Monday, December 21, 2009

WHISPERTHIEF (REDUX)

My short story Whisperthief, currently available online at the excellent Sorcerous Signals (http://www.sorceroussignals.com/) can now also be found in print in the magazine Mystic Signals, which you can find here - https://www.createspace.com/3419320

Other news that fit to print: the anthology Arcane Whispers 2, which features my short story What Dread Words (which is set in the same world as Whisperthief and a bunch of my other short fiction - collectively known as the Shining Cities Sequence) is currently available and can be found here: http://www.wolfsingerpubs.com/Arcane2.html


Friday, December 18, 2009

FREE REALMS OF FANTASY PDF

The recently relaunched Realms of Fantasy is currently offering their new issue as a free PDF download.

The February 2010 issue features fiction from Harlan Ellison, Charles Vess, Euan Harvey, Anne Leckie, Leah Bobet & Aliette de Bodard.

Worth your while, I reckon.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

STORY ACCEPTANCE AT JUPITER SF

Just got word from Ian Redman who edits the rather wonderful magazine Jupiter that he has accepted my short story The Earth Beneath My Feet for an upcoming issue.


I am rather pleased wi' meself as a result.



http://www.jupitersf.co.uk/

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

THREE WHEELS ON MY (BAND) WAGON

I don’t want to come across of any more of a curmudgeon than I already am and certainly don’t want to rain on the parades of other writers but…

Is it just me or does anyone else think that the current fad for mixing classic English literature with horror is starting to wear a bit thin? Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a bit of fun with a killer opening line (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains") and if the trend had begun and ended there it would have been fine.

But recently everyone seems to be hopping upon this particular bandwagon with authors from Wells to Austen and a whole gaggle of monsters including sea serpents, vampires, werewolves and the previously mentioned zombies being co-opted to rampage across their texts. Basically it seems that if you can get the text on Project Gutenberg all you have to do is download it and add the monster of your choice (this may be a somewhat simplified version of the truth since I have only read P&P&Z and, to be honest, have no real intention of going anywhere near the various clones that have emerged like pod-people from the classic Jack Finney novel).

There is, of course, a great tradition of cross fertilization in fiction (both speculative and non-speculative) – Sherlock Holmes has met Dracula, Jack the Ripper and Sir Harry Flashman V.C, sequels by other hands have been written to The Time Machine and The Island of Dr Moreau, The War Of the Worlds has proven a fertile ground for SF writers time and time again, Tarzan and Doc Savage have met (albeit under different names in Philip Jose Farmer's magnificently twisted novel A Feast Unknown) even Elric and Kane have crossed paths (as have Elric and Conan in comic book form) but this current classics-n’-horror trend seems somewhat faddish and lazy to me (there, I said it).

At a time when publishers in general are becoming more and more conservative, books such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are a soft option (or rather the pod-people-books are, since it’s doubtful that anyone could have predicted the huge success of P&P&Z) but I think that they are harmful both to writers and their audiences since they stifle the imaginations of both.

If you really want Regency or Victorian or Edwardian horror, there are many, many fine writers who were working at the time and will deliver more genuine scares (and occasional chuckles) than a whole plethora of delve and pillage authors. (I notice, with great relief, that no one has yet been tempted to ‘improve’ The Turn of the Screw or The Castle of Otranto or, god forbid, Frankenstein).

Fortunately, trends such as classics-n’-horror tend to be short lived. Let’s hope someone knocks the wheels of this particular bandwagon very, very soon.

Friday, November 27, 2009

KINGS OF THE NIGHT

Following the news that Flashing Swords is no more, where can discerning readers go for quality Sword and Sorcery fiction?

Well, one answer might be GW Thomas' excellent ezine Kings of the Night, which is one of the few publications (either online or in print) dedicated to the S&S genre.

The current issue contains:

THWACK! The Last Arrow's Tale
by Peter J Welmerink

Brock Strangebeard and the Towers of Matterkill
by Robert E. Keller

The Crypt of the Cobra
by C.L Werner

The Fount
by G.W Thomas

The Huntsman's Pack
by David A. Hardy

The Mark of Gennesh
by Jack Mackenzie

The Obsidian City
by James Lecky

There's also some rather spiffy links to the online back issues of the late lamented Flashing Swords as well as excellent articles on the history of Sword and Sorcery and (and, for me, this is particular treasure trove) links to the wonderful Tumithak stories of Charles R. Tanner - if you've never read them, now is the time).

If you care at all about the future of sword and sorcery, this is the place to be.



Saturday, November 21, 2009

GOODBYE TO FLASHING SWORDS


It's always sad when a fiction market bites the dust, particularly when the said market is one of the very few left publishing Sword and Sorcery.

It was announced today that Flashing Swords is going on indefinite suspension or, in other words, is closing down, probably forever.

In many ways, it was the magazine that lead the revival of sword and sorcery and a lot of fine writers including TW Williams, Steve Goble, SC Bryce, Natan Meyer and many others saw publication there.

The magazine had been undergoing difficulties for quite some time, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before its closure was announced.

Pity though.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

NOTHING IS EVER WASTED


I am, and always have been, something of a hoarder, particularly when it comes to stories. I have notebooks and folders and flash drives filled with vague scribblings and half-finished tales: some of the stories even less finished than that, comprising of little more than a couple of pages of frantic typing and less-than-sparkling prose.

Now and again, particularly when I find myself and the muse at loggerheads, I’ll go back to these unfinished tales and try to pick up the threads in an attempt to kick start my own imagination. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t (which leads me to believe that some of these stories simply don’t deserve to see the light of day).

The strangest thing though, is that they are, in some way, a chronicle of my current writing. The earliest of these scraps dates from about three years ago when I started, rather tentatively, to write again and it’s a sometimes fascinating – more often excruciating – thing to look through old stories and try to chart the path that lead from there to here (where ever here is, exactly).

Jane Yolen once spoke of the ‘writing muscle’ and how it needs to be exercised every day in order to stave off atrophy. Not every race needs to be a marathon, however, or every athletic pursuit lead to a gold medal – sometimes even the smallest piece of writing can help to stimulate the creative impulse and, of course, just because a character, concept, description or line of dialogue doesn’t work in one story does not mean that it cannot work in another. Robert E. Howard famously rewrote one of his unpublished King Kull tales (By This Axe I Rule) into the story that became The Phoenix On The Sword, the first Conan tale, for instance.

I suppose the whole point of this is that nothing is ever wasted or wasteful when it comes to the process of writing and that regular exercise of that mythical writing muscle can only make it stronger. Writing is a solitary pursuit, but one of the advantages of this is that no line, story or novel need necessarily see the light of day before its time.


Ah, so all those wasted hours weren't wasted after all.

Monday, November 16, 2009

EDWARD WOODWARD PASSES AWAY


The UK's Telegraph newpaper today reported the death of British actor Edward Woodward, aged 79.


Probably best known to horror/genre fans for the 1973 film The Wicker Man - widely regarded as one of the finest British horror movies ever made - also starring Christopher Lee and Britt Ekland.


His other well-known credits included the anti-Bond spy series Callan, the silly-but-fun 80's show The Equalizer and in the title role in Bruce Beresford's magnificent film Breaker Morant.


A full obiturary can be found here:


Sunday, November 15, 2009

THE 'RULES' OF SWORD AND SORCERY

Rules, as we all know, are meant to be broken. This statement leads, naturally, to the old maxim that you have to know the rules before you can actually begin to disregard them.

