Wednesday 28 December 2016

My Creative Year 2016

Continuing a tradition (now in its fourth year), here's my annual look back at 2016 from a creative standpoint.

During the year I wrote four short stories (three were horror, one was a love story), one novella (The Factory, which almost went to its deadline), some book reviews and a host of essays/articles for this blog (more than beating my once-a-week posting schedule).

I had eight short stories published:
* The Sealed Window in The Hyde Hotel, edited by James Everington & Dan Howarth, from Black Shuck Press
* This Is The Colour Of Blood in Chromatics, edited by Dean M. Drinkel, from Lycopolis Press
* Photograph Of You in Tales From The Lake vol 2, edited by Joe Mynhardt from Crystal Lake Publishing
* The Goblin Glass in Thou Shalt Not, edited by Alex Davis, from Tickety Boo Press
* Deb Loves Robbie in Easter Eggs & Bunny Boilers, edited by Matt Shaw, from Matt Shaw Publications
* The Order Of Aries in The Thirteen Signs, edited by Dean M. Drinkel from Nocturnicorn Books
* Do You Believe In Ghosts? in Ten Tall Tales, edited by Ian Whates from NewCon Press
Dreaming Of A Black Christmas in Bah! Humbug!, edited by Matt Shaw, from Matt Shaw Publications

I also had two novellas published:
* The Exercise in Darker Battlefields, edited by Adrian Chamberlin, from theEXAGGERATEDpress
* The Factory, published by Hersham Horror Books

* * *
The King For A Year Project, which I curated through 2015 (and wrote about extensively here) was nominated for Best Non-Fiction in the 2016 British Fantasy Society Awards.  It didn't win, unfortunately but it was very nice to get the nomination.

In a similar vein I curated 2 Mixtapes, where-in people I respected (writers, editors, readers) chose their favourite short stories.  The Brit Horror Mixtape posted in May and featured 24 stories by British writers and this was followed in July by the American Horror Mixtape, featuring 30 stories by American and Canadian writers.

* * *
The Factory cracked the Top 10 of Jim Mcleod's "Top 20 Reads Of 2016" and I'm proud to be included alongside some distinguished - and heavyweight - company.

The Factory also made Paula Limbaugh's Top 10 List at Horror Novel, which was very pleasing (and, again, I'm in great company).

James Everington picked Photograph Of You for his Favourite Short Stories: 2016 round-up (and I'm thrilled to be part of such a stellar line-up).

The Factory also made Ross Warren's round-up (posted to Facebook here), coming 2nd in a strong novella field.

* * *
I attended three great Cons in year.  The first was Edge-Lit 5, held at The Quad in Derby on 16th July (see my report here), followed by FantasyCon-by-the-sea, held at The Grand Hotel, Scarborough from 23rd September to 25th September 2015 (see my report here) and I rounded out the year with Sledge-Lit, held at The Quad in Derby on 26th November (see my report here).
At Edge-Lit - Lisa Childs, Ross Warren, Steve Harris, Phil Sloman, me
At FantasyCon-by-the-sea
from left - John Gilbert, Sue Moorcroft, Neil Williams, James Everington, Priya Sharma, Phil Sloman, me, Lisa Childs, Ross Warren, Wayne Parkin, Cate Gardner
At Sledge-Lit, with Gary McMahon and Stephen Bacon

My writing buddy Sue Moorcroft introduced me to blogger/writer meet-ups and I had great fun at the Brum ones and another, later, in London.  I also went to the NewCon Press 10th birthday bash in London and had a great time at Sue's book launch in Nottingham for The Christmas Promise.
Linda Hill, me, Shelley Wilson, Elaina James, in Birmingham, April 2016
* * *
Following a bit of a fallow period, I posted some interviews during the year and enjoyed the process thoroughly (clearly I picked good subjects).  In January I chatted with the excellent Nicola Valentine and also found time in January to chat with the gregarious Dean M Drinkel.  In February, I spoke to Alex Davis whilst in March, Stuart Young & I interviewed each other and then in May I had a chat with my friend James Everington.  Finally, to help celebrate the launch of her new novel, I interviewed Sue Moorcroft in October.

* * *
In July, I did a Talk/Q&A Session at Kettering Library with Sue for the 2nd KettFest (which I wrote about here)
Sue Moorcroft & I at Kettering Library, picture by Mick Arnold
* * *
Creatively speaking, 2016 has been a pretty good year.  The four short stories (and one novella) I wrote were all asked for and, of them all, I'm most proud of Dance The Blues (a contemporary - and nostalgic - drama about lost teenaged love), as I probably wouldn't have written it unless prompted.  Last years story that was looking for a home, Do You Believe In Ghosts?, was published this year by NewCon Press, in the terrific anthology Ten Tall Tales which I'm thoroughly chuffed to have been part of.
With my fellow Hersham Horror Books Novella writers - Phil Sloman, Steve Bacon , me and James Everington - FantasyCon Scarborough, September 2016 
Signing the hardback of Ten Tall Tales - Andrew Hook, Lynda E. Rucker, Paul Kane, Simon Clark, Ian Whates (editor) and me, FantasyCon Scarborough, September 2016
I'm feeling confident for 2017 too, as I plan to concentrate on writing a new novel which won't be in the horror field.  I'll keep you updated as to how that goes.

