Wednesday 24 September 2014

Nostalgic for my childhood - The Three Investigators

I first discovered The Three Investigators in 1978, when I was nine.  As I recall, it was a rainy day and at breaktime, we were sent to one of the classrooms in the older part of the school buildings.  As other kids settled down to read comics or swap football cards, I had a look at the bookshelves and one spine in particular caught my eye.  I pulled it out and had a look at the cover - three boys, in a cave, with a skull in the foreground.  I took it back to the desk, started reading “The Secret Of Skeleton Island” and so began a lifelong love affair with a series that began in 1964 and so, this year, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary.
The book that started it all for me -
Collins hardback first edition (first printed 1968, last reprinted 1970) with cover art by Roger Hall
Robert Arthur at work
The series was created by Robert Arthur, who was born on November 10th, 1909 at Fort Mills, Corregidor Island, in the Philippines.  His father, Robert Arthur, Sr, a lieutenant in the army, was stationed there and the family moved frequently before settling in Virginia in 1925.  After high school, he turned down scholarships to both West Point and Annapolis set on becoming a writer, having already published his first story. He graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in 1930 with a B.A. in English with Distinction and received his M.A. in Journalism in 1932, after which he moved to New York City.

By then, Arthur was writing for the pulp magazines which flourished in the early thirties, as well as writing and editing pulp western, detective, and screen magazines for Dell Publishing, was the associate editor of Photo-Story, and created and edited Pocket Detective Magazine (the first pocket-sized, all-fiction magazine).  Following a failed marriage, he met David Kogan in 1943 and they became writing and producing partners in radio (whilst Arthur also worked for Parade and continued to publish in most of the story magazines of the time, including Weird Tales, Astounding Science Fiction, Detective Tales, Astounding Science-Fiction, Baffling Detective Mysteries, Dime Mystery, and others).

From 1944 to 1952, he and Kogan co-wrote and produced for the Mutual Broadcasting System programme Dark Destiny as well as their own show, The Mysterious Traveler, which was re-aired as Adventure Into Fear, and syndicated among other radio stations.  The Mysterious Traveler consistently outranked shows from the CBS and NBC networks and Arthur and Kogan were awarded the Edgar for Best Mystery Radio Show of the Year by the Mystery Writers of America.

In the early forties, Arthur met Joan Vaczek, a fiction writer and daughter of a Hungarian diplomat and they married in December 1946, moving to Yorktown Heights in New York where they had two children - Robert Andrew Arthur in 1948 (which means that Bob Andrews was a nice nod to his son) and Elizabeth Ann Arthur in 1953 (who is now a writer herself).

The Mysterious Traveller was cancelled in 1953 as part of the McCarthy investigatons (they believed, Kogan said later, that the Radio Writers Guild was leading writers “down the path to Moscow”), by which time Arthur had written and produced over five hundred radio scripts.  Following his divorce, in 1959 he moved to Hollywood and began writing for television, namely with Alfred Hitchcock Presents, for which he also served as story editor.

In 1962, Arthur moved to Cape May, New Jersey, where he lived with his fathers aunt until his death.  Due to his association with Alfred Hitchcock, he was hired by Random House to edit a series of anthologies that capitalised on the great directors popularity and allowed Arthur to not only commission new work but also mine the pulp magazines for neglected classics (he also wrote the Hitchcock introductions).  The anthologies included Stories For Late At Night (1961), Stories My Mother Never Told Me (1963), Stories Not For The Nervous (1965), Stories That Scared Even Me (1967) and Stories They Wouldn’t Let Me Do On TV (1968).  At the same time, he was editing anthologies for younger readers - again under the Hitchcock brand - including Alfred Hitchcock’s Haunted Houseful (1961), Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery (1962), Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum (1965), Alfred Hitchcock’s Sinister Spies (1966) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbinders in Suspense, (1967), whilst under his own name he edited Davy Jones’ Haunted Locker (1965), Spies and More Spies (1967) and Thrillers and More Thrillers (1968).  Collections of his own fiction were brought out by Random House as Ghosts and More Ghosts (1963) and Mystery and More Mystery (1966).

The success of the anthologies led Arthur to suggest creating a new juvenile series for Random House, under the editor-ship of Walter Retan.  This would have as its basis other successful American series (though be “better written than The Hardy Boys”), such as the Andy Blake and Jerry Todd books (both written by Edward Edson Lee) and The Bobbsey Twins, crucially pegging them as slightly younger (the boys aren’t quite old enough to drive or be interested in girls).  In keeping with this, the books continued proven tradition with interesting mysteries (he realised kids would respond to spooky tales), humour coming out of the repartee between the boys and three distinct characters who would share attributes with the youthful readers.
Evocative and deceptively simple artwork by Roger Hall for the Collins and Armada editions
l to r - "The Mystery Of The Stuttering Parrot", "The Mystery Of The Vanishing Treasure", "The Secret Of Skeleton Island" (this picture frightened me, as a kid) and "The Secret Of The Haunted Mirror"
Working with Retan and Louise Bonino, Arthur shaped the first novel steadily, keen on the idea of The Three Investigators as an entity - “once readers know the group,” he wrote, “and come to identify them by their ‘firm name’, it will stick in their minds naturally and easily.”  Overall during the process, the biggest changes made were the names - Jupiter Jones was originally going to be called Jason “Genius” Jones (Arthur liked alliterative names, he believed they were more memorable), whilst Pete was known as Dick for a while.  Skinny Norris, the boys bête noire in a lot of the books, came from Arthur’s research that children liked a type ‘of a nuisance character for the hero to have an occasional brush with”.  To make him more obnoxious, he was slightly older than the boys and allowed to drive.

Armada format b, cover art by Peter Archer
In correspondence, which Seth Smolinske has on his website, it’s clear that Arthur researched other series extensively, helping him to structure and form The Three Investigators and give - as he wrote - “the readers a quality product.”  There is a lot of correspondence, back and forth, strengthening the tension and suspense and streamlining the plot and some of the points Arthur raised showed his plan for the series, building in secret entrances to Headquarters that wouldn’t be used until much later (such as the ones the sinister midgets utilise in “The Mystery Of The Vanishing Treasure”).  Even before “The Secret Of Terror Castle” was written, Retan writes that the company was most eager for two more books on the “Fall 1965 list”.

By June 1964, in addition to “The Mystery Of The Stuttering Parrot”, Arthur also had plans for “The Mystery Of Phantom Island” and “The Case Of The Whispering Mummy” plus another called “The Mystery Of The Lost Wagon Train”.  As publication crept closer, the final contracts were settled with Alfred Hitchcock - who only lent his name - contracted to receive 80% of all foreign sales royalties.  He later agreed to share this 50/50 with Arthur whose original contract allowed no income from this market.

The first book in the series, “The Secret Of Terror Castle”, was published on 24th September, 1964, along with the second "The Mystery Of The Stuttering Parrot".

From 1963, Robert Arthur wrote two Three Investigator titles a year and the books quickly became successful, both in America and abroad (there was a publication lag of a couple of years to the UK).  In 1968, with his health failing, he recruited Dennis Lynds to help write the series and the first non-Arthur book, “The Mystery Of The Moaning Cave”, was published under Lynds’ pseudonym of William Arden.  At this point, Jenny Fanelli took over as the series editor, a job she held until her retirement in the early 1990’s.
Robert Arthur died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 2nd, 1969, at the age of fifty-nine.  Walter Retan, the series original editor, died in 1998.

The Collins hardcovers end papers (artwork by Harry Kane)
As I wrote before, I started reading the series when I was nine and it fitted perfectly with me (another beloved book of that summer was “The Adventures Of The Black Hand Gang” and me and my friend Claire did, indeed, set up a detective club).  I still don’t know for sure how old the boys are supposed to be (I’m guessing very early teens) but it felt like I could be part of the gang.  I wanted to have a friend like Jupiter who had an encyclopaedic memory, I wanted to be a cross between Bob and Pete (good on research and writing, but also up for some physical action), I desperately wanted to have a secret hide-out in a fabulous junkyard.  But most of all, I really wanted to find mysteries in and around Rothwell - anywhere I could reach by bike, basically - that were spooky and exciting and fun.