With that in mind, I recently re-read Darrell Schweitzer’s excellent essay ‘Sword and Sorcery, Dragon and Princess’, first published in ‘How To Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction’, edited by J.N Williamson (a fairly so-so book, to be honest but with the odd nugget of pure gold here and there, such as the Schweitzer essay).

In it, Schweitzer lays out, briefly but succinctly a few pointers for sword and sorcery fiction:

1) An imaginary, pre-gunpowder setting, usually based on medieval or ancient societies.
2) Magic
3) A vigorous, heroic warrior as the central character.

It is the last of these that define S&S since such characters (from Conan to Elric to Druss to Thongor) are the central pleasure of sword and sorcery fiction.

In terms of writing, he then goes on give a few useful tips:

Use plain language
a. Make sure you know what a barbarian is
b. Learn the rudiments of swordly combat
c. Make sure the magic is an integral part of the story
d. Keep the magic both limited and consistent
e. You need an action plot.


Within these half dozen pieces of advice, Darrell Schweitzer manages to bring in issues of world and society building. ‘Make sure you know what a barbarian is’ leads on to notions of society – if there are barbarians who, if anyone, represents the civilized portion of your newly created world. If the only people in this world are swordsmen and sorcerers, then who does the actual work – who harvests the crops, builds the glittering towers and, perhaps most apropos, who makes the swords? ‘Learn the rudiments of swordly combat’ more or less means ‘get your research right’ and the short but learned sections on magic point out such important matters as ‘if anything can happen in a story, no one cares what does’. At its most basic this boils down to the hero being able to free him or herself from any tricky situation with ‘one mighty bound’ or the villain being able to summon up endless armies of the dead (which our hero is able to dispatch with ease).

Of course, any set of rules and regulations – particularly when it comes to imaginative fiction – should only act as a starting point. As Schweitzer says, ‘tough-guy detective stories don’t all have the plot of The Maltese Falcon’ (and to that I might add, not all westerns have the plot of Shane) but in terms of crafting genre fiction, it’s important, I think, to understand underlying structure – what the reader can justifiably expect when he or she sits down to read a story, even if those expectations are subverted or totally turned on their head.

In this brief but extremely knowledgeable essay (it runs a mere five pages) Darrell Schweitzer manages to sketch out the foundations of the sword-and-sorcery genre in an intelligent, literate way.

And now that you know the rules, there’s nothing to stop you from breaking them (or indeed following them).




*** Poul Anderson's On Thud and Blunder, an equally wonderful essay on writing Heroic Fantasy can be found here: http://www.sfwa.org/2005/01/on-thud-and-blunder/, ***

Friday, November 13, 2009

WITH MANY SHADES

Perhaps rather foolishly given my recent heavy workload, I have decided to start a new blog - With Many Shades - dedicated to the various webzines and magazines out there.

It's pretty much just a list of magazines with links that might (hopefully) help to publicise the good work that many publishers are doing. There's no reviews or anything of that nature (because that would be far too time consuming) and it's all fairly basic at the moment.

The ethos behind it is quite simple: to do my own small part to support the various zines currently publishing sf & f.

Please feel free to drop by, become a follower and help spread the word.


http://withmanyshades.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NIGHT OF THE EAGLE



Night of the Eagle (1962). Directed by Sidney Hayers. Starring Peter Wyngarde, Janet Blair, Margaret Johnston

Adapted from Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife, Night of the Eagle aka Burn Witch Burn is an effective little chiller that bears comparison with Jacques Tournier’s magnificent Night of the Demon (so much so that its UK title can hardly be an accident).

Like Night of the Demon, Night of the Eagle is a story of supernatural doings and black magic set against a genteel English background and like Tournier’s film is high on atmosphere, low on action (although pacey and never dull) and with a literate intelligent script that steadfastly refuses to do anything other than take its subject matter seriously.

That the script is intelligent is hardly surprising given Leiber’s source material and the involvement of Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont (who share scripting duties with George Baxt) two writers who knew how to deliver clever, slightly off-kilter horror.

Professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) is a rational – perhaps too rational – man who lectures his students in the study of reason and rationality while continually scoffing at the supernatural. However, his life turns upside down when he discovers that his beloved wife Tansy (Janet Blair) has been dabbling with witchcraft and, worse, that she is convinced that his continued good fortune is due to her various charms and spells.

After forcing Tansy to burn the charms and gewgaws she has dotted around their house, Professor Taylor finds that things take a rapid turn for the worse – mummified spiders come back to life, he is accused of rape by one of his students and a tape recording of one of his lectures appears to act as a beacon for, well, something mysterious and deadly one stormy night.

Eventually, even Mrs. Tansy Taylor succumbs to the various dark forces all around them, leading Professor Norman even deeper into a dark, mysterious and deadly world and a confrontation with supernatural forces that makes him realise that, after all, there may be something to this witchcraft business.

An out and out fantasy on many levels – this is a world where even a humble university Professor drives a rather spiffy sports car, lives in a surprisingly spacious and tastefully decorated mock Tudor home and can afford a coastal pied-a-terre where his wife can commune with dark forces – Night of the Eagle has a claustrophobic, noirish quality, best typified by Wyngarde’s performance, who at times seems to be channelling the spirit of Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, all tightly wound rage and sharp suits, as well as in Sidney Hayer’s moody direction.

With some genuinely unsettling use of sound, an exciting supernatural climax that sees Wyngarde chased through his university by a stone eagle brought to murderous life (again recalling the climax of Night of the Demon) and a surprising denouement that wraps the whole thing up rather neatly, Night of the Eagle is an engrossing eighty or so minutes of taut, yet subtle horror that, in some ways - particularly with its collision of the mundane and the supernatural – prefigures such later movies as Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen.

The performances are top-notch, particularly Margaret Johnston’s creepy turn as Flora Carr, and Peter Wyngarde himself who’s journey from annoyed sceptic to terrified believer is beautifully handled by both star and director.

Although a fairly minor entry in the British horror canon, Night of the Eagle deserves to be right up there with other low-key shockers like Horror Hotel or The Damned.

Intelligent, absorbing and well made.

What more could you ask?

Monday, November 9, 2009

NEVER APOLOGISE, NEVER EXPLAIN... A RANT OF SORTS


As I have written elsewhere, on bylines and indeed on this very page, I am an unashamed and unabashed writer of science fiction and fantasy. (Fair enough, more fantasy than science fiction these days but the point is still valid).

Better and more accomplished writers than I have, in the past, penned extremely well reasoned arguments about the validity of SF & F as literature rather than simple escapism. Certainly since the 1960’s with the birth of the New Wave, speculative fiction has consciously adopted many of those literary devices either popularized or developed by the modernists and postmodernists.

The validity of the speculative form can be seen time and time and again in the work of writers such as Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Martin Amis, Iain Banks and Will Self (although both Winterson and Atwood – or their publishers - have repudiated the SF tag, perhaps fearing alienation from mass audience and critics alike).

At its heart, modern speculative fiction has the capacity to study the both the human and inhuman condition in a way which more mainstream literature remains unable to do. For instance – and to use some old and much worn tropes – climate change, overpopulation, the rise of the virtual rather than actual society all belong to SF, although they are increasingly finding their way into not only mainstream literature, but also the actual world.

