Monday 29 June 2015

James Bond And Moonraker (in film and print)

“Moonraker”, the eleventh James Bond film in the official EON series, opened in the UK on June 28th 1979.  It was directed by Lewis Gilbert (his third and final Bond film), produced by Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and written by Christopher Wood.  Ken Adam was the production designer, Derek Meddings supervised the special effects, John Barry wrote the score whilst John Glen edited the film and directed the second unit.
I was ten, it was the first Bond I was aware of before it was released and it was a film I was really eager to see - James Bond!  Roger Moore!  Space Shuttles!  I know the film has its detractors (and yes, there are bits that make me shake my head) but I liked it then and I like it now.

At the close of “The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977), it was promised that Bond would return in “For Your Eyes Only” but following the huge success of “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” and the subsequent rise of the sci-fi genre, producer Cubby Broccoli decided to change course.  Based on the 1954 novel by Ian Fleming (which itself was based on a screenplay he’d written earlier), it needed updating (Broccoli, in interview, said it concerned a “piddling little rocket”) but fitted perfectly.

As with most Bond adaptions, the screenplay ignores a lot of the novel and, in this case, the name of Hugo Drax is the only real link (though the character in the novelisation is closer to Fleming’s).  In the film, Bond investigates the hi-jacking and theft of a Moonraker space shuttle, which leads him to Drax, the owner of the manufacturing firm.  Along with CIA agent/scientist Dr Holly Goodhead, Bond follows a globetrotting trail from California (complete with transplanted French chateau) to Venice, Rio de Janeiro to the Amazonian rainforest and finally into outer space, where he foils a plot to wipe out the world’s population so that Drax can re-create humanity with his own master race.

Ken Adam's space station set
Marking Sir Roger Moore’s fourth time in the role, production began on 14th August 1978 on a budget of $34m (a substantial figure then and twice as much as “The Spy Who Loved Me” cost).  Due to the high taxation situation at the time, shooting was transplanted from the 007 Stage at Pinewood (though the miniatures and cable-car interiors were filmed there) to three of the largest film studios in France, at Epinay and Boulogne-Billancourt.  The massive sets designed by Ken Adam were the largest ever constructed in France, required more than 222,000 man-hours to create and the three-storey space station (built at Epinay) used 100 tonnes of metal, two tonnes of nails and 10,000 feet of wood.  The exterior of Drax’s mansion was filmed at the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, southeast of Paris (the shot from the helicopter, of Silicon Valley, was a matte painting), as was the Grand Salon whilst the remaining interiors were filmed at the Château de Guermantes.  Extensive sequences, including a recreation of the famous carnival and a fight on the Sugarloaf Mountain cable cars, were filmed in Rio de Janeiro while Iguazu Falls, in southern Brazil, were utilised for the speed boat chase.  The exterior of Drax’s headquarters in the Amazon was filmed at the Tikal Mayan ruins in Guatemala (ironically also the location of Yavin 4 in “Star Wars”) and all the space centre scenes were shot at the Vehicle Assembly Building of the Kennedy Space Centre in Floria (though early shots of the Moonraker assembly plant - those that weren’t miniatures - were the Rockwell International manufacturing plant in Palmdale, California).

BJ Worth (in brown) and Jake Lombard (as Bond)
The pre-title sequence where Bond is pushed out of an aeroplane without a parachute was filmed in California under the supervision of second unit director John Glen.  Supervised by Don Calvedt and using equipment developed by him and skydiving champion B.J. Worth, the crew undertook 88 dives to capture the footage, with Jake Lombard doubling 007 and Ron Luginbill as Jaws (Worth doubled the ill-fated pilot).  The cameraman used a lightweight plastic Panavision lens, which producer Michael G Wilson found in a pawn shop in Paris.

During the sequence at the Venice laboratory, Steven Spielberg gave permission for Cubby Brocoli to use the five-note melody from his film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.  In 1985, Broccoli returned the favour, granting Spielberg's request to use the James Bond theme in “The Goonies”.

The film also broke two world records.  The sequence in the Venice glass museum (filmed at Boulogne Studios) used the largest amount of break-away sugar glass in a single scene whilst the climax at the space station had the largest number of zero gravity wires in one scene.

The work of Derek Meddings and his team
The miniature work was supervised by Derek Meddings (who I wrote about extensively here) and since NASA’s Space Shuttle hadn’t actually launched, his team had no reference footage.  The very realistic launches incorporated signal flares for take-off, whilst the smoke trail was made of salt (Sir Roger later commented that “if [NASA] had our boys working for them, the real Shuttle would have been launched by now”).  There wasn’t time to utilise the optical printing process that “Star Wars” employed (where many layers of film are added together) and instead, Meddings used an old process where the film was rewound after an element (the shuttle, painted background, spacemen, probes) had been filmed.  Whilst this gave the special effects sequences excellent definition, some shots had upwards of 40 elements so the tension to get everything right first time must have been immense.

