Thursday 31 October 2013

Ten Past Three - a real life ghost story

I am 44 years old, which is certainly old enough to know better and in keeping with people my age, I’ve lost relatives who, given the option, I’m sure would have come back to check up on me from time to time (thereby, effectively, haunting me). I also have an eight year old son who occasionally has bad dreams that lead to me reassuring him with the phrase, “there’s nothing there.”


I love ghost stories and have done since I was a kid. To me, there wasn’t much better – apart from eating Space Dust whilst I watched a girl called Amanda play at lunchtime – when I was nine or ten than losing myself in a Three Investigator book, or a Peter Haining or Mary Danby collection. I formed ghost hunting groups with friends (one day, I might tell you about the ghost at Blue Bridge, who was said to be Old Nick himself), I read as much as I could and I scared myself silly with real-life ghost books from the library. Happy days.

I have had three brushes with what I think are perhaps most accurately described as unidentified phenomena. One was with my childhood friend Nick and he still talks about the incident, over thirty years later. Two were with my friend Craig – one was an unidentified flying object, one was about ghosts.

In 1989, he & I went on holiday to Portugal. He worked for a travel company, we got a reduced rate, we had a great time. Our hotel was a lovely place, run by a bear of an Englishman, with local staff. Beyond the restaurant/club house, there was a patio area, then two blocks of apartments – we were on the ground floor of the first, facing back towards the house. We got on well with fellow guests, there was a good atmosphere in general, it was a cracking holiday.

Towards the end of the week, after having sworn off drink for a few days (we were twenty and didn’t realise that the shots were doubles), we’d had a meal and enjoyed the evening in the club and gone back to our room. It wasn’t a big room – through the front door, the bathroom opened off the hall, then the main room had twin beds, patio doors (which faced out towards the main house) and built in wardrobes across from them (against the back of the bathroom wall). I slept in the bed nearest the wardrobes, Craig had the bed by the window.

On this particular night, nothing spectacular had happened. We chatted for a while, then went to sleep.

I woke up and knew it was the middle of the night, though it wasn’t particularly dark (we tended to keep the curtains open). As my eyes got accustomed to the light, I was very surprised to see someone crouching down beside the bed, staring at me. My over-riding memory of it now is that it looked like one of the guards out of the “Flash Gordon” film – a monks habit, with the hood drawn up and some kind of gas mask/breathing apparatus obscuring the face. I don’t remember reacting to this interloper, but watched as he stood up and walked carefully around my bed and along the back wall. As the thing reached the end of Craig’s bed (with me now up on one elbow, watching it go), Craig sat bolt upright in bed (and that startled me more than my ghost had).

“What time is it?”

I fumbled for my watch. “Ten past three.”

“Okay,” he said and laid back down. I couldn’t see my ghost any more, so I too laid down and went back to sleep.

The next morning, he was up bright and early and went to reception to make a call. When he got back, he explained that he’d wanted to ring his parents, as he was really worried. I asked why. He explained that he’d woken up that night to see two people sitting on the end of his bed, watching him. His first thought was that it must be his parents, checking that he was okay, but when he rang home, they were fine and healthy.

As we sat there, on our beds in the early morning Portugese sunshine, I told him about the thing that I’d seen. As we talked, it came to me that maybe my ghost had been moving slowly because he was threading his way between things I couldn’t see, perhaps guests at a party. Guests that might, conceivably, be sitting at the end of Craig’s bed saying “look at that, a ghost person in bed.”

Completely stumped as to what was going on, but convinced the party angle was the one to go for, we trooped off to reception (I don’t know that we expected to find out a party had been going on years before, until a fire broke out and killed everyone, but it would have been a start). The girl behind the counter was very nice, we’d spoken in the past and even tried to learn a few words of Portugese with her. Haltingly, we explained ourselves.

“We were just wondering if there’d been a party in our room.” We gave our room number and she went to check the pigeon hole and came back with our passports. “No, we’re in there, we just wondered if there’d been a party in there before.”

She looked at us and frowned. So we told her the story. About halfway through, she started to hyperventilate. Towards the end, she looked genuinely upset. When we got to the time part, she was very agitated. So much so that she went to get the manager’s wife (a fearsome, if friendly, lady – when I got sunstroke just after arriving, she made sure that I got grilled chicken for dinner to help me, even though it wasn’t on the menu). We re-told our story, conscious of the poor receptionist who was, by now, sitting in the backroom being comforted by her colleagues.

The manager’s wife listened to our story, looking at us to make sure we weren’t pulling her leg. She tried the obvious – were monks on my mind, there was a brand of drink that had as its logo a man in a cape, all manner of stuff – and realised that our story wasn’t going to change. She took us to one side and said, “If you promise not to mention this again, whilst you’re here, you can have free meals for the rest of your stay.”

