Friday, October 30, 2009


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 (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.


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


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 (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


The second issue of the rather splendid ezine Heroic Fantasy Quarterly is currently available:

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.

This is why you don’t open the door to strangers. Especially if you’re stranger than the stranger.

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


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’:

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.”