The tropes of fantasy (particularly of the heroic kind) are increasingly finding their way into the mainstream as well – particularly with writers such as Steven Pressfield, Conn Iggulden, Robyn Young and Simon Scarrow – where the swashbuckling aspects of the genre are written against historical backgrounds (backgrounds that writers of unashamed fantasy have been plundering for years to add verisimilitude to their more fantastic works).

Could it be that the much hoped and longed for breaking down of the literary barriers is actually beginning to happen?

Sadly, the answer is probably not. The publishing ghettoes are as firmly entrenched as ever they were, the readers of Historical Adventures (for lack of a better expression) are frequently indifferent to their more fantastical cousins and the success ‘non-sf’ speculative novels owes little to their SF veneer.

At its best speculative fiction can hold a mirror up to the world: sometimes that reflection is dark and distorted, sometimes it is bright and shining. At its best it can be the equal of any ‘serious’ literature and encapsulate aspects of humanity that, again, literary fiction can sometimes struggle to capture.

Equally it can be bloody good fun both to read and to write (issues of the blank page to one side). For these reasons and more I am and remain an unashamed and unabashed writer of science fiction and fantasy.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

WHISPERTHIEF



My short story Whisperthief is currently available online at the very excellent ezine Sorcerous Signals and features some really rather splendid artwork by Holly Eddy.


It's a return to the Latter Days and the Shining City of PameGlorias.


You can find the story here, should you care to do so:


Friday, October 30, 2009

DEATH LINE

DEATH LINE (1973). Directed by Gary Sherman. Starring Donald Pleasance, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, Hugh Armstrong, Christopher Lee.

There’s something nasty lurking in the London Underground, something that is snatching late-night commuters from the platforms, never to be seen again. But when this particular nasty something snatches James Manfred O.B.E, big shot at the Ministry and general all-round sleaze merchant, people start to take notice.

Or to be more accurate, typical 70’s couple Alex and Patricia take notice which in turn leads to the involvement of not-so typical copper Inspector Calhoun (played with lip-smacking comic relish by Donald Pleasance) and, very briefly, Stratton-Villiers of MI5 (Christopher Lee who, it appears, was just passing that afternoon and popped in to do a quick cameo).

The investigation leads to the revelation that the descendants of tunnel workers, trapped by a cave-in many moons ago, have been living and breeding in the London Underground and have, over the years, developed a taste for human flesh. Or rather they had been since this cannibalistic colony has now been reduced to a single member – known in the credits only as ‘the Man – an unnaturally strong, disease ridden, drooling pile of rags whose only words are ‘Mind The Doors’.

Cue some nicely gory set-pieces, a chase through the darkness when Patricia is kidnapped by the Man to start a new line of underground commuter-munchers and a brilliant performance from Donald Pleasance holding the whole thing together.

Death Line is an odd film, even by the standards of early 70’s British horror (and let us not forget that this is the era which gave us Pyschomania, Dracula AD 1972, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter and The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, among others). The direction by Gary Sherman (who would later go on to direct cult favourite Dead and Buried) is smooth and assured – particularly in the long takes that show us around the Man’s underground lair, filled with mouldering corpses, or during the opening credits that show Manford (James Cossins, in fine bowler-hatted, moustache twitching form) prowling the flesh-pots of Soho – and the use of sound is particularly effective in creating mood and tension, but most of all it is the performances raise Death Line well above the usual exploitation film standard.

Donald Pleasance’s Inspector Calhoun in particular is a delight. By turns comic, sinister and frustrated (“I sometimes think coppers should be like elephants, big feet and long memories… or is that the other way round”) he holds centre stage in virtually every scene he’s in, even when up against Christopher Lee (although to be fair, Lee has very little to do here). Norman Rossington as his long-suffering side-kick, Rogers, provides a nice foil for him to work off, and even the rather bland young couple (David Ladd and Sharon Gurney) manage to elicit some sympathy from the audience.

But it is Hugh Armstrong’s performance as The Man, which makes Death Line such a compelling piece of schlock-cinema. Virtually wordless (apart from the aforementioned ‘Mind the doors’) his sense of animalistic rage, tempered by occasional flashes of humanity is practically a force of nature in the film and his grief at the death of his mate/wife, known here as The Woman is almost palpable. It’s strange that the audience should manage to feel empathy or sympathy for what should have been a comedy cannibal, but the combination of Sherman’s direction and Armstrong’s remarkable performance manage just that.

In some ways, it’s possible to draw a direct line between The Man and those other great icons of the 1970’s horror such as Leatherface (and the long, lingering shots of decomposing bodies certainly bring to mind Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Michael Myers: yet The Man is a much rounder character, driven by need rather than desire and certain much more human than either.

But such matters are for academics or serous students of horror cinema - at its heart, Death Line is nothing more than a good old-fashioned horror flick and none the worse for it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED


FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969). Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Peter Cushing, Simon Ward, Veronica Carlson, Freddie Jones.

The penultimate outing for Peter Cushing as the eponymous Baron, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is a grim and nihilistic treat for any lover of Hammer films.

In a nutshell, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed sees the Baron at an impasse, unable to continue with his work without the help of the brilliant but insane Dr Brandt. His solution is to kidnap Brandt from the asylum where he is incarcerated – with the help of a young couple whom he is conveniently blackmailing - cure the sickness in his brain and then transplant said brain to the body of the unfortunate Professor Richter. Unfortunately the now sane but unrecognisable Brandt/Richter fails to see the upside of this procedure and, driven to despair, literally brings the house down in a blazing climax that consumes both himself and Baron Frankenstein.

Taken in such bald terms, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed might come across as yet another run-of-the-mill gothic shocker. And indeed, all the prerequisite Hammer motifs are there – a Mittel Europa setting sometime in the 1800’s, a plethora of recognisable character actors (Thorley Walters, Freddie Jones, Geoffrey Bayldon) playing parts they could do in their sleep and a young, handsome couple (Simon Ward and Veronica Carlson) to act as foil to the machinations of the Baron. But what sets Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed apart from even the other films in the series is Cushing’s portrayal of the Baron himself.

Shorn of much of the black humour and virtually all of the ‘adult fairytale’ aspects of the earlier films, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed sees Cushing at his charming and glacial best – a man who has long since abandoned the (albeit twisted) altruism of his previous work and has become singular and fanatical in the pursuit of his goals.

This is a man who will not hesitate at blackmail, murder and even rape to achieve his ends and it is a testament to Cushing’s performance that, despite all this, we still feel a certain empathy with the now clearly insane Victor Frankenstein and perhaps even a touch of sympathy when he and his creation meet their fiery demise.

But if Cushing provides the focus of the film it is Freddie Jones as the physically and psychologically mutilated Brandt who provides its emotional core. More undeniably human than, say, Christopher Lee’s earlier patchwork Creature or Dave Prowse’s later Neanderthal incarnation, and far, far less brutish than either, Brandt’s fate is one of a man robbed of everything. The scenes in which he confronts his wife who, understandably, fails to recognise him, are heartbreaking and certainly unexpected in the context of a gothic horror and his anguish at what has happened is all but palpable.

With Terence Fisher behind the camera, the film has all the hallmarks of that great – and underrated director – the violence is handled with aplomb (particularly the opening scenes in which Frankenstein, hideously masked, stalks and kills a fresh victim to provide material for his experiments) and the low-budget of the film is expertly masked once again proving that Fisher was always capable of making a silk purse from whatever was at hand.