As I started reading the series, the books were available as Collins hardbacks (the small format) which could be found in libraries and Armada were moving out of the format a paperbacks into format b.  At that time, Rothwell library was housed in the old Market Square building, up a stone, spiral staircase and into a room with plenty of shelves, dark wood floors and high old windows.  The kids section was at the back, to the right and I spent a lot of time in there, flicking through the books, searching out the latest adventure.  For my home library, I started picking up the Armada paperbacks, unwittingly setting my love for the format b artwork and design firmly into place.  Back then, you could pick up the books pretty much anywhere - good haunts were W H Smith, John Menzies and Boots - and the series became something my family bought me for birthday and Christmas presents (my parents bought me the box-set for Christmas 1981).

The Three Investigators always operated as a team and had distinct roles to play.

The boys, as shown on the back covers of the Armada format b
paperbacks - c.1983 (artwork by Peter Archer)
Jupiter “Jupe” Jones is “First Investigator.”  Stocky and intelligent, he’s an adept actor and mimic, often able to outwit well-meaning adults and crooks alike by employing the Occam’s Razor principle (the simplest and most rational explanation should be preferred to an explanation which requires additional assumptions).  A former child actor - he was called “Baby Fatso” and understandably hates to be reminded of it - he was orphaned at an early age and now lives with his Uncle Titus Andronicus Jones and Aunt Mathilda, who run The Jones Salvage Yard.  Jupe builds equipment and devices for the team using materials gleaned from the junkyard, likes to play jokes on his fellow investigators and loves using big words - often to the confusion of Pete - though that helped me as a young reader, since most books required at least one search through a dictionary.

Peter “Pete” Crenshaw is “Second Investigator”, athletic and dependable, though reluctant to get involved in dangerous situations but always at the forefront when there’s action.  Pete is often Jupe’s partner on stake-outs and explorations (especially in the early books when Bob’s injury sidelines him) and whilst he doesn’t have the same intellectual ability, he’s never ignored and can always be relied on to point out Jupe’s errors, often using humour (Pete gets the bulk of the best lines in the series).  A key member of the team, with an excellent sense of direction (they often get lost in caves or other strange places), he has some great phrases (“Gleeps!” and “Skullbuster” are but two) and his dad is a special effects man at a Hollywood studio which helps them out on some mysteries and puts them into the path of others.

Robert “Bob” Andrews is “Records and Research”, who writes up the cases and works part-time at the Rocky Beach library, giving him excellent access to whatever research tools he might need.  Studious and meticulous, his dad works for the LA Times and occasionally helps Bob and the team out.  Although he’s the smaller of the boys, he “has the courage of a lion” and suffered a fall before the series began, breaking his leg which necessitated him wearing a leg brace (it was removed before the start of “The Mystery Of The Green Ghost”).  Although not as intellectual as Jupe, he is able to hold his own with his friend and often ends up explaining to Pete what it was that Jupiter has said.

The Three Investigators calling card - everyone asked what the
question marks stood for, as Jupe guessed they would.

"They are our symbol, our trademark.  They stand for questions
unanswered, riddles unsolved, mysteries unexplained.  We attempt
to solve them" (taken from 'Coughing Dragon')
Alfred Hitchcock acts as their patron (after being tricked into the role by Jupe in “The Secret Of Terror Castle”) and agrees to introduce their cases so long as they are sufficiently exciting (it’s assumed - and occasionally mentioned - that they do have other, smaller cases).  More tolerant of the boys as the series goes on, he’s sometimes called upon for advice and occasionally suggests their services to friends and colleagues.

The boys operated from The Jones Salvage Yard, in the coastal town of Rocky Beach a few miles from Hollywood.  Some of the stories take place there but for those going further afield - across ‘the vast distances in California’ - they have use of a gold-plated Rolls Royce, complete with Worthington, a dignified, English chauffeur (a great character, who later helps the boys out on his own time).  Jupiter won the Rolls, for “thirty days of 24 hours each” just prior to “The Secret Of Terror Castle” and those ran out during “The Mystery Of The Fiery Eye” (though their client on that case gratefully extended the time indefinitely).  Otherwise they bike everywhere or one of the salvage yard helpers - Bavarian brothers Hans and Konrad - drive them in one of the trucks.

This illustration, by Roger Hall, from "The
Mystery Of The Vanishing Treasure" shows
Tunnel Two in operation
Headquarters was inside the salvage yard, a fire-damaged 30-foot trailer that was hidden behind artfully composed stacks of junks and by the time the series had started, both Uncle Titus and Aunt Mathilda had forgotten it was there.  Headquarters was decked out with (for the time) modern equipment like a typewriter, telephone (rigged up to a speaker), tape recorder, reference books plus a small laboratory and dark room.  Most of the equipment was rescued from the junk that came into the yard and rebuilt by the boys and a printing press (to make the business cards) was set up in Jupe’s workshop, which Aunt Mathilda did know about.  In order to maintain the secrecy, there were several entrances to Headquarters known only to the boys (though security was breached occasionally).

Emergency One - a skylight that was, to my knowledge, only used in “The Mystery Of The Vanishing Treasure”
Green Gate One and Red Gate Rover - secret entrances built into the fence that surrounded the junkyard, opened by poking a finger through a knothole and releasing a catch.
Tunnel Two - a corrugated iron pipe, padded with old carpet, that runs from the workshop and under the trailer to a trapdoor.  The most commonly used entrance.
Door Four - a large door, apparently leaning but in actual use.

Although the stories are written for children and follow a general formula, the level of writing and invention is superb and highlights the quality of the writers chosen for the series.  Most of the books open with the mystery being brought to the team and the boys often encountered baffling clues and plenty of danger before they resolved everything.  The series was organised around one major theme (hence the superb titles) which could be strange, supernatural or mystical, though most were down to human hand (apart from a couple of M. V. Carey’s editions, which never really confirmed one way or the other).  The boys solved their mysteries with the same resources the readers had at their displosal - telephones, walkie-talkies, chalk, bicycles and access to a library (Worthington and the Rolls was a great resource, if somewhat unlikely to a kid in the Midlands in the 70s, but I loved it and wanted one) - which made identification stronger.  The final chapter of each book had the boys visiting Hitchcock so the great director could review the mystery and reveal the deduction and clues Jupiter had worked on throughout.
My favourite book of the series, in its first three UK editions
l to r - Collins hardback (printed 1976), Armada format a (printed 1979 - 1980), Armada format b (printed 1981 - 1982)
Hardback cover art by Roger Hall, paperback art by Peter Archer
The UK editions were published in hardback by Collins in tall and short editions, featuring cover art and interior illustrations by Roger Hall, both of which were based on drawings by Harry Kane from the US editions.  The series was published in paperback by Armada, carrying over the same interior illustrations, but the format a (1970-1980) and b (1980 - 1986) editions had superb and evocative cover art by Peter Archer.  Format c and beyond had cover art by González Vicente which, frankly, didn’t work at all.

William Arden was the pseudonym for noted mystery writer Dennis Lynds, perhaps best known for his series featuring one-armed detective Dan Fortune, written under the pen name of Michael Collins.  He was born on January 15th 1924 in St. Louis (the only child of two actors) and grew up in New York, earning a B.A. in chemistry from Hofstra College in Hempstead, New York and an M.A. in journalism from Syracuse University.

A prolific pen-for-hire, he also created private detectives Paul Shaw (written as Mark Sadler) and Kane Jackson (written as William Arden) as well as continuing adventures (under various ‘house names’) of Charlie Chan, The Shadow, Nick Carter and Mike Shayne.  A good friend of the mystery writer Ross Macdonald, he was handpicked to continue the Three Investigators series by Robert Arthur himself.

