Wednesday 31 July 2013

Nostalgic for my childhood - Roger Moore and the Crimefighters

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.  

I first discovered The Three Investigators series in 1977 and was an instant fan - three boys, with a headquarters in a fantastic junkyard, solving spooky mysteries, what’s not to love?  I read as many books as I could get hold of (thankfully the series was still being written and published then, so the editions were readily available in the library and at school) but was always on the look out for more.

By 1978, thanks to The Spy Who Loved Me, I was also a big fan of Roger Moore so when I stumbled on a series of books - called “Roger Moore and the Crimefighters” - that seemed to combine two things I really liked, I was in.

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 Crimefighters - “three young friends of Roger Moore who can’t keep out of trouble” - are Billy Compton (“rich and clever and wishes people would remember to call him Will”), Bonnie Fletcher ("a blonde girl in jeans, who plays football and hates dolls”) and Darren Fletcher (“Bonnie’s little brother, with hair like a pop star and an ugly dog”).  The dog was called Dalek and helped out in much the same way as Timmy assisted the Famous Five.

The six books were:

The Siege by Malcolm Hulke
One Thousand And One Shoplifters by Robin Smyth
Crook Ahoy! by Fielden Hughes
Death in Denims by Dulcie Gray
The Secrets Man by Deben Holt
The Anchor Trick by Anthony Wall

Malcolm Hulke (who died in 1979) was a well known TV writer who in 1975, along with others, won a Writers Guild of Great Britain Award for the “Doctor Who” teleplays.  He also wrote for “The Avengers”, “The Protectors”, “Danger Man” and “Crossroads” on television and several of the Target series of “Doctor Who” books.

Fielden Hughes was a contributor to the The Pan Book of Horror Stories, with his story “The Mistake”, appearing in volume 1.

Dulcie Gray CBE (who died in 2011) was a noted actress, singer, mystery writer and lepidopterist.

Anthony Wall was a noted - and award winning - childrens writer.

Roger Moore’s main involvement appears to have been the photograph on the cover, though all of his royalties from the series were donated to the Stars Organisation for Spastics and to the Police Widows and Orphans Fund (I know, he’s such a nice man, isn’t he?).

At the back of each book was a coupon for readers to send off to join the Crimefighters club.  I never did and so missed out on my chance of a free membership card, a fanzine and the chance to meet Roger Moore (I wonder if anyone ever did meet him?).

I have a recollection of reading most of the books and even though I did like the fact that they were British kids, I was never greatly impressed with the series and quickly switched my full attention back to The Three Investigators.

However - and this is why I’ve chosen to highlight the series - the main villain in “One Thousand And One Shoplifters” was Mr Orchid, who kept poisonous snakes in a glass case in his office.  That image really connected with me and I used something similar in a story I wrote at the time for a school project, which featured a spy called Peter Raft.

Like a lot of things, my collection was lost over the years though I did manage to pick up “The Siege” a couple of years back on ebay.  I haven't re-read it yet, I wonder if I ever will…

with thanks to Permission To Kill

Tuesday 30 July 2013

A new review for "Anatomy of Death"

Although it's been out for three months, my editorial debut, Anatomy of Death (in five sleazy pieces), is still garnering reviews.

The latest comes from Adam Millard, at This Is Horror and he likes the collection, ending the review (with my story) thus:

Finally, Mark West’s ‘The Glamour Girl Murders’ is the story of Bob Parker, a rising star of glamour photography who just so happens to be a foot fetishist. A killer is slaying the beautiful models of London, and Bob finds himself in the thick of the investigation. From its very start, detailing a female model fleeing the sinister killer, ‘The Glamour Girl Murders’ is absorbing. West has a knack for dropping the reader in a familiar, bygone era (see 'What Gets Left Behind')  and he does so here with assurance; you can practically smell the Tupperware and hear the sound of a Sodastream getting busy with the fizzy in the distance. This is a thrilling, well executed story, and a fine way to ice this particular cake, of which the five pieces are incredibly moreish.

The full review can be read from this link

Thanks Adam!

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

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

Monday 29 July 2013

Some vintage Star Wars stuff for Monday

It's the first day of the working week, the most common day for people to feel a little blue.  With that - and truth to tell, this'll probably only work if you're a fan of the films - here are some vintage Star Wars images.

 Unused poster art from 1977.  I like this, though I can see why they didn't use it.

Various Ralph McQuarrie images for the film poster.  The top right has the original versions of Han and Chewie shown.

Cool (industry paper, perhaps?) poster that I haven't seen before

And here are three Ralph McQuarrie concept paintings, which are always a treat...

 Luke on Tatooine

 The 4th moon of Yavin

In the Cloud City Freezing Chamber

I also found a blog-post detailing the history of the logo and font, which is lot more entertaining than it sounds.  The link is here.

