went digital...

Escape From New York (1981)
artwork by James Cameron (before he became a film director).

His New York skyline was painted onto a glass panel which was set up in front of the camera so that the effect was captured live, rather than being put together (a much more costly process) in post production.

Poltergeist (1982)
artwork by Mike Pangrazio

Robocop (1987)
artwork by Rocco Gioffre
Finished plate, only the lift and surrounding concrete is real.

Predator 2 (1990)
artwork by Mark Whitlock (son of Albert)

Views of the city, all paint on glass

Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991)
artwork by Rocco Gioffre
 Rather than erect a billboard over Sunset Boulevard, the filmmakers combined an insert of two men shot against a fake sign in Arizona, actual footage of the road and this fantastic artwork.  The sun flare was created by shining a bright light directly at the camera through a small unpainted area.
Another one from the same film, this time painted by Jesse Silver, is a wonderful example of an invisible matte shot - if you didn't know it was there, you'd never notice it.

The Distinguished Gentleman (1992)
artwork by Paul Lasaine

thanks again to