After serving in World War II (he was awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantry Badge and three battle stars), he worked as a chemist and began writing crime fiction in 1962.  President of The Private Eye Writers of America, he received their Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998 as well as an Edgar and Marlowe Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) Association.  He lived with his wife, fellow mystery writer, Gayle Lynds in Santa Barbara where they collaborated on several books, as well as a couple of Mack Bolan (The Executioner) novels, under the Don Pendleton ‘house name’.

Mr Lynds passed away on August 19th 2005, leaving behind an incredible body of work featuring some 80 novels, as many novellas and 200 shorts.

Kin Platt (who wrote two Three Investigator mysteries under the pseudonym Nick West) was born on August 12th 1911 in New York.  Starting out in radio comedy in the 1930s, he later wrote for Disney and Walter Lantz theatrical cartoons before moving into writing and drawing comic books, where he created the character of Supermouse amongst others.

Following military service he focussed on comic work but began writing children's books and young-adult mysteries in 1961, eventually going on to publish more than 30 under various pseudonyms.  He won two Edgar Awards, in 1967 and 1970.

Mr Platt passed away on November 30th, 2003.

M. V. (Mary Virginia) Carey was born on May 19th 1925 in Brighton, England - the same year her family moved to the United States - and she became a naturalised citizen in 1955.  Moving into publishing, she worked at Walt Disney Productions from 1955 - 1969 and wrote novelisations for them through the 1960s, before leaving to become a freelance writer.  She began writing for the Three Investigators series in 1971 with “The Mystery Of The Flaming Footprints” and produced sixteen titles up to 1987.  In 1986 she was awarded the Southern California Council on Literature for Children and Young People Award, 1986, for  her novel “A Place for Allie”.

Ms Carey is quoted in Contemporary Authors: "The 'Three Investigator' books have always seemed so very special, in part because I remember my first encounter with detective stories.  By the time I was eleven I had read my way through the children's section at our local library, and our librarian - a dear lady named Gertrude Foley - permitted me to come into the adult section.  There was a whole corner devoted to mysteries.  I was instantly hooked, and I think I was almost completely happy for about three years."

Ms Carey passed away in 1994.

Bibliography (the first 30 books)
(my version of the official series)

1:   The Secret Of Terror Castle (1964, by Robert Arthur)
2:   The Mystery Of The Stuttering Parrot (1964, by Robert Arthur)
3:   The Mystery Of The Whispering Mummy (1965, by Robert Arthur)
4:   The Mystery Of The Green Ghost (1965, by Robert Arthur)
5:   The Mystery Of The Vanishing Treasure (1966, by Robert Arthur)
6:   The Secret Of Skeleton Island (1966, by Robert Arthur)
7:   The Mystery Of The Fiery Eye (1967, by Robert Arthur)
8:   The Mystery Of The Silver Spider (1967, by Robert Arthur)
9:   The Mystery Of The Screaming Clock (1968, by Robert Arthur)
10: The Mystery Of The Moaning Cave (1968, by William Arden)
11: The Mystery Of The Talking Skull (1969, by Robert Arthur)
12: The Mystery Of The Laughing Shadow (1969, by William Arden)
13: The Secret Of The Crooked Cat (1970, by William Arden)
14: The Mystery Of The Coughing Dragon (1970, by Nick West)
15: The Mystery Of The Flaming Footprints (1971, by M. V. Carey)
16: The Mystery Of The Nervous Lion (1971, by Nick West)
17: The Mystery Of The Singing Serpent (1972, by M. V. Carey)
18: The Mystery Of The Shrinking House (1972, by William Arden)
19: The Secret Of Phantom Lake (1973, by William Arden)
20: The Mystery Of Monster Mountain (1973, by M. V. Carey)
21: The Secret Of The Haunted Mirror (1974, by M. V. Carey)
22: The Mystery Of The Dead Man's Riddle (1974, by William Arden)
23: The Mystery Of The Invisible Dog (1975, by M. V. Carey)
24: The Mystery Of Death Trap Mine (1976, by M. V. Carey)
25: The Mystery Of The Dancing Devil (1976, by William Arden)
26: The Mystery Of The Headless Horse (1977, by William Arden)
27: The Mystery Of The Magic Circle (1978, by M. V. Carey)
28: The Mystery Of The Deadly Double (1978, by William Arden)
29: The Mystery Of The Sinister Scarecrow (1979, by M. V. Carey)
30: The Secret Of The Shark Reef (1979, by William Arden)

In 1984, the British company Rainbow Communications produced two audio plays, 50 minute long dramatisations of “The Secret Of Terror Castle” and “The Mystery Of The Stuttering Parrot”.  I quite liked them, to be honest, though none of the boys sounded like I thought they should and huge chunks are cut out of “Stuttering Parrot” but, even worse, although “The Whispering Mummy” is teased it was never produced.  Shame.  Long since unavailable, you can find them on Youtube.

Following Hitchock’s death in 1980, there were further entries in the series though the great director was replaced (poorly, in my opinion) by a fictional writer called Hector Sebastien.  Of these, I read books 31 through to 38 and don’t really have much good to say about any of them (though “The Purple Pirate” does have a good atmosphere).

31: The Mystery Of The Scar-Faced Beggar (1981, by M. V. Carey)
32: The Mystery Of The Blazing Cliffs (1981, by M. V. Carey)
33: The Mystery Of The Purple Pirate (1982, by William Arden)
34: The Mystery Of The Wandering Cave Man (1982, by M. V. Carey)
35: The Mystery Of The Kidnapped Whale (1983, by Marc Brandel)
36: The Mystery Of The Missing Mermaid (1983,M. V. Carey)
37: The Mystery Of The Two-Toed Pigeon (1984, by Marc Brandel)
38: The Mystery Of The Smashing Glass (1984, by William Arden)
39: The Mystery Of The Trail Of Terror (1984, by M. V. Carey)
40: The Mystery Of The Rogues' Reunion (1985, by Marc Brandel)
41: The Mystery Of The Creep-Show Crooks (1985, by M. V. Carey)
42: The Mystery Of Wrecker's Rock (1986, by William Arden)
43: The Mystery Of The Cranky Collector (1987, by M. V. Carey)

There were also four “Find Your Fate Mysteries” mysteries published in the mid-80s

RH1: Case of the Weeping Coffin (1985, by Megan Stine and H. William Stine)
RH2: Case of the Dancing Dinosaur (by Rose Estes)
RH7: Case of the House Of Horrors (by Megan Stine and H. William Stine)
RH8: Case of the Savage Statue (1987, by M.V. Carey)

In the late 80s, an attempt was made to update the series under the “Crimebusters” brand and age the boys into their late teens.  Again, I’ve read almost all of these and wasn’t a fan of any of them.

1: Hot Wheels (1989, by William Arden)
2: Murder To Go (1989, by Megan Stine and H. William Stine)
3: Rough Stuff (1989, by G.H. Stone)
4: Funny Business (1989, by William MacCay)
5: An Ear For Trouble (1989, by Marc Brandel)
6: Thriller Diller (1989, by Megan Stine and H. William Stine)
7: Reel Trouble (1989, by G.H. Stone)
8: Shoot the Works (1990, by William McCay)
9: Foul Play (1990, by Peter Lerangis)
10: Long Shot (1990, by Megan Stine and H. William Stine)
11: Fatal Error (1990, by G.H. Stone)
a further edition, “Brain Wash”, was never published.

The books continue to sell strongly in Germany as “Die Drei ???”, with over 100 titles now in the series and two films have been made - "The Three Investigators and the Secret Of Skeleton Island” (2007) and “The Three Investigators and the Secret of Terror Castle” (2009).

By the by, I still have that original hardback copy of “The Secret Of Skeleton Island” - a bit beaten up now but standing strong.  I held onto my full collection and do still read it - in fact, from 2008 to 2010 I re-read all of the first 30 books and set up a dedicated review blog (which you can find here).  After deciding to try and collect the whole series in format b (which I achieved, as I blogged about here) , I have started collecting the books in format a, as well as the Collins hardback editions.  For the 50th anniversary year, I’m in the process of re-reading my favourites to try and determine my all-time Top 10, quite safe in the knowledge the list is surely subject to change, but enjoying both the reading and reviewing.  As it is, I have written fairly extensively on the series and all of my blogged Three Investigator posts can be found at this link.

