Monday 29 November 2021

Visions Of Ruin, a horror novella

After it was revealed in the latest NewCon Press newsletter, I'm proud to announce that they will be publishing my horror novella, Visions Of Ruin, early in 2022.
Me, on a Surrey bike, just outside Holimarine Corton, summer 1986
Having spent the last four years writing three mainstream thriller novels (which are now going to be published by The Book Folks, as I wrote about here), I've only dipped a toe back into horror when people have asked for short stories.  But the genre is in my blood and when Ian Whates asked if I'd like to write a novella for him, I jumped at the chance - I like and respect him a lot and I'm proud to be associated with NewCon Press.

Ian writes in the newsletter:
"I am delighted to welcome Mark West back to NewCon Press' publishing schedule. Mark's short fiction has appeared in several of our anthologies over the years, including Ten Tall Tales and Hauntings, but this time he contributes a longer piece, Visions of Ruin, which will be the 8th entry in our NP Novella series. I rate this as Mark's most accomplished work to date, and was bowled over by it on first reading."

I began work on the novella whilst my latest thriller - Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine - was out on submission and it was a real delight to go back to horror, working in the novella format which I think suits the genre so well.  The idea took a little while to come together but once I realised it was set in the 80s, featuring teenagers in a rainy seaside town, I was off and running, the writing process itself (which involved me drawing several maps of the caravan park central to the story) being hugely enjoyable.

Ian, from the newsletter:
"A week in a caravan at 'The Good Times Holiday Park' at the edge of a rundown seaside town is not exactly the holiday sixteen-year-old Sam has been dreaming of, but he knows his mum is struggling and doing the best she can. At least he meets someone his own age to hang out with – Polly – but neither of them are prepared for the strangeness that ensues. Full of deft touches that bring the 1980s setting to life and populated with a cast of fully rounded characters that the reader can immediately relate to, Visions of Ruin will be released in early 2022."

I will post more details when I'm able, but I have to say, I'm looking forward to seeing Sam and Polly ride their Surrey bike out into the world.

Thanks to Ian for both asking for and then enjoying the story enough to want to publish it, Nick Duncan for taking the picture all those years ago and for our adventures on the east coast in the 80s, Teika Marija Smits who helped push me to start and, as always, David Roberts for the Friday Night Walks and the mammoth plotting sessions.

Monday 15 November 2021

The Mystery Of The Shrinking House, by William Arden

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 1973 and never reprinted), cover art by Roger Hall
The Three Investigators followed the winding path.  All at once, a loud chilling scream echoed through the jungle vegetation.  It sounded again - directly in front of them!

Jupiter parted some thick leaves.  In a small clearing crouched a huge spotted cat.

“A leopard!” Jupiter said.  “Run!”

A voice spoke sharply from behind them.

“So!  I’ve caught you.  Don’t try to get away.”

They whirled to see a big, bear-like man.  In his hand was a gleaming spear…

The boys are on a buying trip with Uncle Titus, visiting the home of Professor Carswell and his son Hal, who are looking to sell the few belongings of their recently deceased tenant, Joshua Cameron, who died owing them money.  Cameron was an artist and among his possessions are twenty paintings, all showing his cottage, though it changes size in each one (looked at in order, the cottage appears to shrink, hence the title).  Jupiter thinks he spots someone and the boys end up chasing the intruder through the canyon, though he escapes in a car.  After Uncle Titus has managed to sell all of Cameron’s goods (including the paintings), the boys are contacted by the Countess and her estate manager, Armand Marchal.  It seems she is Cameron’s much younger sister, though they’ve been estranged for a while and she’s keen to have something to remember her brother by.  On the trail of the missing paintings which may - or may not - lead to riches, the boys encounter DeGroot, a mysterious Dutch art dealer and have run ins with Skinny Norris, with more villains popping up as the hunt intensifies.

