Wednesday, July 29, 2009


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.

Monday, July 27, 2009


I read a lot. I mean, I read an awful lot. Mostly (in fact almost entirely) because I enjoy it. There’s nothing quite like a good book – and, on occasions, there’s nothing like a bad book, either. (I think it was the British writer Chaz Brenchley who once opined that every book has at least one Ideal Reader).

Over the last while my constant fictional companions have been writers such as Michael Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner, M.R James, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, writers whose work has always had a profound effect and influence on me.

Lately, though, I have found myself delving back into much older fiction – novels such as Charles Maturin’s splendid Melmoth the Wanderer, Horace Walpole’s masterpiece of atmospheric terror The Castle of Otranto and such perennial favourites as Stoker’s Dracula, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and, always, the fabulous tales of Edgar Allan Poe.

In part, it’s about going back to the deeper roots of fantastic fiction, seeking out those writers who shaped the modern concept of the fantastic. Lord Dunsany, for instance, exerted a great influence upon writers such as Howard and Lovecraft (HPL once wrote ‘there are my Poe pieces and my Dunsany pieces but, alas, where are my Lovecraft pieces?’) and even writers such as H.H Ewers had an influence despite the fact that they were contemporaries: Ewers’ short story The Spider, for instance, helped to shape Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark.

It’s also about understanding where you come from as a writer, I think, and about understanding the way in which fiction is and was crafted.

To modern eyes, novels like Melmoth the Wanderer are difficult, ponderous things: even The Castle of Otranto, coming in at a scant hundred pages, can be a challenge to read, while Dracula, that paragon of vampire fiction, has little in common with the current trends in the modern vampire story. Yet those novels and others like them have an undeniable power – the language is rich, the imagery vivid – books that celebrate rather than apologise for the written word.

Every writer has his or her influences, but sometimes you have to look beyond that, to find out who and what influenced the writers you admire. My love of Jack Vance, for instance, led me to Clark Ashton Smith, my love of Stephen King led me to Franz Kafka and Shirley Jackson, it was Karl Edward Wagner who led me to Melmoth the Wanderer and Robert E. Howard who led me to Lord Dunsany.

Reading, or re-reading, the work of older writers is, I think, always a valuable thing to do. After all, if you don’t know where you came from, how are you ever going to know where you’re going?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Elric of Melniboné

Collecting together the early Elric stories of Michael Moorcock, the 2008 Gollancz edition of Elric of Melniboné is a book that no aficionado of sword and sorcery can afford to be without. While later novels and stories added to the saga, these tales –The Dreaming City, While the Gods Laugh, The Stealer of Souls, Kings In Darkness, Caravan of Forgotten Dreams and Stormbringer - comprise the original Elric cycle that turned sword and sorcery on its head when they were first published in the 1960’s.

One of the most influential figures in fantasy fiction, Michael Moorcock’s doomed Prince Elric of Melniboné brought doubt, angst and a seriously Jungian vibe to sword and sorcery, a genre where heroes rarely suffered from any problems more daunting than which monster to kill first. A king who loses a kingdom, rather than a barbarian who usurps one, a physical weakling who relies on drugs and his hell-forged sword for strength, rather than a muscle bound warrior and an intelligent sorcerer rather than a sword-swinging warrior, Elric represented shades of grey in a genre where black and white was the order of the day.

The gift that both Moorcock and Elric brought to fantasy was to give it a cerebral edge whilst, at the same time, refusing to sacrifice the wild imagination and non-stop action that made (and makes) sword and sorcery so much fun. Granted that Robert E. Howard had also given S&S a similar edge with his King Kull stories, but with Moorcock it was a vital component of his fiction.

More than that, there was always a sense of doom in the Elric stories. Rarely did the characters triumph utterly and frequently found that the object of their desire was less than they believed and, in some cases, cost them dearly. In The Dreaming City, for instance, Elric not only destroys his ancestral home but also inadvertently kills his true love and then, if that were not enough, witnesses the slaughter of his allies so that, ultimately, the actions of the character lead to nothing but death and destruction. In “While the Gods Laugh”, the quest for answers leads to more bitter disappointment and in Stormbringer itself, the ultimate fate of the world and the characters calls to mind Ragnarok and the end of all things.