As mentioned above, this link is for my 50th Anniversary All-Time Top 10 books blog post

With thanks to
* the official Three Investigators site (from Elizabeth Arthur)

Seth Smolinske’s The Three Investigators US Editions Collector Site

Ian Regan’s excellent Cover Art database (for the UK editions)

*  Phil Fulmer’s Three Investigators Readers Site

plus Alan Pickrell's essay "The Power Of Three: Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators Series” from “The Boy Detectives: Essays on the Hardy Boys and Others”, edited by Michael G. Cornelius

more information on Roger Hall here

Three superb Armada format b covers with artwork by Peter Archer
(cover scans of my copies)

Monday 22 September 2014

Some love for "Drive"...

My novella "Drive", available in a limited edition paperback and as an ebook across platforms, has been picking up some nice reviews over the past few weeks and here they are.

First up was M R Crosby at his Stranger Designs site (the full review can be read here)
I didn't mean to sit up late in order to finish Drive, the new novella from Mark West, published by Pendragon Press. I really didn't. However, once I started to read, I found it difficult to stop. It's not often I get caught up in the moment with a book; usually I get drawn in slowly, soaking up the atmosphere. Yet here I was, quite unable to put the thing down, compelled to find out what happens next.

Then there's Matthew Fryer, at Welcome To The Hellforge (the full review can be read here)
I’ve been enjoying Mark West’s fiction for several years now, and his brand of atmospheric, uneasy horror always has me coming back for more. He is one of those authors that brings such investable humanity and resonance to his fiction that genre is rendered almost irrelevant. I was therefore delighted to discover that with this new novella from Pendragon Press, he wanders outside his usual discomfort zone into white-knuckle territory, but still manages to deliver his most terrifying piece to date.

from before, here's Jim Mcleod's review at The Ginger Nuts Of Horror (the full review can be read here)
Many authors are limited by  style and genre, and when they write outside of their comfort zone the resulting book can feel like a letdown.  Regular readers of this website will be  aware of how I feel about Mark West's writing.  He is one of those  rare breed of horror writers that is capable of wrapping up a horror story within a framework full of heart and soul.  His stories have a deep emotional core that elevates them to a whole new level.  So what happens when Mark decides to take his writing in a new direction.....

Also The Ginger Nuts Of Horror (the full review can be read here), this from reviewer Paul M. Feeney
Mark West pens a short tale that's steeped in 70's and 80's chase films, yet retains a character all of its own.  [It's] a pretty simple premise – that of the innocents (David and Nat) being hunted and terrorised by unknown and violent assailants, through the dead of night where there seems to be nowhere to go and no one to help. West cleverly wastes little time in getting to the meat of the action and the bulk of the book details David and Nat's encounters with the gang and their subsequent attempts to escape. As such, there is very little room for prolonged character development and it's a testament to West's talents that he still manages to imbue both David and Nat with three dimensional and sympathetic traits. We really feel for these two people and their plight.

James Everington, at Scattershot reviews, had this to say (the full review can be read here)
Mark West’s latest novella is in some ways a departure from the author’s previous work; there’s none of the supernatural horror of The Mill here. But despite its realism there are scares aplenty in Drive and its small-town English realism adds to the effect.

Paula Limbaugh, at Horror Novel Reviews, wrote (the full review can be read here)
YES!!  A new novella by Mark West!  Okay, just to get it out of the way I’m a big fan of Mark West.  He has a way of plotting the course and leading you down the dark and twisted corridors of his mind.  Drive is another example of a top-notch tale.  Have you ever been out alone in the middle of nowhere driving?  Have you ever thought what if?  What if someone forced you off the road, what if you have a flat and a car full of men pull up, or  what if…..

If you're interested:

“Drive takes you for a journey down the darkest alleyways of human savagery.  
A fast paced, high tension thriller that delivers on all fronts....”
- Jim Mcleod, The Ginger Nuts Of Horror

"Drive is a gripping, tense urban noir with prose as tight as a snare drum..."
- Paul D. Brazill, Guns Of Brixton.

“Mark West writes the kind of fiction that gets under the skin where it lies dormant until you turn out the lights ...”
- Dave Jeffery, author of the Necropolis Rising series

Friday 19 September 2014

Reading and Q&A Session at Desborough Library

Coming up next month, I will be involved in a Horror Night event at Desborough Library, along with fellow writers Nicky Peacock and Paul Melhuish.  Starting with readings by the three of us - I'm going to do a creepy section from "The Mill", the real-life location of which is about a mile or so from the library - and followed by a Q&A session, our books will also be available and it promises to be a great evening.

Tickets are on-sale now so, if you're local, why not pop along?

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Robert B. Parker and Spenser

In the late 80s, after seeing “The Long Goodbye” on Moviedrome, I began reading Raymond Chandler and quickly fell in love with crime fiction.  I got into the Sara Paretsky “V I Warshawski” series, the Hannah Wolfe novels of Sarah Dunant and various stand-alone titles, mainly by American writers.  One day I was browsing in the crime section of W H Smiths in Kettering and a title caught my eye.  It wasn’t the best designed cover in the world (see below) but it was published by Penguin and it sounded cool and so I bought it.

The book was “Promised Land” by Robert B. Parker, the fourth in the Spenser series, which was originally published in 1976 and won the Mystery Writers Of America association’s Edgar Award for best novel.

I loved the book, I loved the character, I loved Parker’s style of writing.  This is a review I posted to Goodreads of the novel, when I last re-read it in 2009:

Promised Land
first published in 1976, 

this is the 1987 Penguin edition
Promised Land, by Robert B. Parker
The first Spenser novel I ever picked up (back in the late 80s), this seemed like an ideal book to dip back into the series with.  It’s been a long time since I last read it and I’d forgotten just how tight a writer Parker could be, with dialogue that literally zings along and the occasional, beautifully observed moment.  

This has a lot to offer - clever plot, great characters, a keen sense of location and atmosphere - and even though it’s over 30 years old, it’s only very minor areas that date it - fashions and revolutionary ideals, mainly. A great book, crackingly well told and with a wonderful sequence on the beach in the dark, listening to someone else’s old records, that is almost worth reading the book for alone.  

I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Penguin was busy reprinting all the books and I duly picked them up.  I can’t remember now if I read them in order (probably not) but I got through them as quickly as I could.  I loved the earlier ones, when I think Parker was at his hard-boiled best, but as the series moved from the 70s and into the 80s, he really seemed to hit his stride, with great mysteries and characters.  Beyond that, sadly, I thought the books started to flag and the white space on each page seemed to get bigger - I finished the series with “Double Deuce” (book 19, published in 1992), which felt to me more like a novella - and I drifted away from the Boston private detective (“Spenser, with an S.  Like the poet…”).  Since then, as it happens, I’ve read “Hugger Mugger” (book 27, published in 2000) and whilst I enjoyed it - and its wonderful evocation of southern heat - I did have a problem in not knowing who some of the key players were (Parker keeps a continuing cast).

For all that, the books are brilliant and Spenser is an inspired character - firmly rooted in Boston, he enjoys life, keeps in shape, is a gourmet cook and his best friend Hawk was a one-time mob leg-breaker.  Spenser was committed to his long-term girlfriend Susan Silverman, though as the years and books progressed, their relationship took several believable twists and turns (they broke up at one point, before reconciling a couple of books later).  He was loyal to his friends (whichever side of the law they were on), beholden to no-one and fiercely independent, though he could be as ruthless as was needed if the situation called for it.  Even in the novels that I felt didn’t quite work, Parker continued to explore his recurring literary themes of love, loyalty, friendship and honour with skill and aplomb.