Saturday 27 July 2013

It's all about me, me, me again!

I'm interviewed over at the website of the lovely Nicky Peacock, horror authoress of these parts.  She's a great lady and co-chairs the Corby Writing Group I've been to a few times with Sue Moorcroft.

Interview link here.

Friday 26 July 2013

Interview with Steve Byrne

I first corresponded with Steve Harris (the man behind Mr Byrne) in the late 90s, when he produced a factsheet called The Inner Circle.  Back in those pre-Internet days, all market listings were gleaned from the mags themselves, market zines and fact-sheets and TIC was a great resource.  I didn’t actually meet the man for several years, until finally plucking up the confidence at one FantasyCon to introduce myself.

He immediately put me at my ease and we developed a terrific friendship, which often involves us talking for hours at Cons (in hallways, dealer rooms, over breakfast) about all things horror.  He’s been very supportive of my writing and when I found out that his novel “Phoenix” was being published by his own imprint PunkLit, I jumped at the chance to read it.  I posted my review here yesterday but, to precis it, I suggest you go and buy the book, it’s excellent!

I was so impressed with the book that I approached Steve to see if he’d be interested in being interviewed on the blog and, thankfully, he agreed.

Steve’s a great character, a Metal fan from the Black Country with a wide knowledge on our beloved genre, a keen sense of humour and wonderful company.

MW:  Thanks for agreeing to this.  To start off, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
SH:     Thank you, Mark! I’ve been a fan of horror for as long as I’ve been a fan of anything - I think I was born that way. It seemed like there was a hidden world beyond the mundane, and that was a landscape I wanted to explore. I spent most of my childhood in libraries, learning about the latest dark thing to pique my curiosity, and if not there, I’d be reading horror novels, watching video nasties or listening to disreputable music. Most of my entertainment comes from the horror genre - it’s not that I’m closed minded, it’s just nothing else I read or watch seems to satisfy the itch in quite the same way. Although I must say that I have a pretty wide definition of horror.

MW:   When did the writing start and what spurred it for you?
SH:      I’ve always been writing. I remember as a kid scribbling silly little werewolf stories in old exercise books. In the horror boom of the eighties, I’d read pulp horror novels with fantastically lurid covers, and I’d think, “I can do better than this”. Despite my love of the genre, I felt there was something missing from the stuff I was reading – characters that didn’t gel with me, story arcs that seemed formulaic, and a strangely prudish morality. I set out to write something that was purely for me – the horror I was yearning for. I began writing novels in the nineties – I worked part time to give myself time to write, and I was following the traditional route. Then I had a series of misfortunes that made it feel as though the sky had fallen in. I stopped writing, reading and watching movies for a few years. Thankfully, I got my life back on track and began writing again about a year ago – the ideas never went away. Nowadays there are fewer barriers to expression, and I’m a huge advocate of the indie publishing revolution.

MW:   Which character did you identify with the most?  I’m assuming Bram but I did like the way that Cass drifted in and out of the narrative.
SH:      In a strange way, I identified with all of the characters – I was going to say good and bad, but I don’t see them as good and bad, just people motivated by different impulses. Bram isn’t me, but I wanted an English character in there as a sort of uninitiated, impartial observer. He’s like the researcher part of me, trying to make sense of the conflict and horror, hearing explanations and justifications from all sides and attempting to sort right from wrong.

MW:   I saw you mention that you had an ‘ideal cast’ for a potential movie.  Can you run through this - and why you chose them? 
SH:     When I write, I feel as though I’m directing a movie in my own head. Books are better than movies because they have so much more depth, so many more dimensions. I think ‘Phoenix’ would make an excellent film (Apocalypse Now meets The Stand!) - but I would say that, wouldn’t I? The cast list came about from the ‘Next Big Thing’ internet meme that did the rounds – one of the set questions was who would you cast in a film version of your novel. I had great fun with that. Casting Bram was difficult – although when writing the book I had a strong vision of him as a young John Savage. In the end, I went for Orlando Bloom! He doesn’t physically resemble Bram, but he has a naïve yet tough quality that seemed to match the character. I wish I was more familiar with Vietnamese cinema, but I’m not, so I ‘cast’ Korean actors. Choi Min-Sik would make an excellent Hoan. He looks like someone’s uncle, but after watching ‘Oldboy’, you wouldn’t want to fuck with him! Lee Young-Ae (star of Lady Vengeance) had to be Qui –a fragile beauty who’d slit your throat when your back’s turned. I hadn’t a clue who would play Lightning Boy – then I came across an image of Anthony Mackie (Hurt Locker), and thought “that’s the bloke I had in my head when I was writing this”. Kim I always envisaged as Devon Aoki (Miho in Sin City) – that one was easy. I think Devon’s half Japanese, (whereas Kim is half Vietnamese) but she has that cool Asian/European look. Every movie should have Danny Trejo in it, but coincidentally, he’d make a great Venosa (although they’d have to remove one of his arms!).