A tight and taut script from Bert Batt and Anthony Nelson Keys gives the actors and director great scope to flex their cinematic muscles and if both Ward and Carlson seem a little underwritten it is only in comparison to the powerhouse performances of Cushing and Jones.

Although somewhat overlooked at the time, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is arguably the most grimly enjoyable of the Cushing/ Fisher Frankenstein films and has a bleak view of the human condition that belies the popular view of Hammer films as somewhat cheap and campy shockers.

It would be followed a few years later by the equally enjoyable Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell but by then popular taste in cinematic horror had moved on (ironically thanks in large part to the trail that Hammer themselves had blazed) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed stands as a high water mark of a studio that was occasionally brilliant and never less than entertaining.

FICTION MECHANICS


As part of my ongoing quest to improve my abilities as a writer, I’ve recently started to delve into Barry Longyear’s excellent book on fiction mechanics – Science Fiction Writer's Workshop -I: An Introduction to Fiction Mechanics.

Over the years I have read a lot of books and articles on the craft of writing and managed to take away at least a little bit of useful advice or practice from each, but few of them have engaged my attention in the same way as Fiction Mechanics.

Mostly, this is down to the non-nonsense approach that Barry Longyear starts and ends with and the insistence, almost from the opening lines, that this book is designed to be used rather than simply read. As a result there are dozens of useful exercises contained within the book, generally pointed towards specific outcomes that all fiction – but in particular science fiction – requires.

Thus there are chapters on story structure, starts, backfill and the constituent parts of a story – all of which contain examples of both how to and how not to do it (one of the things that makes this book so endearing is Mr Longyear’s willingness to share his mistakes as well as his triumphs and the examples include first drafts as well as re-written drafts so that the would-be fictioneer can compare and contrast).

One of the most important things I’ve taken away from it so far is the Obstacle in Fiction. Put quite simply, the Obstacle is anything that stands between a character and his or her goal. These can be both big and small, overarching the story-line or directly linked to a specific outcome or motivation.

Thus, to use a very simple example: if a character is hungry and wants to eat but has no money to buy food, the obstacle is that particular lack of cash. How they go about getting the money provides the narrative and their success or failure provides the outcome.

Alright, so the above example (which is my own rather than culled from the book) would hardly provide the most exciting story in the world but as soon as you start to build upon the notion that obstacles - both great and small, physical and abstract - exist within the narrative and within scenes and sections, the business of creating fiction starts to become a little clearer.

If the hungry character decides to steal a loaf of bread to feed himself, the obstacle then becomes different. It can be a physical one (the ever watchful shopkeeper) or a moral one (is it right to steal, regardless of circumstance). If the character decides to steal the bread and is chased the obstacle becomes different again – how to get away with his skin and lunch intact.

Fiction, like life itself, can be full of these little obstacles and it is by striving against them (and creating more in the process) that the structure of a story can begin to evolve.

Longyear also delivers some sterling advice on opening a story: in particular the all important ‘hook’ and frequently uses diagrams to illustrate his points, showing how aspects of the story can be moved along its narrative line to create a point of entry for both the writer and reader (at its broadest and crudest, this is simply a character facing the muzzles of a firing-squad and then going back to tell the reader how this came to be).

In particular, there is a refreshing lack of literary pretension about Fiction Mechanics. Although this is not to say that it is a crude book, rather that it sets out to do exactly what it says – to help the reader/writer understand the building blocks of genre fiction and to apply them to his/ her own work.

Winner of the Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell Awards (for his excellent novella Enemy Mine) Barry Longyear’s advice is grounded very firmly in the practicalities of crafting speculative fiction and is a worthy addition to any writer’s bookshelf.

Friday, October 16, 2009

LACUNA


Megan Arkenberg, who produces the excellent SF/F ezine Mirror Dance, is also producing Lacuna, a new zine of historical fiction:


"Lacuna is a biannual e-journal of historical fiction and alternate history. Our mission is to bring you well-researched, well-written, character-driven fiction and poetry that demonstrates an understanding of both history and human nature."


The first issue can be found here:








Saturday, October 10, 2009

DR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE


DR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE (1971) Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Starring Ralph Bates. Martine Beswick. Gerald Sim.

The end of the 1960’s saw something of a downturn in the fortunes of the British film industry. Audiences were falling, tastes were changing and, worst of all, the American money which had shored up production was rapidly vanishing back across the Atlantic.

Hammer Films, which had long relied on U.S funding, found itself in something of a quandary. Their response was to sex up their movies and to experiment with the formula which had hitherto served them so well: hence such films as Countess Dracula, The Vampire Lovers, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, Hands of the Ripper, The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires and – perhaps the most bizarre of them all – Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde.

An extremely loose adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s original, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde mixes Stevenson’s gothic psychodrama with Jack the Ripper, Burke and Hare (displaced in both space and time from Edinburgh in the 1840’s to 1880’s London) and, of course, the gender-swapping implied by the title.

Ralph Bates (who at that time was being groomed as a potential replacement for Peter Cushing) plays the titular Dr Jekyll, searching for a universal panacea that will cure all mankind’s ills. However, when lecherous colleague Dr Robertson (Gerald Sim in fine sleazy form) points out to him that this work could very likely take an entire lifetime to complete, Dr Jekyll switches tack and instead resolves to discover the secret of eternal youth.

A few experiments later and he is able to extend the life of a short-lived insect for several days, thus proving that he has now mastered death. Hurray! There are one or two side effects, however, the principal one being that his experimental elixir causes the user to change gender due to the large amount of female hormones used in said potion. In this case, it causes long-haired dandy Ralph Bates to become snarling eyed fashionista Martine Beswick. Dr Ralph is, understandably, somewhat taken aback by this but resolves to continue his experiments . But since he needs more female hormones and since the local morgue has run out of the right kind of young female corpses, he turns instead to local resurrectionists Burke and Hare (Ivor Dean and Tony Calvin) to provide him with his raw materials, which they do through the simple yet effective medium of murdering local prostitutes.

Things take a turn for the worse when local vigilantes decide to deliver a spot of mob justice, lynching Burke and throwing Hare into a pit full of quick lime. Forced to fall back on his own resources, Jekyll takes a leaf from Burke and Hare’s book - “you’ve got to do bad to do good” – and starts murdering ladies of the night on his own.

However, with these Ripper-esque murders attracting the attention of the local constabulary, and posters all over town telling the citizens to beware of tall dark strangers in top hats and black cloaks Dr Jekyll in his infinite wisdom then decides to unleash his inner woman to do the dirty work for him. Of course, once let out, Sister Hyde is understandably reluctant to go back in again and thus a battle of wills ensues between the ying and yang that are Dr Jekyll and his 'sister', Mrs Hyde (a name chosen somewhat conveniently from the headlines when Jekyll’s comely upstairs neighbour asks who was that strange woman I didn’t see you with last night) ending with a rooftop chase and some of the strangest makeup ever to grace a Hammer Film.

It’s a silly, hodge-podge of a film but Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde nonetheless has a strange bravado all of its own that transcends its own daft premise and studio-bound sets to provide a hugely enjoyable ninety odd (very odd) minutes of off-kilter horror and blacker-than-black comedy.

It’s helped by a wittily knowing script from Brian Clemens (who would also write and direct one of the very best of the late period Hammers, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter), elegant yet unobtrusive direction from Roy Ward Baker (who also helmed Quatermass and the Pit, Scars of Dracula, The Vault of Horror and Asylum, among others) and a top-notch cast who stubbornly refuse to let the audience know that they’re in on the joke.