Top - Lois Chiles, Sir Roger Moore, Corine Clery
Bottom - Michael Lonsdale, Toshiro Suga
In addition to Sir Roger, series stalwarts Desmond Llewellyn (as Q) and Lois Maxwell (as Miss Moneypenny) returned, as did Bernard Lee as “M” though this was his last appearance (he died in 1981).  Hugo Drax was going to be played by James Mason, but once the decision was made for the film to be an Anglo-French co-production, to satisfy qualifying criteria, French actor Michael Lonsdale was cast as Drax whilst Corinne Cléry was chosen for the part of Corinne Dufour (originally Trudi Parker, she’s a Californian Valley girl in the novelisation).  American actress Lois Chiles (who had apparently turned down the role of Anya Amasova in “The Spy Who Loved Me”) was cast as Dr Holly Goodhead after being seated, by chance, next to Lewis Gilbert on a flight.  Jaws, played by Richard Kiel, re-appears from “The Spy Who Loved Me” and although he starts as a villain (he pushes Bond out of the pre-title sequence plane), he comes good before the end - a move, according to Lewis Gilbert, prompted by fan mail from small children asking “why can’t Jaws be a goodie and not a baddie?”  Jaws also gets a love interest with diminutive French actress Blanche Ravalec, who was the same height as Kiel’s real-life wife.  Drax’s  henchman Chang was played by Japanese aikido instructor Toshiro Suga, on the suggestion of Michael G. Wilson, who was one of his pupils.  Wilson himself appears in the film (as is his tradition), first as a tourist at the glass museum in Venice, then at the end as a technician in Drax's control room.

“Moonraker” premiered on 26th June 1979 in the UK, before going on general release on 28th June.  It was released in the USA on 29th June, with most mainland European countries releasing it during August except France which, even though it was filmed there, didn’t open it until 10th October.  It received its UK TV premiere on 27th December 1982.  On a budget of $34m, it is currently estimated to have taken $210.3m worldwide ($19.4m at the UK box office) and was the highest grossing Bond film until “Goldeneye” in 1995.
left to right - Ken Adam (production designer), Cubby Broccoli (producer), Lewis Gilbert (director), on location in Venice
The film received a somewhat mixed reception from critics.  Vincent Canby, in the New York Times, wrote it was “one of the most buoyant Bond films of all. Almost everyone connected with the movie is in top form, even Mr. Moore. Here he's as ageless, resourceful, and graceful as the character he inhabits.”  Jay Scott, in The Globe and Mail, said that “in the first few minutes – before the credits – it offers more thrills than most escapist movies provide in two hours.”  Frank Rich of Time wrote that it was “irresistibly entertaining as only truly mindless spectacle can be” whilst film scholar James Monaco wrote in The Connoisseur's Guide to the Movies that it was a “minor masterpiece” and the best Bond of them all.

However, the spectacle, the space angle and the comedy elements didn’t sit well with everyone.  Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, praised the special effects and production design but criticised the pacing with “it's so jammed with faraway places and science fiction special effects that Bond has to move at a trot just to make it into all the scenes.”  Even Richard Maibaum, a previous (and future) Bond screenwriter said “With “Moonraker”, we went too far in the outlandish. The audience did not believe any more and Roger spoofed too much.”
On the promotional trail (Sir Roger was making "North Sea Hijack", hence the beard)
left - Corine Clery, Sir Roger, Richard Kiel / right - Michael Lonsdale, with Moore and Kiel
For what it’s worth, I just don’t understand the dislike of it (though I appreciate I’m biased by the age I first saw it and the fact that Roger Moore is MY Bond - as I may have mentioned once or twice).  In its place, I’d offer “A View To Kill” for the worst Moore film (he should have given up after “Octopussy”) whilst I’d suggest the soggy “Die Another Day” or so-what “Quantum Of Solace” are far poorer but it’s all subjective.  It is larger than life, yes and it does have some poorly chosen comedy moments (that damned double-taking pigeon on St Marks Square rankles me every time I see it) but it’s spectacular, it's action-packed, the script is spot on (as is Moore) and the special effects are superb.  And who could deny a film that gives “Q” perhaps the greatest double entendre ever with, “I think he’s attempting re-entry sir!”

Derek Meddings, Paul Wilson and John Evans were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, but lost to “Alien”.  The film was also nominated for three Saturn Awards, Best Science Fiction Film, Best Special Effects, and Best Supporting Actor (Richard Kiel).
* * *
Since the screenplay of “Moonraker” differed so much from the Fleming novel, screenwriter Christopher Wood was allowed to write a novelisation (as he had with his previous “The Spy Who Loved Me”).  It was published in 1979 as “James Bond And Moonraker”, to avoid confusion with the original novel.

I decided this year, after watching the film for the umpteenth time, to read the Wood novelisation (having found it in a second-hand shop a couple of years ago).  I mentioned it on Facebook at the time and my friend and fellow writer Kit Power said that he was keen to re-read the Fleming novel.  So we both did and these are our thoughts…

James Bond And Moonraker
by Christopher Wood
Panther paperback 1979, cover scan of my copy
A very regrettable incident has occurred.  A US MOONRAKER space shuttle, on loan to the British, has disappeared - apparently into thin air.  Who has the spacecraft?  The Russians?  Hugo Drax, multi-millionaire support of the NASA space programme, thinks so.  But Commander James Bond knows better.

