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 clich├ęs, 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: