Monday 25 November 2019

Mr Stix returns...

I'm pleased to announce that my short story, Mr Stix, has now been published in standalone ebook form by PenMan Press.
When Sam Murphy's seven-year-old daughter Janey starts to suffer night terrors, he does his best to assure her that Mr Stix - a voice from the shadows who says "mean things" to her - can't hurt her.

Sam later finds the grotesque Mr Stix in the family bathroom and then his terrified wife tells him the story of her own childhood night-time fears.

I wrote Mr Stix in January 2013 at the request of Ross Warren, who asked me to contribute to his anthology For The Night Is Dark.  The brief, basically, involved being scared of the dark and I spent ages trying to come up with something, getting slightly panicked as the deadline approached.  Then, one night, I woke up to find Dude standing beside our bed and that was it - a kid, waking up and getting into the parents bed and the dad hearing/seeing something.

Whenever I wrote horror stories about fathers and children, it was usually me and Dude but since I didn’t have a firm idea of who was going to walk away from this, I made it father-daughter.  I used our house layout for the story (except the bathroom is, in reality, our study/spare room) and didn't quite know who or what Mr Stix would be until I wrote him/it.

The story was published in the anthology and seemed to go down very well, so much so that I included it in the line-up for my second collection, Things We Leave Behind.

"Went straight to Mark West's MR STIX to see what all the fuss was about. The fuss is warranted, it's a very good, creepy story. Maybe his best yet."
- Johnny Mains, author, editor and horror aficionado

I hope, if you decide to take a chance on it, that Mr Stix scares you too...

Sam Murphy opened his eyes.  The figure in white was standing in front of him, arms outstretched and he was so surprised he yelled out.  Emily, his wife, murmured sleepily.
Sam rubbed his eyes and looked at his seven-year-old daughter, wearing her white Disney Princess nightie, with Apple the brown bear clutched tight in her hand.  “Janey?  What’s wrong?”
“Mr Stix is saying horrible things, Daddy, I want you to make him stop.”
“Mr Stix?”  Sam sat up, blinking away the sleep.  “Who’s…  I don’t know who Mr Stix is, love.”
“He’s the man that came to live with us today, he’s in my bedroom and he’s been talking all night and now he’s saying mean things.”
“Today?  Are you alright?”
“Yes, can you come?”
Sam got out of bed and followed his daughter along the landing.  His and Emily’s bedroom covered the width of the house at the front and the landing led to the back, where the bathroom stood at the top of the stairs.  Janey’s room ran parallel to the landing, with her door at the end.  The bathroom light was on, as it always was, since both Janey and Emily were afraid of the dark.
At the doorway to her room, Janey waited and Sam stood next to her.  “Close your eyes,” he said, “I’ll turn on the light.”
He squinted against the glare and looked around the room.  Nothing seemed to be out of place.  A desk, covered with papers, a drawer unit, a wardrobe and a bookcase filled to overflowing with books and comics and the cuddly toys that didn’t fit in the treasure chest under the window.  Her bed, with its pink princess duvet cover, was against the far wall away from the door and the pillow still showed the slightest indentation from her head.
“Looks okay,” said Sam.  “So where’s Mr Stix?”
“On the drawers,” Janey said.
Sam looked at them.  A few things were on the top of the unit - a clock, a calendar, a tub of Lego, some toys that had been positioned to watch over her during the night and various treasures that only she understood the importance of - but nothing out of the ordinary.
“I don’t know what I’m looking for, love, can you show me?”
Janey walked over but didn’t stand in front of her drawers, preferring to stop slightly behind Sam as if he was her shield.  She looked at the top of the drawers and frowned.  “He’s not there.”
Sam stroked the back of her head.  “Problem solved then, kitten, come on, back to bed with you.”
“Can I sleep with you and Mummy tonight?”
Sam glanced at her clock, it was a little after four.  “No, you stay here, Apple and the rest of the gang will look after you.”
“But what if Mr Stix comes back?”
“He won’t.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do, I’m a dad, it’s what I do, you know.”
“You’re silly.”
“And you’re a munchkin, now get back to sleep.”
She snuggled down and smiled as Sam adjusted the duvet under her chin.  He kissed her forehead gently.  “Sleep tight love,” he said.
“You too.”
Sam walked out of her room, switching the light off as he went.  He could hear Emily’s heavy breathing from the bedroom and the faintest of drips from the bathroom but nothing else.  He got into bed and laid on his side, staring at the clock.  The glowing red numbers glared at him and he watched it mark off five minutes.
He rolled onto his back.  Emily turned, made a snuffling noise and cuddled into him.  Her added body heat made him feel drowsy.  He looked at the ceiling and heard the lightest of clicks, as if someone was tapping a ruler on the edge of a desk and then he was asleep.