As always, thank you so much, dear readers of this blog, for all your support in 2016, especially those who bought, read and liked my work - I really do appreciate it.

Thursday 22 December 2016

Happy Christmas!

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

Thank you all very much for your continued support and interest, let’s hope 2017 is as good to us as we want it to be!

Monday 19 December 2016

The Eighth Annual Westies - review of the year 2016

Well it's that time already (another year having zipped by) and so, as we gear up for Christmas, it's time to indulge in the blog custom and remember the good books read in 2016.

Once again, it's been a great reading year for me with a nice mixture of brand new novels, a few books that have been languishing on my TBR pile for too long and some good finds on the behind-the-scenes film front.  This year has also seen my reading matter shift slightly as I explored the market of psychological thrillers and that, on the whole, has been very satisfying.

As with previous years, the top 20 places were very hard fought but, I think, show a nice variety.  I blogged about some of the titles (not too many this year as I found it really difficult to review a thriller successfully without giving away plot twists) and have linked to them in this list.

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

1: The Kind Worth Killing, by Peter Swanson
2: 13 Minutes, by Sarah Pinborough
3: In A Dark Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware
4: The Lie, by C. L. Taylor
5: Just For The Holidays (*), by Sue Moorcroft
6: Strangers, by Paul Finch
7: Laudanum Nights, by Stephen Bacon
8: Craze, by Steve Byrne
9: Paper Doll, by Robert B. Parker
10: Albion Fay, by Mark Morris
11: Promised Land, by Robert B. Parker
12: The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn, by Usman T. Malik
13: The Grieving Stones, by Gary McMahon
14: Paupers' Graves, by James Everington
15: Becoming David, by Phil Sloman
16: Keep You Close, by Lucie Whitehouse
17: The Sister, by Louise Jenson
18: Buried In A Book, by Lucy Arlington
19: What They Find In The Woods, by Gary Fry
20: The Night Lingers And Other Stories, by Nicola Monaghan

* = This is Sue's second book of her Avon contract (I read it to critique) which will be published in May 2017.  Her current release, The Christmas Promise, was number 5 in last years chart.

The Top 10 in non-fiction are:

1: American Film Makers Today, by Dian G. Smith
2: Life Moves Pretty Fast, by Hadley Freeman
3: Let's Go Crazy, by Alan Light
4: The Cars We Loved In The 1970s, by Giles Chapman
5: Star Wars: The Original Topps Trading Card Series (vol 1), by Gary Gerani
6: The Making Of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, by Jody Duncan
7: Creating The World Of Star Wars, by John Knoll
8: Cinema Alchemist, by Roger Christian
9: We Don't Need Roads, by Caseen Gaines
10: Ridley Scott: The Making Of His Movies

Stats wise, I’ve read 70 books - 37 fiction, 22 non-fiction, 7 comics/nostalgia/kids and 4 Three Investigator mysteries.

Of the 66 books, the breakdown is thus:

1  biography
11 horror novels
19 film-related
2 drama (includes romance)
18 crime/mystery
6 sci-fi
3 nostalgia
6 humour

All of my reviews are posted up at Goodreads here

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

Monday 12 December 2016

1986 and all that...

1986, as I’ve mentioned on the blog before, was a banner year for me and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  In honour of its 30th anniversary - and because we’re rapidly heading for 2017 - here’s a little celebration.
Hunters Foods Xmas do, my friend Helen is standing next to me.  Taken at Kane's Wine Bar (now long gone), Corby - December 1986  
Top 10 Films (US)

1: Top Gun
2: “Crocodile” Dundee
3: Platoon
4: The Karate Kid, part 2
5: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
6: Back To School
7: Aliens
8: The Golden Child
9: Ruthless People
10: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

I was in the Sixth Form for the first half of the year and a group of us went to the cinema quite often - though we had to convince one of the dads to drive us each time.  In late January, we went to see Rocky IV (released in 1985, so it made that years top 10) which I remember vividly because my friend Sean Marshall insisted on calling it “Rocky Eye-Vee”.  Just to show we weren’t affluent teenagers, I should point out that our local cinemas at the time (Kettering Ohio, Corby Forum and Bentley’s At Burton Latimer) weren’t part of a chain - they were glorious flea-pits (Kettering, which I wrote about here, was built into the upper tiers of the old cinema whilst the ground floor was a bingo hall) and it cost £1.50 to see a film.  With most of that same group of friends, I co-edited the student magazine for that year too (which I wrote about here).

According to my diary, my favourite film of the year was “Crocodile” Dundee (which I still love).  Top Gun was also very popular with us and we saw it a lot, mostly due to the fact that it hung around for such a long time so we caught it on several occasions.  The same thing happened with Dirty Dancing in 1987.
I may have had a bit of a crush on Kathleen Turner...
Spies Like Us was another favourite (I re-watched it recently and it doesn’t stand up at all well, unfortunately), Young Sherlock HolmesThe Jewel Of The Nile (not as good as Romancing The Stone but, hey, Kathleen Turner…), Aliens (my second favourite film of the year), Nightmare On Elm Street 2 (which none us particularly enjoyed, since it departed so far from the original), the incredible (and unsettling) Blue Velvet, Poltergeist 2 (which was very odd but good fun - and the first film I went to see with my friend Pauline Weston, who I wrote about here) and the genius that was Big Trouble In Little China.  Cobra, the very silly and very violent (and very, very 80s if you re-watch it) Sylvester Stallone film (he’d apparently been in the running for Beverly Hills Cop and took his ideas with him) was the first 18-rated film I saw at the cinema (along with Nick Duncan - who I wrote about here - and Craig Tankard - who gets introduced later - at Corby).