Did my years of wanting to be a ghost-hunter kick in? Was my drive to discover the paranormal world enough that I would refuse? No, I’m now ashamed to admit that Craig & I thought with our bellies and went for the free meal option.

So, story ended right? We saw something we couldn’t explain, we freaked out a receptionist (who might have been prone to over-react, who knows?) and we were then offered hush money. I’d love to report that we experienced more phenomena but we didn’t – I was wary about being in the room on my own for the duration of our stay, but neither of us ever saw anything untoward in that room again.

It was all finished, except for something we overhead that night at dinner. Sharing our floor in the block were ex-employees of BOAC. Friendly, chatty and very funny, we got on well with them (bearing in mind they were perhaps fifty years older than us) and our little table was next to the large one they occupied.

Obviously, part of our deal was to tell no-one and we adhered to that. So imagine our surprise when the BOAC table started to talk about their previous night. Every one of them had woken up – either from hearing something or through a bad dream – and all of them were tired. We couldn’t resist and leaned back.

“What time was this then?” we asked.

There was general murmuring from the table, as people thought back about it.

So what time did five or six couples – a total of seven separate rooms – all wake up, on the same night, when nothing untoward was happening?

“Ten past three,” they said.

(this originally appeared on the Beyond Fiction website)

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Brighton bound (soon)

It's that time of the year again, when the great and the good (and the rest of us) of the horror (and fantasy & sci-fi) genre gather in Brighton for a long weekend of laughing, talking, buying books and catching up with friends old and new.

This year, FantasyCon has been subsumed into the World Fantasy Convention, one I've never actually attended before.  As much as I look forward to FCon every year (I already have my ticket for 2014, which is being held in York), on this occasion I'm going to be like a crazed fanboy as several international writers (some of whom I've corresponded with for years online, others I am in awe of from reading and watching their work) will be in attendance.

No ROADTRIP!!! with Jay & Selina this year unfortunately (though I'll see them there and Jay has already organised the first night curry trip), instead I am going down by train with my old friend Sue Moorcroft.  She's not a horror writer but she's endured enough with me over the years to know what she's letting herself in for and, as a writing tutor, she's looking forward to the weekend as (as she puts it) 'a tourist'.  In case you're not aware of her or her terrific work, this link will take you to a lengthy interview I conducted with her earlier this year.

The convention programme is packed and varied - I can see myself flitting around the hotel like a fly, missing as many things as I actually manage to get to - but I have friends launching books and appearing on panels (which I will get to) and I'm also involved in the Spectral Press gathering (though I'm not sure what day that's on).

It's going to be a great weekend and I'm really looking forward to it - if you see me, say hello!  As for the blog, I'll post a full report when I get back.

Monday 28 October 2013

INXS Get Out Of The House tour 1993 (20 years on)

In 1993, INXS were caught in a bit of a bind.  In the late 80s, with a succession of high selling albums that culminated in 1987’s KICK (which I wrote about here), they were one of the biggest bands in the world with a great live reputation to enhance their studio sound.  After taking a long break (they toured KICK for 18 months), they released X in 1990 and sold out Wembley Stadium with Summer XS in support of it (a gig I’m happy to say I attended and wrote about here), then followed that up with Welcome To Wherever You Are in 1992.  For me, that’s one of my favourite albums of theirs but as edgy and experimental as it might have been, they didn’t support it.  Mark Opitz, the producer, has said in interview “they didn’t tour on it, which they should have done because they could have had amazing sets…U2 released Achtung Baby and toured the fuck out of that. At that stage U2 and INXS were pretty much neck and neck, but when X came out it was like a dive. They didn’t tour on Welcome to Wherever You Are, which is sad, but it did go number one in England and [many] different European countries. We were all quite happy about that.”

By the time Full Moon Dirty Hearts came around, in 1993, it was clear that something was wrong.  The music still sounded great, the musicianship was still excellent but there were a lot of disconnects and reading the biography of the band, there were a lot of issues with Hutchence at the time.  Worse - to me (and being charitable, it’s not their worst album but it’s certainly down in the deeps) - they suddenly seemed to be swayed by public opinion, going for a terrible grunge-like cover (the lot of them, sat in the back of a transit) and apparently forgetting that INXS were good because they were INXS and not trying to be anyone else.

Opitz again: “Nirvana had hit big of course, and a couple members of the band said, “Let’s put all the rock songs up front. We’ve got to be more like Nirvana.” And I’m saying, “No, you’ve got to be more like INXS.” But management decided to go against my wishes with the running order and turned it into this quasi-album where songs didn’t fit with each other. Which I thought was quite sad.”

