Tuesday 27 September 2016

FantasyCon, Scarborough, 23rd September to 25th September 2016

Friday 23rd September
Letting the train take the strain again (through 3 changes) made for a pleasant journey that saw Sue Moorcroft & I chatting the whole way.  The Derby to York leg was the first clue that writers were massing - Mike Chinn was sitting a few seats behind us, Tim Lebbon a few in front.  We met up on the platform, had a chat and a cuppa then merged with more writer-filled groups on the York to Scarborough train (Helen Marshall and John Gilbert were sitting in front of us and Peter Mark May and Richard Farren Barber were further down the carriage).  By the time we got to Scarborough, there was a larger group and Richard led one of them (thanks Google maps) to the Grand Hotel.  I’d read it was apparently once the biggest hotel in Europe and from the bit we could see that certainly seemed to be true, it looked glorious.  I said hello to Andrew Coulthard as we crossed the road, then met Jay Eales & Selina Lock outside and had a chat.
from left - John Gilbert, Sue Moorcroft, Neil Williams, James Everington, Priya Sharma, Phil Sloman, me, Lisa Childs, Ross Warren, Wayne Parkin, Cate Gardner
We signed in for the Con itself (lanyard and a wristband - fancy!), saw Ian Whates, Helen and Pixie Peigh (which is always a pleasure) then joined the long queue to check in.  On the journey up, I’d been worrying (when Sue wasn’t talking about bed bugs) that I was going to get a basement room with no windows so when I finally got to the counter I asked the girl where it was.
     "Second floor," she said with a smile.
     “It’s inward facing though, so it hasn’t got a window”
With the lovely Carrie Buchanan
Thankfully she was able to swap my room with someone who hadn’t signed in yet (sorry about that but you snooze-you lose!) so I was happy and now on the fifth floor.  As Sue was on the sixth we headed across the main bar and bumped into Kit Power, Alex Davis, Phil Sloman, Charlotte Courtney-Bond, Steve Shaw, Paul Woodward, got big hugs from Simon Bestwick & Cate Gardner, Ray Cluley & Jess Jordan, saw Steve Bacon and Wayne Parkin and found the lift (the one and only time I used it all weekend).  Jim Mcleod and Vix Kirkpatrick were also waiting and it was great to see them too (they were also on the sixth floor) and we chatted on the way up.  I had room 527A (A, I later found out, denoting a larger room that had been split into two - I got the smaller bit) from which you could see the sea-front, it had a shower, a bed and it was clean - what else could you want?  I unpacked and headed back to the bar, using the stairs this time and that was my first encounter with the grand staircase which was amazingly wide and very long, so you felt like a film star coming down it (I first used the comparison of a Disney princess, which wasn’t the coolest thing I could have said).  Saw Neil, Michelle & Tallis Williams, Victoria (V H) Leslie, Chris Barnes, Priya Sharma and Conrad Williams, then I convinced Conrad and Priya that we should make an entrance on the stairs, so we ran up them and came back down.  More people were coming in, saw Andrew Hook & Sophie Essex (who hadn’t had the best journey up), Steve McHugh introduced himself, Ross Warren and Lisa Childs came over, Steve Lockley walked by and gave me a book, then the lovely Carrie Buchanan appeared and I got a hug from her.  Cat Hellison said hello - we haven’t seen one another since WFC Brighton in 2013 but she’s now living in Scotland so hopefully will get to more events.  I saw Ren Warom and introduced her to Sue and we all had a chat - her new book is doing well and so is she, which was nice to see.  Steve Bacon, Wayne, Conrad and I found a little corner and had a long chat about writing, genre and life, which was thoroughly entertaining.
Chatting with Conrad Williams - me, Phil, Conrad, Steve Bacon
We decided to have pizza (due to timings, the upcoming disco and the fact that nobody had booked anything else) and our motley crew gathered outside - Richard, Sue, Peter, Phil, James, Ross, Lisa, Steve, Wayne, Laura Mauro, Gary Couzens, Priya, Cate, Simon, Neil, Michelle & Tallis - and set off into Scarborough town.  Pizza Hut were able to accommodate us, we took over three tables, enjoyed quick service and decent food and, as ever, great conversation.  Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane sat quietly near the drinks machine, which meant they didn’t get much peace for their meal but it was good to catch up with them again.
The Pizza posse (some of us doing jazz hands for some weird reason - photo by Sue)
Lisa, me, Laura Mauro (obscured), Ross, Phil, Gary Couzens, Peter Mark May, Wayne (obscured), James, Richard Farren Barber, Steve
When we got back we saw Steve Harris & Amanda Rutter - more hugs - had a quick chat with Ben Jones and went to the Royal Hotel (the sister-hotel for the Con) for the disco, Wayne and I walking the short distance with Donna Bond, so I introduced them.  The disco wasn’t what I’d been expecting, to be honest - the music was great but not really danceable though we didn’t let that stop us and Wayne, Phil & I were on the floor for most of it, with Steve, James and Peter dropping in (and Donna joining us every now and again - “a girl!  Quick!  Dance cooler!”).  I also saw Kathy Boulton (the first of many occasions), we said hello but I still didn't manage to get a picture with her - one day...  Carrie & Vix came by later so I got to dance with them again but, alas, there was to be no Hey Mickey this year.  After witnessing a contretemp with an over-officious hotel porter who didn’t like the noise level and wanted to shut the disco down, I headed back for the Grand and quickly got into a conversation with Paul Finch, Paul Lewis, Steve Lockley, Graeme Hurry and Neil that spanned a very wide range (and re-affirmed my idea of going to Harrogate next year for the Crimefest).  Chatted with Steve H, CC Adams, Ben and Jasper Bark, then Alison Littlewood & Fergus came through.  The main bar shut but Fergus said there was a back bar so we went to that (I hadn't even realised it was there) and found a table, complete with a bowl of chips.  For our photo opp, Alison said she wanted some and Steve ate one, saying it was very nice - we all declined the offer.  Our little group was soon joined by John Travis, Terry Grimwood and Amanda for more chat - surely, one of the purest delights of FCon is the great conversation.
"Don't eat that chip!  Oh, too late..."
Steve Harris, Alison Littlewood, me, Steve
I gave in at 1.40 and headed up the stairs (I ran all the way, the only time I managed it all weekend).  The room was hot and quite noisy (it sounded like air con blowers somewhere outside) but the shower was refreshing and the bed was comfy.