Top 10 Books (US version, as per the New York Times - couldn’t find one for the UK)

1: IT, by Stephen King
2: Red Storm Rising, by Tom Clancy
3: Whirlwind, by James Clavell
4: The Bourne Supremacy, by Robert Ludlum
5: Hollywood Husbands, by Jackie Collins
6: Wanderlust, by Danielle Steel
7: I’ll Take Manhattan, by Judith Krantz
8: Last of the Breed, by Louis L’Amour
9: The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy
10: A Perfect Spy, by John le Carré

My favourite book of the year was IT (which I wrote about here)

UK Top 10 Singles

1: Don’t Leave Me This Way, by The Communards
2: Chain Reaction, by Diana Ross
3: I Want To Wake Up With You, by Boris Gardner
4: When The Going Gets Tough (The Tough Get Going), by Billy Ocean
5: Take My Breath Away, by Berlin
6: The Lady In Red, by Chris De Burgh
7: Papa Don’t Preach, by Madonna
8: Spirit In The Sky, by Doctor & The Medics
9: So Macho, by Sinitta
10: Rock Me Amadeus, by Falco

I liked a lot of these (hey, it was the 80s) but most of my favourites didn’t hit the chart.  I loved the Cliff Richard & The Young Ones version of Living Doll (and still do), Debbie Harry’s French Kissin’ In The USA (written by Chuck Lorre, who went on to create some sit-coms...), the double-whammy from the Bangles (Manic Monday and Walk Like An Egyptian), Livin’ On A Prayer from Bon Jovi, Queen’s A Kind Of Magic, the wonderful Levi-related re-releases from Sam Cooke (Wonderful World) and Jackie Wilson (Reet Petite), Bowie was back (with Absolute Beginners), The Damned had Eloise, Broken Wings from Mr Mister, two crackers from A-ha (The Sun Always Shines On TV and Hunting High And Low), soundtrack favourites Glory Of Love by Peter Cetera and Power Of Love by Huey Lewis and the News, plus Spitting Image’s wonderful The Chicken Song.  My big favourite of the year though was Addicted To Love by Robert Palmer, a cracking song enhanced by a cracking video.

UK Top 10 Albums

1: True Blue, by Madonna
2: Brothers In Arms, by Dire Straits
3: Now 8, by various artists
4: Graceland, by Paul Simon
5: Whitney Houston, by Whitney Houston
6: Now 7, by various artists
7: Hunting High and Low, by a-ha
8: A Kind of Magic, by Queen
9: Silk & Steel, by Five Star
10: Revenge, by Eurythmics

My favourite, which came in at number 39, was Riptide by Robert Palmer.  True Blue, the single, was everywhere that summer, most discos (either school ones or the various 18th birthdays we were going to) played it (as well as The Lady In Red) and it was big at Tymes nightclub too.  It took me a long time to appreciate it again after that kind of overkill (Lady In Red hasn’t fared so well).

1986 events - Highlights and low points (for me and the world at large)

7th - The Society Of Motor Manufacturers and Traders announces that more than 1.8 million new cars were sold in the UK during 1985, beating the record set in 1983.  The Ford Escort is the most popular model and all of the 10 top models are built by Ford, Vauxhall or Austin Rover.
The Westland Affair claims big government scalps - Michael Heseltine resigns as Defence Secretary (9th) and Leon Brittan resigns as Tade and Industry Secretary (24th).
19th - the first PC virus, called Brain, starts spreading.  Hardly anyone has a PC.
20th - The UK and France announce plans to build the Channel Tunnel.
24th - Voyager 2 makes its first encounter with Uranus - ha, you said your anus (hey, I was sixteen, it was funny…)

3rd - Pixar Animation Studios are opened in California.
10th - I turned 17.
17th - I go to London by bus with my friends Rob Nichols, Mark Guyett, Sean Marshall, Steve Corton and Phil Cross.  We have an excellent time.
In Kettering bus station (also long since demolished), very early in the morning on our way to London.  This was taken with my disc camera, hence the grainy image.  From left - Rob, Sean (Rocky Eye-Vee), Mark, me, Phil
10th - the first sanitary towel advert is broadcast on UK TV
30th - the BBC2 TWO ident takes a bow (and stays in place until 1991)

5th - Jean Michel Jarre performs Rendezvous Houston in Houston, Texas.  Years later, that will be one of my favourite albums to power walk to.
7th - Clive Sinclair sells the rights to the ZX Spectrum and other inventions to Amstrad.
11th - The Chart Show (the first place I will later see Nirvana perform Smells Like Teen Spirit) debuts on C4.
17th - John McCarthy is kidnapped in Beirut
Also on the 17th, the Three Hundred And Thirty Five Years War between the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly is ended by treaty.
26th - Chernobyl.  A mishandled safety test kills “at least 4,056 people and damages almost $7bn of property”.  Radioactive fallout is concentrated near Belarus and Ukraine, leading to 350,000 people being forcibly resettled from those areas.  Tests afterwards showed “traces of radioactive deposits unique to Chernobyl were found in nearly every country in the northern hemisphere”.

