Monday 29 June 2020

The Real Life Mill

In 2011, Greyhart Press published my novelette The Mill as a stand-alone title.  It was originally published in the acclaimed Pendragon Press anthology We Fade To Grey in 2008, edited by Gary McMahon (who, in asking for it, succeeded in pulling me out of a writers block that had consumed me for two years).  A story about grief, guilt and coughing ghosts, Mark Morris in his introduction called it "one of the most moving pieces of writing I have read in a long time".
Almost everything about The Mill has a touch of autobiography, not least the key location and The Folly, as we called it, can be found at the end of Shotwell Mill Lane in Rothwell,  From above (thanks Google), it looks like a very small wooded area but within it are the ruins of the old mill.  When I was growing up, in the 70s and 80s, we often played down there (war games worked particularly well, with the old cellars and walls) and it wouldn't be unusual, during the summer holidays, to head down with your mates and discover four or five other groups of kids there.
The River Ise separates Rothwell and Desborough and The Folly is shown in the centre of the photograph
In 2012 (you can see the post here), I explored the site with Dude and found it extremely overgrown and difficult to navigate - it obviously wasn't used as a playground any more.
Dude, in 2012, standing in front of the right hand cellar
During the lockdown period, two things happened.  My wife and I, trying to find long walks in a relatively small town, followed an old footpath map and discovered several places I didn't even know existed, one of which led us to walk back by The Folly.  It was a lovely day, no-one was about and so I took the chance to grab a few photographs.
The same cellar Dude is standing in front of in the other photo - so those trees have sprouted well in the past 8 years...
Further around from the cellars, I wonder what the grave-shaped opening is for?
If you've read the story, I hope you found the Mill itself to be quite a scary place.  I've never been to the real location in the dark but, with its well out of the way location and the whispering trees, I can imagine it's quite eerie.  When I was researching the idea, in an attempt to lend as much truth to the descriptions as I could, I looked everywhere to try and find a photograph of the original mill.  I failed and so made the whole thing up (or, I suppose, did what a writer is supposed to do).  Then, quite by chance, my mum spotted a picture (she remembers the building before it was demolished) someone had posted on a Rothwell Facebook page.

This originally appeared in the Kettering Evening Telegraph in December 1939 and, to my delight, Shotwell Mill looks as creepy as I've always hoped it would.  What do you think?
Kettering Evening Telegraph, 22nd December 1939
Sometimes, it appears, real-life can be even more creepy than a horror story...

You can find more details about The Mill here

Monday 22 June 2020

Skeleton Crew at 35

Skeleton Crew, the second of Stephen King’s short fiction collections, was published on 21st June 1985 by Putnam in the US and Macdonald in the UK.  It features nineteen short stories, a novella (The Mist), two poems (Paranoid: A Chant and For Owen), a chatty introduction and some marvellous story notes.
cover scan of my copy, the 1986 Futura edition
The stories, collected from a variety of magazines and anthologies, spanned seventeen years from The Reaper’s Image (King’s second professional sale) to The Ballad Of The Flexible Bullet (completed in 1983) and three were previously unpublished - the two poems and Morning Deliveries (Milkman No. 1), adapted from an unfinished novel, The Milkman.

I got the 1986 Futura paperback which appeared around about the time I started work at Hunters Foods in Corby and for many weeks it was my book of choice at lunchtimes.  I was already a big fan of Stephen King (and 1986 would cement that, with the publication of IT, which I wrote about here) and I went into Skeleton Crew full of enthusiasm.  Thankfully, it delivered everything I wanted it to.  Obviously, some of the pieces didn’t work for me (the poems, certainly, along with the more sci-fi orientated stories) but a handful were so special they’ve long remained favourites of mine.