Saturday 24th September
Up bright and early (me, worried about the panel?  No, never…) to a clear sunny morning, I decided to go for a walk.  I went down the McBean steps (which everyone in our party quickly christened the ‘Exorcist’ steps), took some pictures of the front (only a few dog walkers on the beach and no traffic) then walked along in front of the hotel (it’s huge!) and up the switchbacks by the roundabout.  Lovely view (and walk) though it was a bit chilly.  I met Alex and Peter at the hotel then chatted with Tracy Fahey (who I met at Edge-Lit and who’s on the panel with me) about life and writing and what we were going to say before Steve McHugh joined us.  I went back to my room, bumping into John Llewellyn Probert & Thana Niveau on the way - it’s always a treat to chat with them.  I also saw Pixie again and finally got my hug from her.

I met Sue in the main bar and we went for breakfast - the cornflakes looked limp so I went for sausages, scrambled eggs and bacon (diet starts Monday…)  It was lovely.  Steve & Wayne joined us (he liked my A bout de soufflé t-shirt), we all had seconds, chatted and then it was time.  With Laura Mauro, we walked to the Royal and got set up - Paul Finch and Tracy were already at the table and I sat next to her.  Since we still had time, I decided to nip to the loo and when I got back, the room had filled up and all the panelists were all in place.  People looked at me as I rushed up the centre aisle and I debated saying “I’m not late” but decided against it.  The panel was great fun, the hour whisking by.  Paul ran it well, he had Helen Marshall and V H Leslie to his right, Tracy, me and Ramsey Campbell to his left and I was in great company.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and we got some nice feedback from the audience.
The "Is Reality The New Horror?" panel with, from left, Helen Marshall, V H Leslie, Paul Finch, Tracy Fahey, me, Ramsey Campbell - picture by Sue Moorcroft
I posted this on Facebook, writing “me trying to say something as smart as my colleagues...”  Paul replied with “It's true. He did try” - the cheeky bugger!
Back at the Grand, I went to the back bar where Ian and Helen had set up a table for us to sign the hardback edition of Ten Tall Tales that launches later today.  I was really chuffed when Ian asked me to be in it, moreso when I saw my fellow contributors.  Settled around the table were Maura McHugh, Paul Kane, Simon Clark (who I hadn’t seen for a while), Lynda E. Rucker and Andrew Hook (who also liked my t-shirt - Gary Couzens later told me Andrew’s a big Godard fan).  I said I’d been looking for a 400 Blows t-shirt, which didn’t go well on the Google search and that, to much laughter, led to what else we had found on the Internet accidentally.  We also talked length of names and how consistent signatures were - Maura was fantastic (and focussed), Simon Clark had his down to a couple of letters but Lynda Rucker had made her life harder by adding the E!  Great fun and company.  Job finished, people drifted away and I chatted with Maura about the Mixtape posts and the power of Daphne DuMaurier and Angela Carter.  On my way to Sue’s panel I bumped into Gary & Emily McMahon (who are only here for the day) and got a big hug from both of them.
Some of the Ten Tall Tales signees - from left, Andrew Hook, Lynda E. Rucker, Paul Kane, Simon Clark, Ian Whates, me - picture by Maura McHugh
Wayne & I went into Sue’s panel in the Palm Court room, which commanded a wonderful view of the hills beyond the town and he & I debated the use of the netting over the windows.  The panel went well, Sue kept it nicely on track and one participant in particular, Rob Power, was especially interesting.  Had a chat with Jon Oliver then wandered down to the bar, met up with Steve, introduced myself to Rob and we went into town for a sandwich.  Leaving Sue to her phone and coffee on a bench, Wayne & Steve took me to Mrs Lofthouses Secondhand Book Emporium, which was excellent (and filled with handmade bookshelves).  Didn’t have enough time in there unfortunately, but I did pick up a book about the making of Close Encounters, which was a good result (and yes, I get the irony that I’m at a Convention filled with books and yet I still go to a 2nd hand bookshop…).
We love Bacon - from left, Steve Bacon, me Bacon, Peter Mark Bacon and Wayne Bacon...
The NewCon Press launch was in the Cabaret room (which was actually a small, gothic theatre) and well attended.  Ian did his stuff, I got to sit between Ramsey and Maura and we signed some paperbacks (including one for Cat, who Maura & I chatted with).  After the queue died down, I had a lovely long chat with Maura about the writing process and the power of the novella, which led to us talking about Richard Matheson, Stir Of Echoes and I Am Legend.  Wonderful.  We hung around in the same venue for Adam Nevill’s launch then I went up to Neil Buchanan’s dealer stall to sign copies of Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers.  We also talked about the cover art for Polly as he’s not happy with it and I agree with him (the novella is about a confident, assured fortysomething woman, the cover features a scared looking girl in her early 20s) and we’ve decided to go in a slightly different direction.  I told him an idea I’d had and he’s going to get his artist to come up with some new concepts so it was a good and timely conversation.
The FantasyCon Boyband publicity shoot went well - Richard, Steve, me, Wayne.