If you're not in the UK, you can use this link -

Monday 18 November 2019

An Evening With Sue Moorcroft

Last week, I got to interview my fine friend Sue Moorcroft at Rothwell Library, on the eve of the paperback publication of her 15th novel, Let It Snow.
The event was organised by the Friends Of Rothwell Library, a group I’ve been involved with for some time.  Angry and frustrated by the decision of Northamptonshire County Council that libraries in small towns weren’t necessary, I joined the team to save Rothwell Library and we’ve pretty much succeeded - NCC have washed their hands of it but it’s still open (run by volunteers) and still providing a much needed service for all aspects of the community.  When the team were coming up with ideas, my team colleague Vickie (also an old school friend) remembered I knew Sue and suggested the evening and thankfully Sue was very receptive to the idea (but then, she’s a real star!).
On the night, I got to the library early with my Dad (who thoroughly enjoys Sue’s books) and we helped the volunteers, led by Maureen Hill, set everything up.  When Sue arrived, closely followed by my friend (and co-conspirator on the thriller novels) David Roberts, we set up the book table and the audience began arriving then - including friends Darren Paterson, Jane Isaac and Louise Jensen, the latter two excellent novelists in their own rights.  Louise and Dad know and like each other, so they sat together on the front row.
Once our audience had gathered, we set off.  Sue & I have known one another for twenty years (this year) and have an easy rapport, so although I had a list of questions (that I mostly stuck to) there were lots of opportunities to go off at a tangent and tell some amusing anecdotes (if you get the chance, ask Sue to tell you her helicopter story).  After an hour or so, she did a brief reading from Let It Snow and then we broke for the interval.  While the Friends valiantly served tea, sweets and savouries, Sue sold and personalised books.
Probably smiling along with the helicopter anecdote - picture by Jane Isaac
The second half of the evening was the Q&A and, to get the ball rolling, I called on my ever-game Dad to lead the charge.  The alloted thirty minutes quickly came and went, with plenty of questions and some involved answers.
The audience, with Louise Jensen and my Dad far left on the front row
The evening finished up at a little after nine and, judging by people’s compliments as they left and, later, on social media, it was a success.  I’m so pleased we had such a good turn-out (and that people enjoyed it so much), not just for me and Sue, obviously, but because it means this kind of event is viable for the future.

Many thanks to Sue and the Friends and also the team I’m proud to be part of, who saved Rothwell Library.

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Monday 11 November 2019

Novelisation Review 2: The Professionals 4: Hunter Hunted, by Ken Blake

The second in an occasional thread celebrating old-school paperback novelisations from the 70s and 80s, which are now mostly forgotten.  We're not talking great art but these books have their place - they were a fantastic resource from a time when you couldn't watch your favourite film or TV show whenever you felt like it - and I think they deserve to be remembered.

This time, I'm looking at The Professionals 4: Hunter Hunted, by Ken Blake, adapted from the excellent UK TV series.
front and back cover of the Sphere paperback, 1979 reprint (cover scans of my copy)
Once again written by Kenneth Bulmer under the Ken Blake house name, this volume is based on the shooting scripts for three episodes.

The first is First Night, where an Israeli minister is kidnapped from the Festival Hall on the Southbank and, to avoid an international incident, it’s down to CI5 to find him.  After an action packed opening, we then see some dogged detective work (the kidnappers are tracked by a Polaroid picture they’ve sent), which works slightly better in the episode than it does here.  Great pacing, some humour and some nice observations on contemporary London.

Kathie Mason (Cheryl Kennedy) from "Hunter Hunted"
The second, eponymous episode has CI5 charged with testing the new laser-sighted 180 and Cowley hands it to Bodie & Doyle.  Whilst at headquarters, they encounter Kathie Mason, an ex-colleague of Doyle’s who’s interviewing to become a CI5 agent.  After a night at her place, Doyle discovers the gun is missing and it seems someone is out to get their revenge on him.  Brisk, involved and good fun, this cracks along with some nice dialogue, excellent set pieces (especially the demise of Doyle’s E-type)  and some good interactions between the agents.  I really liked the episode itself (especially Cheryl Kennedy as Kathie) and this does it justice.