Clemens’ in particular provides some brilliant and knowingly daft dialogue, all of which is delivered with remarkably straight faces by the cast:

Dr Robertson: “Put a woman in your life… and one day you’ll wake up, look at yourself in the mirror and see a changed man.”

Sister Hyde (referring to the missing Dr Jekyll): “He hasn’t been himself lately.”

Dr Robertson: “It’s a queer business, sergeant, very queer.”

Ralph Bates and Martin Beswick are both impressive in their roles – Bates, all tortured genius determined to help mankind even if it means bumping off a few of them and Beswick sultry and beautiful to the extent that any man who looks at her practically has to loosen his collar and utter the words ‘Ding Dong’ in a Leslie Phillips style sotto voce.

The supporting cast are uniformally excellent, too, from Dean and Calvin’s turn as Burke and Hare to upstairs love interest brother-and-sister Howard and Susan Spencer (Lewis Fiander and Susan Broderick, Fiander boasting a fine bouffant hairdo that probably looked a bit odd even then). Gerald Sim’s Dr Robertson makes a fine foil/nemesis for both Jekyll and Hyde while the film’s principal delights are to be found in Paul Whitsun-Jones as archetypal London bobby Sergeant Danvers and, particularly, Philip Madoc’s sinister turn as mortuary attendant Byker.

Roy Ward Baker – once described as ‘the grand old man of British horror’ makes the most of his fog-bound sets and stages the various murders with a restrained yet bloody glee, using his camera to give the film a texture and depth which elevates it far above its thin storyline and miniscule budget. As an example of two craftsmen – Baker and Clemens – making an impressively silky purse out of a sow’s ear it’s hard to beat.

Although hardly classic Hammer, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde is an enjoyably silly romp, perhaps best viewed with an open mind whilst sampling the alcoholic beverage of your choice.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Thematic Impulse


Every writer has, I think, themes which they return to again and again. For writers like Philip K. Dick it was the impermanence of reality (particularly in novels such as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, Ubik or Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said) for JG Ballard it was to do with the shifting nature of society (The Drought, The Drowned World, Crash and particularly in his later novels such as Cocaine Nights and Super Cannes). Even the most fantastical of fiction writers have preoccupations of their own – Robert E. Howard’s work returns again and again to the ‘barbarian’ versus ‘society’ (themes which are evident in his Conan, Kull and Solomon Kane stories) – Michael Moorcock’s fantasies often deal with the notion of the Outsider – Elric, Corum – and their attempts to find themselves within an unfamiliar society, whereas Mervyn Peake dealt with the struggle of the individual the express themselves within strictly limiting boundaries.

Sometimes – often – these thematic preoccupations are a conscious choice on behalf of the writer, but equally as often they work on a different, subconscious level. While recently reading over some of my much earlier work – stories that I wrote in what I refer to as my ‘first wave’ of writing some ten years or so ago – I was stuck by the similarity of themes in both those stories and my current output. There is within them that same sense of the city as an alien place, of human beings changed by circumstance or technology, the importance of love as a human emotion and, almost always, that firm refusal to set my stories in any other place rather than Earth.

It may be a strange admission for a writer of science fiction and fantasy to make, but I have very rarely found the notion of alien worlds all that appealing, particularly as a backdrop for my fiction. Similarly, the writer’s whose work I most enjoy rarely, if ever, go too far off-planet. Or if they do, as in the case of PKD’s versions of Mars and Luna, those worlds are very often extensions of the Earth-bound worlds that already exist in their fiction.

The vast majority of my own current output has remained with its feet very firmly on the earth – often a skewed version of the earth, it must be said, with nods towards alternate reality, but good old Terra for all that.

I suspect that it is mostly to do with my own lack of scientific training or understanding, and even in those moments when I am at my most science-fictional I lean very much towards the ‘soft’ rather than ‘hard’ side of SF, or perhaps it is to do with the books and writers who first lead me towards the speculative realm.

There are many, many writers and books who helped to form my own fictional viewpoint: Ballard and Dick, Peake, Spinrad and Ellison, Moorcock and Haldeman, Howard, Leiber, Stoker, Wells, Shelley, Stevenson, Walter Miller Jr, Aldiss, Vance, Zelazny, Wyndham… the list goes on, but one of the things they have in common is the deep core of humanity in their work.

Writers like Brian Aldiss - who even at his most flamboyant, such as his wonderful novel Hothouse – never forget that it is human beings who inhabit the heart of their novels. Similarly Mervyn Peake with his Ghormenghast novels -where the even the most baroque imagery is underscored with a deep understanding of the characters and their condition - never forgets that it is the characters who make the novels come alive.

I think that the thematic impulse is something that every writer experiences on some level. In many ways the trick is to harness those themes that emerge through your work and explore them as fully as you can, to use them to enhance the work, to personalise it in some respect.

Or, in other words, to write what interests you.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Infected at Golden Visions


My short story Infected has just been accepted by the good people at Golden Visions and should see the light of day in their January 2010 issue.


As Ned Flanders once said: "Get out the crayolas and colour me tickled-pink".



Beneath Ceaseless Skies


Beneath Ceaseless Skies
An Online Magazine ofLiterary Adventure Fantasy

Issue #27, First Anniversary Double-Issue -- Oct. 8, 2009
Also available in PDF and PRC ebook file formats, downloadable from the Issue's Table of Contents.


"The Pirate Captain's Daughter," by Yoon Ha Lee
Pirates of the highest tier, the ones whose names and exploits were discussed avidly even in inland cities like those of conquering generals and master calligraphers, raided poetry itself. To understand her trade, a pirate must be a poet herself, and could not take a name until she had scribed a poem in the language of her sea-yearning soul.

"Songdogs," by Ian McHugh
She turned her back on him to reach for her pack, shielding her hands with her body so he wouldn't see her fingers sketching the words of the attack spell that she mouthed under her breath. She licked her fingertips, holding the spell on the tip of her tongue, and turned round to face him while she dug in the pack for food. He opened his mouth. "Could..." was as far as he got.

"Six Seeds," by Sara M. Harvey
Of course, this was very nice for all the other women of the world, but not for me. For me, Dollies were the chore of my life: winding them, bathing them in oil, mending gears and joints, and keeping good care of their pricier parts which pleasured the men. I cannot say that I hated it, nor that I was fond of it, only that it was my task every single day to care for these immortal metal beauties.

"To Kiss the Granite Choir, Pt. I," by Michael Anthony Ashley
The gallery erupted with the roar of a thousand voices—laughter, questions, taunts pouring down in a torrent of Silici that would have put any market auction to shame. Living swords grown from the bones of dead men were shaken. The ground beneath Imre’s feet shook from the force of stone fists and sandaled feet pounding throughout the amphitheater. His head remained bowed.

Audio Fiction Podcast 024
"Of Shifting Skin and Certainty," by Justin Howe, from BCS #26
Such is our addiction. Living formless is its own refuge—our skin-shifting a means of escape, to always have a new identity waiting in the tank for when the one we wear becomes overly tiresome and persistent. But the King no longer wearies of change, and has but one face now to show the world. And though it resembles candle wax, it remains. "That is my difference," he says.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

HEROIC FANTASY QUARTERLY


The second issue of the rather splendid ezine Heroic Fantasy Quarterly is currently available:
http://www.heroicfantasyquarterly.com/


Here’s what you’ll find inside Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Issue 2:


THE HAND OF AFAZ, by Euan Harvey
A perhaps cautionary tale of the dangers of non-secular government. We think you’ll love Farid, a hero who must correct the injustices of his religious masters but do so without turning his back on Afaz — the god both Farid and his masters claim to serve.