On the harbour - Steve, Sue, Richard
As there was a gap in the programme, Sue, Steve, Wayne, Richard & I decided to head out and get some sea air, walking along the front to check out some restaurants for later.  We didn’t find much, except in The Works where there was a collection edited by Sue and books by Paul and Tim!  We went into the harbour, walked around the lighthouse (and engaged in a bit of Viz-related duelling) then headed into town.  I’d never been in that part before and the mix of shops and architecture was brilliant.

We were back at the Grand in time to help set up for the Hersham Horror Books launch.  I’d been looking forward to this for a long time and as we set out the chairs, books and signing stands, there was a real sense of excitement in the air.  We took some pictures and I was proud to stand alongside Phil, James and Steve (fellow Crusty Exterior folk), launching the HHB novella series - they’ve already picked up some good reviews and I’m chuffed to be part of it.  For the event, I stood between James and Marie (whose collection was also being launched), Peter did this thing and the floor was open.  There weren’t as many people as I’d hoped, though we signed some books and then about a third of the way through the Cocktail bar just seemed to fill up, with people, noise and laughter and suddenly we were signing lots of copies (and Peter kept coming over and giving me updates).  As things calmed down, I mingled and saw Sarah Ann Watts and caught up with her before Peter introduced me to Sharon Ring who I’ve known online for years though this was our first meeting face-to-face.  By the end of the session there was hardly any stock left, Peter waved his wad at me like loadsamoney and we tidied up.  It was a good turnout, it was great fun (which you can see in all our faces in the pictures) and I had a wonderful time.
The 4 Novella Writers - Phil, Steve, me, James
The Hersham Horror writers - Marie, me, James, Phil, Steve
Jay tries to get us to sign each others books - Jay Eales, Selina Lock, Paul Kane, Marie, me, James
Busy signing - Marie, me, James, Phil, Steve - picture by Wayne Parkin
Marie, me, James, Phil, Steve, Wayne, Richard and Peter's back
We four with Jim Mcleoad (centre), The Ginger Nuts Of Horror head honcho.  GNoH have been a great supporter of the novellas and the genre in general.  So good to have him there.
Ross stopped me outside, concerned about my t-shirt - since it wasn’t Star Wars, he was worried I’d been cloned.  With him and Lisa, I headed for dinner with Sue, Steve, Wayne, Peter, Chris Teague, Sharon and her partner Dave - we tried the Italian near the Royal but they couldn’t accommodate us.  On our earlier walk, we’d noticed fireworks being set up on the beach so Wayne suggested fish and chips while we watched them and we went for it - though the alley I led us down wasn’t the best choice I could have made.  We managed to pick the only chippy in the world that didn’t do pies (I had chicken nuggets and chips, I’m not a fan of fish) then stood on the path and watched the fireworks, chatted and laughed (and me and Wayne helped save Chris from choking to death).  As Wayne said, we’re at the seaside, it had to be fish and chips on the beach!
In the back bar (pic by Chris Teague) - from left (bottom) Wayne, Gavin Williams, Amanda Rutter, Steve H, Sharon Ring, me, Ross, John Travis, Peter, Lisa, Sue, Phil, Steve, James
Back at the Grand, we made a circle in the back bar which was already full with FConners and other hotel guests.  Our group was joined by Phil and James, then Neil and John Travis and it was fluid for the rest of the evening - Chris Barnes and Ben; Danny Rhodes and Thomas Emson came over, Jim and Vix joined us for a chat, Steve H & Amanda pulled up chairs (and he & I managed to have a bit of a chat too - he gave me a copy of his new book Craze which is leaping to the top of my TBR pile).  Saw Neil Snowdon briefly and managed to say a quick hello to Steve Savile - and then didn’t see him again for the promised chat (that happened a lot).  As I was heading for the loo, I saw Alison and Gary McMahon - she’s been trying to corner us three and Gary Fry to get a picture all weekend (we four have a message thread on Facebook Gary F labelled the Secret Horror Society which is great fun) - we grabbed him at the bar and got Gavin Williams to take a picture for us.
Me, Alison Littlewood, Gary Fry and Gary McMahon - sarcasm not pictured
When I got back to our corner, Adam Nevill had joined us and we chatted for a while - he’s a lovely bloke, always interesting (and interested) and I enjoy his company.  Jasper Bark dropped by, James Bennett came over for a hug and I decided to call it quits at about 2.30.  What an absolutely brilliant day - a great panel, two book launches, lots of laughter and chat, who could ask for more?

Sunday 25th September
Light rain this morning so I didn’t go for my walk.  I met Stephen Volk on the stairwell and we walked down to the main bar together.  He apologised for missing the Hersham launch (he popped his head around the door and the room was full) and I thanked him for the mention in his new PS collection (it includes The Arse-Licker, his story from my Anatomy Of Death anthology) and, as ever, it was a real treat to talk to him.  At the bottom of the Disney Princess staircase we met Marie & Paul, then the Williams, before Sue joined us (and we had pictures taken with Tallis’ Zombie bear).  Sue & I went for breakfast and saw and chatted with Ian and Simon Morden on the stairs.  In the restaurant, I finally saw Graeme Reynolds & Charlotte McDonald to say hello to.
Tallis Williams, me and the Zombie Bear
We dropped our cases off and checked out, then I chatted with Peter, Phil and James, all of us still really chuffed about the launch.  Jay & Selina joined us and then Phil had to leave, so it was hugs all round, the first goodbye of the day.  That’s the bummer about the last day of a Con, saying goodbye as people head off, knowing you might not see them again for a year - thank goodness for Facebook!  Richard, Peter, Steve, Sue and I went into the back bar and chatted as we drank tea.  Wayne joined us, then Simon Morden, then the Williams.  It was Michelle’s first Con and she'd enjoyed it and it was nice to see Tallis getting more confident as the weekend went by.  Had a long chat with Simon about writing and plans, perhaps the longest natter we’ve had since we first met up at the Masters Of Terror day in London back in 2000.  After Jim and Chris came to say their goodbyes (more big hugs), I went onto the terrace to take pictures of the view and found Sharon Ring out there taking pictures of the boats.
Sunday in the back bar - me, Peter, Richard
Went into the Joe Hill panel, where he was interviewed by Peter Crowther - Sue & I saw him at WFC in Brighton (at the time she didn’t know his parentage) and this time was even better.  He’s a great speaker, engaging, witty and funny and his stories ranged from hilarious to powerful and raw.  One of my favourite events of the Con.

