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A Pisshead’s Guide to Fantasycon 2015

11062919_10153811175599739_1054696026151120002_nEven sober, Fantasycon can be a dizzying barrage of personality, conversation, information and recreation. Add alcohol into the mix—which only the tee-total can fail to do—and it can become an almost psychedelic experience.

The events described here happened. Not necessarily in this order, and there may be gigantic gaps where fascinating things and people did happen and I have no recollection of them.

The bar was dead when I arrived at 11am. The few people in there were drinking coffee, of all things, and I admit to being shamed into doing the same. It was going to be a late night, and a little caffeine wouldn’t hurt at all. I sat and sipped coffee as though I were a real, functioning person, and enabled Facebook on my phone for travel updates on all the fine folk who were making their way here.

Eventually, James Everington arrived, and the three day long party was underway. James is a great guy, and a very fine writer, so I was pleasantly surprised when the launch of the Masks anthology happened right beside me. This year’s book buying virginity was therefore lost a little earlier than expected, but I became the happy owner of Masks, an antho containing work by James, and another of my friends and all-round good guy, Phil Sloman (more of him later). Plus I got to chat for a little while with editor extraordinaire Dean Drinkel, which was dandy—although I was sad to hear of the passing of cover artist James Powell. I’d been praising his work on many of Dean’s covers.

James and I headed down to register for the con, as we’d been told of the mountainous pile of free books available. We received our badges, then ran around like a couple of kids in the sweetie aisle, oohing and ahhing, and grabbing stuff like we were on Supermarket Sweep. “Read anything by her? She did that great story in…

After dumping my haul in the car, I met up with the inimitable Mark West, romance writer Sue Moorcroft (who deserves congrats for her recent two-book deal with Avon), Stephen Bacon and Neil Williams. I read an article once, about how human relationships closely mirror the setup of electronic peer to peer networks. Certain people act as supernodes, with an uncanny number of connections that the rest of the system relies upon for efficiency. I always think of Mark as a supernode, and he has gained that status by being the nicest, friendliest person you could meet, and a superb writer to boot (hence his much deserved BFS award nomination for Drive).

At some point, a few drink12187777_10153815209834739_6844063854908627512_ns later, I was pleased to see Ross Warren and his lovely sister Lisa Childs. Ross Warren—yet another wonderful guy. You’ll never hear him bigging himself up, yet he’s a top notch editor with some superb titles under his belt, not least of which is the Dark Minds series. He also writes a mean short story too. If you haven’t already, look him up.

One of the highlights of the convention was the launch for Mark West and Stephen Bacon’s Lost Film novellas. Launch? This was more like a party, with everyone there thrilled to be supporting two excellent writers, and one of the nicest (and most professional) publishers in the biz (yes, you, Christopher Teague!). The drink was flowing. I think Sue Moorcroft was on photo duties, and you can see in the resultant pics the love and laughter of the event. Here I received an effusive man-hug from Paul M. Feeney (great writer—buy Weight of the Ocean and The Last Bus), and spent time laughing and chatting with Fiona Ní Éalaighthe—the topic of which neither of us can now remember. Although I seem to have photobombed every pic, like a weird creature from an internet meme, I have no recollection of any of the photos being taken. Mark and Stephen gave brilliant readings though, and I was worried they were going to run out of copies when it came time to buy. Well done to all concerned.

photobombWe all headed off to the local Toby Inn for a meal, Mark, Sue, Lisa, Stephen Bacon, Wayne Parkin and Peter Mark May, and were a little taken aback by how good the food was, as well as being reasonably priced. They offered normal or King Sized options, so I asked for an Henry VIII portion. Fcon to me is all about excess. Bacchanalia featuring oversized talents, oversized hospitality, oversized friendliness, and oversized portions of food and drink.

We got back for the Atrocity Exhibition, a Victorian quiz panel and half laughed, half marvelled at how well Mark West coped despite having not a clue beforehand of what the panel would entail.

Things are now getting blurry. I know I ended up outside at some point and was introduced to Ben Jones. Ben’s a proper geezer from Sarrrf Landon, an author so enthusiastic about his work and characters that I was sold straight away. I came back with Skewered and Pennies for Charon, which I’d read great reviews about, and almost immediately bought Slaughter Beach when I got home. This guy could sell crack cocaine to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and was a great laugh. I raise a glass to you, sir!

At last, I met up with my best buddies Stephen King and Katina Bill, whom I first met at Fantasycon in 1989, and we’ve been firm friends since. We’ve holidayed together, drank together, stayed at each other’s homes—a testament to the bonds that can be formed at this convention. I say met—if my memory serves they dragged me kicking and screaming into the karaoke, where I joined them and my other great friends Laura and Peter Watkinson. Laura won the Vondel Translation Prize 2015 for The Letter for the King, her translation into English of De brief voor de koning by Tonke Dragt), and Peter is the one-man blackened death metal god behind the awesome Abomnium.