Caught up in a decline - but still a great live act - they made the decision for a worldwide tour in 1993 and it surprised a lot of people.  From massive stadia (not least the 74,000 sell-out audience at Wembley in 1991), they decided to go small.  Very small.  The Get Out Of The House tour was a back-to-basics affair, stripping everything down and benefitting greatly from a marketing campaign that played on it being a return to the ‘pub tours’ of old.  The idea was for INXS to take their music to the fans, playing gigs in towns they’d never played before and in venues that were much smaller than they were used to.

To generate more interest, ads and radio announcements were made stating only the city and date of each gig, with no mention of the venue.  Two weeks before the tour, tickets were put on sale at the local HMV (in whichever city) with the shop opening at 8.30am and selling tickets on a first-come-first-served basis (with a maximum of two per customer and absolutely no phone booking).  The venue would then be announced on local radio the day before the show.

I was very excited - having loved Summer XS and Welcome to Wherever You Are I was really keen to see them again, especially since my new girlfriend Alison (now my wife) was also a big INXS fan.  This was all long before the Internet, so you had to rely on the music press and when I discovered they were playing in Leicester on July 13th, I knew I had to go.  Since Alison (or our friends Matt and Steve, who also wanted to come) couldn’t get time off work, another friend - Steve, who wasn’t a fan - offered to come with me and we left Kettering at 4am.

We were in Leicester for 4.30am and the city seemed alive with people as we walked from the Haymarket to HMV - street cleaners, old ladies with shopping bags and people our age.  There was a real buzz in the air and I was part of it and it felt great.  When we got to HMV we were the 72nd/73rd people in the queue - some had even camped out for the night - and there was a great atmosphere, as we chatted with the people around us.  The doors opened at 8am and we got our tickets, then went into McDonalds for breakfast as the enterprising manager had promised everyone from the queue a free hot drink if they did so.

To stoke excitement (though there was really no need - the tour sold out 40,000 tickets in a matter of hours), the band auditioned local groups to be their support act by launching a competition with Radio 1.  For the life of me, I can’t remember who supported them at Leicester but what an opportunity it must have been for a band at the time - I wonder if any of them went on and made their way in the world?

I followed progress of the tour in Q magazine and Select as it wound its way through Europe, reading reports of great gigs (with a grungey new sound), stage diving and the close proximity of band to audience.

The tour hit England on July 7th at the Leed Town & Country club and finished 19 gigs later at the Feile Festival in Dublin on July 31st (and apart from the festival, the venues averaged a capacity of 2,000 people).  The set list was liberally spliced with songs that nobody knew - “Days Of Rust”, “The Gift”, “Full Moon, Dirty Hearts”, “Please (You Got That…)” “The Messenger” and “Time” were all from Full Moon Dirty Hearts - but plenty of good stuff from the back catalogue, including stand-out tracks from Welcome To Wherever You Are.

At the time, I subscribed to an INXS fanzine run out of Scotland by Fraser Ingram and he published my first ever gig review.  I haven’t written one since and, if you’ll excuse the fanboy witterings of an excited 24 year old, here’s the meat of mine.

After making a more soulful album with Welcome To Wherever You Are, INXS have returned to their roots with a tour that takes in not 50,000 seater arenas but 1,500 seater ‘town halls’ which might seem a come down - but not on the evidence presented here.

INXS are famed for the power of their live sets and this gig certainly didn’t disappoint.  The DeMontfort is a small venue but their act didn’t seem to have been toned down much from when I saw them at Wembley two years ago.  Michael Hutchence clambered over every speaker he could and even climbed onto the balcony during “What You Need” to conduct an audience sing-a-long whilst taking photos of the crowd with a girls camera.

The set opened tentatively with “Communication” and two brand new songs, before “The Loved One” raised the roof and from that point on, the audience was eating out of their hands.  “Don’t Change” finished the set and as the band filed off and the crowd held up victory salutes to the departing Aussies, all you could hear were joyous comments from assembled fans who’d been near enough to their idols to smell them.

The band seemed to enjoy themselves immensely - slipping on water, laughing and joking, throwing drum sticks at each other - and Hutchence kept the gig alive between songs with his banter (though a crack about the Oz cricket team being the best got a murmur of disapproval) and the band really gave their fans the best show.

Not all of the band were as enthusiastic, thinking the tour was too small, but Tim Farriss said in interview; “The shows were enjoyable, inspirational, and motivating, but at the same time I don't feel INXS belonged on the small stage.  The tour…actually worked best in the UK where we played theatres and universities - the UK just got the idea a little better.”

The tour won INXS some rave reviews and that goodwill carried over to the album.  "The Gift" was released as the first single in October 1993 and debuted at number 11, whilst the album hit the UK chart at the start of November and gave the band their second UK album Number One in a row.

