Monday 26 April 2021

Dark Missives, a Q&A with Dan Howarth

With the publication of his debut collection, Dark Missives, I decided to ask Dan Howarth some questions...

DARK MISSIVES is the debut collection from author Dan Howarth, bringing together 11 stories that encompass the full range of horror.

A holiday camp employee finds himself in the middle of a murder spree. A band’s biggest fan discovers just how far he will go for new music. A detective investigating a series of murders gets pulled into the seedy underbelly of the city. A delivery driver gives in to temptation and opens a suspicious package. The owner of a gallery is determined to leave his own legacy on the art world.

Let DARK MISSIVES take you on a tour of the roads less travelled in Northern England to explore what truly lies in the shadows.

Dan Howarth is a writer from the North Of England (Manchester born but now living on Merseyside).  Co-editor of several anthologies with James Everington, I first got to know him when my story appeared in The Hyde Hotel (2016) and since then, we’ve established a little mutual support group, spurring one another on with our novel writing.

Although his work has appeared in many publications, Dark Missives is his first full-length release and collects eleven short stories.  Away from writing, he enjoys craft beer, German football and BBQ food, which seems a winning combination.

After he kindly interviewed me over the release of my novella The Exercise (you can read the interview at his site here), I jumped at the chance to ask him some questions and this is what happened.

MW:  What can you tell me about your debut collection, Dark Missives?

DH:   Dark Missives collects eleven stories from my back catalogue for the first time and is my first full length book. 

There are four originals and seven stories published or produced elsewhere. I’ve been lucky enough to have my stories produced as podcast episodes at The Other Stories podcast numerous times, so whilst these stories are hitting print for the first time, they have previously made their way to readers/listeners. 
The stories that are original to the collection are generally a bit longer and a bit weirder. Lots of short story markets ask for stories under 5k words. I’ve got a few stories in here that I’m really pleased with, they just never fit a market, word count wise. 

MW:   What made you decide to go the self-published route? 

DH:   I’ve spent the last few years largely writing novels and trying to get an agent. I’ve come pretty close a couple of times but still haven’t cracked it. For a large part of the submissions process (as you’ll know, Mark) you can feel like an outsider looking in. 

But that feeling of being an outsider doesn’t have to be negative. It’s something I’ve channelled. There’s absolutely no reason now for creatives of any kind to let their work die on their hard drives anymore. We’ve all got the skills and the means to get out there. As long as the quality of the output is high, we shouldn’t sit on our stories. 

Inspired by people like Sub Pop and Dischord Records, although more specifically David Moody and his press Infected Books, I decided that things weren’t going to happen for me unless I made them happen. So, I took the first steps. 

I’ve started my own publishing label, Northern Republic. It puts some distance between me and my work. We’ve got a website, we’ve got logos, and we’ve got other books on deck. Northern Republic isn’t a traditional press, but it will be associated with some brilliant books. Hopefully, starting with mine. 

MW:   How did you find the self-pubbing experience? 

DH:   Bewildering at first. Everything is new and everyone has an opinion on every conceivable option you can take for your book. I’ve worked with small presses before, so I know what I like and what I don’t. 

The key thing for me was to get a belting cover. I am fascinated by graphic design, probably because I’m terrible at it. I hired Luke Spooner of Carrion House to do the artwork and he’s been brilliant. A great talent and spot on to work with. He’s been really patient with my dumb questions and turned out a top-notch cover. 

My technical skills are pretty limited, and I leaned heavily on the experience of others. It’s not something I’m ashamed of. Everyone has to learn somehow! Some people have really helped me, particularly Paul Stephenson of Hollow Stone Press was a living legend. He saved me with formatting etc. It’s something I’ll be picking up myself going forward, hopefully. 

The most interesting thing to learn is the marketing. There are so many theories and different ways of promoting your book. Some people lean heavily on ads but I don’t know enough about the route for it be anything other than wasted money right now. 

Instead, I’ve leaned on contacts I’ve already. Made contact with lovely people such as yourself for a bit of a boost. I think that’s an important part of it, exploring the horror community. I’m in touch now with sites that I’ve followed for years and some of them are publishing either reviews or articles I’ve written. 

What’s been amazing is seeing not only how these sites can help me, but what I can give back to the genre as well. How I can help other writers and give them a platform, something I’ve tried to do via the signal boost section on my newsletter and through interviews on my author website. 

   What got you into writing? 

DH:   Stepping fully into the cliché, in some form or another, I’ve written for a very long time. Whether it was terrible songs, terrible scripts or terrible stories, I spent time writing when I was younger. I’d always messed about with words but never took it hugely seriously. 