After an enforced removal from the conference centre—they have tannoy announcements, which no matter what the actual script, always seem to say “you have 15 seconds to reach safe minimum distance” in my head—it was time to retire to the hotel bar and get comfy. After 12 hours drinking, I found that my friends had at some indeterminate point dispersed and drifted off to bed. No matter, because I found myself in the fascinating company of excellent scriptwriter, filmmaker, and past con-friend Gavin Williams. Gavin is calm, intelligent, and expressive, as well as being very talented, just what is needed to level the head after a hard day’s debauchery. He patiently answered all my dumb-ass questions about the film business, of which I knew not a jot until our discussion. If you get a chance to watch his short, Sleepworking, I wholeheartedly urge you to do so, and his current project as screenwriter, Await Further Instructions, with Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, The Strain, and Broadchurch star David Bradley, sounds excellent.

As more and more people drifted off to bed, it was left to me and fellow bar-propper Paul Melhuish to hold the fort. This must have been 2 or 3am. Much bullshit was spouted, amidst the interesting topics of books read and bands watched. We even got onto world religion at one point (Paul’s a Christian, I’m an atheist) and had a thoroughly pleasant, level headed discussion without getting heated even once (take note, world governments). Paul is also a great writer, and I really enjoyed his space opera cum hammer horror, Terminus.

At some point I remember saying goodnight to the king of werewolf fiction, Graeme Reynolds. Paul went to bed, I finished my drink, and looked around for some other poor suckers whose conversation I could hijack. But there was no one left. At 4am I turned in, having wrung the last drops of goodness from the day.

I don’t suffer from hangovers, but I woke up next morning feeling like a JCB had driven over my head. Met Katina Bill and Steve King for brekkie, and she suggested that the fact I hadn’t drank anything non-alcoholic for nearly twenty-four hours may have something to do with it. And right she was. A couple of glasses of water and an Appletise later and I was ready to face the day. I had to drive into town for cigarettes anyway, so promised myself I wouldn’t drink until I’d straightened out enough to drive.

At Adam Nevill’s launch for Lost Girl (which looks superb) I bought a book and took a freebie Devonshire beer with the express intent of giving it someone to guard for me until I’d returned from the shops. However, mingling and talking in a room full of great people meant that automatically, before I’d even realised what was happening, the beer was gone, and I’d be walking to the shop later, in the pissing rain. The wages of sin. Adam’s launch was a great success—another happy, smiling party where it looked like they were going to run out of books. And well done to Adam for his much deserved award win!jimmust die

After the launch came another of my ‘con highlights. Big Jim McLeod was ambushed by a bunch of writers who’d killed him off in an exclusive, one-off, short story collection—a reaction to a FB post he’d once posted. I was thrilled to be included in this. I’d already killed him in my current work, although off-stage, and so knocked up a story, from a child’s eye-view, as a bit of a laugh. When I saw the calibre of my fellow contributors, I was mortified! Jim’s reaction was priceless, and he nearly had me in tears too—somewhat of a surprise, as generally, I don’t do tears. This was the brainchild of Phil Sloman, who really is one in a million.

Next it was out to the bar. While making notes before writing this, all I have for this period is ‘???’ which is rather unhelpful. I know I was in the good company of Ross and Lisa, and that I bumped into quite a few people up and down corridors, and shared many drinks, smokes and discussions. I think it was at this point I visited the dealer’s room. I went in to buy, but ended up gabbing with the many friendly and talented people in there (Kit Power, who was gracious enough not to remark on my Wolvo accent, Rich Hawkins, Paul Feeney, Andrew Freudenberg). Fiona Ní Éalaighthe introduced me to the delights of Lemon Sherbet Vodka (but the Vodka Gummy Bears had all gone).

I returned to the bar for more drinks, and then after a while there appeared to be only me and Lisa left to duck into James Everington’s panel on British horror, which he moderated masterfully. I had to rudely get up and leave at one point, as I received a silent, missed call from my babysitters. I was worried that something bad may have happened, but they gleefully informed me my daughter was fine, and currently figure skating around their kitchen in her Heeleys. Panic over, I snuck back in. Hope those creaky steps didn’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment.

Later, I attended Terry Grimwood’s fantastic panel on weirdness, darkness and madness. The discussions on the supernatural (or lack of it) set us up for a few conversations throughout the night. I was on my very best behaviour, as Ramsey Campbell and his wife sat next to me. I know from past cons that Ramsey doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so I sucked my cider quietly like a good boy. Ramsey smiled and nodded afterwards, so I think I got away with it.

Soon it was time for Currycon, and about 30 of us walked to Beeston like a gang of football thugs, chatting about books, films and the supernatural rather than chanting vaguely threatening inanities.

Currycon broke the restaurant. Despite pre-booking, they just weren’t prepared for a party of 30 hungry writers and artists. The whole thing degenerated into farce, with waitresses knocking into each other, the sound of smashing plates every 15 minutes, some of the party (our table *grins*) served without fuss while others waited for over two hours for their meal.

I was lucky enough to share my table with Terry Grimwood, Stuart Young, John Travis, Simon Clark, and Jay Whittle (whose shirt I got to stroke) and we had a great laugh about books, authors and urban legends. I often bump into Simon Clark at cons, and I’m always impressed by what a downright nice, decent and affable bloke he is. Despite his writing credentials, he always has time for a chat with a non-entity like me. If you haven’t read him, he has a phenomenal body of work which is well worth your attention.

Special mention needs to go to Phil Sloman, for service above and beyond the call of duty, organising and overseeing the brilliant “Jim McLeod Must Die” project, and taking on the stress and headache of booking curry for 30 people, with attendant squabble and negotiation in getting the restaurant to deliver. Trooper, great guy, and if you see his name in an antho, buy it!