21st - My Dad & I start to watch A Very Peculiar Practice.  It is very peculiar indeed.
25th - Sport Aid, supported by Band Aid and UNICEF, organised Run The World, a worldwide event comprising a total of 19.8m runners who ran, jogged or walked 10km to support African famine relief charities.  I ran the local course between Rothwell and Desborough with Nick and Mark (and wrote about it here).
Mark Guyett (centre of picture on the left) and me Run The World
12th - Austin Rover is renamed the Rover Group, four years after changing from British Leyland
20th - Montsaye School Lower Sixth trip to Great Yarmouth.  We have a brilliant time.
21st - I finish working at the Co-op (my place of regular employment - after school and on Saturdays - for the past couple of years), which has helped pay for most of my driving lessons.
22nd - Maradona beats England with one sensational goal and one assisted by the ‘Hand Of God’, knocking us out of the World Cup (Argentina go on to win the competition).  Gary Lineker wins the Golden Boot with six goals.
23rd - I start work at Hunters Foods as an accounts clerk.  I meet Craig, who is 2 days younger than me and we instantly become great friends - as well as cinema buddies, we go on holiday together until the early 90s.  I meet Pauline, who would go on to become one of my best friends, on the 27th.
On the beach at Great Yarmouth - from left, James McDonald, Steve Corton, me, Phil Cross, Nick
28th - Estate agent Suzy Lamplugh vanishes after a meeting in London.

9th - Yorkshire Television (YTV) becomes the first British TV channel to broadcast 24 hours a day.  The other TV regions do likewise over the next two years, leading to scores of 80s nightclub goers coming home to veg out in front of Get Stuffed! and Hitman And Her.
Nick & I at Corton Beach on holiday.  Disc camera, flash, twilight - it wasn't a great combination...
GCE ‘O’ Level and CSE’s are replaced by GCSE’s.  I’ve just started work and already my CV makes me look like a dinosaur…
6th - Casualty starts on BBC1.  Thirty years later and it’s still bloody going…
8th - I pass my driving test first time.

27th - BBC1 starts a full daytime service.  Before this, apart from covering special events, it closed down during weekday mornings and afternoons, though it broadcast pages from Ceefex starting in May 1983.
‘The Big Bang’ in The London Stock Exchange abolishes fixed commission charges, leading to electronic trading.
29th - The completed M25 (the first section of which opened in 1975) is officially opened.
With my first car, a Vauxhall Viva.  Trust me, white socks and black loafers was a fashionable look back then...
UNESCO designates the first World Heritage sites in the UK - England has Durham Castle and Cathedral, Ironbridge Gorge, Studley Royal Park (including the ruins of Fountains Abbey), Stonehenge and Avebury and associated sites.  Northern Ireland is represented by the Giant's Causeway and the Causeway Coast and Wales by the Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd.
1st - I buy my first car.  It is both a wonderful passport to independence as well as being a slightly dodgy purchase which lasts me less than a year.
16th - The Singing Detective, by Dennis Potter, debuts.  I remember being astounded by the scope of it but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it since.
Craig Tankard & me, performing a comedy routine we wrote, at the Hunters Foods staff Christmas dinner
8th - “If you see Sid, tell him!”  British Gas shares are floated on the Stock Exchange and the initial public offering values the company at £9bn.
17th - Ringo Starr narrates his last ever Thomas The Tank Engine episode.  I won’t actually see any of them for another twenty years, when we start showing them to Dude.
Dad's traditional 'picture of the kids at Christmas' - me, Sarah and Tracy

Thanks for the memories, 1986!

Monday 5 December 2016

Nostalgic for my childhood - Christmas and catalogues

"Christmas is coming!"
Me, Christmas 1975 - Action Man helicopter, Batman, Six Million Dollar Man, Planet Of The Apes annual and a gun that shot darts with rubber tips!  Seriously, how much more excited could a 6-year-old kid look?
Well, it's still a little while away but you get my drift.  Growing up in the 70s and 80s, one of our pre-Christmas treats was going through the toy pages in various catalogues (the Kays one Mum always seemed to have, Argos, toy manufacturers) and deciding which items we wanted to add to our list.  When Dude was younger, my Mum used to get an Argos catalogue just so he and his little cousins could go through it with a marker pen to highlight what they wanted, thus continuing the tradition that me and my sister Tracy enjoyed.

So here's a nostalgic look back to catalogues of days past - did you want any of these?  I know I did...