In 2012, I joined a writing group near where I lived. It was around that time I discovered that horror was where my fiction gravitated to. I didn’t write as much as I should back then. It was only when my daughter was born in summer 2016 that the need to really create and take it seriously bubbled over. 
Since then I’ve written 5 novels, a couple of novellas and a bunch of short stories. I write five days a week, pretty much come hell or high water. I’ve broken the back of resistance and carved out a daily habit, one that I won’t let go of. 

MW:   Tell me about the process for the collection. How did you decide on the stories to include and how did you decide the running order? 

DH:   Good question! 

I always knew I would close the collection with Collaboration. It leaves the reader with something to chew on. I also wanted to start with a bang. Dustin is one of my favourites in this book, so it seemed a natural choice. I feel as though that story was where I really started to find my voice. 

In between, I went by feel really. There was no science or no luck involved. I went through the pieces one by one and moved them around until I felt comfortable. I have my cornerstones and the rest fitted around them naturally really.

MW:   So what’s next?

DH:   Hopefully getting a novel published one way or another. I’ve just finished a novel, a kinda crime/thriller/dystopian piece. I actually really like it, but it needs a thorough edit. For sure. Where that one will land, who knows? 

I’ve just finished a new novella that will likely be my next release from Northern Republic towards the back end of the year. After that, perhaps start to release some of the novels I’ve got under my belt as well as there are some books I’m really proud of there. 

Monday 19 April 2021

Matryoshka, by Penny Jones

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.
There’s something wrong with her husband, Mark. Lucy had heard all the rumours about him, the whispered warning behind her back. The half heard Chinese whispers seemed to haunt her, mocking her wherever she goes. Now it appears that whatever’s the matter with Mark is spreading; tainting, infecting both strangers and those that she loves the most. So, Lucy will go to any lengths to protect both her young daughter and her unborn child.

Lucy is heavily pregnant with her second child and struggling to cope with her three-year-old Susie.  There’s also something wrong with her husband Mark - she’s heard rumours about him, whispered warning behind her back, mocking her wherever she goes. Now it seems whatever’s the matter with him is spreading, tainting strangers and those she loves the most so Lucy has to do whatever it takes to protect her children.

I went into this knowing very little about it and it worked all the better for it.  Having now read it, I’m not sure of how much to discuss in this review without spoiling the twists and turns that readers need to discover for themselves.  Online, Jones has said the novella is “about child birth, loss of identity and post-partum psychosis”, which it absolutely is and once you realise things are going very badly for Lucy, everything goes downhill.  You can see the signs, Lucy can almost see the signs, but there’s too much forward motion for her to make any changes.  Well told with a pace that doesn’t let up, this feels claustrophobic and oppressive, horrific but realistic and offers no easy get outs.  It also presses a lot of soft spots on the way (I found myself cringing in places), including an excellent sustained sequence in a caravan park that will make any parent sweat.  Lucy is a compelling protagonist, clearly suffering mentally and trying to keep herself together and she has our sympathy, even when she does things that make those around her question her sanity.  With a clever last line, this is well worth a read and I would very much recommend it.

* * *
I'm lucky enough to know Penny and her husband, having hung out with them at various Cons and a Crusty Exterior gathering and she kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.

PJ:   Hi Mark, thanks for inviting me to prattle on about my new novella, I was so nervous when you said you were reading it. I get really bad impostor syndrome every time I have anything published, and as this book was written entirely during lockdown, my mind weasels have been working overtime.

MW:   It's good to have you here!  So where did the original spark for Matryoshka come from? 

PJ:   The story is very loosely based on a patient I nursed years ago who developed post-partum psychosis during the last two weeks of their pregnancy. It was a terrifying time for all involved, but for the mother to be it was like she was living through a horror movie. She believed that there was a family curse, that her own mother had actually given birth to twins and that the twins were given away at birth as they were evil, and that her twin was out there slowly swapping each member of the family with their evil twin. Imagine finding yourself forced into a psychiatric hospital, locked up, believing that your four year old son had been replaced, that your mother was not your mother, that your husband was under the spell of your own evil twin and that they were only waiting for the birth of your daughter to steal her away as well. For her family and for the medical professionals involved in her care it was terrifying: she was refusing medication and she wouldn’t eat or drink because she was sure we were poisoning her. She was a flight risk but we couldn’t restrain her because of the advanced stages of her pregnancy, she actually did manage to escape from the hospital and ended up barricading herself in her attic, no one could get up there and she only just fitted, so even if we got up there, no one would have been able to safely get her down again. I decided against adding the attic ending to my novella as I thought my readers would have found it far-fetched. In case anyone is worried, she had a healthy baby (though labour did start in the attic, it did not finish there) and following the birth she accepted treatment and when she came back to see us six months later mother, baby and family were all doing well.