It was nice to see when I returned that some people were more drunk than I was. Another hazy period, but I do remember bumping into Jim McLeod and Emma Audsley outside, who’d patched up their differences and were telling me about stealth and intrigue in the reviewing world. I left them in good spirits, and looked for someone to buttonhole, happily bumping into my besties Katina, Steve, Laura and Peter. I managed to drag them all, except Steve, to James Everington’s reading. He was excellent, and they bought copies of his collection Falling Over (and so should you). I write horror/ adventure thrillers where people run around and do shit, and I had to confide in Katina that I was secretly jealous of people like James who were ‘real’ writers, with a flair for beautiful, poetic language. But there’s a place for every style, and that’s what I think is so great about the genre at present.

Outside, we’d lost Steve, and the corridors were suspiciously bare, as though something demonic had been stalking the halls, abducting attendees. There was such a demon, and its name was Fantasycon Disco.

I hate discos with a passion. But I’m so glad they have one at Fcon, because when I poked my head in the room (searching for the elusive Steve), the dancefloor was full of people whooping it up and having a great time—it was lovely to see, and it made me smile. Wishing them well, and before that stuff you call music could rot my brain through both earholes, I made my way to the bar, where I spent the rest of the evening with good friends and smuggled booze.

At some point, the tannoy announced it was time to reach safe minimum distance, and I headed up to the peaceful hotel bar for more conversation, this time with the most excellent writer, and long-time friend, John Travis—another ‘real’ writer, with beautiful robust prose that accentuates his surreal, dark fiction. Read The Terror and the Tortoiseshell for the noir adventures of a mutant cat detective! Despite our worlds-apart in style, we’d both been experiencing weirdly similar issues with our current work, and it was nice to talk it out with a great guy.

We were later joined by my fellow barfly, Paul Melhuish once more, and talk turned to music. We all got on like a house on fire, and the vagaries of British Summer Time gave us an extra hour of bar time. It was 4am (5am real time) before the guys left. I vaguely considered joining the other smattering of diehards in the bar, but with three hours sleep in nearly 48 hours, my eyes felt like they were filled with sand, my body felt like not-quite-dead roadkill, and there was some insane chemistry experiment with acid going on in my gut. I staggered to my room (the closest one to the bar in the whole hotel, yay!) and collapsed into bed.

Four hours later, I was up and about, and met another bestie, Terry Grimwood, for breakfast. Terry is one of my favourite authors, he runs The Exaggerated Press, and has written one of my favourite books ever—the dystopian masterpiece Bloody War. Another essential writer if you haven’t tried him already.

I said a sad goodbye to Katina and Steve, Laura and Peter, who were leaving early, and headed for the dealer’s room. Had a lovely chat with Jan Edwards, and picked up Kneeling in the Silver Light (Great War stories that I’d been after since it was published), from her and Peter Coleborn’s excellent (and award winning) Alchemy Press. Here I bumped once more into the wonderful Fiona Ní Éalaighthe, who now had a stock of the awesome Vodka Gummy Bears (excuse the text-speak, but OMG!). And while we’re on the subject, thanks to Jim McLeod for clarifying the pronunciation of Fiona’s surname, NEE-ALE-AHA. My mom’s Irish, and even she can’t pronounce it. Repeat after me:

FIONA

I then spent a stupid amount of time bending Terry Grimwood’s ear at the Eibonvale Press table, before meeting up with nervous nominee Mark West, Sue Moorcroft and John Travis, to head for the awards.

Juliet McKenna handled the awards brilliantly, not too short, not too long. I’m still catching up on reading from eight years ago, so I was somewhat surprised to find that this year, I’d actually read some of the nominations, and owned the winning novel. Some surprise winners, and disappointment for my mates, who faced very tough competition this year. As I said to them, the nomination alone is a victory.

I was lucky enough to have the maestro of Bizarro fiction, Adam Millard, hitch a lift home with me, where we carried on the ‘con tradition by chatting ceaselessly about booky and filmy geek crap. Great guy.

What a fantastic con! See you (in double perhaps) next year in Scarborough.

Sláinte, as Fiona and I would say. Oh, and buy The Lost Film.

STEFI CON

Home Alone with Frankenstein.

Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)

***WARNING! SPOILERS!***FTTS

In my neighbourhood in the Seventies, parents gave not one single, solitary fuck. Kids wandered the streets alone, refusing sweets from paedophiles. The demand for safety equipment like helmets and knee pads was precisely zero. We’d tie fireworks to each other for kicks. Every couple of hours or so, our parents would twitch the curtains and smile indulgently as we set something on fire or beat seven shades of shit out of each other with cricket bats.

A hands-off attitude to childhood development also meant I grew up watching horror movies on late night tv. Friday nights, my dad and his brothers would go to the pub, and I’d stay at Grandma’s house waiting for them to stagger home. Grandma would turn on her big old black and white tv set, keeping me out of her hair by tuning to the horror double bill on BBC2 while she set out cake, sandwiches, tea and whisky on a drop leaf table, ready for their return. I remember watching Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, The Mummy, and many other Universal and Hammer classics while she shuffled by, clutching teapot, cups and plates made from that ugly-ass blue and white pottery that everyone in the Midlands kept for ‘best’.