MW:   An Englishman writing an action-thriller-horror novel set in the depths of Vietnam and covering eight years of that war - that’s an unusual angle to take, isn’t it?
SH:    At the risk of sounding like a ‘Carry On’ character, I love an unusual angle. ‘Action-thriller-horror’ sums up my work pretty well, Mark, but I love to play with convention, turn things on their head, upset the formula – just one of the reasons that independent publishing is for me. A ‘normal’ publisher would scratch their head and say “how am I going to market this?” In fact, it wouldn’t get that far, as they just plain wouldn’t take it in the first place!

MW:   How much research did you do?  Everything about it felt real to me and your depiction of the country - the noise, the smell, the oppressive heat and humidity- was superbly well sustained.
SH:      I’m glad you felt that way. I did LOADS of research, so hopefully it paid off. I first started reading about Vietnam many years ago, after watching ‘Platoon’ and realising I knew absolutely nothing about the Vietnam War. I became hooked, and read everything I could get my hands on. As soon as I decided to write a novel set in Vietnam, the reading ramped up. I researched everything – politics, geography, history, travel, folklore, war stories, military hardware. I read biographies, autobiographies and fiction. I watched war films, documentaries, travelogues. Ate, slept, breathed Vietnam. It took me over a year. I love researching for books – I know a lot of writers hate it. I often feel like a fraud spending so much time researching instead of writing, but I feel it brings a depth to a book that wouldn’t ordinarily be there. I like to sit down to write knowing my head is full of everything I need to do the job. When you decide on a plot, you use your existing knowledge and preconceptions – the research highlights things you wouldn’t have known, creates sparks that light fires in the narrative. If I find out something I didn’t know, and think ‘wow’, or ‘really?’, then incorporating those elements into the story hopefully transfers that feeling to the reader. 

MW:   How’s the book being received?
SH:     Once people take the plunge, it’s being well received. Reviews are all good so far – they all go along the lines of, “I wouldn’t normally read something like this, but I really enjoyed it’! Although set in the midst of a conflict zone, it’s a horror story rather than a war story. Once people get past that, they’re fine. Discoverability is really difficult for writers at the moment though, particularly because of preconceptions about independent publishing. And getting a book reviewed is nigh on impossible –I applaud those hardworking  reviewers and bloggers who give up their free time to comment on what they’ve read, but they’re buried under to-be-read piles even bigger than my own, and there’s little room for new stuff (especially if it’s strange Vietnam War set horror!)

MW:   Now I remember a lot of this from a conversation over breakfast at FCon 2012, but can you tell us a little about where PunkLit came from?
SH:    Okay, have you got a soapbox? I’m not anti mainstream publisher, but I remember the nineties, when I feel the horror genre was poorly served by the publishing industry. They turned their back on it as ‘not commercially viable’, or were embarrassed by association with it. Many great writers (some of them friends of mine) lost their contracts. 
I love Punk Rock. It came from the streets, rejected the mainstream and gave a voice to those who’d been ignored for too long. Punks produced noise from the heart, giving shape to emotions that they needed to express, with no one to tell them ‘no’. The music industry flirted with punk, then dropped it because they couldn’t understand it. So the punks went the DIY route years ago, produced and marketed their own work and shaped their genre in any image they saw fit, rather than rely on an industry to create it for them. These DIY pioneers went on to influence bands like Slayer and Metallica – their contribution to genre music was immense. It’s an underground scene and it still thrives. Technology now means that writers have the same power – there’s no marketing man standing between the writer and his or her audience, to tell them they’re not allowed to express themselves in a certain way. The cream will rise to the top. Those people producing professional work deserve a voice. I hate it when I hear people slagging off self-pubbed writers – there’s a great potential here to develop our genre, yet people are attacking it from within instead of supporting it, instead of encouraging it to become better.

MW:   How do you see the future of horror publishing in this country?
SH:      I love the way the horror scene is evolving at the moment. And I believe a lot of that is due to the independent publishing boom. Readers are voting with their computer mice, demonstrating that they want the horror that the big publishers have denied them. Horror movies are doing well at the box office. The publishers have sensed this groundswell and picked up some excellent authors, so the genre is being recognised again. But if publishers don’t give us what we want, we’ll get it straight from the writers. The genie is out of the bottle, and no one can force it back in and cork the neck. The scene is vibrant and diverse, providing everything from exuberant trash to high art. 