The fourth book in the series by William Arden (the pen name of thriller writer Dennis Lynds) after a break of two years (he wrote The Mystery Of The Moaning Cave (1968) whilst creator Robert Arthur was still alive, then continued the series with The Mystery Of The Laughing Shadow (1969) and The Secret Of The Crooked Cat (1970)), this is as tightly plotted and well paced as all his books.  Arden makes good use of the canyon and gully around the Carswell property, while Cameron’s cottage is cracking location for some nicely done ‘in peril’ sequences.  There’s also a cleverly constructed ‘locked room’ mystery mid-way through at the studio of artist Maxwell James (who supplies the leopard seen on the paperback art).  Headquarters is used sparingly although, following an uncharacteristic slip by Jupiter, the Junkyard hosts an amusing scene where it’s over-run with local kids trying to help as part of the Ghost-to-Ghost hook-up.

The central mystery - the story behind the paintings and how they might lead to treasure - is well handled, if occasionally dry but having said that, the logic of it works perfectly and it plays out nicely, with Jupe putting the clues together well (and Hitchcock matching him in the deductions later).  The boys all have a clear role to play, the supporting characters are well-rounded and serve a purpose and it’s always fun to have Uncle Titus involved.  The Hitchcock intro is odd though, with the master director suddenly having an attitude similar to the one he had on The Secret Of Terror Castle.

As well written as we’ve come to expect from William Arden, this has some smart set pieces and also what I hope are some nice little in-jokes.  I really want Professor Carswell to be a nod to Night Of The Demon while one of Cameron’s bric-a-brac items was sold to a Mrs Leary who lives on Rojas Street (Rojas was the main villain from The Mystery Of The Silver Spider).  A solid plot, a great sense of location and some nice interplay with the boys, this is an entertaining read that I’d very much recommend.
Armada format a paperback (printed between 1976 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)

There were no internal illustrations for the UK edition, more's the pity - the US had some and I'd like to have seen Roger Hall's take on them.

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

Monday 1 November 2021

Under The Mistletoe, by Sue Moorcroft

Regular blog readers will know I've been friends with Sue Moorcroft for a while, having met at the Kettering Writers Group in 1999 (the group leader was of a more literary bent, so we genre writers were consigned to the back of the room, where we had great fun).  Since then she's gone from strength to strength, hitting number one in the Kindle Bestseller charts (with The Christmas Promise), becoming a Sunday Times Best Seller and her novel, A Summer To Remember (which I wrote about here) won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award 2020.  As well as featuring her a lot on blog (to see more, click this link), I'm also pleased to be one of her beta-readers and thoroughly enjoyed her latest novel, Under The Mistletoe, now available in paperback and as an e-book.

Snuggle up with a mince pie, a cup of cocoa and the most heartwarming book this Christmas from the bestselling Sue Moorcroft.

Christmas. A time for family, friends – and rekindling old flames…

When Laurel returns to the village of Middledip, she’s looking for a quiet life. Adjusting to her recent divorce, she’s ready to spend some time getting back on her feet amidst the glorious snow-dusted countryside.

Yet, life in Middledip is far from straightforward. Coming to the aid of her sister, Rea, as she navigates her own troubles, Laurel barely has a moment to think about where her own life is going.

However, time stands still when she sees her old flame, Grady Cassidy – and it’s soon as if they’ve never been apart. But through her happiness, Laurel remembers why she left the village all those years ago, as she recalls a dark night and Grady’s once-wayward brother, Mac…

Can Laurel learn to forgive and forget? Or will her chances of Christmas under the mistletoe with Grady remain a dream?

My review:
Another winner, this is set in the heart of Sue's beloved Middledip and all the better for it.  Laurel, orphaned as a teen and looked after by her older sister Rea, left Middledip after a sexual assault and only comes back as a thirtysomething to help Rea with her daughter Daisy.  While there, she literally bumps into one of the group who attacked her, along with his brother Grady, who Laurel fancied at the time and still, she discovers, has a thing for.  Now a successful artist, Laurel is soon drawn into village life and as her relationship with Grady builds, so does the inevitable confrontation with the people who caused her so much anguish.  Strikingly well told, as always, this is filled with vivid characters (a lot of whom have either been the protagonists of previous novels, or were at least featured players), plenty of humour and a willingness to deal with the grittier side of life.  Hugely entertaining, thoroughly embracing the spirit of Christmas (I defy anyone to read this and not see the little cottages swathed in snow) and told with wit and pace, this is a cracking novel and I highly recommend it.
* * *

Thankfully - taking care to mask up and socially distance - Sue & I have been able to start meeting again, to chat over a drink at The Trading Post and I took the chance to ask her a few questions about the new novel.