Aided by the beautiful - and efficient - Dr Holly Goodhead, 007 embarks on his most dangerous mission yet.  Obective: to prevent one of the most insane acts of human destruction ever contemplated.  Destination: outer space.  The stakes a high.  Astronomical even.  But only Bond could take the rough so smoothly.  Even when he’s out of this world…

Not to be confused with the Fleming original, this is the novelisation of the screenplay (which Wood also wrote) - hence the title - and follows the film closely, though it does include some interesting tangents.  The James Bond portrayed here is closer to the novels than Sir Roger Moore ever played him and even though this includes the same wit and one-liners as the film, there’s a more gritty atmosphere to it all.  The gondola chase is shorter (and has a much more abrupt ending than the bit in St Marks Square and so misses the bloody double-taking pigeon), the boat chase in the Amazon is preceeded by the fact that Bond has endured three days on the boat and we don’t get the scene where Corinne is chased by the dogs (Holly tells Bond about it when they get together in Venice).  In fact, the book was written before the filming was shifted to France, since Corinne Dufour (the helicopter pilot who helps Bond and then pays for it) is Trudi Parker here, a Californian Valley-girl (when the production shifted to France, it necessitated the casting of a French actress).  Jaws is very differently portrayed, with little of the slapstick - he’s not on the plane at the beginning or the boat in the Amazon, though he’s wet when he pulls Bond from the pool - and a nice touch of melancholy at the end (when he’s finally joined by a girl in the part of the space station that drifts off).  Hugo Drax is as good a character as the film would suggest, though he’s clearly not Michael Lonsdale - the novelisation Drax “is a large  man with shoulders like an American football player”, a “red head, with plastic surgery scarring  on his right temple”, his right ear is badly mangled and his face has a “lopsided look because one eye was larger than the other”.  Bond assumes this is because he was injured in the war but it made me wonder why a multi-millionaire hadn’t paid for the plastic surgery to sort it out.  

I liked the book (I like Wood’s writing, generally), it has a good pace and a nice sensibility about it, but I can see how that might be influenced by my liking the film.  As it stands, I enjoyed it and for a fan of the film, I’d say it was very much recommended.  Fleming purists, however, might well disagree.

by Ian Fleming
review by Kit Power
Or, Why Moonraker Is An Awesome Book Even Though It's Horrendously Sexist, Racist, And Dated.

Because it is, and there's no way to talk about that without talking about it, so let's just get the obvious out of the way: This book is ugly in many places. Whilst it's not quite as breathtakingly, gut-punch racist as Live And Let Die (“The kind of banana handshake that made you want to wash your hand afterwards”) or a jaw-droppingly misogynist as Casino Royale (where a woman - a woman Bond professes to himself to be falling for – is sufficiently headstrong and independent that 'sex with her would always carry the sweet tang of rape'), it stars the same protagonist and is cut from the same cloth. So, yeah, there's a 'strong female' companion, a Special Branch officer assigned to the same case as Bond, but the inside of Bond's mind as they interact is not a particularly pleasant place to be, and you will read some assumptions and comments about Germans that make 'Allo 'Allo look subtle and nuanced.

Here Be Dragons, in other words – the cultural dragons of the British empire, to be precise. Back when they still had wings and fire and teeth. In that sense Moonraker, alongside the other Bond books, stands as a vital and deeply uncomfortable cultural marker. Much in the same way that Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories indict the hypocrisies of Victorian England, even as they are told from within the establishment and intended to be endorsements, so too does Fleming's Bond shine a light on some of the darkest corners of post war Britain's establishment and it's view of the world.

For me, that's actually a big part of what makes this an awesome book. Our tale begins with Bond working his way through a typical Monday at the office – shooting practice followed by reading  top secret documents to assess if they need wider circulation to the other 00 agents, and perving over his secretary.

The level of detail is insane. Fleming names the brand of air conditioner that sucks up the gun smoke from the basement shooting gallery, and provides the contents of the first couple of dossiers verbatim. It really does make the reading experience intensely voyeuristic – we're hovering just behind the eyes of one of three of the UK's trained assassins as he goes about his daily tasks. That level of detail continues throughout, giving us such treats as the brand of muffler on Bond's car, the mixture of chemicals that the Moonraker rocket burns as fuel, right down to the brand of cigarette lighter on Drax's desk (Ronson, of course).

Depending on your preferences, this level of detail is either boring or fascinating. For me, it's spellbinding – a window into both a time and a place that is at once recognizable and almost totally alien.

Similarly, the pacing is... odd. The Pan paperback I read came in at under 200 pages – most Fleming Bond books come in around this kind of page count, some significantly shorter – so obviously it's in many ways a quick read. On the other hand, the story takes place over the course of five days, and fully the first third revolves entirely around a game of Bridge in a private members casino in central London, of which M, Bond's boss, is a member.

Now, again, how much you enjoy this will be heavily predicated on how much tolerance you have for painstaking descriptions of a fictional but no doubt representative high society gambling joint. But I have to say, as someone for whom long descriptive passages are normally my cue to pick a different book, I was transfixed (and bear in mind this has to be my fifth or sixth read of this book). It's so damned evocative, that's the thing; and again, there's a voyeuristic satisfaction of seeing the inside of such exclusivity. In this way, Bond is a brilliant guide, because he's there as a guest of his boss (investigating a possible case of cheating that for various political reasons needs to be dealt with without the cheat actually being formally unmasked, because oh! The scandal!). Not being a member himself, he brings an outsider's view, along with a sense of longing that is unspoken but runs underneath the whole scene. Bond is clearly in love with this place, and with the version of England it represents to him.

After which, he proceeds to drink the best part of two bottles of champagne (to 'appear drunk'!), ingests a healthy dose of Benzedrine, and then proceeds to out-cheat a cheat at a game of ludicrously high stakes Bridge.

Now, I can't play a note of Bridge. I don't even know how to play Hearts. And the Bridge in this novel is told in fairly close detail, right down to a pictorial representation of the key hand. So this should have been both impenetrable and dull to me. It was not. It was, is in fact, one of my favorite pieces of sustained thriller fiction ever.