For lunch, Peter suggested we try the café at the top of the funicular and it was a good choice.  We sat upstairs, all had paninis and a good chat - Wayne liked my Live & Let Die t-shirt, which led to us discussing Robert McGinnis and poster art in general (he & I share a dislike of modern ‘here’s a picture’ posters - step forward the Daniel Craig Bond’s).  All too soon it was time for Steve & Wayne to go and, as ever, their goodbye hugs were just a little bit tighter than normal.  It’s been great to see and spend so much time with them this weekend that it’s genuinely a wrench to say goodbye.  Peter went back to the Con but Sue & I decided to go for a walk instead (she wanted an ice cream too).  We walked along the front, got to the harbour and decided to keep going - the sky was clear, conversation was good and we were almost at the North Bay before turning back.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Back at the Grand, Mark Morris came over to say hello - we caught up and finally, after years of trying, had a little bit of a chat about the Three Investigators.  It was really good to see him.

Me and Adam Millard in the mirror, in the queue
Leaving Sue with her Kindle and a cup of tea, I went to the Royal for the Awards ceremony and stood chatting with Adam Millard in the queue.  He & I secured a sofa and were joined by Peter, David Price, Martin Roberts and Helen Hopley (she & I knelt on the floor).  Neil Bond came over to wish me luck and I stood with Graeme Hurry and Steve Volk for the ceremony itself.  King For A Year didn’t win, which was a disappointment, but there were some nice surprises and it was a genuinely lovely moment when the Karl Edward Wagner Award was given to the redcoats past and present.  Seeing Pixie on stage, emotional and lost for words for all the right reasons, was wonderful.  It was also a treat to see Priya Sharma win too - wonderful person, great writer!

Then it was time to go.  I shook hands, said goodbyes, congratulated Alex on the award and Con and headed back to the Grand.  I had a chat with John Travis and Terry in the main bar, got Sue, said goodbye to Ian then went to get our cases, which was more complicated than it should have been.  We found them and were joined by Laurel Sills (the mysterious girl in one of my photo’s from Brighton) who came back to the station with us.

We made our connection with minutes to spare at York, talked all the way to Kettering and got in for 8.15.  Alison & Dude met me at the station - he came running over and jumped into my arms, which was a great way for the weekend to end - then I hugged Sue and said goodbye.
Sue on the staircase
FantasyCon by the sea was another great Con, full of fantastic people, company and conversations.  Although I wasn’t keen on the two-venue approach (I’d have preferred everything to be in one), Scarborough was a great location, the faded glamour of The Grand Hotel was perfect and it was so good to see old friends and make new ones.
Glorious Scarborough
I know I say it a lot but I really do find FCon a life affirming experience, it reminds me of the good people I have in my life, it reminds me why I love the horror genre and its writers and readers and it makes me wish it happened more than once a year.

Here's to 2017!

Monday 26 September 2016

The Factory

I'm pleased to announce that my new novella The Factory was published on 24th September and launched at FantasyCon this past weekend by Hersham Horror Books.

"[A] skilful, gradual escalation of detail, a suggestiveness reminiscent of Ramsey Campbell."
- Gary Fry

Twenty years ago at college, Martin, Paul, Jane and Gwen were members of the GLUE Club - the Gaffney Legendary Urban Explorers - run by the charismatic Tom.  Now, following his mysterious death, they agree to meet up again and undertake one final exploration to honour his name.

Aside from Paul who never left, none of them has been back to Gaffney since and the reunion is awkward, re-opening old wounds.  As they begin to explore the long-abandoned Pocock Factory, it seems they might be intruding on something better left alone.  As they succumb, one by one, to the spirits in the darkness, it quickly becomes a battle to see who will survive the night...

The central idea for this came to me in August 2015 when I was approached to write a short story for an anthology.  I was working on other projects at the time but by December I had the bare bones of the story in place and then the anthology collapsed.  By then, however, I’d fallen in love with the idea and when Peter Mark May at Hersham Horror Books asked me in March for a novella, I pitched this to him and he liked it.  Bits and pieces attached themselves to the project as time went on (it took me a while to have it as a group of people going to the factory to honour their recently deceased friend) and by the time I was free to write it, I was excited.  Written between April and July, this ran a lot longer than I thought it would (it’s over 34k words) and got a lot nastier, but that was my intention so it worked for the best.

When I spoke with Pete, I told him my main goal was to make this a proper horror novella.  Drive had shown me a different route (and the fact it got nominated for a BFS Award made me sit up and take notice), which I explored further with the soon to be published Polly and so I decided this should be a way to clear the decks, an old-school-shocker before I looked towards working on a dark thriller.

My cast were really put through the wringer (I explained the concept to my old friend and pre-reader David Roberts and we had a fine time one-upping each other with gruesome demises) and the fate that befalls the character closest to me was particularly gruelling to write (but good fun, at the same time).  The Factory itself was my own invention - the location is an abandoned boot-and-shoe factory in Rothwell that I pass on my daily walk - but I used some reference books to get the layout right (though, in the end, I twisted everything to my own advantage).  I also added a canal to Gaffney and included a couple of nods to my older works (including my novel In The Rain With The Dead).