The Rack is the final episode.  Following a raid on ex-boxer (now criminal and drug dealer) John Coogan’s mansion, he and his brother are taken to CI5 for interrogation.  The brother has a go at Doyle then punches him, in self defence Doyle retaliates and the brother dies of a ruptured spleen.  A tribunal (the ‘rack’ of the title) is then set up, wherein prosecution lawyer Geraldine Mather decides to take on the Action Squad and cut them down to size.  Briskly told, with good characterisation, this works well to flesh out Doyle and his feelings over perhaps (without giving away spoilers) causing the death of a man while Cowley has a great grandstanding speech on just why CI5 is so important (and, sadly, the words ring as true today as they did forty years ago).

All three are competently written (and Bulmer continues his fascination with Bodie’s ‘famous’ face and mobile lips) and feature some nice bits of poetic prose when describing a London that has mostly long since disappeared.  The action scenes are deftly handled as are the locations (judging by certain aspects - the constant rain in The Rack, for example - it seems they were written from the shooting scripts rather than seeing the episodes) and there are some smart little character pieces that flesh the dynamic duo out well (it’s mentioned again that Doyle paints).  Brisk, violent, occasionally amusing, I’m not sure how these would work if you’d never seen the programme but as an unabashed fan of the series, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Recommended.

The novelisation is "based on the original screenplays by Brian Clemens, Anthony Read and Gerry O'Hara" (taken from the title page)

* * *
from left - Doyle (Martin Shaw), Cowley (Gordon Jackson) and Bodie (Lewis Collins)
The Professionals ran for five series, from 1977 through to 1983, shown on ITV.  Brian Clemens, perhaps best known for The Avengers, created the series (which was originally to have been called The A-Squad) and became executive producer with his business partners Albert Fennell and Laurie Johnson (who also provided the excellent theme music) for London Weekend Television (LWT).  The first series was produced by Sidney Hayers with Raymond Menmuir producing the rest, with 57 episodes made in total.

Although the first series used a lot of studio-based filming (to the extent Cowley had a secretary), Menmuir did away with standing sets and the remainder of the series was filmed in real buildings and homes.  This lent a grittiness to the programmes and now, forty years later, provides a wonderful snapshot of a London that's mostly been lost to progress.  The series focussed on the exploits of CI5 (Criminal Intelligence 5), led by George Cowley (Gordon Jackson) and centred around his two best agents, Doyle (Martin Shaw) and Bodie (Lewis Collins).  The two actors, whose initial abrasiveness towards each other led to their casting, worked well together and a lot of episodes included dialogue ad-libbed by them.
While earlier episodes (certainly series one through to three) saw a wide range of plots and scripts, with some good directors involved (Martin Campbell was both a main and second unit director), the later ones used more script devices as time wore on.  The final episodes were filmed in May 1981, by which time Collins and Shaw both stated publicly they thought the show had grown stale, though the final broadcast run ended in February 1983.

The series is repeated often on ITV4 in the UK and is well worth a watch, though the Network Releasing Blu ray restorations are your best bet.  These not only have great quality image and sound but thorough production notes (in book form) by Andrew Pixley.
The Corgi collection.  I had the bigger model (with figures) when I was a kid but didn't pick up the smaller version until a couple of years ago

* * *
From 1978 through to 1982, Sphere released 15 paperback novelisations (with seven of them also receiving hardback release), adapting 38 of the series' 57 episodes.  Ken Blake was the house-name covering all of these with Kenneth Bulmer writing the majority of them and Robert Holdstock contributing numbers 10, 13, 14 and 15.

(Henry) Kenneth Bulmer was born on 14th January 1921 in London and worked in the paper industry before serving with the Royal Corps of Signals during the Second World War.  Having been a fan of sf before his service, when demobbed in 1946 he began writing for fan magazines and his first novel, Space Treason, was published in 1952 (and co-written with A Vince Clarke).  Turning freelance in 1954, he wrote dozens of novels and comic strips, a prolific output he maintained throughout his career.  In the 70s, as part of the Piccadilly Cowboys group, he wrote across genres for various series (including The Professionals) under a host of pen and house names, whilst also publishing a substantial amount of work under his own name.  In addition, he edited nine volumes in the New Writings in Science Fiction anthology series during the 70s, succeeding John Carnell.

He suffered a stroke in 1997 which halted a writing career that saw over 160 novels (and countless short stories) published.

Awarded the TAFF in 1955 (a fund to send prominent fans to international conventions), he was the British Guest Of Honour at the World SF Convention in Cleveland, Ohio and made a life member of the British SF Association in 1974.  He married Pamela Buckmaster in March 1953, with whom he had two daughters and a son but they were divorced in 1981.