MONSTER IN THE MOUNTAINS, by William Gerke
This is why you don’t open the door to strangers. Especially if you’re stranger than the stranger.

THE WAKING OF ANGANTYR, by Marie Brennan
Ancient magics, old secrets, and new fates meld in this retelling of an old Norse poem. HFQ has found its first female hero!
Poetry Contents

THE LAY OF CUTHRED KING, by Joshua Hampton
A shining example of epic poetry by a contemporary writer. How the heck could we be the first outfit to discover this guy? Go Josh, go!

COURAGE, by Teel James Glenn
A spearman’s last thoughts before the battle is joined. Another reminder of why most of us prefer adventures of the mind to adventures in the field.

It's a great magazine and all well worth your time and effort.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

THREE TIMES IS ENEMY ACTION, MR BOND



There have been waves of anger and discontent sent through the writing community, particularly the online writing community, over the last few days, all centred upon the “writer” Richard Ridyard.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Mr Ridyard has been blatantly plagiarising the work of other writers and passing it off as his own. You can find out more about this whole sordid thing at Angel Zapata’s excellent blog ‘A Rage of Angel’:

http://arageofangel.blogspot.com/2009/09/ive-been-plagiarizedand-im-not-alone.html

Now, I am firmly of the opinion that there’s nothing wrong with carrying your influences on your sleeve and it’s no secret that I am hugely influenced by Clark Ashton Smith, Karl Edward Wagner, JG Ballard and a whole host of other writers but what I do is to try and emulate them rather than steal from them.

It does throw up a sticky moral point, however. If I try to capture the colour and mood and sense of other-worldliness of, say, Smith’s Zothique tales, does that make me a plagiarist too?

Hopefully not, since I have never knowingly lifted a line from Smith (or Wagner or Ballard or Vance or any of my other favourite writers) but rather tried to filter their brilliance through my own stories in the hope that a little of that brilliance might illuminate my own prose.

However, what Mr Ridyard has done is to simply take the words of other writers and pass them off as his own.

This isn’t influence. It isn’t emulation. It isn’t even a subtle or not so subtle homage. It’s theft, pure and simple. And it is wrong.

Thankfully, the reaction to all this has been rather swift and decisive. Try a Google search for “Richard Ridyard” and you will find that the vast majority of his "work" has disappeared from online magazines as this loathsome little shitehawk gets exactly what he deserves.

While it is true that synchronicity happens - and that it’s quite possible in an infinite universe for two or more unrelated writers to come up with the same sentence structure - let us never forget the words of the late Ian Fleming (via Auric Goldfinger):

“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action, Mr Bond.”

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

PALE NATIONS OF THE DEAD


My short story Pale Nations of the Dead is currently available to read at the rather splendid sf & f webzine, Aphelion. It can be found here:


It's yet another in my occassional series of Shining Cities stories.

There are half a dozen of these tales knocking about now - some currently available and some due for publication later on in the year.

For anyone who'd like to know, they are:

What Dread Words in Sorcerous Signals

All That Grows in The Absent Willow Review

The Glass Cage in Aphelion

Pale Nations of the Dead in Aphelion

Whisperthief (due in Sorcerous Signals in October)

The Deathless Ones (due in Fantastic Horror in October, or February 2010)

Links to the stories can be found to the right.



Thursday, September 24, 2009

WONDERFUL, LURID, POISONOUS


As part of my ongoing fascination with Victorian and Edwardian macabre fiction, I’ve recently finished Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw.

Described by Oscar Wilde as ‘the most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale’, The Turn of the Screw is, depending on your point of view, one of the most chilling ghost stories ever written or one of the most disturbing portraits of insanity ever committed to paper.

It is this very ambiguity that makes The Turn of the Screw such a fascinating read, infused with both a creeping gothic sensibility and a modernist approach that foreshadows the twentieth century novel.

At its heart it is a simple enough tale: a governess (who, unnamed, provides the bulk of the narrative) is employed to take care of two small children – Miles and his sister Flora – on a rambling country estate. Initially charmed by the children she begins to suspect that there is a deeper and darker secret lurking beneath the surface, suspicions that are confirmed by the mysterious and sinister apparitions that come and go unheeded in both the grounds and house itself. The apparitions, she believes, are the unquiet ghosts of her predecessor, Miss Jessel and her lover Peter Quint, who have returned to claim the children to keep them company in the afterlife.

What follows is a story that twists and turns from ghost story to psychological study and back again, leaving the reader often as disoriented as the narrator and, ultimately, with more questions than answers. The primary question is of the narrator’s sanity – since no one else can see the ghosts, do they really exist or are they simply the products of a diseased and obsessed mind?

But ghosts or not, Henry James handles the moments of their appearance with an unsettling ease – the absence of sound when Miss Jessel is first seen on the shores of the estate’s lake, the sudden appearance of Quint at the window or high in an inaccessible part of the house, or the moments when the children are lured outside; moments that may be no more than childish games or may have deeper, supernatural, meanings.

There is, too, James’ impeccable handling of the narrative. As the story moves towards its climax the chapters begin to become shorter, the language of the narrator more terse and less prone to embellishment and the sense of impending horror more and more palpable. Similarly, his use of a framing narrative - which, at first, distances the reader before the events of the story proper suddenly pull him in – is an object lesson in creating false security.

As with so many Victorian novels and short stories, The Turn of the Screw is not always an easy or comfortable read. Fashions in prose have changed considerably since the late 1800’s and there are times when it seems as if Henry James prefers to use several words when one would suffice and, for all its short length, novel at times appears to bog itself down in the minutia of the everyday. But this is to underestimate the power of James’ writing and the precise way that he is able to create unease and, at times, to shock the reader out of their comfortable expectations.

Often compared to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a precursor of the modern (and indeed post-modern) novel, The Turn of the Screw is a deeply unsettling story. Wonderful, lurid and poisonous indeed.

Monday, September 21, 2009

ABANDONED TOWERS MAGAZINE


“Abandoned Towers is a unique magazine which provides a wide range of high quality, enjoyable reading material, audio stories, video clips and entertainment. Our online version provides a nice mixture of classic, public domain material and brand new, never before published material, with a sprinkling of enjoyable reprints thrown in for spice.”

Abandoned Towers features a really good and eclectic range of fiction: SF, fantasy, westerns, and a whole lot more.

Well worth your time.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

BACK TO THE END OF THE WORLD

I've just received word from the good folks at Fantastic Horror telling me that they've accepted my short story The Deathless Ones for publication later this year.

It's another in my loose series of stories set at the end of the world which I sometimes refer to as the Shining Cities Sequence and, like the others, is a mixture of science fantasy and horror.

The story should be available online in October or possibly February 2010.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

WHEN IN DOUBT


I’ve been thinking a lot about story construction recently and the business of how a tale gets from its beginning to the moment when the narrative reaches its conclusion.