The night I was home alone with Frankenstein, my parents were going to a party at my aunt’s about two doors down. I was left to fend for myself with a family bag of Salt ‘n’ Vinegar Chipsticks, a bottle of Coke, and the television for company. BBC2 were to show a made-for-tv movie called Frankenstein: The True Story. This UK premier took place on Saturday 27th December, 1975. Which would make me eight years old. I was ecstatic. I knew the movie was due—in two parts, back to back, between 8:20pm and 11:15pm—and I had the whole damn house to myself. I’d even been given a grown-up responsibility for the night—there were two fillet steaks defrosting on the kitchen counter, so on no account was I to allow the cat into the kitchen.

Parents out of the way and long forgotten, I sat down, with a cushion beside me in case I needed to hide, and the credits rolled. Let’s say the film had inauspicious beginnings, which were largely muffled by Chipstick crunching.

For a True Story, the whole thing starts with a lie, and continues in that vein, as it’s not faithful to the novel. There’s a hastily added introduction from James Mason–weirdly, it purports to be at Mary Shelley’s gravesite, but it’s filmed in St. John’s Wood churchyard in London, where Mary Shelley isn’t buried, and shows a grave which isn’t hers. (Apparently, a dramatic prologue featuring Nicola Pagett as Shelley was to be filmed. It was cut, and this strange travesty shoehorned in at the last minute). What follows is one of those mad American “coming up…” beginnings reminiscent of episodes of Columbo or Murder She Wrote. Skip it if you ever watch the movie—it’s choc-laden with spoilers.

The director (Jack Smight, who’d go on to make Damnation Alley) is in a hurry to get to the nitty-gritty, with the rushed and unconvincing death by drowning of Frankenstein’s brother. A God-resenting Frankenstein is then drawn into the business of re-animation by grumpy, eccentric Dr. Clerval, played by David McCallum. And now we’re motoring. McCallum brings the whole thing to life as the testy, slightly nuts Doctor.

That’s the point where I stopped cramming Chipsticks into my gob, licked the salt and vinegar dust off my fingers and became absorbed by this sumptuous, gothic epic.

Much as I love the Hammer movies, some of the supporting cast—buxom wenches and gurning innkeepers—can seem like they’ve just wandered in from the ‘Carry On’ set next door. None of that here. This was a lush teleplay produced by Universal and shot on location in the U.K. with a roster of honest-to-god thesps like John Geilgud and Ralph Richardson.

frankensteintrue5But I had no idea who these people were, I was more interested the spectacle of Frankenstein’s (or rather, Clerval’s) laboratory, in all its solar-powered, steampunk glory. I admit to being a little taken aback when the monster appeared. No bolts, no scars, just some half naked, normal bloke. Although there was something different about the Monster/Frankenstein relationship, something I couldn’t quite grasp. Something adult, and maybe a little taboo. Only a couple of years later, when I learned what the words ‘homosexual’ and ‘homoerotic’ meant, did I suss what had been going on. Clerval seems suspiciously jealous of Frankenstein’s fiancée, and Frankenstein himself seems to prefer the company of men. The creature is never given a name. The first words Frankenstein utters to him (while staring into his eyes) are, “you are beautiful”. The monster emerges from his re-animation wrapped in bandages—part lingerie, part wedding dress. The first interaction between monster and creator is over dinner and wine. They take walks in the park and feed the ducks, they play together and laugh and swing each other around, they visit the opera … for God’s sake, guys, get a room … (Oh, I forgot. You did.)

But of course, before long, the dream turns sour. James Mason makes his appearance as Polidori, oozing more smarm than a Tory politician. And then comes the scene that’s stayed with me since childhood—a rotting, severed arm from an earlier, failed experiment crawls out of the cupboard, and Frankenstein realises his creation is regressing, and is doomed to become … icky. He pours acid over the arm, and we’re treated to a great practical effect as it melts down to bone and dissolves on the lab floor. I must’ve played that scene over and over in my head a million times in the intervening years.

Frankenstein ArmAs the creature grows ever uglier, and his shallow, beauty-obsessed creator spurns him, the monster throws himself off a cliff into the sea, and Part One comes to a close.

I’m still on the sofa, Chipsticks, drink and cushion forgotten, the knowledge that I’d just seen a dead guy’s hand dissolved in acid and wasn’t it great rattling around in my head. Eventually I became aware of my surroundings, and the fact that if I needed a toilet break and a snack from the fridge, the time was now, before Part Two began to roll.

At that point, the realisation that I was all alone in an empty house kicked in. And to make things worse, there was a strange, wet smacking sound coming from the kitchen, reminiscent of that severed arm crawling across the floor. I crept to the kitchen doorway, and carefully reached in to snap on the light. For some reason, I’d taken the cushion with me. Obviously, kid-logic dictated that I could either challenge the monster in there to a pillow fight, or by hiding my face I could make myself invisible.

Suitably prepared for battle, I stepped into the kitchen. There was our happy cat, perched on the counter with one of my parent’s fillet steaks hanging out of her mouth. The piece of meat was flapping up and down as she flicked her head and chewed noisily. (You had one job…) Luckily, my observation of Frankenstein’s surgical technique had prepped me for this. After I’d caught the cat, and yanked the steak back up from its throat, I found the sharpest knife I could, excised the badly chewed edges of the meat and gently massaged the bite holes out of the rest of it. In my eagerness to get back to Part Two, I also forgot to wash it. But I’d learned a thing or two, because whichever parent ate the steak the next day, they didn’t notice.