The Mist opens the collection.  Perhaps the best known of the stories here, it’s a fantastic read exceptionally well told, perfectly constructed and scary as you like.  Alongside it, I’d place Here There Be Tygers, The Raft, Nona, Uncle Otto’s Truck, Gramma and the gleefully gory Survivor Type which King mentions in his excellent non-fiction book Danse Macabre calling it an example of a story he didn’t think he’d ever be able to publish.

from Fangoria #42, February 1985
Written as the diary, it charts the final days of Richard Pine, a disgraced surgeon who was attempting to smuggle a large amount of heroin on a cruise ship.  He finds himself marooned on a tiny island in the Pacific with very few supplies, no food but all the heroin he could ever need and our self-proclaimed “survivor type” charts his day-to-day activities as he succumbs to isolation and starvation.  After being forced to amputate his foot, he realises he can eat it to survive and things go downhill from there.  Like I say, I loved the story and I really loved the last line (which I won’t spoil for you).

The story was first published in Terrors (1982), edited by Charles L. Grant and in a Monsterland Magazine interview between them in May/June 1985, King says “as far as short stories are concerned, I like the grisly ones the best. However the story Survivor Type goes a little bit too far, even for me."  In his story notes, he writes “I got to thinking about cannibalism one day - because that's the sort of thing guys like me sometimes think about - and my muse once more evacuated its magic bowels on my head. I know how gross that sounds, but it's the best metaphor I know, inelegant or not...”

Released in the middle of the King boom, a lot of the Skeleton Crew stories were adapted for film and television.  The Raft became part of Creepshow 2 (1987), Word Processor Of The Gods was an episode of Tales From The Darkside series in 1984, Gramma was an episode of The New Twilight Zone (with a screenplay by Harlan Ellison) in 1986, The Mist became a 2007 film written and directed by Frank Darabont and then a TV series in 2017 while Gramma was adapted into the feature film Mercy in 2014.

The collection also followed Night Shift (which I wrote about here) with several Dollar Baby films (a deal whereby students could make an adaption after buying the rights for $1).  These were Here There Be Tygers (1988 and 2003), Cain Rose Up (1989), Paranoid (2000), The Jaunt (2007), Survivor Type (2011) and The Reaper's Image (2013).  The Mist was also adapted into a 90-minute full-cast audio production as well as a text-based video game from Mindscape.

1985 turned out to be a very busy year for Stephen King.  He began publishing his fan newsletter Castle Rock, which ran until 1989 and Cycle Of The Werewolf, a previously limited edition, was published as an illustrated mass market paperback in April (the film version of it, Silver Bullet, was released in October).  April was also the month his pseudonym, Richard Bachman, was exposed, which led to Misery becoming a Stephen King novel. Production began in June on Stand By Me (based on his novella The Body, from Different Seasons (1982) and in July, King began filming Maximum Overdrive (his sole directorial credit, based on Trucks from Night Shift) while also working on revisions to IT.  He made the cover of Time magazine in October.

Skeleton Crew published with a first printing run of 500,000 copies, would sell a total of 720,000 by the end of the year and another 100,000 before 1990.

The collection was nominated for the 1986 World Fantasy Award and won the Locus Award.
Macdonald hardback edition dust jacket, 1985
Table Of Contents
The Mist (1980)
Here There Be Tygers (1968)
The Monkey (1980)
Cain Rose Up (1968)
Mrs. Todd's Shortcut (1984)
The Jaunt (1981)
The Wedding Gig (1980)
Paranoid: A Chant (1985)
The Raft (1982)
Word Processor of the Gods (1983)
The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands (1981)
Beachworld (1984)
The Reaper's Image (1969)
Nona (1978)
For Owen (1985)
Survivor Type (1982)
Uncle Otto's Truck (1983)
Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1) (1985)
Big Wheels: A Tale of The Laundry Game (Milkman #2) (1980)
Gramma (1984)
The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet (1984)
The Reach (1981)

Skeleton Crew is a solid collection of horror fiction and even if it doesn’t quite measure up to the standard King himself set with Night Shift, it’s still an excellent piece of work.  If you haven’t read it before then I envy you the experience - if you have, why not read it again?

Grady Hendrix at
Too Much Horror Fiction

Monday 15 June 2020

The Art Of British Comics (in the 70s) - part 3

According to Steve MacManus' excellent autobiography The Mighty One, the traditional age range for comics readers in the late 70s was the 8-12's (making my golden period 1977- 81).  Looking back at that period of British comics reveals a lot of impressive cover art, much of which remains vivid in my mind.