In particular, I’ve been thinking about those moments when the narrative tends to stick and refuses to budge. Now, if you’re the sort of writer who plans everything well in advance and works out every possible nuance and plot turn this might not be a problem, but since I’m not really that sort of writer it happens to me with alarming (and inevitable) regularity.

There are two great pieces of advice for unsticking narrative. The first is Raymond Chandler’s “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand” and the second comes from the Broadway producer George Abbott via the great William Goldman: “Have them do something. That way we’ll have something to change.”

In essence, both are about moving the story forward and keeping a narrative momentum (although Abbott’s was in response to a choreographer who wailed, “I just can’t figure out what to do next,” it’s still a good motto for a writer.). When the man with the gun comes through the door it forces the protagonist to react in some way and, as long as things are progressing logically, is a convenient way of getting from Point A to Point B. This can be literal if the protagonist is subsequently bundled into a car and taken to Point B, wherever that may be, or more metaphorical if said gunman is delivering news rather than hot lead. Thirdly, of course, it could simply be the jumping off point for some violence, but that violence in itself can provide the impetus for further plot development.

To use a rather tangential example, it’s the moment in Carry On Cowboy where Sid James’ Rumpo Kid guns down three pistoleros in the street and then says “I wonder what they wanted”. This question is never answered in the film since the incident is just there to spoof western clichés, but equally could send a story off in any number of different directions. Why did they want to kill him? Why did it take three of them? What secret is Rumpo hiding or what does he have that’s worth killing for? What will the law do now? Or, to put it another way, there are a lot of possibilities to be explored as a result of the man coming through the door with a gun.

Of course, none of the three elements – the gun, the door and the man - need necessarily be present, since any kind of event or character or item can move the story forward as long as it doesn’t jar. In Philip K. Dick’s novel Now Wait For Last Year the metaphorical man with the gun is the hallucinogenic drug JJ-180 which impels the characters forward, in Iain Bank’s The Wasp Factory it is the phone calls from Eric which serve the same purpose and in Henry James’ magnificent The Turn of the Screw is the periodic appearances of Quint and Miss Jessel that lead the narrator deeper and deeper into the terrifying world of her two small charges.

George Abbott’s words are a little more straightforward in their interpretation, but lean more towards the actions of the characters than the vagaries of the plot. With Abbott’s ‘have them do something’ the caveat should always be ‘as long as it makes sense for the character to do so’. To use that old chestnut: a coward isn’t simply going to turn into a hero for no good reason. In the same way that Chekhov’s Gun applies to physical items ("If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there."), it can also apply to the actions and motivations of characters. To return to our hypothetical coward, it can mean that there comes a time when he has no choice but to face up to his or her fears, but the seeds of this need to be planted earlier in the story.

Essentially, though, ‘have them do something’ means exactly what it says’. If it doesn’t work, or doesn’t make sense, then have them do something else until it does work.

I recently completed a short story working upon the twin techniques of ‘doing something’ and ‘the man with the gun’. Now, it may not be the greatest short story ever written (in fact, chances are that it isn’t) but as an exercise in narrative and plot movement it was extremely valuable.

At the first moment I found myself stuck, I had two men walk through the door (carrying swords rather than guns, it must be said, since it was a fantasy story) and discovered that this sent the narrative (rather than the plot) moving along rather nicely since the protagonist suddenly found himself in danger.

Similarly, a later impasse in the same story was solved by having the protagonist react to his situation (or, to put it another way, to actually do something) rather than exist as a passive narrator.

The finished article still requires a certain amount of rewriting and backtracking in order to smooth out some of the bumps but nonetheless during the writing it carried itself through to the end relatively smoothly.

Ultimately, of course, these techniques are not ideal for every story – or indeed for every writer – but they can help to jump start a stalled narrative and perhaps even take the plot in an unexpected direction.

And if you can surprise yourself then chances are you can surprise the reader as well.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS


The Flesh and the Fiends (1960). Starring Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance, Billie Whitelaw, George Rose. John Cairney. Directed by John Gilling.

Something of a forgotten classic, The Flesh and the Fiends is based upon the exploits of Burke and Hare, two infamous gentlemen who plied a murderous trade in fresh corpses for medical research in Edinburgh in the 1820’s.

Pitched somewhere between historical drama and full-blown gothic horror, The Flesh and the Fiends is a sometimes uncomfortable but always compelling tale of murder and misguided obsession.

With corpses in short supply for medical research, it was not uncommon for doctors in the 19th century to turn to other means of obtaining the raw material for their experiments, which led to the rise of the so-called Resurrection Men – or, more plainly, grave robbers. In this case the doctor in question is Robert Knox (Peter Cushing) who, in his drive to advance the boundaries of medical knowledge, is prepared to turn a blind eye - almost literally - to the exploits of William Burke and William Hare (George Rose and Donald Pleasance) as long as they continue to provide his with fresh subjects for his dissecting table.

Burke and Hare, for those who are unfamiliar with them, were not simply Resurrection Men. Two rather feckless Irish immigrants to Scotland they much preferred to avoid digging up any actual corpses and instead murdered some 16 men and women whose bodies they then sold to the duplicitous Knox. Their murderous spree was finally halted in 1828 and William Burke was hanged for their crimes after his erstwhile colleague Hare turned King’s evidence.

Without taking too many liberties with the facts, and weaving a dark cinematic spell that can stand proudly alongside the gothic nightmares of Terence Fisher or Mario Bava, John Gilling’s film tells the story of Burke, Hare and Knox in a lean hour and a half peppered with some startling imagery, occasional moments of blacker-than-black comedy and outstanding performances from the lead and supporting actors.

As cool and icy here as in his outings as Victor Frankenstein – in fact, he often likened the obsessed Knox to the equally obsessed Baron – Peter Cushing gives a performance that is, by turns, menacing, detached and, ultimately, sympathetic. His Dr Knox is a man driven to extremes both by circumstance and personal obsession. In contrast both George Rose and Donald Pleasance exude a down-at-heel vileness that practically leaps from the screen. Pleasance is particularly chilling, especially in such moments as the murder of Daft Jamie (played by a youthful Melvyn Hayes) or the attempted rape and then murder of prostitute Mary (Billie Whitelaw), an act which ultimately leads to the downfall of their murderous money-making scheme.

As a sinister double act Rose and Pleasance have rarely been bettered and the black humour which both they and Gilling wring from Burke and Hare is one of life’s great guilty pleasures.

But the real star of The Flesh and the Fiends is director John Gilling himself. Delivering a multi-layered script with great aplomb and staging the often brutal scenes of violence with an unflinching sense of realism (the camera rarely turns away even at the most repellent of moments) Gilling’s direction lifts what might have otherwise been a run-of-the-mill exploitation movie into a genuine piece of cinematic art.

Shot in stark black and white with an atmospheric score by Stanley Black, The Flesh and the Fiends is one of a handful of wonderfully realized horror films that Gilling would direct. The others, including Hammer’s The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies (arguably one of the most influential horrors of all time since it provided the inspiration for Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead) showed the same sense of pace and style as his Burke and Hare movie, but with The Flesh and the Fiends Gilling crafted a genuine classic.

Although it has slipped off the critical radar somewhat – and was never all that successful even on its release – time has not dulled the edge of this fine example of what horror cinema can achieve when it is done with intelligence and style.

Worth checking out if – like so many of us – you have become tired of cookie-cutter horror or simply have a love of old exploitation movies.