I grew to like Martin, Jane, Paul and Gwen - collectively known as the GLUE club - but I also had a lot of fun giving them grief as they explored ever deeper into The Factory.

Gary Fry gave me an early review which you can read here.

Paula Limbaugh reviews it at Horror Novel Reviews, which you can read here.

Anthony Watson reviews the slate of HHB novellas here.

Charlotte Courtney-Bond reviewed it at The Ginger Nuts Of Horror, which you can read here.

At the HHB launch (from left - Phil Sloman, Stephen Bacon, me, James Everington)

The novella is available through Amazon

The Gaffney Legendary Urban Explorers - the Glue Club for short - had been Tom’s idea but, to Paul’s way of thinking, most of the good ones back then were.  A force of nature at Gaffney Tech, Paul had wanted to get to know him better from the moment he saw him across the crowded refectory, holding court about some pop band or another and bursting into bits of the song in question when it helped his argument.  They had a couple of classes together - Tom confident, gregarious and hilarious, Paul much less so - fell into easy conversation and began to occupy a similar orbit.  Away from the hubbub of social student life, Tom could be intense and serious, keen to ask questions and understand, fully aware Paul was smarter.  Paul revelled in it, looking forward to the nights they sat up late, drinking and putting the world to rights.  Both young men were interested in architecture, hated Brutalism and loved the Victorian factories that dotted Gaffney and when one was scheduled to be turned into flats, they decided to explore it.  It had been a fun experience Tom was eager to repeat.  He dropped a few hints, put up a couple of flyers and within a fortnight, he’d formed a club.  Paul wasn’t keen on the idea of sharing his new-found friend, but enjoyed the fact his social circle had widened and, after tolerating the two girls and other bloke, had grown to like them.
     The club met infrequently, taking on perhaps three or four explorations in an academic year, but met for drinks two or three times a month.
     Paul had missed the group ever since he left college and following Tom’s death, he’d found it hard to focus on much else, as all thoughts of his old friend centred back towards the idea of urban exploration.  It had been Paul who’d let Tom know about the Pocock Factory - for years, Tom’s holy grail - and now it had somehow taken his life.
     The idea played on his mind.  He’d taken to going for a walk after his dinner and found, on most nights, his route took him past the Pocock factory to the canal.  The first couple of times he’d tried to rationalise it - after all, wasn’t it kind of ghoulish to visit the place his old friend had lost his life - but then just accepted it.  There wasn’t anything ghoulish about it, he just wanted to be here, to occupy the same space and pass on his best wishes.
     When Tom’s mum rang with the details of the funeral, the idea took further shape though it was another couple of nights before he had it clear enough in his mind what he wanted to say without telling everything.
     That night, he sat at the small desk in the corner of the lounge and looked out the window at the common.  A group of kids were playing football with far too many players on each side and the smallest child in goal.  Older kids, perhaps late teenagers, were playing proper games on the pitches either side of them.
     Turning his attention back to the flat, he looked at the line of photographs above the desk.  Most were of family - in a fit of pique, he’d smashed his favourite of him and Jenny when the divorce papers came through - but he couldn’t imagine ever taking down the one of his college friends.
     Jane and Gwen were holding an A4 sheet of paper that Tom had scrawled Glue Club on and the three lads - him, Tom and Martin - lined up behind them.  They were all dressed for Urbex - dark clothes, helmets with torches and gloves - and all looked happy.  The picture was taken, almost twenty years ago, on the night they explored Bentley’s cinema on Russell Street.  Locally notorious, a woman had been kidnapped and held there briefly before most of the building was destroyed in a fire.  They’d found nothing unusual on their exploration, apart from a windowless room with glass all over the floor, but it had been exciting.
     Glue Club and excitement, two things sadly lacking in Paul’s life.  He had a job he enjoyed, enough social life to keep him busy and a flat he didn’t want but - thanks to the divorce settlement and having bought the family home at the right time - was mostly his.  He missed the life and friends he’d had in college and was looking forward to seeing them again, though he’d have preferred any other circumstance to the one he found himself in - he still couldn’t believe he’d never see Tom again.
     He’d written a draft of the email that afternoon and now he was editing it, his fingers braced over the keyboard.

Hi all,
As everyone is coming to Gaffney for the funeral, I had a thought of how to give Tom a nice send-of.  Do you remember back in the day, he was adamant that one day the Glue Club would explore the Pocock Factory near the canal?  How about we do that for him?  Nothing too strenuous, I’ll provide the equipment, just a quick look around the building to say a final goodbye then we’ll head for home.
What do you think?
All the best,

     Was that any good?  Would they share his enthusiasm?  He looked out the window and saw the big game of football had broken up into several smaller games, which didn’t even look like five-a-side.
     The email wouldn’t look any better if he left it five minutes or five hours, he decided and pressed send.

     By ten o’clock they’d all responded, thanking him for a wonderful idea and a great gesture for an old friend.
    Paul switched off his laptop and went for a bath.

Wednesday 21 September 2016

My FantasyCon schedule

I love the FantasyCon experience (I've written reports for most of them) from my first in September 2000 in Birmingham up to last year in Nottingham.  Back at my first, I went in knowing about three people but by the time I left I knew a load more and most of those friendships are still going strong.  This year, it's FantasyCon-by-the-Sea and so Sue Moorcroft & I are off to sunny Scarborough and I'm really looking forward to it.  As I'm involved in a few things (and because the cool kids are doing it), here's my schedule for the weekend, starting off with a new novella from me.

Twenty years ago at college, Martin, Paul, Jane and Gwen were members of the GLUE Club - the Gaffney Legendary Urban Explorers - run by the charismatic Tom.  Now, following his mysterious death, they agree to meet up again and undertake one final exploration to honour his name.