Why? Well, there's a fantastic sense of the stakes, for starters. Drax is a national hero, the war survivor and self made multi-millionaire who is set to provide the UK with an independent nuclear deterrent in the form of the Moonraker rocket (due to be test fired on Friday). And he's cheating at Bridge, in one of the most exclusive clubs in London. Exposure of his cheating will lead to a scandal and could end the rocket project. At the same time, well, gentlemen are being hurt. Something Must Be Done. So Bond has to out-cheat the cheat - burn him bad enough to play straight in future – without either getting caught or exposing Drax for what he is. Whilst, as I previously mentioned, bombed out of his mind on champagne (to 'appear' drunk) and Benzedrine (for 'confidence'). Only the security of the realm at stake. No pressure.

Fleming also clearly loves the game of Bridge and high stakes gambling in general, and that love is infectious. So much so that you can follow the action even without having the first clue of the rules – or at least I could, and as a writer, I'm pretty much drowning in envy at the level of storytelling skill that represents.

Add in the aforementioned voyeurism, the extraordinary sense of place, and it's pretty much catnip for me - tense, exciting, combative. Masterful.

Truthfully, I don't enjoy the rest of the book quite as much as that first third – there's a purity to it that burns incredibly bright, and of necessity can't sustain throughout the rest of the plot. Nonetheless, for my money the book does a good job of building the tension throughout the rest of the narrative, throwing odd facts and circumstances at Bond and letting us inside his mind as he sifts the pieces, trying to make the puzzle picture that fits the facts. The climactic car chase is gut-wrenching, and taut, as is the inevitable 'captured-by-the-villain' monologue (was that a cliche in 1955, I wonder, or was it a Fleming invention?).

One other note: Fleming is exceptional at describing physical discomfort and torment – economic to the point of terse, and yet at certain points I found myself gritting my teeth.

In summary, I really feel like I can thoroughly recommend this book. It's far from the best Fleming Bond (Doctor No, Live And Let Die, Goldfinger, and The Man With The Golden Gun all top it easily, for my money), yet it's worth the price of admission for that opening third alone, and the window it offers into a world long gone, for good and ill (mainly, IMO, for good). And as for the laughably one dimensional Germans, well... it was first published in 1955 – only ten years after VE day. That doesn't excuse the attitudes expressed in the book – but it does to a large degree explain them. Fleming was an amazing talent as a thriller writer, and whilst his attitudes towards women, race, and empire feel cartoonishly dated at this point, it's worth remembering as you read, eyebrows occasionally raised so high they feel stuck to the ceiling, that there was a time in living memory when such attitudes were not merely commonplace, but actually informed the decision making process at the very highest levels of our society.

We've come a long way, baby. Take a trip down Fleming's all-too-vivid memory lane, and see just how far.

Or to put it another way, Moonraker is an awesome book in large part because it's, sexist, racist, and dated.

Which is not a statement I'd make too often.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

The Mystery Of The Flaming Footprints, by M. V. Carey

2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published and, to celebrate, I re-read and compiled my all-time Top 10 (safe in the knowledge that it would be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I posted my list here, having previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here).

This year, I decided to read through some of the books that I'd missed on that second read-through, without any intention of posting reviews but, as is often the way, it didn't quite work out like that.  So here's an additional review...
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed in 1972 and never reprinted), cover art by Roger Hall
Jupiter stared into the kitchen where three weird green flames leaped and flickered without a wisp of smoke.

"It's the Potter", murmured Hans, the German boy.  "He's come back to haunt the house."

"Impossible!" Jupe said hotly.  But there, burnt into the linoleum, were three ghostly footprints...

Collins Hardback Second Edition
(printed between 1974 and 1978)
cover scan of my copy
Jupiter Jones is helping his Aunt Mathilda at the Jones Junkyard when local eccentric The Potter - all white hair, thick beard and flowing robes - drives in.  He’s looking for some furniture for house-guests but, when another car with mysterious occupants arrives, he disappears.  His visitors - Mrs Eloise Dobson and her son Tom - then arrive and Jupiter helps them to move in to The Potter’s house (having already been mistaken for a cat burglar).  It isn’t long before the Dobson’s and Jupiter witness the unearthly phenomenon of the flaming footprints and, combined with two new occupants at the long deserted Hilltop House and a mysterious (and jaunty) fisherman, he realises it’s time for The Three Investigators to step in.  

This was the debut entry in the series for M. V. Carey and, in general, it works well.  Sticking very close to home (it never leaves Rocky Beach and a lot of action takes place in the Jones Junkyard), it has some nice flashes of humour and features Headquarters a lot, something Carey wouldn’t do often with future books.  There’s plenty of room for Aunt Mathilda, who comes across well and although Pete and Bob don’t appear until chapter 4, the boys have some good interplay and there’s even a cameo role for Worthington.

The Potter is actually Alexis Kerenov, friend to the Azimov’s who once ruled the small European country of Lapathia.  Following a coup, Kerenov escaped, took up pottery (and adopted a new surname) and started a family.  But every year, he places an ad in all the major US newspapers, requesting his old friend Nicholas Azimov gets in touch.  This year, that ad was spotted by Farrier, the jaunty fisherman and also Mr Demetrieff from the Lapathian Board of Trade, who brings in the feared General Kaluk.

The tone of the piece works well, the mystery is solved piece-by-piece by Jupiter and everything slots neatly into place.  The Dobsons are good characters - strong and vibrant - and contrast nicely with Kaluk, whilst the attitude of police officer Haines, who is called to the house and knows Jupiter, is amusing.  Oddly enough though, Chief Reynolds is grouchy all the time, especially to the First Investigator, which doesn't feel right.  The story has a wonderful sense of atmosphere that is maintained throughout and Carey uses her locations - the Junkyard, the Seabreeze Inn, the Potters house and Hilltop House - to great effect.