I saw INXS with Hutchence once more after this - at the NEC with Alison in 1997 to support Elegantly Wasted - and although that was also a great gig, I still think the DeMontfort was the best one.  We’ve seen them twice since - at the NEC in 2001 with Jon Stevens and at the Southern Sounds festival on Clapham Common with JD Fortune in 2011 - but neither of those were anything special and, more, reflected the idea that the band should definitely have stopped when Hutchence passed away.

But the Get Out Of House tour was special, a glimpse into what they must have been like in the early days before mammoth PA systems and video screens became an everyday part of their touring life.  The show was intense, full of verve and energy and sweat and I’m chuffed that I was able to be a part of it.

The Mark Opitz interview can be found here -

Friday 25 October 2013

Albert Whitlock and Alfred Hitchcock (more matte paintings) - part two

This is the second part of the blog I posted on Monday (which you can find here), detailing some of the astonishing matte painting work Albert Whitlock produced in the 1960s for Alfred Hitchcock (there're pictures from "The Birds", "Marnie" and "Torn Curtain").

This part takes us through the late 60s and into the early 70s and includes one of my all-time favourite Hitchcock films, "Frenzy".

In case you didn't see the last post, here's a quick catch-up on the genius that was Albert Whitlock (1915 - 1999) who began work as a page at Gaumont Studios in London in 1929, before moving up to build sets.  After training as a sign painter, he worked on Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934) creating miniatures for it and “The 39 Steps” (1935) and began working as a matte painter during World War II.  Finding work with Disney, he relocated to the US in the early 1950s and stayed with Disney until moving to Universal in 1961, where he headed up the matte department and resumed his close working relationship with Hitchcock.

He created over seventy paintings for “Earthquake” (1974) and won an Academy Award for his work.  He won another Oscar the following year for “The Hindenberg”, in which he re-created the airship and it’s final voyage.  As well as film work, Whitlock is also famous as the matte painter for the original series of “Star Trek” (though, sadly, his work was replaced by CGI replicas in the remastered DVDs).  He retired in 1985.

Topaz (1969)
Approaching the Hacienda.  Can you guess which part is the matte painting?

Answer, virtually all of it!  
The small area, where the car was in the final shot, was the only live element.  An astonishingly good effect. 

A street scene, with building extensions

The tanker, with the completed shot on the right.
Top left - the original live action plate (note the stanchions placed to help line-up the shot)
Bottom left - the blocked out live image - all of the black area would be replaced by the painting.

Frenzy (1972)
This is one of my all-time favourite Hitchcock films (his penultimate, as it turned out) and part of my love for it is that it's set in London, but it's not a place any of us recognise any more.  Now we go to Covent Garden for the stalls and the food and the street artists, but in 1972 it was a fruit & vegetable market that was on its last legs.  Hitchcock's father was a Covent Garden merchant and he wanted to record the area as he remembered it.
The prison (final image)

And how it was made
Top left - the studio set and - Top right - the element used for the live action element
Bottom - Whitlock's incredible painting (note the two guards at the far end)

 Covent Garden by night (film still)
A fantastic image, especially when you consider the perspective Whitlock has captured, simulating the wide-angle distortion that would be needed to film this shot for real.  
The live action element is part of the roadway, which Barry Foster walks across (that was filmed at Pinewood) and some of the trucks.  Everything else is Whitlock’s masterpiece.

So there we have it, I hope it's been enjoyable.  Since Whitlock produced such a vast body of work I imagine there'll be more posts about him in the future and also about Hitchcock too, who used matte paintings extensively in his films.

In the meantime, if you're interested, I've posted previously about matte paintings on this post or also on this post, which is exclusively about "Return Of The Jedi"

with thanks to NZ Pete, for his superby researched and lavishly illustrated blog Matte Shot - a tribute to Golden Era special fx and also to the Whitlock Archives at Galeon.

Thursday 24 October 2013

Anatomy of Death (shameless plug)

I'm going to WFC in Brighton next week and I'll be taking a copy of Anatomy of Death (in five sleazy pieces) with me as several of my co-conspirators (namely Messrs Volk, Bacon, Probert and May) will be there and I'd like them to sign it.

I was lucky enough to feature in the first PentAnth from Hersham Horror Books, Fogbound From Five and had great fun with that so when Pete May asked if I wanted to edit my own, I jumped at the chance.

Free to pick my own theme, I decided to go for one of the ‘phases’ that I have a particular fondness for (as a kid of the 70s and 80s), namely that explosion of ‘sleazy’ horror that ran from the early 1970s.  Think of the films of Hammer, Amicus and Pete Walker or the slim, gory and gruesome paperbacks from NEL, Corgi, Star, Hamlyn, Futura et al and you won’t go far wrong.  It was a time of  sex and violence, of pulpy horror and gratuitous nudity, of demons and monsters and no limit to what the writers would expect you to believe.