Argos - Autumn 1976
I had the Six Million Dollar Man action figure (though not the repair station) and Ricochet Racers (which I loved, though it never shot as well in real life as it did on the advert)
Argos - Autumn 1977
Fairly slim pickings for my sister TJ, though she loved Sindy.
Argos - Autumn 1977
The 'Eagle Eye' Action Man from Palitoy was a must-have (and I was lucky enough to get one).  The equipment for him was very expensive though, but luckily the Cherilea Toys vehicles fitted him perfectly.  I had a Palitoy helicopter and the Cherilea motorbike-and-sidecar, both of which I loved and played with all the time.  Unfortunately, they - and my Action Men - have long since been lost to the sands of time...
Corgi - 1977
Top image - I was a big Batman fan and had the Batmobile, the Batcopter and really wanted the Batboat.  I was also a Bond fan and thought the Lotus was the coolest car ever (I think I still do...)
Bottom image - I still have the fire engine 1143 (and Dude loved it when I introduced him to it), though I don't think I've ever seen that design in real life
Matchbox 1978
I really liked this line, which was a tie-in with 2000AD comic at the time (another of my favourites), though I only ever had K-2002 (which reminded me of the Joe 90 car) and K-2003.  I still have them both (in 'played with' condition) but mint-in-box versions are going for silly prices nowadays.
Argos - Autumn 1978
Star Wars doesn't feature in the catalogue at all, even though Palitoy had started to produce the toys during 1978.  It's good to see the Six Million Dollar Man still flying high, along with Batman and Star Trek (which had last been made as TV series in the 60s), whilst Superman would be released in the UK in December.
Action Man (Palitoy) 1978
Taken from the 1978 Action Man "Official Equipment Manual", this shows the helicopter (which, as mentioned above, I had) plus the fantastic Turbocopter (which I also had).  You'd strap it onto Action Man's back (with thin lengths of elastic) and then, holding him, press the orange button on the left side (which you can see here) and that would make the rotor go around.  Fantastic fun - I wish I still had it...
Corgi - 1979
Top - I so wanted that set of "The Spy Who Loved Me" vehicles - over the years since I've picked up the helicopter and Jaws van to go with my Lotus but haven't been able to put my hands on the Cortina and boat.
Bottom - The Muppets were new in town!  I was lucky enough to have the Saint's Jaguar and Bodie's Capri (plus the figures!)
Palitoy 1979
Ah, Star Wars.  From this line-up, I got Han Solo, the Death Star Commander (both of whom still stand on my book shelf today) and Luke.  Since then, I've picked up the droids, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, Princess Leia and a LOT of Stormtroopers...
Argos - Autumn 1979
Ah, the joy of board games.  Give or take a few exceptions (the Jaws game is still around, it just goes under a different title now), re-designs and upgrades, these aren't too dissimilar to what you'd find in an Argos catalogue today, 37 years later.
Argos - Autumn 1980
The girls section - TJ loved Sindy and had a Girls World but never really got into Barbie, as I recall.
Argos - Autumn 1980
"Wait, you mean there's a thing we can plug into the telly and we can play games on it?  Really?  How is that possible?
(slight pause as 11-year-old me absorbs the information).  Dad?  Dad!  Dad, can we get one?"
To my Mum & Dad's credit, we got the Binatone system (top left, on the right hand page) - I loved the 'tennis' and target practise games
Argos - Spring/Summer 1985
"Wait a minute, you can buy this thing called a Walkman and play your own tapes and listen as you walk around and do stuff?  Really?  Wow, the future is here."  I was 15 going on 16 when this was published, can you imagine how I'd have reacted to a modern mobile phone, which performs the task of items on several pages of the Argos book.
On the Walkman front, Back To The Future (which came out at the end of the year) made them seem even cooler... 
Argos - Autumn 1985
By now I was sixteen, so I'd moved on from checking out the toys in the Christmas catalogues.  But I've included this because for my birthday in 1985 I got the Kodak Disc camera (item 1) here and the pouch (item 5) to protect it.  As an upgrade from my old camera (which used 127 film!), I thought it was terrific - though the images, it turned out, were much grainier.  But the freedom the camera gave me was amazing and I began taking A LOT of photographs...
Argos - Autumn 1986
Now 17, I'd  started work (at Hunters Foods) so I suddenly had my own funds to buy the things I wanted - and one of those was a Swatch watch.  To me, at the time, Swatch was one of the coolest brands around and I was the proud owner of item 12 (which, at £24, was pretty expensive back then).  But just look at this page and those colours, it couldn't be anything other than the mid-80s, could it?  Glorious! 

Thanks to Retrosmash for the Argos scans.  Action Man and Corgi catalogue scans from my own collection.

Monday 28 November 2016

Sledge-Lit 2, Derby, 26th November 2016

This year saw the second Sledge-Lit event in Derby, held at the Quad and as I had such a good time at the first (which I wrote about here), I bought my ticket as soon as it was announced.  Organised and programmed by Alex Davis, also responsible for the on-going Edge-Lit’s (I wrote about this years here), it’s not only great fun but also helps bridge the gap between FantasyCon (which I wrote about here) and events in the new year.
In the bar with (from left) - Paul Melhuish, Peter Mark May, Ross Warren, Lisa Childs
This time, following a chance conversation at our writing group, Paul Melhuish & I travelled up together.  He picked me up, we talked books and writing all the way up the M1 and, thanks to a diversion at the normal junction, we came off one stop earlier and found the venue much quicker (with only one slight wrong turn!).  As we walked across the square from the Assembly Rooms car park, I spotted Ross Warren & Lisa Childs through the Quad window and waved.  Then Peter Mark May spotted me and began flicking his V’s, so I did the same to him.  After signing in, we went for our goody-bags and I got my wonderful hug from Pixie Peigh.  As I moved along the table to buy raffle tickets, I saw Gary McMahon and got my man-hug from him.  What a great start!