As well written as you’d expect from M. V. Carey, this has some smart set pieces though it does get a little bogged down with Lapathian political history at times and I found the central conceit - the flaming footprints themselves - to be a real macguffin.  The lead characters don’t understand what they are and the origin of them is only briefly sketched in but I suppose they provide the supernatural hook the series wanted (and “The Disappearing Artisan” probably wouldn’t have worked so well).  Otherwise this has a quick pace, a smart plot, a terrific atmosphere and the boys bounce off each other well.  A good read, this is great fun and I highly recommend it.
Armada format b paperback (printed in 1982, reprinted in 1983), cover art by Peter Archer
(it's the same cover art as used by the format a paperback, printed between 1974 and 1980)
cover scan of my copy

There were no internal illustrations for the UK edition.

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)

Friday 19 June 2015

Time Waits...

I'm happy to see that "Darkest Minds", the third anthology (following "Dark Minds" and "Darker Minds" - the latter of which featured my short "Looking At Me, Seeing You") edited by Anthony Watson & Ross Warren has just been published by Dark Minds Press.  The anthology contains my story "Time Waits..." and I also contributed the cover art (co-designing it with Anthony).

Robert Mammone 

Clayton Stealback 

THE 18 
Ralph Robert Moore 

Mark West 

Gary Fry 

Tom Johnstone 

Benedict J Jones 

Andrew Hook 

David Surface 

Tracy Fahey 

Stephen Bacon 

The book is available, in print and digital editions, as follows:

Amazon UK 

Amazon US 

"Time Waits..." is about Martyn, a man who becomes obsessed with time and the need to shave minutes off his daily commute.  Dark - though with a hint of hope, courtesy of Martyn's wife Ellen - and quite odd, this was good fun to write and I put it through the critiquing process at my writing group (who seemed to like it).  I'm pleased that it found a home in the anthology and chuffed to be sharing space with some great writers.

If you're intrigued, here's a little snippet of my tale...

Martyn glanced at the clock.  It read 7:11.  He checked his watch again - 7:07. 

"What the hell is going on?” he said.  The CD player made another strange noise and the disc ejected itself, dropping onto the gearstick before sliding into the passenger footwell.  Martyn followed its progress, then looked back at the road and saw the man on the bike.

His heart jumped violently and he yanked the car heavily to the right to avoid the cyclist with his bright yellow jersey, white helmet and red trousers.  The man must have been there for ages and Martyn had just not seen him but no, that wasn’t right, his view had been unimpeded, he’d have seen the bright colours if nothing else.

As he passed, Martyn looked at the cyclist and felt a sudden cold pull in his chest.  The cyclist had no face, just a flesh coloured blank with dark smudges where eyes, nose and mouth should have been.

Friday 12 June 2015

KettFest and the horror writer

Back in April, through my friend Jane Isaac, I heard about an upcoming arts-crafts-entertainment event being organised by Jo Selby-Green called KettFest 2015.  I sent her an email, offering my services and she responded immediately, suggesting I hold a little writing workshop.  When I explained I wrote horror (a genre a lot of people tend to shy away from), she suggested I might like to give a few writing tips instead and I agreed.  Somehow, over the next month or so, those tips became a ‘history of horror’ but I took it in my stride (ie, I panicked) and when the programme was published in May, it all became very real.
Official photograph, by Liz Kearns (c) Kettfest 2015
One thing I should mention - this was to be my first reading on my own.  I’ve done a few literary evenings, I enjoy standing at the front of the room, I enjoy reading my work aloud, but I’ve never done it solo before.  Now I’d not only volunteered to do so, for a new festival in a venue I’d never seen before, but I was also supposed to encapsulate the history of a genre I love for a crowd who might not even like horror.  I like a challenge.

I wrote my piece.  It was about five pages long.  I edited it and suddenly it was nearer to ten.  I edited again, more ruthlessly this time and got it to twelve.  Oh dear.  I whittled away at it over a week or so, just trying to keep the key beats intact - a casual observer didn’t really need to know every work that Edgar Allen Poe produced, just knowing that he was part of the genre bedrock would be enough.  With that kind of thinking, I got it down to a little over a page (or five minutes reading time, unless I gabbled, in which case I could get it done in half that time).

Friday 5th June and KettFest 2015 kicked off.  I revised my piece, rehearsed my reading (I was doing a spooky section from my story “Fog On The Old Coast Road” since I knew some kids - including Dude - would be in the audience) and tried to calm my nerves.

We got into Kettering for 5pm and parked at the Cornmarket.  Alison & Dude went to get some tea and I went into the Kino Lounge where the event was happening.  I’d never been in there before - the building was originally built in 1853 as the Corn Exchange, then became Leo Vint’s electric theatre in 1909, the first cinema in Kettering - but it’s now a smart restaurant/bar that wears its shabby chic history proudly on its sleeve.  I liked it a lot and I liked the performance space too, a small-ish room (with interesting, hallucinogenic wallpaper)  that opened onto the old market square.  Caroline Watsham was entertaining in there when I arrived, playing her musical saw.

I met Russell John Morgan in the bar, it’s been ages since we last saw one another and we caught up before my friend Sue Moorcroft joined us.  Just after, old friend Matt Adams arrived and I introduced everyone and we chatted and I got more nervous.  Every now and again we’d catch some of Caroline’s performance and Russell said it’d make excellent accompaniment to my reading.

