Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The post-Con buzz (and harnessing it!)

For a writers blog, I don’t do many posts about my actual writing, do I?  Well, hold on to your hats…

I am, at the moment, working on a war-themed novella (which I’ve been procrastinating over for ages) but I now also know what I’m going to be writing after that and it already has a home, which makes the project all the more exciting.

Just to backtrack slightly, I had a grand plan last year.  I’d finally (after a couple of years) corralled my ideas for a novel-length expansion of my novelette “The Mill”, opening it out with a psychic and a haunted house and a failed TV medium.  I had high hopes, I wrote a synopsis and the first three chapters, I had it critiqued and then the publisher I was really keen on rejected it.  A huge dent to my confidence (even though he was very complimentary about my writing and the structure of the piece), it really took the wind out of my sails.  A little while later I had my heart attack and that, as you can imagine, didn’t do a great deal for my writing mojo.  I wrote some short stories (which were asked for, several of them will appear this year, a few next year) and turned the novel pitch over in my head - I got more feedback on it, all positive, but something about it nagged me.  I don’t know if it was the rejection, or maybe that it was tied up in my head with my heart attack, or maybe that I didn’t want to revisit the depths of grief that I’d plumbed to write “The Mill”.  Who knows?

Earlier this year, I was invited to contribute a war-themed novella to a collection that a publisher I have a lot of time for was putting together (forgive my being vague, as soon as it’s announced, I’ll let you know).  I agreed (of course, who wouldn’t?) even though I’d never written anything set in a war before.  I spoke with my Dad (who’s a WW2 buff) and ran through some ideas with him and a story fell into place that I thought could work well.  I had a couple of short story commitments to finalise first but my writing mojo was still limping along and they took a while to come together.  The failed-novel-pitch was still rattling around and I knew I wanted to work on new novel, but whatever idea I had seemed to feed back into the pitch somehow.  I did get the shorts written (both in a burst of activity as deadline day loomed) and made more notes on the war project.

Then I realised that Edge-Lit was coming up.

I don’t really know how to explain why Conventions (and gatherings of like-minded people) are so important to creative types, but they are.  You go along and talk to your friends, about projects and problems, you talk about films and books you’ve read, you go for a meal and a drink and have a laugh, you simply exist, surrounded by creative people who are all bubbling with the same enthusiasm as you are.  I love Cons and I’ve never come back from one without feeling like I could take on the world with my writing - even better, I had a great time at this Edge-Lit and felt great.

So I decided to use that buzz and energy, to harness it for the power of good (or not, depending on whether you like my writing).  I made notes for the war novella, I wrote the opening few paragraphs (always the hardest, in my opinion) and then I let it simmer, so that when I got back from Edge-Lit, I could use that creative energy and power on.

And you know what, it worked a treat!  The war novella is trundling along quite nicely now and the monsters have just been revealed in all their glory, leaving the heroes having a hellish job trying to survive.

Part of the NSFWG gang - Tim C. Taylor, Ian Whates, me, Neil Bond
Then, a fortnight ago saw the once-a-month treat that is the Northampton SF Writers Group (or the NSFWG), of which I am a member.  I really enjoy our little gatherings and this time, a few of us stayed on and chatted over drinks and more of that creative buzz was generated.  As I drove home, it occurred to me that a section of the failed-novel-pitch (the psychic section, whose chapter generated the most attention and interest from my pre-readers) could work as a standalone novella.  The arc for the character was complete, it fed into the climax perfectly, it didn’t involve the grief and I’d enjoyed writing it.  I let the story roll around in my head overnight and the next morning, I wrote up a brief synopsis.  I emailed Pete May at Hersham Horror Books, who'd asked me a couple of years ago for a novella and told him I thought I had one.  I sent him the synopsis, he liked it and we’re on for next year.

These events were then capped by the announcement of the British Fantasy Society Awards 2015 nominees, where I appeared in the Best Novella category, courtesy of "Drive".  As I blogged at the time, it's long been an ambition of mine to get onto the shortlist but what I didn't expect was how good it felt to have the acknowledgement of your peers.

So I don’t know if it was creative energy developed by Edge-Lit and the NSFWG or if it was just a case of me making certain decisions in my writing but whatever it was, it seems to have worked.  I’m enjoying the war novella, I’m enjoying the fact that I have novella ready to go but, most of all, I’m enjoying the writing.

This is going to be a creative summer and I’m looking forward to it!  Roll on FantasyCon!

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Guest post by Alex Davis

Today on the blog sees Alex Davis, organiser of the wonderful Edge-Lit conventions and publisher of Boo Books, contribute a guest post.

As the epic that has been the July Blogswap Trail draws towards a close, it's time for another extract from The Last War, which I hope is reasonably epic in its own right... Here we're getting a bit deeper into the story – Chapter Eleven to be precise – where the proverbial is about to hit the fan, and the flames of conflict are just springing to life...


'I have no intention of harming your temple, Re'Nuck. I have come to harm you.'