Evil deed finished, it was back to the movie. The sympathetic creature meets a blind man, things go awry, and a rustic’s head ends up smashed against the wall—tame by today’s standards, but plenty of ‘oh wow’ factor for a little boy of eight.

Frankenstein-PrimaLater comes Jane Seymour as the second creature, Prima. Brewed to perfection in a vat of what appears to be lava lamp liquid. I’ve heard Seymour criticised for her role as the female monster. Accusations that her performance was wooden and lifeless. But that’s quite the point. There’s something unnerving about Prima–beautiful, scheming, cold and soulless. The scene with the cat is chilling—and from the poor moggy’s expression, I’m sure it wouldn’t get filmed nowadays.

As a kid, I sat open mouthed through a decapitation scene and the killing of a pregnant mother, right up to the climactic avalanche ending in the Arctic. I think I raved about the whole thing for about a month at school, recounting the grisly bits over and over again to my classmates. If they thought I was weird before, there was no doubt in their minds now. I’d already taken the first steps on a divergent path, and there was no going back.

Re-watching today, the film is by no means perfect. Leonard Whiting’s Dr. Frankenstein is outclassed by the rest of the illustrious cast, and both Frankenstein and his creation seem little more than pawns in a bigger game. Michael Sarrazin’s monster hasn’t much to do for a lot of the second part. Maybe it’s a tad too long overall, but this must still rank as one of my favourite adaptions of Frankenstein. Apparently the writers, Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood, weren’t happy with the result. They wanted Jon Voight to play Frankenstein, and John Boorman to direct—what a film that might have been. But you couldn’t tell all that to an excited eight year old.

Nowadays, if you left a kid alone in the house watching horror movies, you’d have social services knocking on the door. But Seventies parents didn’t give a fuck, and for that I’ll forever be grateful.

Steve Byrne: My reply to Mark’s Lovely Blog Hop

I’ve been nominated by the ever excellent Mark West to take part in the Lovely Blog Hop.

I’m not sure quite how lovely I’ll be, but here goes…

First Memory

My memory is famously shot to hell (ask my friends and family). Blame it on my drinking and partying days. If I really need to remember something, I have to e-mail myself, so pinning down childhood memories is difficult for me. I’m an only child, so my recollections of time spent playing in the street with the neighbourhood kids, listening to the adults tell stories in a cigarette smoke filled room, sitting in beer gardens with a bottle of Vimto and a soggy straw while the adults socialised, are intermingled in no chronological order with imaginary worlds—my own and those of the books I was reading. Sometimes I wonder if these haven’t all bled together to create a fiction that’s almost real, like the strange, vivid childhood memory I have that won’t go away. I must have been really young—a toddler—and my parents, along with my aunt and uncle, took me with them to a pub in the country. It was way out in the woods. We emerged at closing time onto a gravel car park surrounded by trees, my dad carrying me in his arms. When we reached the car, my uncle worriedly pointed to something he’d seen up in the trees. They all looked. And they all saw it too, whatever ‘it’ was. I was tossed onto the back seat of my dad’s Vauxhall Viva and they all piled in and peeled out of the car park like they were filming an episode of “The Sweeney”. My dad was usually a careful driver, but he was barrelling down the country lanes, and I remember seeing the skeletal trees ripping past, reflected in the headlights. My Uncle craned to look out of the rear window. I remember his panicked voice. It’s following us. Go faster. And they did, and only slowed when they reached the sodium lights at the edge of town. I’d never seen adults scared before.

That recollection bugged me for a long, long time—and still does, if I’m honest. Only last year, I asked my parents about it. They have no memory of the incident. I can only come up with three theories. One, they were playing a mean practical joke on their annoying little sprog. Two, it was a very vivid dream. Three … well … three gives me story ideas…

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Books

My mom informs me that I could read when I was two. I spent a number of years trying to find something amongst children’s fiction that I actually enjoyed without reservation. Then I came across a book of Roald Dahl’s stories for adults that had slipped into the kids’ section of the library by mistake—macabre, grown-up stuff that society deemed ‘wasn’t for kids’. This was the sort of thing I wanted. There were also comics that I loved—Action, Starlord, 2000AD. All had imaginative, inventive, and quite violent content. Then I found James Herbert. I devoured The Rats in a day, and went straight back to the library for more. I discovered lurid New English Library paperbacks and The Pan Book of Horror Stories, pulp horror like Guy N Smith and Shaun Hutson. Next came Graham Masterton. Stephen King’s books I read in order, from Carrie onwards, and leapfrogged from there to other transatlantic authors like Robert R McCammon, John Farris, and George RR Martin.