In the bar, we sat with Peter, Ross & Lisa and caught up with them, then James Everington arrived and it was good to see him (with Steve Harris and Phil Sloman not coming, we made up The Crusty contingent between us).  After checking the programme, Peter, Paul & I decided to go to the 11.30 panel - “Trapped!  Does Horror Need To Broaden Its Horizons?” - and as I queued at the bar to get us drinks, Stephen Volk strolled by.  We shook hands and had a quick chat then Mark Morris appeared, so we chatted with him before heading upstairs to the Digital Suite (the normal theatres Edge-Lit uses weren’t available), chatting with Jenny Barber as we waited to go in.  I also managed to say hello to Kathy Boulton, though we still never got that picture!  The panel, moderated by Niki Valentine (who I interviewed here), was interesting and entertaining, approaching “trapped” in terms of sub-genre (the panel agreed with me that horror is a broad church) rather than commerciality.  It was very well attended, with a good range of questions though Gary McMahon, who didn’t put his hand up, asked the question that I was going to (and I did have my hand up!).  Grrr, that man and his magnificent mane of hair!
Alison Littlewood & me being silly
Back in the bar, I saw Ewen Davis (who has shaved his extraordinary beard off) and said hello to him and K T Davis, who both looked really well - it feels like ages since I’ve seen them.  Alison Littlewood & Fergus had arrived and, as always, it was great to see them.  Before I left home, Alison had posted on Facebook that it was our 7-year Friendiversary, saying that “We need a daft friendiversary pic (I know I'm going to regret saying that)” to complement the wonderful one taken at the Hauntings launch (see here).  Fergus took the picture for us and then we chatted and caught up, before Priya Sharma and Gary Couzens came over, with more hellos and hugs and catching up (and it was nice to congratulate Priya on news of her collection in person too).
Niki Valentine & me
Stephen Volk and Mark Morris in conversation
Paul & I chatted with Niki Valentine about the panel and writing, which was interesting as always, said quick hellos to Penny Jones, Graeme Reynolds and Adam Millard, chatted with Terry Grimwood and said hello to Dion Winton-Polak.  Stephen Bacon arrived, as did John Travis and Sharon Ring and we sat with Ross, Peter & Lisa to have lunch before it was time for the Guest Of Honour Q&A in The Box - with Mark Morris interviewing Stephen Volk.  The event got an appreciative audience, both Stephen & Mark are really nice blokes and the style was good, with Mark asking questions based around the stories in Steve’s latest PS Publishing collection (and I particularly liked his comments about The Arse-Licker, which he wrote for Anatomy Of Death).
The Eagle Books party (from left) - Stephen Bacon, Ross Warren, Gary Couzens, John Travis, me, Priya Sharma, Paul Melhuish
I then led a contingent to the Eagle Books stall in the market, with Priya, Ross, Gary Couzens, Paul, Steve & John in the party.  We all picked up something (I got another 'format a' edition of The Mystery Of The Dead Man’s Riddle - because you can never have too many - and Hitchcock’s Sinister Spies anthology), had some good conversations (in ever-changing little chat groups) and it was all very enjoyable.
With Stephen Bacon and Peter Mark May
Back at The Quad, we hit the dealer room and chatted with Andrew Hook & Sophie Essex and bought some books too.  Steve, Peter, Paul & I then went up to the Digital Suite for Terry’s panel, “Size Matters?  Is Shorter Fiction Making A Comeback?”, which was entertaining.  I managed to ask two questions (the first of which I actually answered myself as I was asking it, ho hum) and then chatted with Terry and CC Adams outside for a while.  Back at the bar, there were plenty of conversations about writing, books and life in general with an evolving group of people and that, to me, is what these kind of things are all about - chatting with folk who get what you’re saying without you having to explain everything.  Steve & I chatted with Gary McMahon for a while - his son is in second year at senior school, Dude has just gone into the first and we were comparing how things were going (it seems that a few of my concerns were shared by Gary and we both groaned over the bloody ‘bottle flipping’ thing).  Peter & I went into the foyer to have a chat and were joined by Jay Eales, James Worrad and Phil Irving, who were making a fleeting pit stop (I’d seen Phil briefly on the stairs but it was the first I’d seen of the others).  After a quick chat with them and a hello with Steve Shaw, we trooped upstairs for the raffle, this time presided over by Santa (Stephen Volk) and Pixie (who should have won an award with her deadpan delivery and grumpy expressions).  Probably because they’d spent a small fortune on tickets, Ross & Lisa cleaned up, though I managed to snare a copy of Steve Shaw’s Great British Horror 1 anthology.  I also saw Hayley Orgill & Kevin Redfearn in there but, as always seems to happen, didn’t get enough time to chat.
With Gary McMahon and Stephen Bacon
The Con officially ended at 6pm (which took almost everyone by surprise when they read the programme) and it was time to say our goodbyes in the bar, with hugs and handshakes all round.  Our little group - Steve, John, Sharon, Paul, James and a Norwegian reviewer called Ole - went over to Ask Italian, later joined by Yvonne Davis and her daughter.  Once again, good company, great conversation and nice food - though it took a while - along with plenty of laughs (I promised John I wouldn’t say anything about toilet coincidences so I won’t).  Even better, Wayne Parkin joined us for the last half hour so we got a chance to catch up (I last saw him at Sue’s book launch).
At Ask Italian with (from left) - me, Paul Melhuish, James Everington, Ole Imsen, Sharon Ring, John Travis, Stephen Bacon
All too soon we’d chatted and eaten our fill and it was time to go.  We loitered outside, ignoring the cold as if we really didn’t want to say goodbye, but then it was hugs all round and we broke up and headed home.