MW:   So what’s next for Steve Byrne?
SH:      Loads of projects in the pipeline. The result of all that research is that I have material that I’m releasing as Vietnam set short stories to publicise the book – one of them, featuring Lightning Boy, will be appearing in the anthology ‘No Monsters Allowed’ from Dog Horn Publishing soon. Another two will be free on Amazon. Then that’s Vietnam out of my system – I have no desire to be a one trick pony. I’m researching my next novel, set in England this time, and I’ll begin writing it soon. I have five or six plots for novels ready to go after that (one of them weaving Celtic folklore into the Irish Civil War, another featuring Jimi Hendrix and voodoo!). I’m not sure what order I’ll write them in, but I’m looking forward to getting started.

Thanks very much for taking the time for this Steve, I really appreciate it and I'm intrigued to see what comes from you next!

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.

Phoenix is available from Amazon in a print edition and as an ebook

Thursday 25 July 2013

Phoenix, by Steve Byrne

In a new edition of the occasional series (the last one was for Gary McMahon, which you'll find here), 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.

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 confidence at one FantasyCon, introducing 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 the last FantasyCon he told me about his novel "Phoenix", which he was publishing through his own imprint PunkLit and I jumped at the chance to read it.

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.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Nostalgic for my childhood - The Adventures Of The Black Hand Gang

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.  

Another successful purchase from the Rothwell Juniors Bookworm Club, was “The Adventures Of The Black Hand Gang”, by H. J. Press.  My copy was published by Methuen (the 1978 reprint), translated from the German by Barbara Littlewood, having originally been published there in 1965.

Hans Jürgen Press (1926–2002) was a German illustrator and writer of children's books, many of which contain stories and puzzles in which the reader searches the illustrations for clues to the mystery.  In 1953 he began illustrating for "Sternchen", the children's supplement of German magazine Stern.  The Adventures Of The Black Hand Gang was a combination of story and illustration which appeared in weekly chapters, the solution to this week's riddle given the next week.

The Black Hand Gang made its headquarters at 49 Canal Street, “at the top of the house, up seventy-two creaking stairs” and their clubroom was called the ‘Airport’.  Meeting regularly after school, the gang is: “Frank, who played the trumpet, was the leader; then there was quick-witted Angela; Ralph, who usually wore a striped sweater; and lastly Keith W.S. and his inseparable companion , a squirrel (W.S. stands for With Squirrel).  Well known locally as amateur sleuths”, their friend is Police Sergeant Shorthouse.

The book contains four adventures - “The Mysterious House” (featuring a forger), “The Treasure In Breezy Lake” (the gang help solve a burglary), “The Smuggler’s Tunnel” (the gang go to stay with Ralph’s Uncle Paul and stumble across a drug smuggling ring) and “A Theft At The Zoo” (featuring the hunt for stolen animals).

The stories, in general, are decent little mysteries and they adhere to the idea that kids are smart and grown-ups aren’t, with the gang constantly foiling criminals and out-thinking every adult around them.  What really works, though, is the format Press devised.  On the left hand side of each spread is a page of text, carrying the story forward and dropping clues whilst on the right is picture (or combination of them), showing the reader what the gang can see and therefore inviting them into the action.  The answer is given on the next page.

The illustrations, it has to be said, are tremendous.  Beautifully crafted, with a deceptively simple style that was thoroughly detailed, they invited repeat viewing, even if you’d already ‘got’ the clue.  What I also liked about them was that they weren’t English or American - and in 70s Britain, that was unusual - the architecture and cars were all different and the number plates were especially odd.

Press was a key proponent (indeed, along with Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel, he’s regarded as a father of the ‘overcrowded’ style) of the "Wimmelbild", a genre of illustration deliberately overcrowded with detail, to please children as they search for items.

How did she guess there was someone in the mysterious house?
(from The Mysterious House)

Which shop stocked Don Carlos cigars?
(from The Mysterious House)

Which row were the suspects in?
(from The Treasure In Breezy Lake)

Which way had the smugglers gone?
(from The Smuggler’s Tunnel)

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.

In case you're interested, there's a Facebook group dedicated to the book, moderated by Gavin Worby, which can be found at this link.

Monday 22 July 2013

More Bullet comic art

Following on from my nostalgia post over a fortnight ago about Bullet comic, I realised that even though it's the 'most illustrated' blog I've ever published, I still had some images I hadn't used.  And let's be honest, we're talking British comics art from the 1970s, so those images deserve to be preserved and seen as often as possible.

Hope you enjoy them!

Saturday 20 July 2013

The Secret Of The Crooked Cat

Just in case you didn't know (I refer you to this post, this post and this blog), I'm a big fan of The Three Investigators series of books.  I started reading them in 1978 or so, have a full set of the first 30 (all the format B editions that were published, which I recently completed with The Secret Of Skeleton Island, as I wrote about here) and still love them.

Once I'd completed my format B set (which took several years, lots of 2nd hand bookshops and ebay), I realised that I'd actually enjoyed the hunt so decided to try and get as many format A editions as I could (I have about half a dozen or so at the moment).