 

Libraries

With guilt, I have to admit that I no longer use public libraries. My tbr pile is way too high, my reading time way too short. But as a kid with a book habit and very little money I attacked those places like a locust on crops. My first library was a little square brick building adjacent to my school. Here I received my first library card, and searched the kiddy shelves for something, anything, that actually looked dark or thrilling. The adult library section was to the right of the little island counter just inside the entrance. The kids’ section was on the left, with an invisible border dividing them. The kids’ side was a boring world of pastel shades and cartoon animals. Over on the adult side, there was a little bookcase on wheels where all the returned books were kept before being filed away. I could see them on there—covers emblazoned with fire, leering creatures, spiky fonts. But if my Monkey Boot toe cap inched over the border, the crabby old woman behind the counter would appear like a twisted version of Mr Ben’s shopkeeper to bully me back to into exile.

I had a lot more luck at my local library. This was housed in the middle of a row of shops. Some sort of community library, its ‘shop’ window filled by propped up, interesting looking books by people like Robert Ludlum. The kids’ section was in the cellar, and full of the usual dumbass happy animals. The librarian was a younger, kindly woman, who probably noticed me prowling around the kiddy shelves, face screwed up in frustration. I’d keep sneaking up the stairs to check out the real books. Catching me for the umpteenth time fingering the returns pile, she told me that kids could loan books from the adult section as long as they had their parents’ permission, and she gave me a little sign-up card to take home. Shit—there was no way I was going to wait to ask for permission. I ran home, found a pen, forged my dad’s signature and ran straight on back, throwing the card over the counter, staring at the librarian silently, panting like a beast. I was in! It was then I had the Holy Grail moment of finding The Rats on the shelf, stretching up to tip it carefully into my sticky little hands. In my mind’s eye, I Wolverhampton-Central-Libraryopen that book, and a glorious light bursts from its pages to illuminate my big circle eyes. Considering the housing estate I lived on, more likely it was snot-stained and dog-eared, and the only thing to issue from it would be bits of tobacco from last night’s joint. But it had a badass rat on the cover, and that was all that mattered to ten-year-old me.

Once I’d read everything in there, I graduated to Wolverhampton’s Central Library – a beautiful old ‘proper’ library building. I spent many an hour researching my early novels in the reading room upstairs—a place in total silence, dust motes hanging below the huge vaulted ceiling, old men reading newspapers. You could even look through an honest-to-god microfiche, like a character in a US tv murder mystery. I felt like a real writer in there. And they had an audio library, where I discovered Black Flag and US Hardcore like Sick Of It All. What a place.

 

What’s Your Passion?

house-by-the-cemetery-movie-posterFor a long time as a child, I felt I didn’t fit. All the things that my peers seemed to enjoy—football, pop music, fishing, shopping, school—I found stultifying. It was around the age of ten that I discovered the things that enthused me, and they all came at once. Horror fiction, as described above, and horror movies. From Hammer Horror, discovered on an old black and white tv in my bedroom, I progressed to sneaking into the cinema to see films like Halloween, the Evil Dead, The House by the Cemetery. Later, VHS arrived, and the schlocky era of the video nasty.

The last piece of the jigsaw was Punk Rock. Like a lot of British households at the time, it was a sort of ritual to gather around the tv for Top of the Pops. One evening while I sat bored in front of a parade of flabby Disco, dumb Glam and self-important Prog, The Damned appeared onscreen, and everything changed. Their performance made me sit up and spill my Shandy Bass into my Golden Wonder crisps. This was speed fuelled, exciting noise created by people who looked like they’d stepped from a nightmare, and just as I felt when I discovered horror fiction, I knew I wanted more. The Damned were my gateway drug into hardcore punk—bands like GBH and Discharge, who raged against the establishment, the mainstream, and … well, “whadda ya got?”

These three things have been faithful companions throughout my life. It would take a very expensive psychiatrist to explain why I’m so drawn to darkness, the antisocial and the outside of things, but I’ve always felt comfortable in this transgressive world. I like to think that I’m a very well-adjusted person—intimacy with the underside of life makes me more equipped to cope with anything fate can throw at me.

Learning

School was probably the thing that taught me about the incompetence, inanity, and the petty cruelty of authority. I came away with a hatred of institutions of any kind. My formative years were spent in an old fashioned comprehensive school, where they still used the cane right up until it was banned (yes, I was caned). The teachers were weird, Victorianesque buffoons. I hated it. Rules for the sake of rules, dress code, forced to pray, forced to sing. My later school wasn’t much better. I was always at loggerheads with those dopes and their vacuum packed curriculum, although my grades were fine because the work was so easy. I managed to survive it all with my love of learning intact, despite their best efforts, and luckily there were a couple of cool English teachers along the way. I began reading a ton of non-fiction, for interest and research purposes, and now research is one of my favourite parts of the writing process.

Writing

I wanted to be a professional writer. When I began work, I deliberately took a part time job, so I could spend the rest of my time writing. But the publishing industry seemed to be deliberately killing off my genre because they were embarrassed by it. The more I saw of the inside, the more I was reminded of my imaginationless schoolteachers. King and Herbert were now marketed as thriller writers. The pulp horror novels I loved sank without trace. It seemed to me that the genre was hijacked by police procedurals, tales of middle-class-in-peril and books with dark fantastique literary pretensions. I wasn’t a part of that scene, as a reader or a writer. Then my life as I knew it was suddenly wiped out. Because of divorce and redundancy, I had to sell my house and was effectively homeless. I met someone else, raised a child. Trying to keep my head above water, I stopped reading, writing and watching movies for quite a few years. I don’t know how I survived. A ‘proper’ career sort of fell into my lap. As soon as my head was straight once more, I returned to writing. The e-book revolution was on the rise, and I embraced it with open arms. Suddenly I didn’t need to follow rules set by a ‘they’ who didn’t understand my genre. Like the punk bands of the 70s and 80s, it was possible to go DIY. And as I already had a steady career bringing in the dough, I didn’t have to worry about commercial considerations. Writing is my hobby. I’m a single parent now, so finding time to write can be a struggle. But I have a routine, and I keep plugging away. I do what I do, and fuck you. I’m on the outside, where I belong.