The Godwulf Manuscript
first published in 1974, 

this is the 1987 Penguin edition
The Godwulf Manuscript, by Robert B. Parker
The book that began the series, this is perhaps the most hardboiled Spenser I’ve read.  

Setting the scene perfectly and quickly, Spenser is hired by a university to find the eponymous stolen manuscript but his trail quickly takes in mob connections, drug dealing, murder, cults and parents who mistake giving money for showing love.  It’s surprising to see how much the Susan Silverman character softened the series (for the better, in my opinion) - this has Spenser sleeping with both a mother and daughter (at separate times) and he kills two people - but this also includes items that aren’t mentioned often in future (his carving and some childhood memories).  A nice touch is Brenda Loring though, introduced here - and brought in at the melancholy finale, to add a touch of hope - and mentioned in “The Judas Goat”. 

This is an excellent crime novel, bracing and harsh and amusing, that is well worth a read.
(reviewed after a 2010 re-read)

I think it’s fair to say that whilst Parker had his detractors, it cannot be doubted that he led the way for a lot of crime writing that came after him.

“To me, [Early Autumn] shows the modern mystery at its finest - a true novel.”
- Robert Crais, interviewed in 2005

“I read Parker’s Spenser series in college. When it comes to detective novels, 90 percent of us admit he's an influence, and the rest of us lie about it.”
- Harlan Coben, interviewed in 2007

Robert Brown Parker was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on September 17th, 1932, the only child of Carroll and Mary Parker.  After earning his BA from Colby College in Maine, Parker served in the US Army in Korea and in 1957 earned a Master’s degree in English Literature from Boston University (BU).  He worked in advertising and technical writing and earned a PhD in English Literature from BU in 1971 with a dissertation titled “The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality”, which discussed the exploits of fictional private-eye heroes created by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald.  He wrote his first novel in 1971, became a full professor in 1976 and turned to full-time writing in 1979 after five Spenser novels had been published.

He said, in interview, that he met his wife Joan when they were both toddlers, but they did grow up together and were married in 1956, having two sons, David and Dan.  The Spenser character was originally going to be called David but since Parker didn’t want to favour one son over the other, the name was omitted and Spenser’s first name remains unknown.

The Spenser novels are also known for including characters of varied races, sexuality and religions, which critic Christina Nunez believes give his writing “a more modern feel”.  The homosexuality of Parker’s two sons, again according to Ms Nunez, gives his writing “[a] strong sensibility [toward gay people].”

Avery Brooks & Robert Urich, "Spenser: For Hire"
The books formed the basis of the series “Spenser: For Hire”, which ran from 1985 through to 1988 and was successful in the US (I didn’t know anybody, at the time, who watched it in the UK).  Whilst it had the benefit of a good cast and made great use of Boston locations, it was squashed to fit the standard TV format with ‘the cool car’ and funky apartment (a firehouse at one point) which were never in the books.  Robert Urich made an excellent Spenser and he, Barbara Stock (Susan) and Avery Brooks (Hawk) always appear in my minds eye (and Hawk’s “Spen-sah!” is how I read his greeting too).  Richard Jaeckel and Ron McLarty played the homicide detectives Lt. Martin Quirk and Sgt. Frank Belson respectively, though McLarty was missing the heavy five-o’clock shadow Parker always comments Belson on having.  Whilst I never saw it (perhaps it didn’t reach the UK), Hawk also got his own series, “A Man Called Hawk”, that ran for 13 episodes in 1989.

As well as continuing the Spenser series, Parker was asked by The Raymond Chandler estate to complete Chandler's last, unfinished Marlowe novel, “Poodle Springs”. He did so, in 1989 and followed it up the following year with “Perchance To Dream”, a sequel to Chandler's first Marlowe novel, “The Big Sleep”.

Starting in 1997 with “Night Passage” and taking in nine novels, Parker created a series featuring Jesse Stone, a flawed, alcoholic Californian detective who tries to start a new life as the Chief Of Police in a small Massachusetts town.  The books became the basis of a series of TV movies starring Tom Selleck.  Parker also created the character of Sunny Randall (a Boston-based private eye who began life initially as a possible project for the actress Helen Hunt) and wrote six novels, starting with “Family Honor”, from 1999 to 2007.

His prolific output (he refused to romanticise the act of writing and was quoted as wondering why plumbers never came down with plumber’s block) also took in several stand-alone novel and a popular Western series (including the acclaimed novel “Appaloosa”).

The Judas Goat
(London is encapsulated 
by the  Telecom tower and The Times!)
first published in 1978, 
this is the 1983 Penguin edition
The Judas Goat, by Robert B. Parker
Hired by a rich businessman, disabled in a terrorist attack that killed his wife and children, Spenser is soon on the trail of the Liberty group in London.  Discovering they are part of a larger group, with plans to liberate South Africa for the whites, Spenser calls in Hawk and goes after the unit, from London to Copenhagen and Amsterdam and finally to the Olympics at Montreal.  

Told with brazen wit, a keen eye for detail in location and character (and there are some terrific characters in here), this is prime Spenser.  The interplay between him and Hawk - and Susan - is wonderful and undercuts the violence and bloodshed nicely (there are several deaths here, plus a massive fight at the end that might be cartoon-ish in someone else’s hands).  

Very enjoyable and very highly recommended.
(read in memory of Mr Parker, who died 19/1/10, the day before I started reading this)

I didn’t know anyone else who read the series until I’d been published myself and, chatting with fellow writer Stuart Young at a gathering somewhere, we discovered a mutual love of Spenser.  Over the years since we’ve talked a lot about the books - and other crime writers - and although he’s read the Jesse Stone novels (and even got some for me), I’ve never read them or the Westerns (not really my genre).  I did read “Shrink Rap” (2002) featuring Sunny Randall but didn’t particularly enjoy it.

I won’t argue that all of the Spenser novels are brilliant, but even the weakest of them are wonderfully readable, with Parker's clipped, breezy style quickly pulling you along (and, generally, he always delivers the story well).

Parker received three nominations and two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, the first for “Promised Land”, the second being the Grand Master Award Edgar for his body of work in 2002.  In 2008 he was  awarded the Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award.

Robert B. Parker died suddenly of a heart attack, sitting at his desk at home, on January 18th, 2010. He was 77.

The Spenser Bibliography

The Godwulf Manuscript (1973)
God Save the Child (1974)
Mortal Stakes (1975)
Promised Land (1976) (Edgar Award, 1977, Best Novel; adapted into pilot episode of Spenser: For Hire)
The Judas Goat (1978)
Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980)
Early Autumn (1981)
A Savage Place (1981)
Ceremony (1982)
The Widening Gyre (1983)
Valediction (1984)
A Catskill Eagle (1985)
Taming a Sea Horse (1986)
Pale Kings and Princes (1987)
Crimson Joy (1988)
Playmates (1989)
Stardust (1990)
Pastime (1991)
Double Deuce (1992)
Paper Doll (1993)
Walking Shadow (1994)
Thin Air (1995)
Chance (1996)
Small Vices (1997)
Sudden Mischief (1998)
Hush Money (1999)
Hugger Mugger (2000)
Potshot (2001)
Widow's Walk (2002)
Back Story (2003)
Bad Business (2004)
Cold Service (2005)
School Days (2005)
Hundred-Dollar Baby (2006)
Now and Then (2007)
Rough Weather (2008)
Chasing the Bear: A Young Spenser Novel (2009)
The Professional (2009)
Painted Ladies (2010)
Sixkill (2011)

Monday 15 September 2014

The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

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.

"The Shining Girls" won the 2014 August Derleth Best Horror Novel Award at FantasyCon.

“It’s not my fault. It’s yours. You shouldn’t shine. You shouldn’t make me do this.”

Chicago 1931. Harper Curtis, a violent drifter, stumbles on a house with a secret as shocking as his own twisted nature – it opens onto other times. He uses it to stalk his carefully chosen 'shining girls' through the decades – and cut the spark out of them.