This is not to say, however, that the Elric stories are all doom and gloom. Moorcock’s imagination in these early stories is mercurial and flamboyant and has an almost punk rock ascetic, and incorporating elements from both pulp sensibility and literary experimentation.

Re-reading the original stories, freed from the constraints of later additions, the thing that strikes most about these tales is how wild and fanciful they are as if Moorcock’s prose is struggling to rip itself free from the page and, above all, how unusual a hero Elric really is.

If you’ve never read Elric before, this is the place to start, and even if you are familiar with the character and his world, this edition should still be resting on your shelves, if only to remind you how joyous good sword and sorcery can be.


I'm rather pleased to say that the audio version of my short story, The Bone House, is currently available at the very fine magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

You can find it by following this link:

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


HORROR EXPRESS (1972) Directed by Eugenio Martín. Starring Christopher Lee. Peter Cushing. Telly Savalas. Alberto de Mendoza. Julio Peña

There are certain actors that bring a certain amount of sheer class and professionalism to even the most ropey of movies, actors who steadfastly refuse to give the audience a knowing wink or acknowledge in any way that, in fact, they are doing something rather silly and beneath them.

The 1972 Euro-shocker Horror Express is thankfully blessed with not one, not two, but three such actors in the shape of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and, in one of the most riotously over-the-top performances ever committed to celluloid, Telly Savalas.

Penned by Arnaud d'Usseau & Julian Zimet, the same team that brought you the campy and downright daft Psychomania, Horror Express is a sort of European Hammer-lite (mostly due to the presence of Cushing and Lee) that involves reanimated Neanderthals, brain sucking aliens and, in its bravura climax, zombie Cossacks.

The plot involves Professors Saxton and Wells (Lee and Cushing) transporting a Peking Man style missing link from China to Russia via the Trans-Siberian Express only to discover that a killer walks among them, a killer with glowing eyes who not only sucks clean the brains of its victims but can also transfer its consciousness from one body to another. What is this strange entity from beyond the stars? Who will it possess next? Father Pujardov? Inspector Mirov? Countess Irina? Professor Wells? Professor Saxton? (Hardly the last two: as Cushing says rather archly: “Monster? We’re British, you know.”) Or will overacting Captain Kazan save the day?

Moving from its creature feature first half into a zombies on a train second act, Horror Express is an odd film that strives for the Hammer feel but lacks the vibrancy of Hammer at its best. It is, however, always a pleasure to see Cushing and Lee together and the film manages a creeping sense of claustrophobia along with some inventive shocks, solid supporting cast – particularly Alberto de Mendoza’s repellent Father Pujardov and Julio Peña’s Inspector Mirov - and really rather disturbing zombie Cossacks.

Pitched somewhere between of Quatermass and the Pit and Plague of the Zombies, Horror Express is a film that tries its hardest to be intelligent – asking questions about the nature of faith and mankind’s role in the universe – but ultimately has to settle for being mildly good fun.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


The past few weeks have been something of a bonanza for me, with various bits of fiction appearing here and there, most notably in the first issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Silver Blade and The Absent Willow Review.

So, by way of promoting both myself and a number of very fine magazines…

The Bone House: Beneath Ceaseless Skies # 20
I like to carve. I like to sculpt. But the ironwood trees in the forest shatter even the finest blades. Father says that the war has changed them, that the magic of the battlemages has infected the land, and I have no cause to doubt him—he has been my educator and my window on the world. Bone is easier to shape.

The Black Flowers of Sevan: Heroic Fantasy Quarterly # 1
Carrion feeders scattered at our approach. Crows and buzzards, their bellies swollen with meat, took to the air with an ungainly flurry; wild dogs slunk away, glowering at us with red-rimmed eyes. The stench of violent death hung thick in the air, a ripe, sickly smell that even the heaviest rain could not wash away.