I hope you enjoyed my Lovely Blog Hop. I’ll now pass the baton onto Paul Melhuish

Mark West’s original post can be found here.

It’s punk, innit?

(Just one reason why I fucking love self pubbing)


I’ve always been a fan of genre material – music, film, literature. But the problem with having minority tastes is finding somewhere to dine. Genre or niche has never been the province of large scale commercial enterprises. The mainstream is geared for mass consumption – chart music, celebrity memoirs, Hollywood blockbusters. Nah, I think I’ll give that a miss, thanks. The music industry, the film industry, the publishing industry – they’re just that, industries. They’re about money, not art.
Abstract-Art-58

I’m often struck in particular by the parallels between publishing and the music business. They’re both controlled by a handful of global corporations, they’re renowned for their shitty exploitative contracts and poor remuneration, there’s undue influence over the creative process and a lack of respect for the artist. They provide homogenised, easy to shift product. They’re focused on the  broadest possible demographic. And perhaps the worst thing is their control over media delivery. They try to decide what you consume, using their financial clout to pay for exposure.

If you subscribe to this analogy, then horror literature is like rock music. It’ll rarely be part of the mainstream, and if it is, it’ll usually be in watered down form (Twilight, anyone?), because that’s what the corporations deem the masses want.

Sometimes, to move forward, you have to forge your own path.

3 chords In 1977, the Sex Pistols and punk gave the music industry a much needed kick in the balls. Initially signed to EMI and A&M, the Pistols were quickly dropped when the record companies found they could neither understand nor control them. Fans who saw the band live went away and formed their own bands, teaching themselves to play as they went along. From this groundswell, the punk movement began to perpetuate itself. It was a reaction against the elitist, university-educated prog rock bands rubbing their music-school degrees in the faces of the hoi polloi, and to the waves of banal disco trash the majors were using to opiate the people. This new art form was accessible to anyone – you didn’t need a university degree in order to express yourself and be heard. With no commercial backing, the only solution was DIY – so a slew of fanzines and independent record labels began, often publishing ‘how to’ guides with their products to provide a lift up to those following behind them. Sniffin’ Glue fanzine famously posted a picture proclaiming “here’s a chord, here’s another, here’s a third… now form a band”. No elitism, little commercial consideration, just creativity unfettered by convention – doing what they do, their way.


The majors made half-hearted attempts to buy into the market, but soon tired when they realised it couldn’t be commodified – once they’d changed it, it no longer held appeal for fans. The genre took its DIY ethic underground, demonised, insulted or ignored by mainstream media. A second wave of punk spawned hardcore bands like Discharge, GBH, The Exploited, (in the USA, Black Flag and Minor Threat) – faster, louder, noisier, angrier and more politically savvy than their ’77 punk mentors. The mainstream dismissed these bands as amateurs –  uncouth, unskilled, irrelevant. They “couldn’t play their instruments”, they weren’t “doing it correctly”, it was all ”just noise”. Yet these acts went on to influence a whole generation of commercially viable stadium rock gods like Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth, and Sepultura. They changed rock history.

And so it is for self pubbing. It may sometimes seem naive, messy or incompetent, but it’s a breeding ground of creativity that will spawn the future of the horror genre. An independent writer can sit in front of a blank page and go anywhere she wants to go, mix and fuse any genres she wishes, be as subtle or as brutal as the story dictates. She can write flash fiction, short story, novella, novel, epic, trilogy, tetralogy, decalogy – whatever she sees fit. No more “I can’t write this because ‘they’ can’t market it”. No more “I can’t use this character because ‘they’ won’t find her sympathetic”. No more “I need to make this longer/shorter because ‘they’ say that’s what’s selling”. There is no more ‘them’. There is only ‘us’.

Here’s a word [DO]. Here’s another [IT]. Here’s a third [YOURSELF]. Now go out and write a book.

Punk image: http://www.freevector.com

John Travis – Next Big Thing

As a taggee on my own Next Big Thing Entry, it’s my pleasure to host John Travis, author of The Terror and the Tortoiseshell, The Designated Coconut and Mostly Monochrome Stories. Here’s John’s NBT entry:

1) What is the working title of your next book?
The Clutches of Mimi Bouchard.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
It’s a continuation of my Benji Spriteman series, about a feline PI in a world full of mutated animals. The idea came to me – or rather the idea for the ending of the book – when I was still working on the first book in the series, The Terror and the Tortoiseshell.

3) What genre does your book fall under?
Herein lies the problem. I think it’s a crime novel (as is the whole series) but nobody else seems to agree with me. The only difference is that the characters all used to be non-sentient animals.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Again, with it being animals it makes it strange…but the voice I have in my head for Benji Spriteman is Timothy Hutton. Beyond that… For example, Spriteman’s assistant is a six foot tall mouse.  Who the hell would want to play that?