Monday, September 7, 2009

KINGS OF THE NIGHT

Just got word from GW Thomas that he has accepted my short story, The Obsidian City, for his rather splendid Sword and Sorcery 'zine, Kings of the Night.

Now that Flashing Swords seems to be trapped in some sort of limbo, with editors coming and going, issues taking a long time to appear and endless problems with submissions (which the folks at FS have been doing their level-headed best to deal with), it's good to see that someone is keeping the flame of S&S burning brightly.

The Kings of the Night Mission Statement speaks for itself:

"This webzine is dedicated to the branch of Fantasy that was created by Robert E. Howard and C. L. Moore, practised by the likes of Poul Anderson, Fritz Leiber, Henry Kuttner, Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, John Jakes, Roger Zelazny and Karl Edward Wagner. It is not interested in vampire boyfriends, unicorn princesses or third generation Tolkien clones or anything ripped off from Star Wars. The editors and contributors believe that 'S&S' is not a swear word and that Fantasy should be fun to read without becoming a parody, a joke or resorting to puns. The title "Kings of the Night" comes from the Robert E. Howard story in which magic and heroism come together in an unforgettable clash of swords and darkness."

The current issue features fiction from C.L Werner, Jack Mackenzie, G. W. Thomas and David A. Hardy as well as links to other S&S on the net and an article on Roger Zelazny's Dilvish the Damned.

If you care at all about Sword and Sorcery, this is well worth a look and can be found here:




Monday, August 24, 2009

Breaking Down The Wall



Some things are best achieved with subtlety, others with brute force, yet others are best achieved with some combination of the two. There is a drawing of the meeting between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin which shows Richard breaking an iron bar with his sword – a big European brute of a blade, best suited to smashing and bashing – while Saladin demonstrates the edge of his blade by cutting a piece of silk with it. That particular drawing sums up how I have managed to overcome – more or less – my recent bout with the blank page.

Sometimes the only way to write is to just do it – to be like Richard smashing your way through a problem and not allowing the niceties in life to get in the way – then to come back and do a Saladin – use the edge of your writing ability to shape the prose into a smoother form.

Of course, all writers have different ways of dealing with the problem of ‘lack of imaginative flow’ – this one just happened to work for me. And right pleased about it I am, too.

Now this doesn’t mean that the recently completed story is of any worth (although I rather like it) but more that I’ve conquered a personal demon.

The spectre of the white page can be one of the most daunting things for any writer to face, particularly on those days when you really don’t feel like writing, when the clichés pour from your mind and hands in an unstoppable torrent. But, and here’s the strange thing, once you manage to get those clichés out of the way, it very often frees the mind to move on to more original thoughts (original in this case being a very, very subjective thing).

I think that sometimes you have to have the courage to write badly and realise that not every word that you put on paper will be the ideal one, that not every sentence will be beautifully constructed or indeed that every plot will be a logical and gripping one.

No one sets out to write badly, but sometimes it helps to do just that.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

AT HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD (REDUX)

The very lovely Carol Hightshoe recently accepted my short story Whisperthief for publication in the rather splendid ezine Sorcerous Signals, due to appear in October this year (and it will also appear in print in its sister publication Mystic Signals).

The story is part of what I frequently (and perhaps rather pretentiously) refer to as The Shining Cities Sequence – a series of stories set at the mythical end of the world – which currently consist of a grand total of four published or accepted, (The Glass Cage/ What Dread Words/ All That Grows/ Whisperthief) one still looking for a home (Pale Nations of the Dead) and at least three at the ‘where the hell does this go now’ stage (none of which currently have titles) and one ‘orphan story’ (The Bone House) which is thematically and stylistically linked to the others.

Of all the stories I have written in the last while, the Shining Cities tales are among my favourites, possibly because I rather enjoy writing them. This is not to say that the stories themselves are light and fluffy pieces packed with witty one liners (quite the reverse, if anything, coming as they do from the darkest part of the doom ‘n’ gloom aspect of my psyche) but rather because the creation of them gives me a lot of pleasure. Their basic set up is rather a grab bag of influences (although very much in the shadow of Clark Ashton Smith’s masterly Zothique stories) mixing together sword and sorcery, Lovecraftian cosmic horror, elements of the comedia del arte and anything else that takes my fancy at the time.

More than that, I tend to make them up as I go along. I know that, as a creator of the fantastic, there are certain ‘rules’ that my fiction should obey within their own framework (although these ‘rules’ are, by definition, rather elastic and open to interpretation) but sometimes it’s more important for a writer to enjoy his own work than to worry too much about pleasing others. Again, this is not to say that the stories lack either internal logic or narrative structure (at least I hope they don’t) but rather that they give me a certain freedom in their creation.

It’s a radical thought, I know, but works upon the principle that if you don’t enjoy your work then the chances are that no one else will either. In part it’s about chasing the muse, or allowing the muse to take you where it will.

It’s also to do with the fact that I find it difficult to tailor my imagination to strict parameters (I recently tried to write a story aimed at a very specific anthology which fell apart after two pages simply because I couldn’t get my initial idea to alter itself sufficiently). Not that there is anything wrong with chasing the market – some writers do it extremely well and are capable of creating great work in virtually any genre (the brilliant Roy Thomas, for instance) - unfortunately, I’m not sure I’m one of them.

Of course as a writer it’s both selfish and potentially damaging to your work to please no one but yourself, but the base line should always be ‘is this a story I want to write?’ or perhaps ‘is this a story I want to read?’ and if the answer to either (or preferably both) of those question is Yes then there is a good chance that both you and your audience will enjoy it.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

HITTING THE BRICK WALL

I’m sure that every writer, at one time or another in his or her creative life, hits that brick wall where the prose simply won’t flow.

I’ve just hit mine. Again.

It’s been a terribly frustrating time for me, beginning and then discarding a number of stories over the past few weeks - although nothing is ever truly lost and ideas, characters, scenes and concepts that I simply couldn’t make work once before have a way of worming themselves into my subconscious and re-emerging at a later date.

As such, I am taking some small consolation that even the false starts and pages that go nowhere have become part and parcel of my writing method. In a vain and vague attempt to kick-start my muse, I went over some old files and discovered that several recently published stories had their genesis in earlier pieces that somehow fell apart during the writing but nonetheless provided a seed for later tales.

However it is just that - small consolation.

In part, too, it’s to do with my notions of how a writer should be. My mythical version of the writer has him or her sitting at their typewriter/ pad/ computer at nine o’clock every morning, full of inspiration and wonderful ideas, writing two thousand words before lunch, another two thousand in the afternoon and then off to some wonderful literary gala to chat endlessly with other enormously talented people about the business of writing.

I know that it doesn’t really work that way and that, in reality, writing can be a difficult process where every word has to be torn out and put on the page. All too often, the business of real life intrudes upon the creation of fiction and this is as it should be, I suppose, since nothing is ever created in a vacuum and every writer – no matter how fantastic the work they create – needs to be grounded in reality every now and again.

What makes this particular lean creative time doubly frustrating for me, though, is the fact that I’ve been able to intellectualise it.

Of course, the only real way to across a creative desert is to work through it – let those false starts and unsatisfying pages happen, let the characters get away from you and attempt to live their own lives. When I first started writing again a few years ago I suffered exactly the same problems, where nothing seemed to make sense, or at least nothing seemed to make the sense that I wanted it to make.

Or to put it in another fashion. The only way to write is to write.

There I go intellectualising things again.