MW:   Well that's reassuring!  Lucy is a fantastic character, did she appear fully formed or did you have to develop her?

PJ:   As I said in the previous question the story is loosely based on a patient of mine, and Lucy herself definitely draws attributes from several of the women I have nursed over the years who have had post-partum psychosis and depression. Rosemary from Rosemary’s Baby was also a strong influence in the character of Lucy and in the writing style I used for her. I was aiming for that unstable narrator throughout Matryoshka

But as with a lot of my characters there is a whole lot of me in there as well. I feel for a character to be fully formed there has to be a level of truth to their actions and behaviours. When I originally pitched the idea to Peter Mark May at Hersham Horror, I said my main concern was that I didn’t want the reader to feel cheated, as another nurse was fond to say I didn’t want to be a Dirty Birdy with my story. So I tried to put myself in Lucy’s shoes, took off my author head and tried to write her reactions as if they were my own in the same situation, as if I as the writer didn’t know if what was happening to Lucy was real or a slow descent into madness.

The Crusty Exterior in Ye Old Trip To Jerusalem, April 2019
from left - Wayne Parkin, Penny, Simon Jones, me, Ross Warren, Phil Sloman and James Everington

MW:   In your story notes, you mention that children scare you.  Did you find that factor helped or hindered you with this?  For what it’s worth, I read this as a parent dreading what might happen next.

PJ:   Children do scare me. I think they are an excellent trope that can never be overused in the horror genre. There is something innately alien about them, something other, an uncanny valley where their whole persona is so slightly off kilter from our own. They mimic us (both our good and our bad traits) to learn how to be functioning member of society. And there is something both comforting and terrifying in watching someone trying to be you (Vivarium builds the tension in this symbiotic relationship brilliantly). I am aware though that children in horror can be also be very divisive for readers. There are some readers who won’t be interested in the parent / child dynamic, and there will be those who will read it through the eyes of parents, fearful for the child, and there will be those who will read it fearful of the child. Each person’s own relation with the children in their life will colour the way they read a book with children at the heart of it, and it is balancing the story so that it can resonate with as many readers as possible without losing its central concept that is most tricky. I know that I am scared of children, but what I think is terrifying, someone else will see as endearing. So that balance of behaviours being both realistic and unnerving is really difficult to get onto the page.

MW:   Your pacing with this is very good, do you find the novella length works best for you?

PJ:   This was actually my first novella, I usually write short stories, and they tend to be short, short stories, my sweet point is only about 4,000 words. But I always knew this was going to be a novella length piece as there was too much to tell in a short story, but I thought it would loose its ambiguous horror if it was novel length. I really enjoyed writing it and I certainly have one other novella length piece that I want to write. 

MW:   And what’s next?

PJ:   I’m currently working on what I think will be a novel, though unlike my first novel, which I wrote very specifically on a traditional story arc and which came out at a traditional novel length of 90,000 words. This one I’m allowing some freedom to it, so if it ends up as another novella I won’t be disappointed. I’ve actually planned this story out, which is something I never do, though how useful that will be I have no idea, as so far I have missed out the second of my chapter post-its, and now I’m on post-it four, I’ve decided that the previous chapters probably aren’t needed. My elevator pitch for the story is Bridget Jones meets The Wicker Man.

MW:   Well that sounds very intriguing!  Good luck with it!

* * *

Penny Jones knew she was a writer when she started to talk about herself in the third person (her family knew when Santa bought her a typewriter for Christmas when she was three). Penny’s debut collection Suffer Little Children published by Black Shuck Books was shortlisted for the 2020 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer, and her short story Dendrochronology published by Hersham Horror was shortlisted for the 2020 British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story.

Monday 12 April 2021

The Mystery Of The Talking Skull, 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 in 1970 and never reprinted), cover art by Roger Hall
Excitedly they searched the old chest.  Jupiter was sure they would find a vital clue from the post.  Suddenly Bob exclaimed: "Look!  Under that purple cloth!"  Before them lay a gleaming white skull...

There are surprises for The Three Investigators when they buy an antique trunk.  For its spooky contents lead them on a thrilling treasure hunt - and into the middle of a sinister plot...

illustration from the Collins/Armada editions,
by Roger Hall
The boys meets with Chief Reynolds in his office (the
only time we see him in the whole series, I think)
Jupiter Jones decides to visit an auction and, whilst there, purchases an old trunk for one dollar.  It turns out to have once belonged to a magician named The Great Gulliver, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances (following a bank robbery he was innocently mixed up in) and now his trunk is attracting a lot of interest, from gypsies, fellow conjurors and some unpleasant thugs.  When the boys find the set piece of Gullivers act, a talking skull called Socrates, it leads them to several clues and a race against time to find the stolen money before it is lost forever.