Another excellent Convention spent in great company, I had a wonderful time.  Roll on the next!

Monday 21 November 2016

Craze, by Steve Byrne - (book review with Q&A)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book 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.
A wave of terrifying paranormal phenomena has swept the UK. A virulent plague known as the Red Death has decimated the population. Law and order has broken down.
The Crisis Powers Government, operating from the fortified heart of London, is attempting to regain control, whilst a shadowy terrorist organisation is rumoured to be harnessing the power of darkness for its own ends.
To escape a riot-torn inner city, a group of survivors must band together, but their flight will force a harrowing confrontation with the demonic forces at the heart of society’s collapse.

Steve Byrne cannot tell a story badly.  His previous novel, Phoenix (which I reviewed here), was a stunning and immersive tale about supernatural entities in war-torn Vietnam that I thoroughly enjoyed and the same applies to Craze too, even though they are quite different beasts.  Craze is a near-future pulp shocker, following a handful of characters as they try to make sense of a UK decimated by plague and attacked by various supernatural elements and beasts that nobody quite understands and I do love novels that are - by the author’s own admission - a loving homage to 80s pulp horror.

The novel has two main threads which run in parallel (and occasionally cross) throughout the novel, effectively telling the story from different sides.  On the one hand, we have Hartman, a ruthless (and highly religious) US government operative, kept in this country by the Crisis Powers Government and not adverse to doling out eye-for-an-eye style justice.  He’s trouble-shooting an operation to have the Prime Minister crowned King of England (the present Royal family having been wiped out by the plague) but doesn’t realise that there are darker forces afoot around him.  The other story centres around Jon Raven who returns from a job in Newcastle only to find his wife has been kidnapped and killed.  On his way to exact revenge, he saves Penny Foster who is being assaulted by police and they are then joined by Aamir, a soldier who helps them get away.  When they rescue Ria York, a witch (and the girl on the cover), a chase leads them to a sealed-off Birmingham where, in the central library, they meet Professor Fayemi who knows enough about witchcraft to help Ria put together a plan that might help them all.

As with all pulp, the characters are introduced with the briefest of brushstrokes and even though that’s true here (and I would have preferred a bit more depth), you come to genuinely care for them and their interactions are always lifelike, their dialogue ringing true even in the heightened circumstances.  Byrne uses his locations well - desolate and ruined city streets, unspoilt countryside, the over-protected London, the ruins of Birmingham and the rejuvenated castle in Wales where the coronation is due to take place - and the book fairly drips with atmosphere.  Violence is a constant - sometimes what the characters see, sometimes what they experience - and nobody is apparently safe, with some people I really liked meeting brisk, sticky endings that shock all the more in their simple brutality (and it really is brutal - mention of a dog in the dungeon gave me pause).  Byrne handles the supernatural well too - things are half-seen and partly witnessed but we never get to see anything clearly and there’s no explanation, leaving us as much in the dark as the confused survivors, which works a treat.

Written with a brisk pace (the story doesn’t flag at all), I found myself racing through the last third as the plotlines came together with things looking ever bleaker for our heroes and I wasn’t disappointed.  Told with some wit and style, whilst I agree with Byrne that this is a pulp novel I think he sells himself short with that, because it’s as well-written, atmospheric and expertly paced as I’ve come to expect from the writer.  Wearing its heart on its sleeve, Craze is a novel that delivers not just what you want it to, but that little bit extra which tips it towards being a great work.  Very much recommended.

Steve Byrne, photographed on London's Southbank, April 2015
I've known Steve Harris (the man behind Mr Byrne) for years, since we started corresponding back in the late 90s when he produced a newsheet called The Inner Circle.  A great Convention-buddy (we could stand and talk for hours - and often do), he's also a member of The Crusty Exterior (the picture above came from our London meet).  I thought it'd be fun to ask him some questions about the book and he was kind enough to answer them...

MW:   Where did the story come from?
SB:   Where do I start on that? The premise had been brewing for a long time, and in another incarnation was actually the first novel I wrote, many moons ago. A bunch of disparate elements all came together over time.  I’ve always been interested in the supernatural, particularly in those purportedly ‘true’ anecdotes from friends and relatives.  Although I wouldn’t call myself a believer, I’ve always been fascinated by what exactly is going on in these cases—whether they’re psychological phenomena, wishful thinking, or something more sinister. My story ideas always begin with ‘what if?’ and build from there. What if all these stories were actually real? What if science was wrong, and there was some supernatural force beyond our current understanding? What if demons, ghosts and witchcraft were demonstrably real?