The Dark Blessing: Silver Blade #3
There are shadows on the salted plains. Even in the darkest of nights and the dullest of days they are there, moving over the rocks and scrub. Furtive things they are, as befits their nature, fleeting things man-sized and man-shaped, but with a greater substance than mere shadows should possess.

All That Grows: The Absent Willow Review June 2009
By right, none of these plants should have survived their transplantation: for the ancient earth was no longer an hospitable place, even to those who had been born on her surface, but the love and care furnished by the old man upon his alien plants, supplemented by dark incantations supplied by His Eminence Cardinal Kirill, brought forth such blooms as had never been seen before in the history of the world.

The Sins of the Land: Dark Fire # 40
The tavern was empty, no sign of Madelina or the elderly cook. A faint metallic tang hung in the air and there was dust on everything — coating the tables and chairs, crunching under his boots as he walked to the door.
The sound of her voice startled him. He turned and looked at her standing behind the tavern counter — she was pale and drawn, her skin sallow as if she, too, were covered in dust.
“What happened here?” he asked.
“The storm got in,” she said.


PSYCHOMANIA (1973). Directed by Don Sharp. Starring Nicky Henson, Beryl Reid, George Sanders, Ann Michelle.

There are certain films in the world that are more than the sum of their parts, films that somehow manage to transcend their limitations to become something really quite staggering.

One of the best examples of this is the early 70’s British horror romp, Psychomania.

Slightly camp, cheaply made and with a plot that doesn’t bear too close an analysis, Pyschomania is a film that almost, but not quite, defies description. Its ‘bikers back from the dead’ storyline would at first glance promise great things, after all, what’s better than the undead… why, the undead on wheels, of course.

Posh boy rebel Tom Latham (Nicky Henson) is head of a chapter of Home Counties Hell’s Angels who go by the convenient moniker of The Living Dead, a name that becomes literal once Tom discovers the secret of returning from beyond the grave. Aided and abetted by his witchy mother (Beryl Reid in fine, better-performance-than-the-film-deserves form) and the sinister Shadwell (George Sanders, who wanders through the whole thing looking slightly puzzled and embarrassed) Tom sets about to persuade the members of his gang to take the plunge with him. Most do, and they set themselves on a course of rather gentle mayhem that is mostly on a par with Richard E. Grant leaning out of his car and shouting ‘scrubbers’ at some passing ladies.

Things take a turn for the worse when they begin to up the stakes, killing assorted lorry drivers and policemen and generally making a nuisance of themselves until Mother Beryl revokes the pact that she has made with the Devil (who may or may not be George Sanders, even he isn’t sure) and the gang literally turn to stone. Or something like that.

Actually, the plot of Psychomania is largely redundant, particularly since it makes no real sense – the secret of coming back from the Great Beyond, for instance, is wishing really, really hard and other than a few off-screen murders, the gang’s hi-jinks are limited to frightening some dolly birds and driving their motorcycles rather fast (‘doing the ton’ is, I believe, the correct term).

But its very flaws and lack of logic are the things that make Psychomania so hugely enjoyable, combined with some brilliantly kitsch interiors in the home of La Reid and a soundtrack that manages to be both atmospheric and inappropriate all at the same time. This is given its finest expression when Tom is laid to rest for the first time (upright on his motorbike and in a grave that’s just a little bit too shallow for him) and one of the gang sings him a farewell song that contains the lines ‘the world never knew his name, but the chosen few know of his fame’.

The montage of the Living Dead finding different ways to shuffle off this mortal coil is, quite simply, one of the most hilarious sequences ever committed to film (drowning, throwing themselves off tall buildings and overpasses et al) and there’s a trainspotter’s delight in recognising some of the supporting characters such as June Brown and, in a very early role, Robert Hardy.

Directed with workmanlike efficiency by Don Sharp and with a script by Julian Zimet & Arnaud d'Usseau (who also penned the cult favourite, Horror Express) Psychomania is one of those films for which the term ‘guilty pleasure’ might have been coined.

Unfortunately they don’t make ‘em like this anymore - brisk, silly and unintentionally hilarious.