This was the last Three Investigator book written by the series creator Robert Arthur (he passed away in May 1969, the year this was published) and is a fitting tribute to him.  Playing on a similar, smaller canvas as his previous title, The Mystery Of The Screaming Clock, this works well and there’s a nice, nostalgic atmosphere to the whole thing.  It sticks close to home - a lot of the action takes place in the Jones Junkyard - but when the book ventures into Los Angeles, it’s to the more rundown areas of the city (“…everything needed paint and repair.  The few people on the street were quite old.  It seemed to be a street where elderly people with small incomes lived”).  This tinge of melancholy is echoed when the boys are on the trail of the money, with a house “that moves”, where Arthur bemoans the fact that old neighbourhoods are being torn down to make way for yet more freeways.

Characterisation, as ever, is spot on with some good repartee between the boys and it’s nice to see Uncle Titus play a much larger role than usual (Aunt Mathilda’s involved too).  Of the supporting cast, Chief Reynolds has a good part (and a nice counterpoint in his stand-in, Lieutenant Carter, who wants nothing to do with the boys) and the criminal gang - Three-Finger Munger and his associates Leo The Knife and Babyface Benson - are played admirably straight.  There’s also a nice nod to The Secret Of Terror Castle with Zelda the gypsy (though in that book, Zelda was comrade-in-arms to Gypsy Kate).  As with all Arthur stories, the mystery is solid and well-thought out and although there are no Sherlock Holmes references this time, Jupiter does allude to a real book - Lord Chizelrigg's Missing Fortune, by Robert Barr - which is a nice touch.  With a good pace, strong atmosphere and a wonderful use of location, this is a very enjoyable read and I’d highly recommend it.

I like both of the paperback covers Peter Archer produced (different angles of the same scene), particularly because they give us a view of the junkyard which - bearing in mind its importance as a location in the series - is rarely seen in the artwork.
Armada format a paperback (printed between 1973 and 1980), 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)

Monday 5 April 2021

Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man, by William Shatner (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and loved, which I think adds to the genre (biography, in this case) and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan (though if you were a fan, you've probably already read this...)

Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner first crossed paths as actors on the set of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Little did they know that their next roles as Spock and Captain Kirk, in a new science fiction television series, would shape their lives in ways no one could have anticipated. In seventy-nine television episodes of Star Trek and six feature films, they grew to know each other more than most friends could ever imagine.

Over the course of half a century, Shatner and Nimoy saw each other through personal and professional highs and lows. In this powerfully emotional book, Shatner tells the story of a man who was his friend for five decades, recounting anecdotes and untold stories of their lives on and off set, as well as gathering stories from others who knew Nimoy well, to present a full picture of a rich life.

As much a biography of Nimoy as a story of their friendship, Leonard is a uniquely heartfelt book written by one legendary actor in celebration of another.

I wasn’t ever the biggest Star Trek fan (although I watched the TV show and enjoyed the original cast films) but picked this up after reading Shatner’s making of book for the fifth film.  I was aware of him from a great many things, but Nimoy was more of a mystery to me and I found that intriguing.  My first hint he wasn’t just Spock was reading in Starburst magazine that he was in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (and he’s very good in it) and if him being in a horror movie was a surprise, equally so was jumping forward a decade or more to the fact he directed the very entertaining (and very successful) Three Men And A Baby.  So I took to the book not knowing quite what to expect but thoroughly enjoyed it.  Although Shatner charts Nimoy’s life from his beginnings in Boston and right up to his death, he also charts his own life (the ups and the downs, with Nimoy being of particular help when Shatner’s alcoholic wife took her own life) but this doesn’t feel crammed in and makes the friendship between the two men that much more special.  In fact, friendship is one of the driving factors of the story, with Shatner lamenting he doesn’t find it with many people and that he and Nimoy shared an extremely strong one, after a rocky start.
Nimoy is painted as a hugely creative and driven man (and troubled too, with alcoholism and family issues, both of which he thankfully worked through), working hard to establish himself and being true to his vision, even if it got him into trouble.  Shatner’s memories, aided by those of Adam Nimoy and other friends, paint a wonderful warts and all portrait of Nimoy, told in a brisk and breezy style (you can almost imagine him sitting across from you, having a chat) that ensures this is a quick read.  

Honest with his own feelings and the issues between them throughout, in the final two chapters as Nimoy’s health worsens, Shatner reveals there was a falling out he never properly understood and it’s with this bitter-sweet realisation the book ends (he clearly laments the loss).  

Lovingly related and very moving at times, I thoroughly enjoyed this and would highly much recommend it even if you’re not that big a Trek fan.