Kenneth Bulmer died on 16th December 2005.

for further bibliographical details, the SF Encyclopedia has a good entry on him and the Guardian has a thorough obituary
For a few years now, after finding out charity shops sometimes pulp old books because the market for them is so small, I've been collecting 70s and 80s paperbacks through secondhand bookshops, car boot sales and ebay.  I set up a thread for the horror titles (which you can see here) but novelisations were a rich vein in those decades, before the advent of home video, when viewers wanted to revisit the adventures of their favourite TV show or film.  I realise we might not be talking great art here but, on the whole, I think these books deserve to be remembered.

To that end, on an irregular basis, I'm going to review these "old-school" tie-ins with, hopefully, some background material on each one.

Monday 4 November 2019

The Secret Of Skeleton Island, by Robert Arthur

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

Following this, I decided to re-visit some of the books I'd missed on that second read-through, without any intention of posting reviews of them but, as if often the way, it didn't quite work out like that.  Happily, this is on-going and so here's an additional review...
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed between 1968 and 1970), cover art by Roger Hall
The Three Investigators are thrilled when they are invited to star as frogmen in an underwater film - especially as it means a trip to lonely Skeleton Island!

But Jupiter, Pete and Bob soon discover that the island's past hides a sinister secret.  Danger awaits them in the mysterious ocean depths, for the sea-bed is rich not only in fish - but in sunken treasure!

illustration from the Collins/Armada editions,
 by Roger Hall
Sally Farrington tries to complete her turn
on the carousel
Alfred Hitchcock enlists the boys help to travel to Atlantic Bay, on the East Coast, where a production company is having problems finishing off the film they’re working on.  Pete’s dad, a special effects technician, is leading a team on Skeleton Island who are trying to rebuild parts of a long abandoned amusement park, where the climax of the film will take place.  The boys hit trouble as soon as they arrive, stranded on a smaller nearby island called The Hand and, once on the mainland, discover that nothing is quite what it seems.  The local community, suffering with the recent loss of their oyster fishing economy, is struggling and the production company is having problems with theft and treasure hunters.  Then, as Jupiter and the boys delve further, the ghost of a local girl is seen riding a derelict carousel.

The sixth book in the series, this is the first to take place away from Rocky Beach and gets a mention in The Mystery Of The Fiery Eye when, discussing the use of the Rolls, Pete says, “the thirty days ran out while we were back East tangling with the mystery of Skeleton Island”.  By extension, of course, this assumes the events of Skeleton Island take place thirty days after the boys investigate Terror Castle, which made for a very exciting month!  With the relocation there’s no mention of Headquarters and it’s some way into the book before Jupiter gets to show someone the card but Arthur works all this in well, making the disorientation a key part of the first set piece, as the boys are stranded on The Hand group of reefs.

The locations are well realised, from Skeleton Island (which doesn’t feature as much as you’d expect it to) to Fishingport, the town on the mainland where the boys B&B is located.  The Hand is an inspired creation and features a gripping set piece later in the book, a sequence in the underwater cave that is an exercise in tension and suspense.

The use of Fishingport allows Arthur some flashes of social comment, a sad and depressed fishing village decimated by “some tiny red parasite” that has “got into the oysters in this part of the bay”.  Many townsfolk are desperate to find the treasure Captain One-Ear dumped off the island in 1717 as the British closed in on him and one of them is Chris, a young Greek boy who befriends the lads.  Seeking the treasure to raise enough so his sick father can go home for treatment, he’s badly treated by almost every adult in the story - apart from the police chief - but doesn’t let it deter him and he plays a key part in the plot.

Characterisation, as always with Arthur, is very good indeed with the boys all getting a chance to shine, especially Bob and Pete when Jupe is laid low by a cold.  While some of the supporting cast are merely brushstrokes, the stress of the adults - both in the town and on the film - comes out in the dialogue, with most of them (including Mr Crenshaw at times) being generally dismissive of the boys.  Chris is likeable and well-realised, making us root for him before we properly find out the truth of his situation and what the true secret of the island actually is.  And then, of course, there’s the excellent Sally Farrington, forever trying to finish her ride on the carousel, a spooky image (that terrified my sister & I back in 1978) well used in the story and superbly captured by Roger Hall’s illustration.

The Secret Of Skeleton Island is special to me in that, as I wrote about here, it was the book that introduced me to the series (I still have that now-very-beaten-up hardback edition) and was also the final piece of my search to get the first thirty Armada books in format b (as I wrote about here).  With a good pace, suspenseful set pieces and a terrific use of location, this is a cracking read and I highly recommend it.
Armada format a paperback (printed between 1970 and 1979 ), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)
Armada format b paperback (printed between 1981 and 1983), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)

The internal illustrations for the UK edition were drawn by Roger Hall.

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