MW:   Thanks for doing this Sue and I have to say, the book is a real treat.  What was it that sparked it off in the first place?

SM:   I had a memory of something that I think happened locally when I was at senior school, which caused a bit of a stir. I remember hearing a man say, dismissively, ‘Surely it was just horseplay that got out of hand?’ and I wasn’t impressed with his attitude. I haven’t given the exact same situation to Laurel but one that has much in common with it. Then I sat back and tried to work out the attitudes of various characters. It soon became clear that forgiveness - or being unable to forgive - was going to be a major theme.

MW:   I really enjoyed your setting for the book and I'm sure your fans will too but for you, as the writer, how much fun was it being back in Middledip for Christmas?

SM:   A lot. Middledip certainly knows how to do Christmas! The pub’s lit up like Santa’s Grotto and there are Christmas trees in every window. I enjoyed creating a village art group and have them all make Christmassy things. The cover image is actually a slice of a picture painted as a community art project.

MW:   There's a testing of sibling love in the story, did that come from personal experience?

SM:   Not at all. I’m very lucky that I get on extremely well with my brothers. I think that’s why I went onto Twitter and asked people how they’d feel if their sibling had been involved in ‘horse play that got out of hand’, especially if they loved them and looked up to them. Interestingly, not a single person said they’d overlook it. They spoke of disappointment and disillusionment. They felt that when trust was broken at such a fundamental level it would be hard to deal with, despite them continuing to love the person in question. I don’t think I could have had Grady and Mac stop speaking or anything, though.

MW:   I remember reading some of the online responses and have to say, I felt the same way.  Moving on a big element of the novel is accepting people's faults and issues and forgiving them.  Where did that come from?

SM:   When Grady learned the truth about what Mac got caught up in led me to puzzle over how Laurel was going to be able to move forward with a life with Grady. Her - very understandable - feelings had painted her into a corner. In fact, she’s plagued by a desire for revenge, rather than a wish to let bygones by bygones.

Mac was in a bad situation, too. He was horrified when Laurel returned to the village. To him, her reappearance threatened everything he’d worked for and the peace of everyone he loved. We can’t forgive to order or stop feeling something just because someone wants us to. She had to have a moment when she could see a way for everyone to get what they wanted. She and I puzzled over that for a long time!

MW:   And the business with the compostable wreaths!

SM:   Did you like that idea?

MW:   Yes, I really did.

SM:   Last year, I had a couple made by a friend of the family. I really liked the natural look and I also liked the idea of there being no plastic or wire involved. You need something whippy like willow, beech or clematis so you can wind it into a circlet. Collect evergreen leaves, cones, seed heads and berries and, using 100% jute twine, tie them into little bunches. Then tie the bunches on the circlet so they lie attractively. You don’t have to cover the entire circlet - half covered looks nice, too. After Christmas put the wreath on your compost heap or garden refuse bin instead of contributing to landfill.

I know you’re going to rush off and make one, now…

MW:   I am.  Though Dad's a big fan of yours, so if he reads this, he might not be surprised come Christmas...  

Sue Moorcroft is an international bestselling author and has reached the #1 spot on Kindle UK. She’s won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award, Readers’ Best Romantic Novel award and the Katie Fforde Bursary. Published by HarperCollins in the UK, US and Canada and by other publishers around the world.

Her short stories, serials, columns, writing ‘how to’ and courses have appeared around the world.

Born into an army family in Germany, Sue spent much of her childhood in Cyprus and Malta but settled in Northamptonshire at the age of ten. An avid reader, she also loves Formula 1, travel, family and friends, dance exercise and yoga.