I only have one hardback, the "Skeleton Island" one that started everything off and it never occurred to me to try and collect them - if you check ebay, they're usually very expensive.  But then, earlier this week, I found a Collins hardback first edition (from 1971) of The Secret Of The Crooked Cat on ebay and they only wanted £6 for it.  Thinking I couldn't lose, I bought it and it arrived today and it's fantastic.  The cover only has a couple of dinks in it, the pages are white and clean, there are no markings and the line drawings (by Roger Hall) are the clearest I've ever seen them.

Major result!

I now have the story - one of my favourites of the series - in three editions.

The Collins Hardback First Edition was first printed in 1971 (the one I have) and last reprinted in 1973.  The cover art and internal illustrations were by Roger Hall.

The Armada Paperback (Format A) was first printed in 1973 (my version) and last reprinted in 1980.  The cover art is by Peter Archer, with the same interior illustrations as the hardback, by Roger Hall.

The Armada Paperback (Format B) - the one that my collection is made up of - was first printed in 1982 (my version) and last reprinted in 1983.  Cover art is by Peter Archer again, with Roger Hall's interior illustrations reprinted from the hardback.

Friday 19 July 2013

Nostalgic for my childhood - The Restless Bones

Reading has played an important part in my life for as long as I can remember and when I was at Junior school, we had a thing called The Bookworm Club.  It must have been a nationwide organisation (I vaguely remember a catalogue, though I can’t find any info about it on the Net) but what happened at Rothwell Juniors was that a stall was set up in the hall and you went in and bought any books that took your fancy (there was also something with collecting vouchers and saving them on a card).  I enjoyed it because it was aimed towards me (bookshops in those days weren’t, particularly, kid friendly), I could pick what I wanted and they had some great titles to choose from.

I have several books I want to discuss and I will do so over the coming weeks (though the thought of quite how I’m going to condense my love - and the history - of The Three Investigators into a single post is slowly and quietly driving me insane).  Each one will be included because, in their own way, they shaded not only my future reading habits but also my future writing habits and they often have fantastic covers.

“The Restless Bones & Other True Mysteries”, edited by Peter Haining, is a slim Armada paperback that has no copyright/publishers information in it at all, though I believe it was published in 1978.  The cover was painted by Alun Hood, whilst the interior illustrations were the work of Ellis Nadler.

(left - "The Restless Bones" are disovered - right - "The Thing From Outer Space")

Peter Haining (1940-2007) was a journalist, author and anthologist from Suffolk, who was Editorial Director at New English Library before becoming a full-time writer in the early 70s.  He edited a large number of anthologies, predominantly of horror and fantasy short stories and wrote non-fiction books on a variety of topics, sometimes using the pen names ‘Ric Alexander’ and ‘Richard Peyton’ for crime anthologies.  He won the British Fantasy Society Karl Edward Wagner Award in 2001.

“The Restless Bones” contains ten stories:
The Restless Bones, The Winged Monster of the Desert, The Terror Of The Dragon, The Mystery of the Loup-Garou, Old Roger’s Vengeance, The Witch’s Familiars, The Call of Darke’s Drum, The Trail of the Devil’s Fooprints, The Thing From Outer Space and The Voice In The Graveyward.  “I have drawn on the large file of material I have collected over the years about events and experiences which are fantastic - but factual” is Haining’s comment on their origins, as he writes in his introduction.

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…

Well presented, with a good range of mysteries, this kept my attention well and steered me further into the path of horror and the supernatural (the devil's footprints being backed up by Arthur C. Clarke, of course).

I'm also proud to say that this 35 year old book still stands on my bookshelf - it looks a little beaten up around the edges, but it's holdings its own.

Thanks to Ben at Breakfast In The Ruins for some of the images, plus Wikipedia for the basis of the Haining biography

Thursday 18 July 2013

From Jack Kerouac

A massive influence on my late teens reading (along with Albert Camus), I really must revisit Kerouac!

Tuesday 16 July 2013

An interview with Sue Moorcroft

Following on from my earlier post with writing advice - and specifically the part about reading outside of your genre - I thought it might be useful to highlight one of the talented writers I mentioned.

I first met Sue Moorcroft in 1999, when I joined the Kettering Writers group.  We hit it off immediately (at the time, we were the only published writers in the group and, aside from helping our fellow members out, we probably really annoyed the leader by sitting at the back and giggling) and thankfully, that relationship continues to this day.  I’m also lucky enough to be one of her pre-readers and I can honestly say I haven't read a book of hers I didn’t enjoy.

(me & Sue, at the back as usual!)

Sue’s a polymath - she’s a novelist (published through Choc Lit), a short story and serial writer, an active member and vice chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) and a well regarded (and in-demand) writing tutor (in addition to courses, she also writes a column for Writers Forum) as well as being a truly lovely person.