He’s the perfect killer. Unstoppable. Untraceable. He thinks…

Chicago, 1992. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Tell that to Kirby Mazrachi, whose life was shattered after a brutal attempt to murder her. Still struggling to find her attacker, her only ally is Dan, an ex-homicide reporter who covered her case and now might be falling in love with her.

As Kirby investigates, she finds the other girls – the ones who didn’t make it. The evidence is … impossible. But for a girl who should be dead, impossible doesn’t mean it didn’t happen…

This is the first Lauren Beukes book I’ve read and, even though it was recommended to me last year, the apparent sci-fi angle with the time-travelling serial killer did put me off and it really shouldn’t have done because this is a fantastic novel, told with pace and wit and a sure sense of itself.  

Kirby Mazrachi is a great character, seen through various points in her life (from leading an almost abandoned childhood to surviving an appalling attack) and never being less than believable.  Spiky, opinionated, forthright and driven by purpose, she leaps off the page and is so richly developed that everything about her sparkles - her dress-sense, her scarf, the Little Pony motif, her boots - to us, not just to Harper Curtis, the serial killer himself.  With him, Beukes has created a stand-out villain who it’s impossible to tears your eyes from.  Falling into The House (the timeline of which becomes much more twisted with the Postscript) and the ability to time-travel, he’s ruthless and vindictive, growing colder and more unpleasant as the book progresses even when he’s still trying to figure out what’s going on (and is, arguably, as much a victim as the girls).  Worse, he keeps getting hurt - an ankle injury at the start of the book means he uses a crutch throughout the novel, one victim breaks his jaw meaning it has to be wired up (in 1932, which leaves him scarred), he’s attacked by dogs and other victims, but still he keeps coming.  Rounding out the leads is Dan Velasquez, a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, divorced and now a sports reporter after kicking up too much heat on the crime beat.  He reported on Kirby’s attack, so she approaches him when she wants help in tracking down Harper.

The time-travel device is superb and dealt with inventively - it’s there, it happens, let’s get on with it.  Harper can control, to a degree, where he ends up and he likes to go out and explore but we never fully understand why it works, why it’s there or even why the girls themselves are shining.  The book works better for that, I think and it’s intriguing going from chapter to chapter, dotting backwards and forwards in time, seeing events from different angles and viewpoints.

With something this complex (I saw a picture - see below - of Beukes standing in front of the timeline chart she used to follow everyone and it looked terrifying), it stands and falls on the strength of the writing and this is wonderfully assured.  Told in present tense and with a deceptively easy style, it rattles you along and seduces you with language before bringing you up short with the violent attacks.  And they are incredibly violent, told with an almost casual approach that makes them all the more brutal and unpleasant.  None of them are less than gruesome but when we finally see what happened to Kirby, it’s like being repeatedly punched as the whole terrible spectacle unfolds.

The Shining Girls themselves are dotted through time, from 1932 up to 1993 and we get to know enough about the victims (with plenty of local colour thrown in too) to feel great sympathy for them especially since we know that Harper is, essentially, unstoppable.  The story is filled with great details of the various periods and plenty of history, though neither feel shoehorned in and the social commentary - racism, the great depression, abortion, feminism, sexism, gang culture and the lost souls of modern life - grounds everything in a terrific, grimy realism.

Superbly written, with great pace and nerve, this is a fantastic read and I highly recommend it.

photo by Morne van Zyl

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Movie miniatures - an appreciation of Derek Meddings

Derek Meddings, surrounded by various James Bond-related miniatures 
Derek Meddings was a special effects genius and whilst most movie-goers won't know his name, millions of them have seen his work (especially on films from the 1970s and 80s, when American movies utilised British talent based on our technicians outstanding international reputations).

Derek, working on the Thunderbirds episode 
"Fireflash" in 1965
Derek was born in London on January 15th 1931.  His father was a carpenter at Denham Studios, whilst his mother was Alexander Korda’s secretary and occasionally the stand-in for Merle Oberon.  Derek attended art school and, in the late 1940s, secured a job at Denham lettering credit titles.  A meeting with special effects artist Les Bowie led to Derek joining his matte painting department which thrived in the 1950s as they worked for Hammer Films, whose limited budgets necessitated many ‘string and cardboard’ creations.  This served Derek well when he was hired by Gerry Anderson to work on ‘Four Feather Falls’ (creating backgrounds of ranches), ‘Supercar’ and ‘Fireball XL5’, before designing (with Reg Hill) the models for ‘Stingray’ and then to ‘Thunderbirds’, where he was given a free hand to design the series.

With his early experience, Derek created simple solutions to problems like tracking moving vehicles (either on roads or runways), using an escalator system where the model was stationary whilst the set moved around, under or over it.  His work moved to the big-screen with ‘Thunderbirds Are Go!’ (1966) and the live-action feature ‘Doppelganger’ (also known as ‘Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun’) in 1969.  Back on TV, Derek designed effects for ‘Captain Scarlet’ (1967) and the live-action ‘UFO’ (1970), both for Anderson.

Drafted into the Bond franchise by producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli with 1973’s ‘Live and Let Die’, Derek struck up a working partnership that would last until ‘Goldeneye’ in 1995.  Between Bond’s, he went back to the ‘string and cardboard’ method on ‘The Land That Time Forgot’ (1975) and did some excellent work on ‘Aces High’ (1976) where he rigged the planes for the flying sequences.

Some of the miniature work on 'The Spy Who Loved Me' (1977)
top left - Stromberg's Atlantis base is lowered into the sea (two crewmen hang on)
top right - filming one of the Lotus miniatures
bottom left - the 60ft miniature of the Liparus (showing the wake)
bottom right - a crewman adds a sense of scale to the Liparus miniature
On ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977), Derek supervised filming of the underwater and supertanker sequences, which meant spending four months in the Bahamas.  Since using a real tanker was prohibitively expensive in terms of insurance, he built a 70ft long miniature and put an outboard motor inside it, to replicate the enormous wakes the real ships create.  He also created the Atlantis headquarters of Stromberg (based on the design by Ken Adam) and the submersible Lotus Esprit (shot using a combination of full-size body shells and one-quarter scale miniatures).

top - the Golden Gate Bridge miniature for 'Superman' (1978)
bottom - David Michael Petrou (author of the making of paperback) stands in front of the Hoover Dam miniature)
He went straight to work on ‘Superman’ (1978) and shot all of the miniature sequences at Pinewood Studios, including the Golden Gate bridge, Krypton and the Hoover Dam, earning an Oscar for his effects.  The drowned village part of the Dam sequence was completed by another company after Derek left the production and, unfortunately, the join between the two is all too obvious.  Nevertheless, he amply delivered on the films promise that the audience would believe a man could fly.

Derek working on the Moonraker miniatures, 1978
For ‘Moonraker’ (1979), the production schedule was so tight that Derek was forced to utilise a very old technique for all the space-set shots and shoot everything ‘in camera’, winding the film back after each element had been shot and running it again with another model.  One shot, apparently, has 48 separate elements in it, meaning the film was wound back at least 96 times (imagine messing that shot up one before the end!).  For the destruction of the space station, he and his team hung the model in the James Bond 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios and shot at it with a shotgun.  At the time, Sir Roger Moore was quoted as saying of Derek and his team, ‘if [NASA] had our boys working for them, the real Shuttle would have been launched by now.’

Derek and colleague at work on 'Superman 2' - Metropolis streets on the left
After more great work on ‘Superman 2’ (1980), including replicating the streets of Metropolis for the climactic fight, Derek created the St George miniatures on ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (1981).  Briefly appearing in ‘Spies Like Us’ (1985), he worked on ‘Batman’ (1989) and believed he got that job because director Tim Burton was a big fan of ‘Thunderbirds’.
Derek, touching up the satellite station miniature from "Goldeneye" (1995)
Going back to the Bond franchise with ‘Goldeneye’ (1995), Derek created incredibly realistic miniatures that are peppered throughout the film (notably the satellite station, the train and the radar dish) and they serve as a wonderful memorial to the man (a dedication in the final credits reads ‘To the memory of Derek Meddings’).