Aside from Paul who never left, none of them have been back to Gaffney since and the reunion is awkward, re-opening old wounds.  As they begin to explore the long-abandoned Pocock Factory, it seems they might be intruding on something better left alone.  As they succumb, one by one, to the spirits in the darkness, it quickly becomes a battle to see who will survive the night...

* * *
Friday 23rd - 8pm - Royal Ballroom - The FantasyCon Disco!
I don't know why it's on a Friday night this year but I love the disco, we always have a great laugh and so that's where I'll be!

* * *
Saturday 24th - 10am (Royal Ballroom, Royal Hotel) - Creepin Up on You
Are We Running Out of Imaginary Scares? Is Reality The New Horror?
Paul Finch (Chair), Ramsey Campbell, Tracy Fahey, Helen Marshall, Mark West

Am I nervous?  Yeah, just a little bit...

* * *
Saturday 24th - 1pm (Palm Court Ballroom, The Grand Hotel) - All About You
First Steps As a New Writer – How Do You Go About Launching Your Career?
David Tallerman, Rob Power, Sue Moorcroft (Chair), Helen Armfield, Iain Grant

* * *
Saturday 24th - 3pm (Main Ballroom, The Grand Hotel) Book Launch – NewCon Press
Ian Whates launches Ten Tall Tales (which includes my story Do You Believe In Ghosts?)

I'm well chuffed, look at that company I'm keeping!

If you're not attending, the book can be ordered from the publisher on this link, whilst the ebook can be ordered from Amazon here

* * *
Saturday 24th - 7pm (Cocktail Bar, The Grand Hotel) Book Launch – Hersham Horror Books
Peter Mark May launches four novellas and a collection, featuring:

Stephen Bacon with Laudanum Nights
James Everington with Paupers Graves
Phil Sloman with Becoming David
Mark West with The Factory
Marie O'Regan with In Times Of Want And Other Stories

Please come along, otherwise the five of us will just spend the hour sitting around and nattering!
* * *
Sunday 25th - 3.30pm onwards (Royal Ballroom, Royal Hotel) Fantasycon/BFS Awards Banquet
Depending on the timings, I usually attend these anyway but this year sees my second ever nomination (following  Drive  last year).  This time I am nominated for curating the King For A Year Project in the non-fiction category.  It's a strong field but fingers crossed, eh?
as it was announced on Twitter - 7/6/16

In addition to all the above, there are plenty of panels and readings I'd like to get to, plus lots of friends have book launches and there's also the epic curry outing (with hopefully quicker service than last year).  If you don't see me at any of these, I'll either be in the dealer room or in the bar.  Or in the disco on Friday night!
FantasyCon 2015 Disco (I got warm, my camera misted up) - from left, Peter Mark May, me, Phil Sloman, Steven Chapman
FantasyCon, for me, is as much about the people as anything else and - like always - I'm looking forward to catching up with old friends I haven't seen for a year.  There's something positive in the air at a Con, that creates a real buzz when you're surrounded by creative people who love the genre as much as you do and it's always good to meet new friends too.  So, if you see me wandering around, please do come over and say hello!
FantasyCon 2015, from left, Paul Woodward, Phil Sloman, Stephen Bacon, me, Alison Littlewood, Jim Mcleod, James Everington - front - Gavin Williams
I hope to see you there and, as ever, there will be a full report when I get back!

Monday 19 September 2016

The Promised Land, by Robert B. Parker at 40

Promised Land is the fourth Spenser novel (following Mortal Stakes) by Robert B. Parker and it was first published in September 1976.  It went on to win the Edgar Award (presented by the Mystery Writers of America) for Best Novel in 1977.

As I wrote in my appreciation of Robert B. Parker (which you can read here), I got into crime fiction in the late 80s after watching The Long Goodbye on Moviedrome.  I read Raymond Chandler, the V I Warshawski series by Sara Paretksy, the Hannah Wolfe novels of Sarah Dunant and various stand-alone titles.  One day in early 1988, while browsing in Kettering W H Smiths, a title caught my eye.  The cover wasn’t especially inspiring but it was published by Penguin, the blurb was good so I took a chance and I’m really glad I did.

Promised Land was a revelation, a well-written, literate, amusing, sexy, violent thriller that moved at a terrific pace.  I became an instant fan of the character and writer, picking up all the novels in the series until Double Deuce, which was first published in 1992.
cover scan of my 1987 Penguin edition
“I had two problems.  I had to take King Powers off of Shepard’s back and I had to get Pam Shepard off the hook for armed robbery and murder.”

For a hundred a day plus expenses, Spenser, the hard-hitting but soft-centred Boston private detective, happily agrees to find Harvey Shepard’s runaway wife.  But his assignment turns out to be less than simple.  Pam Shepard has rejected ‘domestic bliss’ in favour of liberation.  And Harvey Shepard’s underhand business deals have put him in debt with some very nasty loan sharks.  So Spenser dishes out lessons in all-American ethics as well as some hefty punches...

Spenser is hired by Harvey Shepard, a businessman, to find his runaway wife Pam.  It doesn’t take long to find her - she’s living in New Bedford with two feminist revolutionaries, Rose Alexander and Jane - but he promises not to force her to return to her husband against her will.  When he sees his old adversary Hawk at the Shepard home, he suspects his client is being threatened by local big-time loan shark and gangster King Powers, for whom Hawk sometimes acts as an enforcer.  Fired for refusing to tell Shepard where his wife is, Spenser’s then contacted by Pam who has become entangled in a botched bank robbery which resulted in the death of an old bank guard.  With help from Susan Silverman, Spenser has to try and reunite Harvey and Pam, whilst making sure Rose and Jane are arrested for the robbery and murder, as well as getting Powers off Harvey’s back.