She and I sat down and she was kind enough to answer some questions for me.

MW:  Hi, thanks for agreeing to this.  How about we start off with an introduction, who are you and how did you get to this point in your career?

SM: Hi Mark! Thanks for inviting me onto the blog and saying nice things about me. I'm a writer now but I began my working life in a bank. I was there for nine years, after college, and it remains the only full-time proper job I've ever held. I always wanted to be a writer, but it took me a while to find my way. After writing a couple of novels that were so bad that, I'm glad to say, I threw them away, I decided to take a course, working on writing short stories for magazines as a way of building a CV. The plan was to sell 20 short stories and then a novel, but I'd actually sold 87 short stories and a serial before I got 'the call' - an offer for my first published novel, Uphill All the Way.

MW:  What spurred on your love of writing and at what point did you think, ‘I’m good at this, I could make a go of it’?

SM: It's just a compulsion. I feel writing’s what I am, as well as what I do. I'm incredibly lucky to be able to do a job I love. To be honest, I always thought I was good enough - but the editors took several years of convincing. I sent out 30 short stories before a magazine bought one.

MW:  How important a validation was the Choc Lit deal?

SM: Very, because my first two novels had sold in small numbers and I began to think that I'd be better sticking to short stories, serials and writing 'how to'. (As well as writing 'how to' for Writing Magazine and Writers' Forum, I'd been commissioned to write 'Love Writing - How to Make Money Writing Romantic or Erotic Fiction'.) I'd even left my agent when the Choc Lit opportunity came up. In about three weeks, Choc Lit offered me a contract for Starting Over and optioned All That Mullarkey.  As you know, those two books are linked.

MW:  Can you run us through your process of producing a novel a year - from the initial idea to the final edit?

SM: I often have an idea in the back of my mind for some time before I settle on it. The hero and heroine have been evolving under the surface while I work on other things. Then I make a decision to start and spend quite a while creating bios for the main characters, looking at the hero and heroine from the points of view of other members of the 'cast', creating conflicts and obstacles. I need to know why hero and heroine want to get together and what's keeping them apart, their goals, quests, and stuff like that.

Writing the first draft is the part of the process that I find most challenging. I love beginning. It's like the being on the grid of an F1 race - exciting, and nothing has yet gone wrong! But then I feel as if I’m trying to keep the race going for every car on the track and I don’t find it at all easy. The first draft takes months. I'll also be writing my monthly columns, working with students, judging comps, doing the research for the novel, etc. And I'll have to keep breaking off to do the edits and copy edits of the previous book.

When the first draft is done, I celebrate. I have a couple of weeks away from the book, tell everyone I know that the draft is done, annoy writer friends who are slogging away at their own first drafts, and catch up on anything that requires catching up on. I might also do additional research. The second draft follows. I love editing and playing with the words, deepening characterisation, making the setting more real, cutting out the loose bits. Then I usually send the ms to you (thank you!) and any other beta readers who are helping me with that particular book. I particularly enjoy your savvy sarcasm.

Sue & me at Alt-Fiction Leicester, April 2012 (savvy sarcasm not pictured)

I incorporate feedback from my lovely beta readers, and give the ms another loving polish. Then I send it to the publisher (although now we're selling in the US, they like to see the first draft for reasons of cover and blurb creation and the long lead necessary for US catalogues, so I may have some feedback from them to incorporate, too).

It's lovely when Choc Lit start sending me covers and we all pool our ideas and reactions. I never get over the thrill of seeing my name on my covers! (Sorry to be so up myself.)

I get my first structural edit notes after a few weeks. There may be some negotiation and discussion at this point, ie I'll tell the editor if I think one of her requests won't work, or run by her how I'm going to sort out something she's asked me to sort out. I believe in the editing process and that we're all trying to make my book the best it can possibly be.

There might be another round of structural edits (or might not), then the copy edits. I’ve heard other writers groaning about their copy edits, but I don’t mind them at all. I’m very much in the copy editor’s hands and believe that she knows more about hyphens and commas than do I.

Right at the end of the process I'll be asked for additional information such as acknowledgements, dedication, interview or author's notes.

Then a box of books arrives. Cosmic.

MW:  Do you ever worry you’ll run out of ideas?

SM: Every day.

MW:  What is your favourite part of the writing process?

SM: Editing – so long as I’m not in the situation of suspecting I have a big hole in my plot.

MW:  Your heroines are, on the whole, creative people.  Is this a case of ‘write what you know’ or a specific ideal to appeal to the genre?

SM: It’s more pragmatic than that. I like to give them flexible jobs,. If I made them accountants they'd have to work regular hours, which might not suit my plot. In Starting Over Tess was an illustrator because it was essential that she have a portable job so that she could run away whenever I needed her to. In Want to Know a Secret? I made Diane a home-based boho seamstress because it had to be something she could do tucked away in the rural Fens. I had to do a lot of research for Tess but Diane was easier. Creative jobs do often come over as quite cool.