Derek Meddings died of colorectal cancer on September 10th 1995, aged 64.

He won a Special Achievement Award Oscar in 1979 for his work on ‘Superman’ and received the Michael Balcon Award from BAFTA in the same year.  His work on ‘Moonraker’ was Oscar-nominated and ‘Batman’ received a BAFTA nomination.  He was posthumously awarded the 1996 BAFTA Award for Best Achievement (in special effects) for ‘GoldenEye’.


Thunderbirds Are Go (1966)
Thunderbird 6 (1968)
Doppelgänger (aka Journey to the Far Side of the Sun; 1969)
Z.P.G. (1972)
Fear Is the Key (1972)
Live and Let Die (1973)
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
The Land That Time Forgot (1975)
Shout at the Devil (1976)
Aces High (1976)
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Superman: The Movie (1978)
Moonraker (1979)
Superman II (1980)
For Your Eyes Only' (1981)
Krull (1983)
Banzaï (1983)
Superman III (1983)
Supergirl (1984)
Spies Like Us (1985)
Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
Mio min Mio (1987)
High Spirits (1988)
Apprentice to Murder (1988)
Batman (1989)
The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter (1991)
Hudson Hawk (1991)
Cape Fear (1991)
The Neverending Story III (1994)
GoldenEye (1995)

There is a Facebook group dedicated to Derek, which can be found here on this link

Pinewood Studios Special Effects award winners
Left to right - George Gibbs, John Stears, Kit West, Charles Staffel, Brian Johnson, Roy Field, Derek Meddings, Richard Conway.
plenty of links to ILM and Lucasfilm here too - Gibbs worked on "Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom", Stears on "Star Wars", Kit West on many projects and Johnson on "The Empire Strikes Back"

Tuesday 9 September 2014

FantasyCon, York, 5th September to 7th September, 2014

Friday 5th September
Having decided to ‘let the train take the strain’ again, Sue Moorcroft & I arrived in York at 12.30 but couldn’t work out where the hotel was.  The picture on the website showed Downton Abbey standing in acres of land but we discovered it was a clever camera angle (it was Downton Abbey but the photographer crouched low, cut out some cars and road and so the lawns looked like acres of land - cunning!).  Deciding we’d head straight to get something for lunch, I was drawing out money from the cash machine and Bryn Fortey spotted me.  It was lovely to finally meet him and we had a chat, before James Everington briefly joined us, then Bryn took us to the hotel to get checked in.  Informed our rooms wouldn’t be ready until 3pm, Sue & I walked into the city and had lunch at a café near the Minster, sitting out on the square (where Sue managed to smash the lid of the teapot she had…).
Chris Teague with copies of "Drive" on prominent display...
Back to the hotel and we began to see old friends - James, Phil Sloman, Ross Warren and Steven Chapman, Steve Harris, John Travis, Terry Grimwood and Peter Mark May, Lynda E. Rucker and Jay Eales & Selina Lock.  Paul & Cath Finch were registering and during our chat and Paul asked when Dude is going to start coming to Cons (next year, as it happens, he’s remembered my promise to let him come when he’s ten)!  Plus there was Ian Whates and the lovely Helen, Simon Bestwick, Simon Kurt Unsworth, Alison Littlewood and Fergus, Mick & Debbie Curtis, Gary Cole-Wilkin & Soozy Marjoram (who gave me a massive hug and then made sure I was looking after myself now!).  Plus Mark Morris arranging for our Three Investigator conversation, Dean M. Drinkel, Paul Meloy and Sarah Pinborough.  Adele Wearing, Vincent Holland-Keen, Karen Davis and Ewan, Ruth Booth (who zipped around with redcloak efficiency), Gavin Williams and Pixie Pudding and Joan De La Haye, Anna Taborska and Reggie Oliver.  I love FantasyCon because it’s about horror and writing but it’s also about our genre community and I love getting to see old friends again and catching up with them in person.
Friends meet up - from left, Steven Chapman, Phil Sloman, Jim Mcleod, me, Sue Moorcroft, Neil Williams, Chris Teague
With Steven, Sue & I went to the Opening Ceremony (I’d never been to one before, I don’t think I’ll bother again) but heard the bad news that Graham Joyce wouldn’t be attending (he should have been the MC), which was a great shame.

Back upstairs, we found Neil Williams - it was his first con and although he & I have been communicating regularly for years (he is one of the original ‘ill at ease’ gang), it was our first time of meeting - and then, on a trip to the dealer room (where Chris Teague had copies of “Drive” on prominent display), we bumped into Jim Mcleod, Mr Ginger Nuts Of Horror himself.  It was brilliant to meet him finally, as he’s been hugely supportive of me and my work, so I got to shake his hand heartily and tell him what I thought of him.
Adam Nevill indulges in his "smell my finger" game - l to r - Phil Sloman, Adam, me, Steven Chapman
We went to the Tor launch and got Adam Nevill to sign our books as we chatted about how grim his latest novel was and then met up with Gary McMahon, who tossed his mane of richly thick hair a little too often for my liking (I do so envy it, but I can’t ever tell him…).  We then went out onto the terrace to enjoy some of the late afternoon sun and glorious, tangent-filled con-speak followed.  Steve Bacon finally joined us and we headed for the Joel Lane tribute (held in Joel Lane Bar, next to the main events room).  It was a lovely and really quite touching hour or more, as his old friends chatted about him and read selections of his work, though there were some noisy folk just behind us who Ramsey Campbell shouted at to “have some respect”.  Everyone went silent, it reminded me of headmasters bellowing in corridors but did the trick!

Ackbars Indian Restaurant - me, Paul Edwards and  the
biggest naan breads ever.  A bemused Sue Moorcroft looks on
Back up to the lobby, where we found Sue waiting with Jay & Selina and also Paul & Mandy Edwards, who I haven’t seen for a couple of years so it was lovely to catch up with them.  We headed off to the Ackbars Indian with Lucy Wade and some members of Jay & Selina’s writing group (and yes, most of the conversation revolved around how they could fit “It’s a trap” into the menu and how much of a shame it would be if they didn’t - turns out, they didn’t…), catching up on lives and family news on the way.  Ackbars was crowded and noisy but the food was good and I sat next to Neil - a curry virgin.  Selina & I steered him towards a chicken korma, then half of us ordered naan breads without noticing from other tables that they were huge, far bigger than I’ve ever seen (Steve said they acted as curtains for across the table).  Neil, Mandy, Paul and Sue all attacked mine and we still didn’t finish it.

Since the hotel bar prices were so high (ridiculously so - a glass of diet coke that, if you took the ice out of, wouldn’t have held half a can of drink, cost £3.50), we alighted to the York Tap next door and took over a big corner table.  Jasper Bark, Jim Mcleod, Lisa Jenkins and a couple I didn’t catch the name of (the acoustics were terrible) joined us and we talked and laughed and talked some more.  Then Johnny Mains turned up and came over to say hello and that’s always a treat.  By the end of the evening, I had a really bad case of heartburn (from my spicy Tikka Massala I assumed), which worried me slightly and I sat up for a while and it put me off the idea of going for another curry run tomorrow.