Since my previous posts (you can read the 2018 one here, the 2019 one here) I've collected a few more issues via ebay, retro shops and picked up a couple of reprint collections from Rebellion too.  Time and again, I'm struck by the high quality of the artwork, both for the strips themselves and the covers and I still think it's a real shame you don't see this kind of thing any more.

So, to once again make up for the lack of hand-drawn colour on comic shelves these days, here's another selection of covers from the 1970s (and sneaking into the 80s).

My favourite childhood comic, I wrote an appreciation of Bullet which you can read here
I wrote an appreciation of Starlord, which you can read here
I wrote an appreciation of The Crunch, which you can read here

If you enjoyed this, I'd highly recommend Great News For All Readers and A Resource On Jinty, two excellent comic blogs

Monday 8 June 2020

Novelisation Review 3: When You Comin' Back, Range Rider? by Charles Heath

The third 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 When You Comin' Back, Range Rider, by Charles Blake, third novelisation from one of my all-time favourite TV shows, The A-Team.
front and back cover of the Target paperback, 1984 (cover scans of my copy)
When Daniel Running Bear discovers a local rancher, Bus Carter, is protecting grazing areas for his cattle by shipping wild mustangs to a pet food factory in Mexico, he enlists the help of The A-Team.  At the same time, Colonel Lynch has been sidelined to a desk job for his failure to capture the fugitives and General Bullen has sent the overzealous Colonel Decker to track them down.  After some LA-based adventures (including BA’s truck going into the San Pedro harbour), Hannibal and the team arrive in Arizona to confront Carter’s henchmen.  After kidnapping Carter’s niece, the team are on the offensive and utilise everything they can, including a train called Abigail and Howling Mad Murdock, whose alter-ego The Range Rider, will come to save the day with his trusty horse Thunder.
The A-Team mount up...
Another excellent novelisation (from a 2-part episode) of the (second) series, for me this is exactly what the A-Team was all about - there’s plenty of action, a lot of humour (between the team themselves and also other characters, such as a couple on Hollywood Boulevard who think Decker is George Peppard) and a decent resolution to the story.  The main characters (all clearly defined on the show by then) are well drawn but so too are the supporting cast, especially Jake the train driver and Carter.  The Arizona locations are well described, the train based action is gripping (and the shoot-outs are much more subdued, making me think this was written from the shooting script) while the pace is spot on, the story racing from one set-piece to the next.  In addition, there’s a nice gritty element to it, with the fate of the mustangs not being glossed over, as well as plenty of more adult references at the film premiere Face sets up (cocaine use and low cut dresses especially).  Well written, thoroughly involving, I really enjoyed this re-read to the extent I wanted to watch the double-episode as soon as I’d finished it.  For a returning A-Team fan, I’d very much recommend it.

* * *
The A-Team was created by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo, from a pitch made to them by NBC president Brandon Tartikoff who called it a combination of “The Dirty Dozen, Mission Impossible, The Magnificent Seven, Mad Max and Hill Street Blues, with Mr. T driving the car.”  Cannell had high hopes for the show but, as he told Debra Pickett of The Chicago Sun-Times, it was George Peppard who said it would be a hit “before we ever turned on a camera.”  First broadcast on 23rd January 1983 (29th July 1983 in the UK), the programme ran for five series and a total of 98 episodes.

When You Comin' Back, Range Rider? was first broadcast in the UK on 18th November 1983, following the US broadcast on 25th October.
Hannibal Smith was written with James Coburn in mind but George Peppard auditioned - urged on by his young son - and took the role, making it his own.  Faceman was written for Dirk Benedict but the network wanted a younger actor, so Tim Dunigan plays the role in the pilot, replaced by the erstwhile Lt Starbuck from the second episode.  Dwight Schultz was told his role as Howling Mad Murdock would quickly disappear until the network saw the public reaction to his character.  Mr T, part of the original pitch, played a key part in the series - in presence, catchphrases and merchandising - though his standing with the producers and the public caused tension between him and George Peppard.

I wrote an extensive nostalgia post about The A-Team, which you can find here.