MW:  To someone who’s never read within ‘Chick Lit’, what would you say were the key things the genre could offer (ie, if asked about horror, I’d say that the genre gave me a broad canvas to examine the human condition - and then laugh at my own pretensions!)

SM: Chick Lit is light and entertaining. It often examines serious issues but is usually readable and character driven. Love and sex are usually involved, although the heat level varies.

MW:  Which is your favourite of your own books, favourite heroine and hero?  And do you ever go back to re-read your own work?

SM: I can't choose between my own books. But I think Dream a Little Dream was the most ambitious, as I gave Dominic Christy the fantastical and rare sleep disorder narcolepsy, which took A LOT of research. I wouldn’t have been able to write the book without endless help from a guy with narcolepsy. (Coincidentally, he’s also called Dominic. You can read an interview about the process from his angle here, and he became a beta reader for Is This Love?) Other people with narcolepsy, and people who have friends with narcolepsy, have read DALD, and nobody has (yet) criticised the research. So I'd say that book gives me the most satisfaction. Also, it was nominated for a RoNA (Romantic Novel Award). And Liza is a fun little strop box.

On the other hand, Love &Freedom won Best Romantic Read Award 2011, so that was pretty satisfying, too.

MW:  I know, as your friend and someone who often gets mentioned in acknowledgements, that it’s a thrill to see your novels in the shops but how did you feel the first time it happened to you?

SM: Strangely disconnected and disbelieving, but also incredibly happy and euphoric. Before any of that happened, I went to the London Book Fair in 2005 and my then publishers (Transita) put Uphill All the Way into my hands for the first time, hot off the press. I got all teary-eyed. Everyone on the stand signed that copy and I still have it.

MW:  I realise this is cheeky, since you’re a tutor anyway, but is there a quick bit of advice you would offer to any would-be Chick Lit writers?

SM: It's not cheeky at all. My two pet pieces of advice to any writer is to persist and to educate himself or herself. For chick lit writers I'd also say make it fun, make it dramatic, make the hero/heroine sizzle all over each other.

MW:  So what can we expect next from you?

SM: Is This Love? comes out in November. It's a book about the various qualities of love. Tamara has a sister, Lyddie, with learning disabilities after being the victim of a hit-and-run. Tamara’s love and care for Lyddie is one of the things that define her, so it’s pretty interesting when Jed Cassius turns up to tell the family who was driving the hit-and-run car. Jed turns out to be an enigmatic character who has no education but a great job. I really like Jed. I was having trouble 'getting' him then he walked into the village pub and kicked one of the blokey-blokes off his chair. It's not that he’s into violence but he has had to develop his own way of dealing with idiots.

MW:  And I can vouch for the fact that it’s a great read, it’s already in my Top 5 of the year!  Thanks very much for your time, Sue and good luck with Is This Love?

SM:   Thanks for inviting me onto ‘Strange Tales’, Mark!

Monday 15 July 2013

Reading round-up for 2013

I know it's slightly over the halfway point in the year, but I thought I'd do a little update on my reading so far and offer up an "in progress" Top 10.

So far this year I've read 32 books (not including Steve Byrne's "Phoenix", which I'm currently reading), the bulk of them horror (at 34%).

At this point, my Top 10 consists of:

1 Joyland, by Stephen King
2 Path Of Needles, by Alison Littlewood
3 The Bones Of You (early read), by Gary McMahon
4 Is This Love? (critique), by Sue Moorcroft
5 Stir Of Echoes, by Richard Matheson
6 The Fox, by Conrad Williams (this is horror chapbook)
7 Urban Occult (anthology), edited by Colin F Barnes
8 Riders On The Storm (critique), by Simon Bestwick
9 Everett Smiles, by Neil Buchanan
10 The Jungle, by Conrad Williams (nightjar press chapbook)

special mention to Stephen Volk's "Whitstable", which was my co-book of the year in 2012, even though it wasn't published until May of this year.

On the non-fiction side, my Top 5 looks like this:

1 Parallel Lives: Blondie, by Dick Porter & Kris Needs
2 The Making Of Scarface, by David Taylor
3 The Star Wars Archives, by Mark Cotta Vaz
4 How To Make Love Like A Porn Star, by Jenna Jameson
5 The Art Of Return Of The Jedi, edited by Carol Titelman

Saturday 13 July 2013

Hamster-geddon (a SyFy movie)

Coming soon, from the SyFy Channel, is this slice of sheer brilliance.

 "I've been running a wheel. Now, I'm kicking ass."