Alison & Dude arrived, everyone said hello and then it was 6pm and we were off to the reading room, where Jo introduced herself to me, then introduced me to the room (Sue reckoned I had an audience of 25 in there, plus more outside).  I didn’t sit in the offered, Gothic looking chair but chose to stand behind it instead.  I surveyed my audience, smiled at my motley fan club taking up the back row, took a deep breath and began.
photo by Russell Morgan
This is my “history of horror” speech (there may have been some ad-libs 'on the day' which aren't reflected in my notes).  I hope my fellow genre fans can forgive me for condensing so much history into so few words…

* * * * *
Let’s start with a question - don’t worry, you don’t need to put up your hands - what does horror, or supernatural, fiction mean to you?

To me, horror fiction is like the pesky little brother, the one who likes to prod and poke at things, to push them and see how far they’ll go, or when they break.  More respected genres - literary classics, that kind of thing - look down on us like a big brother or sister would but that just makes the little brother all the more determined.

Horror fiction, as Stephen King once said, is the “truth inside the lie” and it’s a broad field that ranges from the quietest of supernatural tales to all-out thud-and-blunder gore epics.  Horror fiction allows us to examine things we perhaps don’t really want to - death, destruction, awful things happening to good people - and do so by putting a monsters mask on the bad thing.  For example, it’s now a commonly held point of view that Dracula’s portrayal of vampirism was essentially a metaphor for sexuality in a repressed Victorian era.

Literary historian J. A. Cuddon defined horror as "a piece of fiction in prose of variable length... which shocks or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing".  Clearly a smart man.  

The genre of horror, in its broadest sense, has its roots firmly in ancient folklore and religious tradition.  It’s a fear of the dark, what’s out there, will it hurt me, why is it dark?  It was a way of dealing with death and evil, perhaps the concept of an afterlife or demonic activities.  Dante wrote about Satan in 1307 with the first volume of his Divine Comedy, “Inferno”.  John Milton dealt with him in “Paradise Lost” whilst Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” is as horrific as they come (plus “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” both feature strong supernatural elements).

In the 18th and 19th Centuries Gothic horror flourished, Mary Shelley leading the charge with “Frankenstein” in 1818.  Other notable works of that era include the output of Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson's “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” from 1886, Oscar Wilde's 1890 “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and, of course, “Dracula”, by Bram Stoker, from 1897.  Charles Dickens’ hardy perennial, “A Christmas Carol”, was published in 1843 and even though it’s not a horror story, it does use elements of the genre - like poor old Jacob Marley and the various ghosts that guide Scrooge.  Most of those have stood the test of time and they - and their descendents - can be found in Waterstones right now.

After the first World War, cheap periodicals flourished and with them, a new line of pulp horror - full of sex and violence and monsters.  The second wave of pulp writers, following World War 2, honed their craft, becoming the architects of what we now understand as modern horror - the likes of Richard Matheson with his wonderful “I Am Legend” from 1954 - vampires, end of the world! - and “Stir Of Echoes” from 1958.  In 1974, Stephen King - an avid fan of the pulps - published “Carrie” which kick-started the horror boom that lasted through to the early 90s and provided most writers of my generation with their role model.  It also opened the door to terrific writers like James Herbert, Robert McCammon, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Dennis Etchison and Ramsey Campbell.

Sometimes, horror is just about sex, violence and monsters and that’s fine.  But if it’s done properly, horror fiction is a mainstream tale looking at people (you, me, our neighbours) and the world (especially the bad stuff that happens to decent, everyday people) through a slightly cracked glass, dressing up in metaphor and subterfuge what so many of us have to deal with in real terms.

When we, as readers, hear a sound in the dead of night as we’re about to drift off to sleep, we might be worried but know, deep down, that it’s the wind against the windows or a pile of Lego falling down in our sons room. The horror story takes that concept, grins widely and does a little dance, taking it a step over the line of reality – what if it wasn’t a pile of Lego, what if it was something creeping into your house? What if this thing was going to climb the stairs slowly, letting you hear every riser creak, every hiss as claws caught on the carpet and every *skrit* as long, sharp nails dragged on the bannister? What if this thing was going to come into your life and take it over, ruining you and making the future bleak for everyone who loved you? In other words, what if this horror novel – about ghouls and real people dealing with them – was actually about disease, or loss and showing us another way to deal with the blights that litter the human life?

* * * * *

Thankfully (nobody left or fell asleep) the history went down well - as Sue later said, I didn’t scare or revolt her, so that was a plus.

I then launched into my reading of "Fog On The Old Coast Road", a story I'm very proud of - it got me into a good anthology, a live reading event, a signing at Forbidden Planet in London and also received an honorable mention from Ellen Datlow.  For those who don't know it, Vincent Holland-Keen filmed it at the Hauntings evening in Mowsley in March 2012.  I blogged about it here and this is the YouTube video of my reading.

The audience seemed to enjoy the story and we moved smoothly into the Q&A portion.  I was very lucky, I got a couple of great questions - one of them from Mick Scrimshaw, a local coucillor who, it turns out, shares my love of old horror movies - that really set the ball rolling and I enjoyed myself immensely.  In fact, on reflection, the Q&A bit was my favourite of the event.
photo by The Dude
I finished up, slightly over time, at 6.45pm, chatted with some of the audience members for a while, then re-grouped with my motley band.  I was buzzing, they all seemed happy (especially Dude, who I’d introduced to everyone as he was the model for 6-year-old Jack in the story), it was a good feeling.