It would be easy to say I hold this book in high regard because it was the first Spenser novel I read, but it's more likely because it was such a great place to start.  The plot works well, the pieces stacking together neatly to form a whole and yet the mystery allows character development to sit comfortably side-by-side, so much so that the novel's as much about Spenser and Susan’s relationship (and, indeed, that of Spenser and Hawk) as it is Spenser finding Pam Shepard.

Hawk, who would go on to become an important character in the series, gets a terrific introduction though it's not immediately clear (we later find out he and Spenser have known one another for twenty years) if he's friend or foe.

Shepard appeared from the door past the stairs.  With him was a tall black man with a bald head and high cheekbones.  He had on a powder blue Levi-cut leisure suit and a pink silk shirt with a big collar.  The shirt was unbuttoned to the waist and the chest and stomach that showed were as hard and unadorned as ebony.  He took a pair of wraparound sunglasses from the breast pocket of the jacket and as he put them on, he stared at me over their rims until very slowly the lenses covered his eyes and he stared at me through them. 

1978 Penguin edition
Characterisation is key (and a big Parker strength here).  As the book progresses, a grudging admiration is shown between Spenser and Hawk which builds nicely - and leads to the events of the climax, where each man, in his own way, protects the other.  The supporting characters are vividly sketched too, including Rudy, the barman at the Silver Seas restaurant and Eddie Taylor, the overweight shovel operator who spent the night with Pam and reveals how sad the situation was for her the next morning.  Rose Alexander is militant whilst her friend Jane acts tough and often without thinking - she kicks Spenser in the balls - pushing Pam towards being herself, as long as she supports their cause.

Locations are well-used, especially Hyannis Port and Cape Cod - from both the glitzy and sleazy ends - but Boston doesn’t appear so much this time though the book opens with Spenser having had to move business premises.

I had been urban-renewed right out of my office and had to move uptown.  My new place was on the second floor of a two-storey round turret that stuck out over the corner of Mass Ave and Boylston Street above a cigar store.

Brenda Loring gets a mention but Spenser’s heart clearly belongs to Susan Silverman though when she tells him she loves him, he doesn’t respond other than to say he’s happy with how things are.  She isn’t, as there’s no wider commitment and they spend a lot of the book discussing and arguing the situation.  By putting that plot thread against his case - Pam Shepard feels trapped by Harvey’s love, to the extent they both think she’s frigid, which she’s trying to disprove by sleeping around - it allows Spenser to examine his own relationship at length.  Pam is quite taken by Spenser too - as, later, he is with her (she’s staying in his apartment on Marlborough Street, hiding out from both Harvey and Rose & Jane).  There’s also a lot made of age - both he and Susan mention they’re middle-aged on several occasions and, reading it now (not sure how my 19-year-old self felt), that’s quite refreshing.

You reek of machismo, and yet you are a very caring person.  You have all these muscles and yet you read all those books.  You’re sarcastic and a wise guy and you make fun of everything and yet you were really afraid I’d say no a little while ago and two people you don’t even like all that much would get into trouble.
- Pam Shepard

There’s plenty of whipcrack dialogue and good comic pieces, like this exchange when Pam looks at his shelf of books:

Pam: Have you read all of these?
Spenser: Yeah, and boy are my lips tired.

There are also some quite beautiful pieces too, such as “It always excited me when it rained.  The wet streets seemed more promising than the dry ones, and the city was quieter.

But perhaps the best bit of writing is when Spenser and Susan go to the beach late one night.

Off somewhere to the right, inland, someone was playing an old Tommy Dorsey album and a vocal group was singing ‘Once In A While’.  The sound in the late stillness drifted out across the water, quaint and sort of old-fashioned now, and familiar.

They swim and make love, listening to more of the records, a perfectly pitched piece of the novel, a calm before the upcoming storm that works beautifully.

In later novels, Parker showed a quote at the frontispiece of the book to explain where the title came from but that doesn’t happen here.  It could reflect the name of the company Shepard ran that got into trouble - Promised Land, Inc. - though Spenser says “living around Boston for a long time, you tend to think of Cape Cod as the promised land”.  You could also put a case for it being Susan’s argument - she wants a commitment from Spenser but, when he asks her to marry him, she realises she doesn’t necessarily want that, just knowing the commitment is there is enough.

This novel has a lot to offer and even though it’s now forty-years-old, it’s only very minor areas that date it - fashions and revolutionary ideals, mainly.  It’s a great read, thoroughly deserving of the Edgar win and very much recommended.

The novel also served as the basis for the pilot of the Spenser: For Hire TV series, which starred Robert Urich as our hero, Barbara Stock as Susan Silverman and Avery Brooks as Hawk.  As much as I liked Urich, I don’t picture him as Spenser, but Susan looks like Ms Stock in my head and Hawk is very definitely Avery Brooks.  In fact, when Hawk says “Spenser” in the novels, I hear Brooks’ “Spen-suh” delivery.

Promised Land, which was first shown on the ABC Network on 20th September 1985, was directed by Lee H. Katzin and written for the screen by John Wilder, based on Parker’s novel.  For some reason, the Shepards were renamed as the Pattersons (Geoffrey Lewis played Harry, though why he couldn’t be called Harv remains a mystery and Donna Mitchell played Pam), Lt Quirk and Sergeant Belsen (Richard Jaeckel and Ron McLarty, respectively) appear (they’re not in the novel) and Chuck Connors was King Powers.

Monday 12 September 2016

Charles L. Grant

Photo (right): Mary Jasch

This all came about, for me, because I asked Neil Snowdon to contribute to my American Horror Mixtape post at the end of July (which you can read here).  He wrote a wonderful piece on Riding The Black by Charles L. Grant, which was as much about Grant as it was about his story and lamented that this great writer (anyone who’s a fan of horror should know who Charles Grant is) wasn’t better remembered.  So when Neil proposed this blog-a-thon in honour of the late writer, I readily agreed to be involved.