To fill out my collection, I decided to aim high first and contacted Stephen Volk.  Perhaps best known for GhostwatchAfterlifeThe Awakening and Ken Russell’s Gothic, he’s a writer I’m in awe of and his story, an envelope-pusher if ever there was one, was ideal - grim, gruesome but also blackly comic.  A Pete Walker film made in type.

Johnny Mains, a true supporter of 70s horror, presented me with a blackly comic, rude and undeniably gruesome story that would have fitted the heyday of those garish paperbacks to a tee.

Stephen Bacon contributed a quieter tale that tells of the sins of the past coming back to haunt the present, the deliberate pace and atmosphere recalling something Hammer might have produced in the period.

John Llewellyn Probert came onboard with a wonderful Victorian drama, featuring a young lady in distress, something terrible from the Thames and a threat to London.  It cannot be read without picturing Peter Cushing as the lead character.

For my story, I decided to embrace the period.  I read a stash of 70s/80s horror paperbacks and had great fun with London during the 1976 heatwave and a glamour photographer who gets tangled up with a monstrous ‘beast’.  I’m proud to share space with these fine writers and their stories.

I produced the cover art for the first two PentAnths (co-designing the first with Neil Williams) and we went through many iterations on this project (my teaser, blogged about here, got a lot of good feedback though unfortunately we couldn’t track the rights through Robert Hale).  In the end, we decided on a simple graphic and I think it works well.

I've had great fun doing this.  It was a real pleasure dealing with writers I admired, I loved writing my story and I've had a great relationship with Peter Mark May during the process.  I’m not sure I’d like to edit again but it’s been an experience and I hope the finished product does what it’s supposed to do - thrill, sicken, terrify and entertain!

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!

If you do decide to take a chance on the anthology - and I hope you will - reviews are always great to receive and the book has its own Goodreads page here.

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."

Mattew 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."

Wednesday 23 October 2013

The Shelter, by James Everington

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.

In this case - and contrary to other entries in this series - it's a book that was first published in 2011, so I'm coming to it late but I'm glad I have.

It’s a long, drowsy summer at the end of the 1980s, and Alan Dean and three of his friends cross the fields behind their village to look for a rumoured WW2 air raid shelter. Only half believing that it even exists beyond schoolboy gossip, the four boys nevertheless feel an odd tension and unease. 

And when they do find the shelter, and go down inside it, the strange and horrifying events that follow will test their adolescent friendships to breaking point, and affect the rest of their lives...

During the long summer of 1989, thirteen year-old Alan Dean hung around with three friends - Mark, Tom and Duncan.  Mark was a charismatic bully, a bad seed who was used to getting what he wanted and when he suggested the four of them explore an old shelter, they all agreed.  At the same time, a local boy called Martin had gone missing and the newspapers are asking if a killer’s on the loose but once Alan and his friends find the shelter, they experience something strange and horrifying that will change all their lives forever.

I love coming-of-age tales and I love eighties nostalgia and so, as my introduction to the writing of James Everington, this couldn’t have gone much better at all.  Although he’s at the opposite end of the decade to me (in terms of points of reference), he perfectly evokes a long boring summer to the extent that the reader can almost feel the prickly heat and hear the flies buzzing and there’s nothing that knocks this illusion at all.  The characters are well drawn, though Alan - who narrates - is probably the only one most people will identify with - Tom and Duncan are herd animals, not quite smart enough to strike out on their own and instead happy to be the muscle, whilst Mark is almost chilling in his relentness need to be in control, though Everington spotlights his vulnerability well as the story progresses.  The peer pressure too is well evoked, with the other boys being two years old than Alan, so he goes along them with because he’s too scared not to, plus he likes the increased social status their comradeship gives him.

The shelter itself is a superb invention, very real and with a claustrophobic atmosphere that is almost tangible.  When Alan sees what he sees, we’re there on the ladder with him and equally desperate for release.

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.

Monday 21 October 2013

Albert Whitlock and Alfred Hitchcock (more matte paintings) - part one

As you might remember (from this post or this post), I'm a big fan of matte paintings, the artform where a painting on glass extends, exaggerates or hides elements to make the image more arresting.  An integral part of cinema since 1907, the artwork produced was often staggering and - a lot of the time - invisible to the eye.  Matte painting is still a key component of film production now, of course, but it's all digital these days which creates a different atmosphere to the old oils on glass technique.

This is part of an ongoing series of posts, where I'm going to blog about various artists and the films they created work for.  "Return Of The Jedi" was the last one, this time I'm going to discuss Albert Whitlock and his long association with Alfred Hitchcock, one of my favourite directors, who made extensive use of matte paintings in most of his films.