That idea stayed with me, but went no further. Some time later, I happened to catch a documentary entitled “The New Middle Ages”, which foresaw a future where money markets collapse, leading to a breakdown in law and order. In this scenario, rogue authorities and criminal factions take control of inner cities and Britain reverts to a feudal system run by these self-imposed lords. Antibiotic resistance and a lack of access to medicine give rise to an epidemic of Black Death proportions. In this uncertain world, there’d be a rise in the belief in superstition.  Linking this idea with the premise the supernatural is real gave me the framework for my fictional world—a vision of society tipping over into a Middle Ages nightmare where demonic forces are both feared and worshipped.
There’s also a reason for the stripped back tone of the book. My previous novel, Phoenix, which is set during the Vietnam War, involved a phenomenal amount of research. When I’d finished it, I didn’t want to plow right in with another ‘heavy’ project on that scale. I needed a change of gear. I’ve always been a fan of the pulp horror of the seventies and eighties, the sort of thing featured over at Trash Fiction. The death of James Herbert left me nostalgic for those fast paced, violent novels.  Wham bam, thank you ma’am, no holds barred.  This was entry level horror for me back in the day, a sort of fucked up YA. Where was this stuff now? I missed it, and wanted to write it.

MW:   How did you choose the locations and what research did you do on them?
SB:   Usually, my projects will be heavy on research, but as I said, I wanted to get away from that for Craze. I live in and grew up in an inner city, and as such, I’m familiar with sink-hole estates and local crime families. I drew on this for inspiration. Many of the characters are based on real people.
When the new library building in Birmingham opened, I visited and loved the place, I thought it would make a great setting, and filed that fact away for future use. Lastly, the castle… Here’s a bit of trivia, one of the ten things you didn’t know about me—I’ve always been fascinated by castles. I was a member of English Heritage/CADW for many years, and I’ve visited most of the castles in England and Wales. When I first saw Ludlow and Conwy castles on school trips, I was really impressed by their scale, and thought how cool it would be to restore and live in one. Fast forward many years later, and what better setting for a novel set in a Britain devolved to Middle Ages values? I had great fun with that.

Although I promised myself I’d bang out a fast paced adventure thriller and back off on research this time, I ended up finding out about the mediaeval witch craze, demonology, Wicca, black magic, the Ebola virus, and the Black Death (Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year was invaluable in learning about life in a plague ridden city). There’s also a great book on the collapse of Western society, called The Coming Anarchy by Robert D. Kaplan—I digested that too. So much for cutting down on the research. Still, it was nothing compared to what went into Phoenix.

MW:   The characters are diverse and believable. Did you do a similar thing to Phoenix, where you imagined actors cast in the roles?
SB:   Not originally, but as I was bringing elements together, and the number of characters grew, I found it helpful—which probably means you’ll want the cast list! Raven: Gerrard Butler, Penny:  Scarlet Johansen,  Aamir: Naveen Andrews, Ria: Fairuza Balk. Hartman I saw as a mix of Clint Eastwood and Daniel Craig.  It’s great fun doing this, and it translates the written word into a movie screened inside your head.

MW:   The book clearly believes in the power of friendship and teamwork, which the brutality of the situation tries its best to destroy - how did you find the process of bumping off characters that had really come alive in the story?
SB:   I find that develops naturally with the plot. Some of the deaths surprised and upset me, but were dictated by the story. I think you described it once better than anyone, Mark—horror is all about what occurs when life turns bad.  Horror can enter our lives at any time without warning. Nasty, brutish things happen. In some ways, reading and writing horror is practise for coping with darkness in our lives. Some of the scenes are pretty brutal. I always work on that premise of ‘what if’, and things for me have to reflect what would really happen in these situations. Violence should sicken us, should make us feel uncomfortable. We need to face reality in order to come to terms with it. Recently, the first episode of The Walking Dead Season 7 tackled this head on (oops, unintended pun there) in spectacular fashion—very difficult to watch, a real gut-punch.

MW:   How much did the end result differ from the original idea?
SB:   Originally, in that first novel (that was consigned to the bottom drawer, and rightly so) it was really gung-ho, proper pulp—sort of like Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist series from the nineties, if you’re ever encountered that. People, mayhem and guns. Fast paced fun. I hope I’ve kept that feel, but as the characters developed  (particularly the female characters, who actually began to take over the novel), it evolved into what you’ve picked up on—a look at how friendship, love and loyalty are our only respite in a world of depravity.

MW:   So what’s next from Steve Byrne?
SB:   I’m working on my next book as we speak. It’ll be a return to the more research heavy, in depth format of Phoenix. But expect action, violence, brutality and darkness too. The book is tentatively entitled “Fire Red Moon” from the line in the blues version of Voodoo Chile by Jimi Hendrix. “The night I was born, I swear the moon turned afire red”.  It’ll mix conjecture about certain unusual incidents in the life and death of Jimi Hendrix, music industry conspiracy theory, the search for a lost Hendrix recording, and a huge dose of Caribbean Obeah thrown in for good measure. I think I’ve found my niche writing plots twisted around historical facts and events. After Fire red Moon, I’ll be writing a novel set during the Irish Civil War...