Saturday 6th September
Saturday was supposed to start bright and early but following my late night, sitting up wondering if it was heartburn and a travel alarm that was reluctant to do its job, I was re-woken by Sue ringing me to make sure everything was okay.  It was, of course, so I got sorted and met her in the lobby and we went in for the (very nice) buffet breakfast.  We then met Neil and Steve in the lobby and planned out our day.  Sue went off for a panel, as did Neil and Steve & I, along with Paul & Mandy Edwards, went to the Film Show (run, as ever, by Martin Roberts and Helen Hopley) and saw a reading of an M R James story (everyone else liked it, I thought it was too stagey) and a short from Spain called “Home Sweet Home” which I loved, with its apparent echoes of “Repulsion” and “The Tenant”.  Into the next room for the Spectral Press launch of Mark Morris’ “The Spectral Book Of Horror Stories”, which had a tremendous turn-out - we queued for ages, chatting with Lynda, Simon, Ross, Simon & Lizzie Marshall-Jones and plenty of others.  The signing panel was great too, with Alison Littlewood mentioning the naughty corner in her inscription.  Sue went to her room to watch the F1 qualifying, so Steve & I went back into the Film Show as they were presenting “The Jacket” (adapted from a Johnny Mains short story - his introduction was amusing and very much on point to what we saw - I want to see it again though with his commentary) and “Ascension” (which I’ve seen before and written about here) with Dave Jeffery (writer) and James Underhill Hart (director) in attendance.  I’ve known Dave for a few years and really like him, James I met briefly at a Comic Con at the NEC a year or so ago and it was great to watch the film with them.  It stands up very well on a bigger screen too and Dave gave me a DVD copy for my support, which I really appreciated.  After a chat with Martin and another with James Barclay in the corridor, we met Neil and Sue in the lobby (fifteen minutes late but it's such a regular occurrence by now that Sue doesn’t mention it) and wandered out into the York rain for lunch at Bailey’s Café and Tea Room, which was nice.  Over our sandwiches we talked about how we all met, what we were working on and plans for the future.
Friends in an expensive bar - Fiona Ni Ealaighthe, Jim Mcleod, me, John Travis
Back to the hotel, we visited the bar and had some chats, then went to the NewCon Press launch, for Gary McMahon’s “The End” (which I critiqued several years ago and contend is still one of his best novels) and it seemed to go well (though Jay Eales convinced him to mention his hair so my inscription reads ‘Behold my mane!” - grrrr.  I do get a nice mention in the acknowledgements though).  Steve & I then went into the “Horror on the small screen” panel, chaired by the brilliant Maura McHugh and featuring Stephen Volk, Paul Kane, Toby Whithouse and Laura Cotton (? I might have got that wrong) which was very entertaining.  Since it was still chucking it down, we repaired to the bar and stood chatting with Jim, Fiona Ní Éalaighthe and John, Paul & Mandy were around - his brother was visiting - and I had a brief word with Maura and Steve V, telling them how much I enjoyed the panel.  Paul Finch came through like a whirlwind (Steve is in “Terror Tales Of Yorkshire” and Paul Edwards has been asked to contribute to “TT of Cornwall” and I’m desperate for Paul Finch to get to the Midlands and I keep reminding him of where I live!).  None of us wanted to go to the mass signing so we headed out into the now thankfully rain-free evening to try and find a restaurant.  A quick word about York - lovely city, great architecture and people, but incredible rowdy in the early evening, as it appears that every local stag and hen do hits the streets!

We ended up at Silvano’s Pizzeria & Ristorante and had a great meal and chat.  We’d intended to get back for the Boo Books launch but missed it and, as I’d been convincing everyone all afternoon how great the FCon disco was two years ago, we headed for that.  Paul & Mandy joined us there and I think I danced pretty much solidly (both in terms of time and dancing style) from 9pm through until 1am (by which time Sue had given up and gone to bed and Steve Bacon had unfortunately had to go home.  Neil & I walked him to the door and said our goodbyes and I gave him a big hug).  Paul & Mandy also went - my dancing partners in crime - so there was a lot of hugging there too.  Back on the dance-floor, I was (I was going to say co-erced but that definitely isn’t true) convinced to twerk, along with Steven Chapman, Donna Bond and Peter Mark May and - unfortunately - that’s the only part of the evening that Jim Mcleod filmed.  The twerking I was doing in my head didn’t match what Jim captured on his phone, I can tell you…
With the Edwards at the disco - a quieter moment with Mandy and letting rip with Paul
We were all buzzed and none of us wanted to call it a night so we took over a set of sofas in the corner of the lobby - me, James, Steven, Chris Teague, Jim, Peter, Neil, Graeme Reynolds and Lisa Jenkins - and talked for a couple of hours and it was a lovely, pleasant way to round off the evening (plus it was very close to a set of toilets which looked very grandiose and had people nipping off to take pictures of it).  At 3am I decided it was time to head off so I got up and then everyone else did - just waiting for me to be the old fart, I suppose.  Another cracking day, another cracking evening.

Sunday 7th September
Neil, Sue & I on the wall, outside of the hotel enjoying the glorious sunshine
I met Sue on time and we went in for breakfast, where I noticed Simon Clark sitting on his own so I got him to join us.  Sue went to the Toby Whithouse interview and I fully intended to go as well but as I was checking out, I saw Gary in the bar and went in and never came out, joining in conversations with James, Ross, Steve H, Victoria Leslie, Neil Snowden, Jim, Pablo Cheesecake, Mhairi Simpson and more, so many more.  Paul Finch came over to say his goodbyes, shook my hand and wished me well and told me to be ready for the call to the “TT of the Midlands” book - yes!  Sue came back, she was absorbed into the conversation and we finally got up to leave at lunchtime.  We said our goodbyes, just in case we missed everyone later and it was as sad as it always is, knowing it’ll be a while before we all get together again.  Sue, Neil & I embarked on a walking tour of the city, taking in the glorious afternoon sunshine and the sights York had to offer.  I led us out towards Micklegate and we discovered a little café called “Your Bike Shed” and had lunch in there - it was great.  We then walked along the wall until the got to the river, cut through the city centre, joined the tourists at the Minster and the Shambles, then went back on the wall.  Sue stayed there and Neil & I headed to the hotel for the awards ceremony.

As always, the banquet was running late so we stood in the bar with Neil & Donna Bond and Lucy and had a laugh before they let us into the events hall.  There wasn’t enough seating so Neil & I, like a pair of the most unstealthy ninja’s ever, went on a chair raid so we could sit down.  The ceremony went well, the results were well received and it’s great to see such a strong genre represented.

By then it was 4pm and time to go.  We said goodbye to Neil, bumped into Chris Teague and Lisa Jenkins just outside the hotel and said goodbye to them, then caught our train and talked all the way back to Kettering until, at 7.05pm, Sue & I said goodbye to each other.
In the Tap on Friday night - from left, Stephen Bacon, Sue Moorcroft, me, Mandy Edwards, Paul Edwards, Neil Williams, Chris Teague, Jasper Bark
All in all, it was a cracking con.  There have been comments made about the lack of horror on the programme and I suppose that’s true, but I don’t really go for the panels - I go for the people, the chatter and the laughs.  The one panel I did catch was interesting and good fun, the signings were great, as was the film show and I missed all the readings (sorry people) but the company I kept was outstanding.  If I did have gripes, they’d be the lack of a raffle, no midnight ghost stories but worst of all, the bar prices which helped to fragment the crowd - as people found other watering holes to drink it, it meant there wasn’t ever one central point where you knew people would be.  That aside, it was well organised and everything ran on time and what more could you ask?

The other nice thing, for me, came from seeing old friends and their genuine concern and love following my mini-heart attack a month or so ago.  To have my friends come over and ask how I was, tell me how much I scared them and make sure I was okay before hugging me (or, in Gary McMahon’s case, flicking his mane of luxurious locks and then patting me on the chest), was wonderful.  Thank you, thank you all.
On the terrace.  I am centre bottom, then clockwise left - Steven Chapman, Neil Williams, Sue Moorcroft, Stephen Bacon, John Travis, Terry Grimwood, James Everington, Steve Harris
As ever, I’ve tried to mention everyone I saw and chatted with, even if only briefly (sorry Charlotte Bond!) and if I’ve missed you out, I’m sorry - in fact, let me know and I’ll edit you in!
The "ill at ease" boys - Stephen Bacon, me, Neil Williams - finally we all meet up
Apparently the Con is going to be at Nottingham next year and I’m already looking forward to it!

edit - I posted this on Tuesday morning and we found out that Graham Joyce passed away on Tuesday afternoon.  He was a genuinely wonderful bloke, who loved life and genre and hated inequality and he always made time to stop and chat whenever we ran into each other at Con's (except for the burlesque incident!).  He will be sadly missed.