Albert Whitlock (1915 - 1999) began work as a page at Gaumont Studios in London in 1929, before moving up to build sets.  After training as a sign painter, he worked on Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934) creating miniatures for it and “The 39 Steps” (1935) and began working as a matte painter during World War II.  Finding work with Disney, he relocated to the US in the early 1950s and stayed with Disney until moving to Universal in 1961, where he headed up the matte department and resumed his close working relationship with Hitchcock.

He created over seventy paintings for “Earthquake” (1974) and won an Academy Award for his work.  He won another Oscar the following year for “The Hindenberg”, in which he re-created the airship and it’s final voyage.  As well as film work, Whitlock is also famous as the matte painter for the original series of “Star Trek” (though, sadly, his work was replaced by CGI replicas in the remastered DVDs).

He retired in 1985.

1975 - Oscar for Visual Effects for “Earthquake” (shared with Frank Brendel, Glen Robinson)
1976 - Oscar for Visual Effects for “The Hindenburg” (shared with Glen Robinson)
1985 - Emmy for Visual Effects for “A.D.” shared with Syd Dutton, Mark Whitlock, Bill Taylor, Dennis Glouner, Lynn Ledgerwood

His first film back with Hitchcock was "The Birds" (1963)
Probably the most famous shot of the film, this extensive matte then had seagulls composited onto it.

 Everything above the shoreline (masts, hills, the sky) is a Whitlock painting

Whitlock's view of the bay

 The bleak - and terrifying - final shot
This is the original Whitlock painting, which was produced much lighter than would finally be used.  The blacked out area is for the live action - the car, driving away - and the foreground tree, fence and birds were shot as live elements and later composited into the shot.
This is a great image and is on screen for a long time.

Marnie (1964)
 The only real part of this is the girl, the car and the bit of the car park

The only live action element here is Sean Connery, Tippi Hedren and the small area they are walking on

Torn Curtain (1966)
 Paul Newman, the pavement and the columns to the first 'knuckle' are real

 A superb shot, that just gets better the more you look at it.  On the left, the final image of Paul Newman.  On the right, the only part that was actually shot live.

Another substantial painting, with the image on the left being the live action element.  From the final frame on the right, you can see that the floor pattern was finished, columns added and additional floors at the side.

End of part one

Part two (which you can find here) 
includes 'Frenzy', one of my favourite Hitchcock films

with thanks to NZ Pete, for his superby researched and lavishly illustrated blog Matte Shot - a tribute to Golden Era special fx and also to the Whitlock Archives at Galeon.

Friday 18 October 2013

INXS Friday briefly returns...

Earlier this week I wrote a lengthy blog post about INXS' 1993 Get Out Of The House tour, which will appear later this month and because I was then in an INXS-kinda-mood, Alison & I watched the Live Baby Live DVD.

Way back when, I used to post INXS videos here on a Friday (hence INXS Friday - hey, I never said I was smart) and so I decided to briefly revive the tradition with two versions of one of my favourite songs (which, ironically, wasn't actually written by INXS at all).

The first version was recorded as an Australian-only stand-alone single in March 1981 and reached number 20 in the charts, later featuring on the 1982 compilation album INXSive.  The song also appeared, in a dramatically different arrangement, on their 1987 album KICK.  The second video, featuring the KICK arrangement, comes from the 1991 live album/CD Live Baby Live.

The song was written by Ian Clyne, Gerry Humphrys & Rob Lovett, members of the band The Loved Ones which formed in Melbourne in 1965.  The band split in 1967 but the song really did live on, being selected as number 6 on the Australasian Performing Rights Association (APRA)'s list of Top 30 Australian songs of all time.

Thursday 17 October 2013

If you think reading is boring...

I've been writing my own stories since I was eight, but reading for longer than that.  I take reading seriously, I take book collecting seriously and I'm a real advocate for people losing themselves in a book.

I love the tactile nature of books (I'm not a convert to Kindle yet), I love the smell of books, I love the delight of finding a new bookshop and losing myself amongst the shelves (especially 2nd hand ones).

I love the delight of finding a new author to enjoy, I love the thrill of starting a new book and falling in love with the style and the characters and the flow of the language and I love the sense of satisfaction - mixed with a certain sense of loss - when you close the book for the last time and put it on your lap and rub the cover and want to say "thanks, mate, I enjoyed that".

Go out at the weekend and pick up a book.  You don't have to spend a lot of money on a glossy hardback, go to the library or buy a paperback, or download an ebook, or go into a second hand or charity shop and pick up something for 20p.  It doesn't matter how you do it, it doesn't matter what you read, just pick something up and open the cover and start.

And here's an icon of our times, who enjoyed reading...