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A journey into darkness, chance and fate told at breakneck speed by a cat private eye who gets rather more than he bargained for.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’d say getting an elephant through a sieve is easier than getting an agent these days. It should be published by Atomic Fez at some point in the future.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I haven’t yet. It’s taking rather longer than I imagined.

 8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
The previous two entries in the series – The Terror and the Tortoiseshell, and the new book, just released, The Designated Coconut. Other than that, I’m not sure there are any. I hope not anyway!

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The characters I’ve dreamt up for the previous two books and few stories. They’re too interesting to leave alone.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Intoxicated squirrels?
 

The Next Big Thing…

THE NEXT BIG THING is an opportunity for writers to describe their work in progress, after being nominated by a previous participant. That A1 bloke Mark West tagged me as his victim, and I’ll soon choose some writers to be my own prey (you can find them at the end of this post).
 
1) What is the working title of your next book?
I’ve just completed an e-book, entitled ‘Phoenix’ – available from all good stockists (i.e. Amazon :-))
 
2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
It was Oliver Stone’s fault.  As I sat in a cinema watching ‘Platoon’, I realised I hadn’t the faintest idea why the Americans had been fighting in Vietnam.  So I read and watched everything I could on the subject. I was struck by the scenes of protest around the world – in particular, the footage of protestors in America placing flowers into the barrels of rifles held by National Guardsmen. It seemed as though the world was engaged in a vast Tolkienesque struggle between war and peace. Some years, and many books and documentaries later, I decided I felt brave enough to write a horror novel set in Sixties Vietnam. The Apocalyptic vibe of those protests had stayed with me, but I didn’t want to write another cliched battle of Good vs Evil. In keeping with the setting, I wasn’t interested in a black and white Judeo-Christian world view, I wanted a more Buddhist outlook – the struggle of humans to master the conflicting forces within themselves. I also wanted horror, I wanted darkness, and I wanted action.
 
3) What genre does your book fall under?
Horror. For as long as I’ve been a reader, I’ve been a horror reader. No other genre tackles the worst things inside us so effectively. To quote Colonel Kurtz in ‘Apocalypse Now’, “…you must make a friend of horror. Horror and mortal terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies!”
 
4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Tough one. The cop out would be to choose actors, living or dead, who epitomise my characters (I always saw Bram as a young John Savage), but I’ll go for the difficult route of treating it as an actual casting. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of many Vietnamese actors, so I’ve gone for Korean talent, as I’m a big fan of Korean genre cinema. So here they are. Orlando Bloom was a controversial choice, as he’s a little too mainstream and he doesn’t resemble Bram physically. But he had the naive yet tough quality I felt was needed for the character.
Bram – Orlando Bloom
Hoan – Choi Min-Sik
Qui – Lee Young-Ae
Lightning – Anthony Mackie
Kim – Devon Aoki
Venosa – Danny Trejo
 
5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
In 1967, a naive English drifter travels to Vietnam to join his aid-worker sister and is sucked into a nightmare conflict that could decide the fate of mankind.
 
6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Emphatically self-published. I’m not anti-publisher per se (I’d gnaw off my right arm to be taken up by certain smaller genre publishers) but I think big publishers were very much to blame for the decline of the horror genre in the Nineties. I also believe in certain cases they pollute the product in the same way that music companies do with mainstream music. Most of them are businessmen, not artists. They are not the best people to nurture a genre. I’m a big follower of an underground music scene where the DIY ethic is strong – it’s our scene, and we make it ourselves.
 
7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Before I could even consider writing, I had to do a LOT of research. That took me over a year. Once I sat down to write, the first draft took me six or seven months.
 
8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
That one has stumped me. I’ve never considered copying styles or themes. I’m glad to realise that Phoenix is unlike anything else I’ve read. If you put a loaded gun (M-16?) to my head and forced me, the nearest answer I could give is ‘Apocalypse Now’ meets ‘The Stand’ – and I realise that half of that description isn’t even a book! If I wanted my novel to be like another book, it would have to be George R R Martin’s ‘Fevre Dream’ – for the depth of atmosphere, history, and characterisation. I also love anything by Joe R Lansdale, and if I had to copy anyone it would be him -that unpretentious, colloquial and clear prose, characters you fall in love with, and no holding back on the brutality. I wish I could be as talented as those guys – but if you’re gonna aim for anything, aim big.
 
9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
See above. ‘Platoon’, in a way. And the Vietnam war itself – the war is as much a character in the novel as the protagonists, and I had to follow it through to the end – the Fall of Saigon. But the novel was also shaped by the true life accounts I read as part of the research – the stories of combatants and non-combatants from both sides. War really is Hell, yet we accept it as commonplace so readily.
 
10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Hopefully all my blathering hasn’t put people off! This isn’t a war story, although inevitably a lot of the action takes place in combat zones. What if the Apocalypse we all talk and write about has already taken place without us realising? (Cue deep, cinematic trailer voice) Phoenix is a bleak adventure into the heart of darkness.
 
And now for the tagging… Terry Grimwood, Jeff Carlson, John Travis, Paul Melhuish… I choose you! You can read their answers to the same questions on or around Wednesday 5th December.
 
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