Danny Dyer and Linda Lusardi

An Alan Smithee Movie


"Gentlemen, we have but one hope against this rodent rebellion... We call it K.I.T.T.-E, but you know it better as a hungry cat."

from an original screenplay by Gareth L. Powell, Willie Meikle & Mark West

Friday 12 July 2013

The Bones Of You, by Gary McMahon

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.  Gary McMahon and I go back a good way, it was he who pulled me out of my writers block (and dragged "The Mill" out of me too) and I will forever be grateful for that.

In addition to being a good bloke though, he's a bloody good writer too and at least one of his novels (yes, he's prolific) appears in my Top 10 Reads of the year, year in and year out.  That's not favoritism, that's the respect due from a horror fan to a horror writer who constantly delivers and always pushes himself.

"The Bones Of You" is a short novel that is being released at Halloween by Earthling Publications.  It's good, very good and is already in my Top 5 Reads of the year.

I love you…I love the bones of you.

Adam Morris moves into a cheap rental property in the suburbs. He’s divorced and now only sees his daughter, Jessica, every other weekend. He’s a broken man trying to start a new life. When strange events start to occur in the run-up to Halloween, Adam suspects there’s a link to the old, abandoned house next door. Soon he learns about a dead killer named Katherine Moffat and the terrible things she did to her victims in the cellar.

As Adam uncovers more details regarding past events in the house next door, he realizes that he and Jessica might be in real danger. Before long, he is caught up in a mortal struggle to prevent the lingering influence of “Little Miss Moffat”’ from destroying everything he has tried so hard to protect.

This is a story about ghosts, a dead serial killer, and a man struggling to be a good father to his young daughter. There’s pain and pathos, love and hate, abuse, addiction and desire.

It’s also the story of Little Miss Moffat and the Radiant Children….

More details are here, at the Earthling Publications site and this is sure to sell out so get in quick.

Honestly, you won't regret it...

(cover art by Les Edwards)

Thursday 11 July 2013

Later, a short film by Simon Duric

Back in October 2011, I wrote this post about "Later", a short film directed by Simon Duric, adapted from my favourite Michael Marshall Smith short story.

I raved about it and the post has had a steady stream of readers in the ensuing 21 months, which I'm pleased about.

What I'm even more pleased about is that the short is now available at Vimeo, posted by Simon and I've embedded it here.

If you read my post, I hope you like the film - turn up the volume, turn down the lights and enjoy!

Later from Simon Duric on Vimeo.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

The Star Wars pencil case and the art of fatherhood

I saw this on ebay the other day and, as a real sucker for all things vintage Star Wars and tempted beyond reason, I bought it for myself.  The pencil case is new but the images on it are all from the Marvel run of comics, from Star Wars (1977) through to Empire Strikes Back (1980).

It arrived today and I let Dude open the envelope.  As soon as he saw he loved it - "I'll take it to school tomorrow, it's so cool!" - and I didn't have the heart to say it was for me.  So I caved, he now has this one and I've just ordered myself another!

Monday 8 July 2013

Conjure artwork (the memorial miniature)

Conjure, my short novel, was sold to its original publisher with the pitch “A couple go to the seaside and there’s a witch…” so it’s not a spoiler to say that she is a major character in the book.  It’s also not a spoiler to say that there is a memorial, on the beach, which imprisons her but it gets damaged fairly early on.

The memorial was a key part of the book and when I was given the go-ahead to create interior illustrations, I knew I wanted to show it too.  The problem was, I’d made it up and - as far as I knew - nothing that looked like it existed in real life.

I whittled about it for a while and then had a Eureka! moment.  My Dad is an accomplished model-maker and when I asked him if he could help me out, he jumped at the chance. In fact, he said “let the art department worry about it” and that was it. He asked for a rough drawing (which I gave him, at the same time realising that I didn’t properly know how it should look) and he made it over the course of the week.

I was so impressed with it - still am, in fact, it takes pride of place on my bookcase - that the memorial in the text changed, to accommodate what Dad built for me.

This is the final composite image – much larger than it would normally be seen, as an element on a postcard.

This is not the original memorial photograph (which, due to not saving it as a different file name, I destroyed with the editing process), but it’s a test photo taken at the same time.  I shot it in our then back garden, to utilise natural light (a trick I learned from reading behind the scenes books on Industrial Light & Magic!).  You can get a sense of the scale from my hand and the chain-link around the small pillars is an old necklace of my Mum’s.

The grass comes from this photograph I took at Wicksteeds park, looking towards the lake from behind the rollercoaster compound. I had to dupe the picture, to make enough ground for the model to “fit”, which is why you see those same sets of shadows. I took the bush line, at the lake, as the natural line to cut the picture.

The sea comes from this picture of me, exploring some rocks near to Caernarvon in Wales. I erased myself (which is why there is a some blurring on the final shot) down to my waist and put the bush line from the grass picture over that part.

Conjure was re-published in both print and digital editions by Greyhart Press and more details can be found at the dedicated page here.