The event went well, I'm pleased to say, as did the rest of KettFest and it was wonderful to see so much creativity in the town.  I was honoured to be involved and I’m already looking forward to Kett Fest 2016 (though I'm not planning my talk yet…).

Thanks to Jo Selby-Green for agreeing to let a horror writer hold court, thanks to Liz Kearns for the wonderful photograph, my little band of supporters and the audience, who listened and got involved and made my 45 minutes go very quickly indeed.

Tuesday 9 June 2015

The State Of Me...

Me & Dude, 6th June 2015
A year ago today, I spent the afternoon sitting on our patio with Alison & Dude, enjoying the sunshine as I read “NOS4R2” (I was a judge for the BFS awards) and they made loom bracelets.  At one point, I got the camera and took some family photos but didn’t think too much of it until I downloaded them onto the laptop that evening.

I looked at myself in the pictures, one in particular and was disgusted at what I saw.  There was Dude, looking cool in his Superman t-shirt, cuddling up to Jabba The Hutt.  I knew I was overweight - looking back at pictures, I’ve been that way for a LONG time - but seeing this one image made me realise just how bad I’d got, how far I’d let things slide.  As I stared at that picture, fascinated, I decided I was going to change things.  I started dieting the next day but, since I loved my pizza and burgers and crisps, sweets and biscuits (and was afraid of falling at the first hurdle), I didn’t tell anybody I was doing it.  I started doing simple exercises in the morning - press-ups, stomach crunches - but kept them quiet too.

The first person I told was Dude, who caught me exercising one morning and asked what I was doing.  I told Alison next, though she’d already guessed something was going on.  My Mum mentioned it to me a couple of weeks later.

In the picture that disgusted me, I weighed 18st 6.75lbs (258.75lbs or just over 117kgs).  I’m 5ft 11 and even though I don’t think the BMI is a great measure, it showed mine as 35.9 and well into the “obese” end of things.  I didn’t do much exercise (I cycled with Dude but didn’t walk far), I sometimes got out of breath walking up the stairs and I was now buying, as a matter of course and without thinking of exactly what it meant, XXL t-shirts.  Staring at the picture, I knew something had to change because if it didn’t, I wouldn’t see my boy grow up (and my heart attack, less than two months away, would be a stark reminder of my mortality).

I’d got into the habit, somehow, of eating far too much crap.  Alison is a great cook, she makes lovely meals but her well balanced menu wasn’t the problem - it was the pizza (if not two) I had EVERY week, it was the burger & chips I had most weeks, it was all the chocolate bars and crisps I ate (some quite late at night), it was all the sweets I picked up over the weekend.

Feeling the cold... 
Walking in December 2014, in plenty of layers 
(scarf and sweatshirt not pictured!)
The picture gave me the trigger that I needed to make a difference.  I started walking, I took Dude out for more cycle rides, I cut the pizza down to one a fortnight, the burgers went almost completely.  I cut back on the crisps (at one point, I’d been eating 4 packs a day!), dropped the Club Orange bars from my lunchbox and replaced them with real oranges, developed a liking for chicken salad sandwiches.  I worked hard at it.  By the time of my heart attack, in early August, I’d already dropped 17lbs and it was noticeable to those around me (though I couldn’t really see it, except my work trousers were now being held up by my belt).  The cardiac episode strengthened my resolve to sort myself out, though it meant I had to take things easy for a while.  After a few sessions at the British Heart Foundation gym class, I gained the confidence to start pushing myself again.  I put the mapmywalk app on my phone, began logging the miles and soon I was doing two or three a night, more at the weekend.  Dude & I cycled until the winter air was too cold then I’d walk more (the weight loss and heart tablets meant I really felt the chill, so I’d bundle up with sweatshirts under my winter coat and body warmer).

The diet (it isn’t really a diet, it is simply a case of not eating crap) bedded itself in slowly and after a while, I didn’t really miss the chocolate or crisps (I now have one packet a day, with my lunch).  Alison taught me a trick she’d picked up at Slimming World, of a treat on weighing day so I took advantage of that and enjoyed it.  We still had chips on occasion but it was a treat, once every couple of months.  I really did miss my lovely Pinocchio’s pizza though and still have one a month, usually on the night of my writing group, then I walk for an hour or so before heading off to our meeting.

I work in Finance, I like lists, what can I say...?
That was a year ago.  This morning, I tipped the scales at 13st 11.5lbs, 193.5lbs (or 88.7kgs), a total loss of 65.25lbs.  My BMI is now 27 and I’m slightly off (the better side) the midway of overweight.  My fitness is better than it has been in decades, I easily walk a 17 minute mile and Dude & I can race upstairs and I’m only slightly more out-of-breath than him (a fit and active 10 year old).  I’m happy, I feel better than I have in a long time, I look a lot better than I have in a long time (the benefit of losing weight slowly - I averaged 1.23lbs a week - is that skin shrinks back properly so you’re not left with unsightly folds) and, more importantly, I’m doing everything I possibly can to help my heart.

There are a lot of lessons I learned from this process but the main one seems to be that if you have the resolve (and trust me, a picture is a real slap-in-the-face of a resolve), you can do it.

And just to put it all into context, this is how I looked a year ago (and no, this isn't the trigger picture...)

(it's also worth mentioning that I didn't do this completely on my own - Alison & Dude have been a fantastic support, as have my Mum & Dad (who found new routes to vary my walks) and friends, plus Iona and her BHF team who showed me just how far I could push myself.  Thank you, one and all.)