* * *
A series of novelisations were published during the mid-80s, by Dell in the US and W H Allen (through their Star and Target imprints) in the UK.  The first paperback, The A-Team, wasn’t numbered (perhaps the publishers wanted to wait and see if it was successful before launching a series) but adapted the pilot episode, Mexican Slayride, while most volumes were built around two episodes (often linking them somehow).  The UK got all ten books in the series, while the US published six.  The first six were written by Charles Heath.

The A-Team (adapted from the pilot by Frank Lupo and Stephen J. Cannell)
Small But Deadly Wars (adapted from A Small and Deadly War written by Frank Lupo and Black Day at Bad Rock written by Patrick Hasburgh)
When You Comin' Back, Range Rider? (adapted from the eponymous episode written by Frank Lupo)
Old Scores to Settle (adapted from The Only Church in Town written by Babs Greyhosky and Recipe for Heavy Bread written by Stephen J. Cannell)
Ten Percent of Trouble (adapted from Steel written by Frank Lupo and The Maltese Cow written by Thomas Szollosi and Richard Christian Matheson)
Operation Desert Sun: The Untold Story (apparently original, the title page credits the novelisation to Louis Chunovic)
Bullets, Bikinis and Bells by Ron Renauld (adapted from Bullets and Bikinis written by Mark Jones and The Bells of St. Mary's written by Stephen J. Cannell)
Backwoods Menace by Ron Renauld (adapted from Timber! written by Jeff Ray and Children of Jamestown written by Stephen J. Cannell)
The Bend in the River by David George Deutsch (adapted from the eponymous double-episode written by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo)
Death Vows by Max Hart (adapted from Till Death Us Do Part written by Babs Greyhosky)

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 1 June 2020

The Empire Strikes Back Letraset

The Empire Strikes Back was released in the UK over 40 years ago, on 21st May 1980.  Since I was busy celebrating Dude last week (you can see the post here) and I'd already posted about the excellent film in 2014 (you can read it here), I thought I'd try something a little different.  So here we go...
Postal order required!
In 2017, as part of my Star Wars At 40 thread, I wrote (as you can read here) about the Letraset transfer sets.  Available as packs or given away as gifts with the likes of Look-In magazine and Shreddies cereal, these were background scenes of the film with action transfers to allow you to finish the picture off how you wanted it to be.

In 1980, Empire got the same treatment.

The four sets were Bespin Cloud City, Hoth Ice Planet, Space Battle and Dagobah Bog Planet and wonderfully idiosyncratic, which none of us would have minded at the time (and makes them all the more charming now).  Luke doesn't fight in his X-Wing (the space battle, as fans will be aware, is between the Millennium Falcon and Vader's Star Destroyer) while the transfer Yoda is based on the one in the Marvel comic, which owes a lot more to Joe Johnston's original design than the Stuart Freeborn puppet of the film.

Ask anyone of my generation what Letraset is and most people will quite happily tell you they made transfers.  Back in the day, if you were making a poster, booklet or student magazine and needed a professional look, you’d buy one of their sheets of type and painstakingly rub off the letters you wanted, on a pencil line you’d carefully drawn (and would equally carefully rub away, so you didn’t accidentally rub off any of the transfer either).  The result often looked wobbly but generally very good.

Founded in London in 1959 (later moving to Ashford, Kent, it's now based in Le Mans, France), Letraset introduced ‘innovative media’ for commercial artists and designers.  In 1961, they created a revolutionary dry rub-down method and, in 1964, applied this to a children’s line called Action Transfers.  During the 1970s, Letraset bought licences for the line, including The Wombles, Super Action Heroes (DC comics), Duckhams Grand Prix, Paddington Bear, Captain Scarlet, Dr Who and Space: 1999, among others.  They also, smartly, were one of the early Star Wars licencees.  Reacting quickly to the success of the film, the first Letraset transfers (with artwork by David Clark) appeared on the back of Shreddies boxes with four scenes (Capture Of The Rebel CruiserEscape From Mos EisleyBreakout At Prison Block and Escape From The Death Star), each with their own set of transfers.

Further sets were released which quickly went into second printings and John Hunt, the brand manager at the time, later said “the Star Wars sets were probably the most successful transfer set ever made.”

The company was purchased by the ColArt group in 2012.

Action Transfers (with special thanks to Tom Vinelott)