Wednesday 16 October 2013

House of Small Shadows, by Adam Nevill

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.

They watch you while you sleep...

Catherine's last job ended badly. Corporate bullying at a top television production company saw her fired and forced to leave London, but she was determined to get her life back. A new job and now things look much brighter. Especially when a challenging new project presents itself -- to catalogue the late M H Mason's wildly eccentric cache of antique dolls and puppets. Rarest of all, she'll get to examine his elaborate displays of posed, costumed and preserved animals, depicting scenes from World War I. When Mason's elderly niece invites her to stay at the Red House itself, where she maintains the collection, Catherine can't believe her luck. Until his niece exposes her to the dark message behind her uncle's 'Art'. Catherine tries to concentrate on the job, but M H Mason's damaged visions raise dark shadows from her own past. Shadows she'd hoped had finally been erased. Soon the barriers between reality, sanity and memory start to merge. And some truths seem too terrible to be real ...

Catherine Howard is a valuer for Leonard Osberne, Auctioneer of antiques, an old fashioned firm that suits her down to the ground.  Escaping from an incident in London - which resulted in her losing her previous job, home and friends - she’s determined to get her life back on track and with a new job and settled relationship, things are starting to look brighter.  When she’s asked to catalogue the estate of M H Mason, a renowned taxidermist, she’s excited by the possibilities, especially when she understands the extent of his cache of antique dolls and puppets.  Upon visiting Red House, Mason’s country mansion which is now occupied by his eldery niece Edith and Maude, the mute housekeeper, she discovers that it’s very close to where she grew up and suffered a terrible, bullied childhood.  And when Edith introduces Catherine to her late uncle’s dark art, shadows from those dreaded days begin to close in.

This is another stunning novel from Adam Nevill (following last years “Last Days”) and this time he uses the supernatural and unnerving possibilities of old dolls and puppets to great effect (and gives Hartley Hare, from Pipkins, a heads up in the afterword), mixing them with an out-of-the-way location and a ruined, deserted village.  On top of this atmosphere - and the book is dripping in it - he weaves the story of confused and oppressed Catherine, badly bullied as a child - “Smelly Cathy Howard, dopted, dopted” - who hasn’t managed to escape the pain or taunting which has followed her into adulthood.  In fact, the target of her uncharacteristic violence in London, Tara, manages to create ripples that run through the whole book.

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.

Superbly constructed, with vivid and often unnerving characters, this suffers a little in the pacing around the start of the final act but is otherwise a creepy masterclass of supernatural writing and, for a horror fan, highly recommended reading.

Monday 14 October 2013

Strange Tales, the 'special edition' collection

The Tenth Anniversary special edition of "Strange Tales" is now available again in print, from PenMan Press, with an ebook coming very soon.

Table of Contents

Having A Bad Day
Empty Souls, Drowning
Dead Skin
Up For Anything
Together Forever
The Darkest Hour
The City In The Rain
Dreaming Of A Black Christmas
plus - A Quiet Weekend Away

Story Notes
Publishing History

The book is available at for £5 (plus £2.99 post and packing, which is the charge they apply) and that's the same inflation-busting cost (£7.99) as the original edition.

Alternatively I have a few copies which I will be selling for £5, plus £1.50 p&p and I'll personalise these as requested.  If you're interested in one of these, please email me at or leave a comment below.

About the collection...

Originally published by Rainfall Books in December 2003, the collection was well received and picked up some nice reviews and, more importantly, sold out - which I was really pleased about.  

It hasn't been available since 2004, though second hand copies do occasionally surface and often for much more than the original cost (I assume the higher priced ones command such a fee because they’re among the few that are unsigned).

This Tenth Anniversary edition, from PenMan Press, is a facsimile of the original Rainfall Books version, with the addition of an introduction and a bonus short story “A Quiet Weekend Away” (which originally appeared in Terror Tales 4).  I have resisted the urge to update the stories - so Internet use isn’t widespread, mobile phones are basic and not at all smart and there aren’t many digital cameras - and I’ve also carried over the original artwork (if it ain’t broke…).

What others had to say at the time...