Tuesday 2 June 2015

Kingdom Of The Spiders, by Bernard J Hurwood - Old School Horrors 1

This is the first post in a new thread I'm going to follow on the blog.  For a few years now, I've been collecting old 70s and 80s paperbacks (mostly horror), picking them up cheaply in secondhand bookshops and at car boot sales and slowly building a collection.  My friend (and fellow collector) Johnny Mains once told me that charity shops sometimes pulp old books like this because the market for them is so small - I understand why but I think it's terrible.  Yes, we're not talking great art here but these books have their place - for better or worse - in the genre and I think they deserve to be remembered.

To that end, on an irregular basis (too much cheese isn't good for anyone's diet), I'm going to review these "old-school" horrors (and perhaps include some bonus material, if I can find it).  And here's the first...
cover scan of my copy - published in 1977 by Mayflower (Granada Publishing)

A sleepy little Western town...

Until the invasion struck.

An invasion of thousands of tarantulas - mutations of a sinister, terrifying kind, beings with the intelligence and cunning of men. And appetites for food. Living, human food...

When will the invisible world of crawling creatures strike back at man? Will the day come when we find ourselves captives in the - 


Camp Verde, Arizona, is the archetype of small-town Americana.  From big Earl Forbes who runs the gas station (he comes complete with chewing tobacco and I’ll bet he wears an armless lumberjack shirt) to Sheriff Gene Smith (friendly, efficient but occasionally willing to look the other way), from Emma Washburn who runs the guest house (she was in her 40s, but kept herself well - which was good to hear, from this mid-forty-something reader) to Robert ‘Rack’ Hansen, the town vet (and the hero of the tale).  When local farmer Walter Colby sees one of his prize cows collapse, he calls in Rack, worried that there might be a disease - which also worries Mayor Connors, who is concerned there’s no hitch to the upcoming County Fair (shades of Jaws).  Rack takes some samples, sends them to the local university for checks and is then visited by Diane Ashley, a ‘recognised scientist’ from the Arizona State University department of entomology.  Her tests have revealed that the cow died from an enormous amount of spider venom and when Colby mentions finding a spider hill on his farm, their worst suspicions are confirmed.  The spiders - which shouldn’t even be found in the state - are massing (going against their natural impulse, since they’re cannibals, apparently) and that can only spell trouble for the inhabitants of Camp Verde.

Originally published in 1977 (and copyright to Arachnid Productions Ltd), this is the novelisation of a pulp-exploitation film starring William Shatner (and once you know that, it’s impossible to hear Rack in any other voice), which I haven’t seen though I now really want to, as I imagine the novel follows the screenplay quite closely.  Briskly paced, the writing is basic but does the job, though it would have been nice to include the occasional flourish.  Hurwood misses several opportunities to wring suspense out of a scene, especially the several “spider almost got them” ones which would work well on screen, rushing them off at the end of paragraphs.  The worst example of this is the plane crash - it’s big enough that it features in the film trailer - which is over in the book almost before it’s begun.  Characterisation is equally basic - the supporting characters are mainly spider meat though the Mayor has some prize moments with his County Fair woes - but Rack (he does explain where he got the nickname from) and Diane are capable and sketched in enough that you do hope they get through things alive.

With some smart set pieces, a nice subplot that all of this might have come about because of excessive use of DDT, a good sense of location and a brilliantly downbeat ending, this was an enjoyable read.  It’s not for everyone but if you like pulp that’s good fun, that is brisk and efficiently told, you could do a lot worse and I recommend it - though your mileage may vary.

Now to watch the film...!

Kingdom Of The Spiders (1977) was directed by John “Bud” Cardos, produced by Igo Kantor, Jeffrey M. Sneller and James Bond Johnson, whilst the screenplay was by Richard Robinson and Alan Caillou, from an original story by Jeffrey M. Sneller and Stephen Lodge.  The film, which cost $1m, was released by Dimension Films (not the one that came out of Miramax) and starred William Shatner as Rack, Tiffany Bolling as Diane, Woody Strode as Walter Colby and Altovise Davis as his wife Birch.

Producer Kantor told Fangoria magazine in 1998 that the film used as many as 5,000 live tarantulas, though a number of rubber models were also used.  Since they are cannibalistic in real-life, all of them had to be kept in separate containers, which made storage an issue.  Tarantulas are ‘shy’ around people so when it came time for them to attack, they had to be nudged with fans or air tubes to approach their victims and - whilst I’m not sure I’d want to test this out - the venom of most is not dangerous to humans, being no more harmful than a bee sting (unless the person is allergic to the venom).

At the time there were concerns over animal cruelty, with many of the arachnid stars perishing during production (especially in a sequence where the characters are called upon to stamp them to death).  Indeed, several get run over in the film trailer.

The film is 97 minutes long and recorded a total box-office take of £17m.

Bernhardt J Hurwood was a New York born writer (July 22nd 1926 - September 5th 1987) who apparently had a wide literary career, in various genres and in both fiction and non-fiction.  As Mallory T Knight he wrote the first nine books in the "Man From T.O.M.C.A.T." series (which sounds great) from 1967 - 1969, at least six novels and novelisations (including "My Savage Muse: The Story of My Life by Edgar Allan Poe, An Imaginative Work"), at least eighteen anthologies (mostly horror) and a raft of non-fiction (mostly of an erotic nature - including 1975's "Joys Of Oral Love") that even encompassed a biography of Burt Reynolds and a behind-the-scenes book on the film "Meteor".  He also wrote one of the earliest manuals on adjusting to the computer age, with "Writing Becomes Electronic: Successful Authors Tell How They Write in the Age of the Computer" in 1986.

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

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