Grant was a key proponent of what’s called ‘quiet horror’, which editor Alan Ryan describes as “subtle, dark, with a lingering, bitter aftertaste.”  In the horror boom of the late 70s and into the 80s that followed Stephen King’s breakout success, the genre broadened and grew until, by the mid-80s, there was a wide spectrum of styles with the extreme (in terms of gore, violence and sex) at one end, counterpointed by quiet horror at the other.

Ironically, it was the extreme end that got me into Grant.  In the mid-80s, using King's non-fiction study Danse Macabre as a guide, I was slowly discovering books and writers that would develop and sustain my love for horror.  In 1985, he threw his support behind Clive Barker who published six slim volumes from Sphere as The Books Of Blood - I loved them, intelligent but nasty tales that appealed to the teenaged-me and made me want more.  Turning briefly down the road to Splatterpunk (as the extreme end became known), I began picking up anthologies that introduced me to a lot of new writers.  One such was Halloween Horrors, edited by Alan Ryan, which I happened to pick up at Asda in Corby in 1988, a situation I couldn’t really see happening these days (it truly was different times).
Sphere Books, 1988 edition, cover scan of my copy
The second story in the anthology was by Charles L. Grant and in his introduction to it, Ryan wrote; “For this book, I urged him to write something nasty. Something really nasty. The result is Eyes."

Eyes tells the story of Ron Ritter who, protective of his son Paulie, beats up a teenager who was mocking the boy in his ill-fitting Batman costume at Halloween.  After the beating, he turns on the teenager’s friends and it's only the sight of Paulie, sad and alone, saying “Wrong, Daddy, wrong” that pulls Ron back and they stay at home for the next Halloween, carving a pumpkin.  Paulie puts pumpkin pieces over his eyes but tumbles and catches his face on the edge of the table, driving a slice of pumpkin into his brain via - you guessed it - his eye (I’m not a fan of ocular trauma at the best of times, so this story certainly touched a nerve).  His wife Irma leaves him a fortnight later, 'sobbing that she wanted no part of a man who killed his children.'  The following Halloweens, Ron dreads the visit of his son’s ghost, wanting to play a game that leaves the story with a stomach churning penultimate line…
Headline, 1987 edition, cover scan of my copy
according to the copyright page, this was originally published in US as Shadows 4 in 1981.  It features Stephen King (with "The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands"), John Shirley & William Gibson, Ramsey Campbell, Alan Ryan, Steve Rasnic Tem and Lisa Tuttle, among others
I loved it, it was absolutely perfect for the kick I was looking to get from horror fiction at the time (the rest of the anthology is very good too) and I sought out more Grant.  His Shadows series was published over here by Headline and I picked up the first volume and loved that too (it featured a King story but also introduced me to other writers).  Over the years, I picked up more of his anthologies - Shadows 2 (the Berkley Books edition, I must have found a very good 2nd hand bookshop for that one), 3 and 4 plus Night Visions: Dead Image, which I bought from Andromeda in Birmingham.  All of them were very good but, better, they were filled with stories that improved my knowledge and understanding of the genre.
Berkley Books, 1984 edition, cover scan of my copy (bought 2nd hand)
features Jack Dann, Manly Wade Wellman, Ramsey Campbell, Richard Christian Matheson and T.E.D. Klein, among others
I did try some of his novels, reading a handful of the Oxrun Dead series but, back then, quiet horror didn’t quite do it for me, though the technique and wealth of talent on display was astounding.  Maybe it was my age, perhaps now - as a bloke a long way from his teens - they might sit better with me, so I think I’ll try them again.

Charles L. Grant was a keen supporter of my favourite genre, as a writer, editor and fan.  I’m proud that some of my education in horror came from him and I’m equally proud to take part in his blog-a-thon to highlight his career.
Berkley Books, 1987 edition, cover scan of my copy
Charles Lewis Grant was born in Newark, New Jersey on 12th September 1942.  After receiving a BA in History & English from Trinity College, Connecticut in 1964, he taught for four years before his military service sent him to Vietnam where he was a decorated (Bronze Star) military policeman.

On the set of Hellraiser (c.1986)
from left, Clive Barker, Dennis Etchison, Karl Edward Wagner and Charles L. Grant
A full-time writer and editor since 1975, he wrote 30 novels in the dark fantasy/horror genre (including twelve set in his fictional Connecticut town of Oxrun Station, as well as two X-Files tie-ins) and five science-fiction novels (published between 1976 and 1981).  He also published under several pseudonyms - Deborah Lewis (four novels between 1977 and 1979), Felicia Andrew (seven novels between 1979 and 1985), Geoffrey Marsh (five novels, including the novelisation of Hudson Hawk, between 1985 and 1991), Lionel Fenn (twelve novels between 1986 and 1994) and Simon Lake (eight novels between 1992 and 1995).

As himself he published at least 90 short stories and edited 24 anthologies, amongst them the Shadows series (10 volumes, plus a Best Of and Final, between 1978 and 1987), the Greystone Bay series (between 1985 and 1993) and three volumes for Playboy (between 1980 and 1982).

Grant was Secretary of the Science Fiction Writers Of America Association, President of The Horror Writers Association (1987-1988), on the Board of the World Fantasy Awards for ten years and President of the Board Of Trustees of the HWA for five years.  He won three World Fantasy Awards for his writing and editing, two Nebula Awards (one for short story, one for novella), the British Fantasy Society’s Life Achievement Award (in 1987) and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the HWA in 2000.  In addition, the Tales From The Darkside episode “The Milkman Cometh”) was an adaption of his short story Temperature Days on Hawthorne Street.

Grant was married twice, to Debbie Voss (with whom he had two children) and then to writer and editor Kathryn Ptacek, from February 1982.  He passed away on 15th September 2006 from a heart attack.