Mark West’s crisp economic style reels you straight in, and the horror hits you hard and quickly and refuses to lay off.  He writes from the dark underside of our everyday human existence, calling on the sort of personal demons one could easily imagine lying in wait for any one of us.  Tread here at your peril…”
- Paul Finch, author of “Stalkers” and “Sacrifice”

Mark West is an excellent, young writer.  His compelling stories have a well-crafted, slowly-increasing sense of tension and dread, sometimes with a hint of creepy paranoia reminiscent of Phillip K. Dick mixed in, the endings always abrupt and chilling, like an unexpected splash in the face with ice water.
- Gene O’Neill, author of “The Burden Of Indigo” and “The Taste Of Tenderloin”

Mark West is a powerful and unique voice in horror literature.  ‘Strange Tales’ is a chilling masterpiece of spine-tingling stories!
- T.M. Gray, author of “Feast Of Faust”

Mark West's Strange Tales are stronger, more gristly meat. His simple, unembellished style belies the often visceral subjects, imparting compassion and logic to a series of abnormal psychopaths and deranged souls. If you're at all squeamish, look away now...
- Simon Morden, author of “The Samuil Petrovitch Trilogy”

Pick up the book from here

Monday 7 October 2013

Return Of The Jedi matte paintings

Earlier this year, I posted an appreciation of "Return Of The Jedi" on its 30th anniversary (which can be found here).  One of the things I touched on briefly then was that 45 matte paintings were produced for the film, though I didn't show any in that post.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am very interested in behind the scenes stuff for films and one of my key areas of fascination are matte paintings (which I posted about here, back in January).  I'm planning to do a small series, covering various films (Hitchcock's "Frenzy" will probably be the second post after this one) and I thought it'd be good to start with "Return Of The Jedi".  So here we go, with as many before (the original shot) and after (how it appeared in the final film) images as I can find.

A quick history - Matte paintings were created by Norman O. Dawn (1884-1975), an illustrator and photographer who worked in Los Angeles.  Around the turn of the last century he was commissioned to take some stills of a factory which was partly obscured by rubbish and telephone poles.  His boss, Max Handsheigi, showed him how to put a pane of glass between the camera and its subject and paint in details which would then cover unwanted areas.  He adaped the principle when making his first film, “California Missions” in 1907 as a way of restoring missing portions of the crumbling structures.

Although he was the first known proponent, he was keen to “dispel any assertion that I invented this technique—I merely built on to it and took advantage of conditions to advance an art in the making. One must not get the idea that other men were not doing things too. How much, will never be known.”  Following this, glass painting became an important tool of movie makers and is still used widely today, though it’s almost all digital now.

All of the matte paintings for "Return Of The Jedi" were created by a dedicated team at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), made up of five people.  Michael Pangrazio was the supervisor, Chris Evans and Frank Ordaz were the artists, Neil Krepela was the camera supervisor whilst Craig Barron was the camera operator.

The opening sequence, of C3P0 and R2-D2 going to Jabba's Palace, was a matte painting that was held for longer than usual (most matte shots are fairly brief, so as not to 'give away' the trick).

The droids arrive at the main gate

Early evening, outside of Jabba's Palace.  Essentially an establishing shot, the added element of the beast having his dinner adds depth (and humour) to the shot.

 The Emperor arrives on the new Death Star - a massive shot that looks very impressive on screen

An AT-AT Walker (a model, naturally) animated against a matte painting (detail shown)

 Darth Vader (the only live element in the entire shot) arrives on Endor by Shuttle

As Han prepares to take the rebels to Endor, he & Lando say goodbye in front of the Falcon in the main hanger, a superb painting by Pangrazio.

Frank Ordaz at work on a matte painting of the hanger

Michael Pangrazio at work on the rebel hanger painting

Chris Evans working on the Death Star painting 

Whilst researching this article - and wanting to see what the key players were doing now - I discovered that Barron & Pangrazio set up a company called Matte World when they left ILM, which thrived until last year when it closed down (a similar situation to many visual effects companies these days).  The website has a "final farewell" screen which is worth a read, for the history if nothing else.  It can be found here.

*  Michael Pangrazio continues to work as a matte painter and he is now a senior art director at Peter Jackson's Weta Digital
*  Frank Ordaz's last film was "All I Want For Christmas" (1991) and he is a renowned portait artist now.
*  Chris Evans' last film was the Tim Burton directed "Alice In Wonderland" (2010), though he's a much in-demand fine art painter.

with thanks to NZ Pete, for his superby researched and lavishly illustrated blog Matte Shot - a tribute to Golden Era special fx and the ASC site.

Thursday 3 October 2013

The Lost Film Novellas are coming

"The Lost Film Novellas", a book of two linked novellas from Stephen Bacon & myself, now has an official launch agreed.

My story, "The Lost Film", features Gabriel Bird, a private detective who is hired to find Roger Sinclair, an exploitation film-maker from the 1970s.  It seems that the last film he made, 'Terrafly', has the power to drive people mad and clips from it are now appearing online.

Roger Sinclair began to see the Monochromatics in a London made fraught by the heatwave and realised that in them he had the basis for his magnum opus 'Terrafly'.

Now, as Bird delves deeper into the case, meeting Sinclair's old colleagues and finding out about the Monochromatics, he understands why 'Terrafly' might just be the most dangerous film ever made.