Apius can feel his own face grow pale, the threat of violence meted by Asha this morning about to come to an unlikely conclusion. He can feel his body tense, but does now know if it is in readiness to run or fight back. How would he even fight back? The wooden rake may not be much of a weapon, but it is more than he can bring to bear. He tries to stutter a reply of some kind as Asha mounts the steps to the altar itself. One of his braver followers, a man he cannot name, leaps up behind Asha and tries to launch a crude attack of his own. Apius never finds out what his intention was, because she turns quickly and lashes out the rake. The clash sends shivers through the Re'Nuck, and the would-be attacker falls by the wayside, knocked silly by the force and hatred behind the blow.

'Do something, brothers and sisters! Take this despoiler away!' Apius finally wrenches from his throat, but the words bring no action. Asha turns to the timid flock, knowing they will do nothing. Many are still transfixed by the prone form lying on the floor, a livid bruise rising on the face. They have never seen an act of violence before, and Asha finds herself delighted by their fear. With a wolfish smile, she says, 'I suggest you leave now. This is between me and your precious leader.'

Apius dives to the floor, as though the altar can offer him some protection. There are only one way out of the temple, and the front door is blocked by Asha's coiled form – and Apius can hardly believe the sight of his followers leaving him behind! They are afraid, he tries to tell himself, they have no experience of such things. They must be forgiven. I will forgive them. If I survive this, he adds morbidly.

She continues her climb of the stairs to the altar, amused at the sight of the Re'Nuck cowering without the strength of numbers to fall back on.

'It is no use trying to hide, Re'Nuck. You would give yourself more honour in facing me.'

Apius gathers all his courage to stand before the feral, aggressive spirit of the Noukari given flesh. Swathed in mud, ready to explode into violence, Asha makes a sight to chill the strongest of their number.

'Thank you, Re'Nuck. At least now you may die with some dignity. Your death will mean the death of your religion, and all the darkness it brings.'

'Animexianism will survive. Someone will step into my place.'

'From among your loyal followers? Those who fled at the first risk to themselves? They are unwilling to put themselves in the line of danger for their precious gods.'

'You speak of darkness, but you are about to commit the darkest of all acts.'

'Do not moralize with me, Apius. My act is the lesser of two darknesses. I have no doubt of that.'

For more information, Alex can be found online here

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Drive nominated for a BFS Award!

Holy crap.

I wrote the first draft of “Drive” in early 2008, the germ of the idea coming to me as I drove to Luton in late 2007 on my way to the airport.  I’d left home at 3am and didn’t see another car until I got to Northampton and that feeling of dislocation triggered a series of images I bullet pointed as I waited in the departure lounge.

Chris Teague, at Pendragon Press, took the story late in 2008 and it finally saw publication in August 2014.  Since then, I’m pleased to say, it’s not only picked up some cracking reviews, it’s sold well too.  The story is a bit of a departure for me - I said we should market it as an urban chiller, since it’s a horror story of real life, rather than featuring supernatural frights - but I thoroughly enjoyed writing it.

Thankfully, it appears other people got it enough that it’s been nominated for the British Fantasy Society Award for Best Novella 2014, the shortlist of which was announced this morning.

The 2015 nominees for the British Fantasy Award for best novella are: 
Cold Turkey, Carole Johnstone (TTA Press); 
Drive, Mark West (Pendragon Press); 
Newspaper Heart, Stephen Volk (The Spectral Book of Horror Stories); 
Water For Drowning, Ray Cluley (This Is Horror). ‪

It should go without saying that I’m thrilled to have been included - it’s long since been my ambition to get onto the BFS shortlist on my own and to have done so with this story, against such a strong field (and in such excellent company), is brilliant.

I was already looking forward to FCon, now my excitement levels have gone up a notch!

Thank you to everyone who voted for “Drive” (and Chris, for taking it on), good luck to my fellow nominees and bring on the awards!

Monday, 13 July 2015

Edge-Lit 4, Derby, 11th July 2015

Following the success of Edge-Lit 3 at The Quad in Derby (which I wrote about here), I was really looking forward to number 4 and, judging by the excited comments on my FB feed, I wasn’t the only one.  After last years difficulty in finding the place (damn you, Google Maps), I used the AA route-planner and had absolutely no problems at all in finding the Assembly Rooms car park.  Blocking the square this year was a beer festival - as noisy as last years Afro-Caribbean carnival, but much less colourful and nowhere near as much fun - with the attendees leaning on wire fences looking out as us like extras in some half-rate zombie flick.
At the Pendragon Press table - left to right: Wayne Parkin, Stephen Bacon, Chris Teague, me, Steve Harris, Kit Power
I went to get signed in and straight away saw Ross Warren and his sister Lisa, then Steve Bacon turned up.  He was accompanied by his friend Wayne Parkin, an aspiring writer who was one of the early reviewers for my King For A Year project - I’ve spoken with him on FB and it was nice to finally shake his hand and say hello.  Once signed in (“you’re half the man you used to be!” exclaimed the ever delightful Pixie Puddin as she gave me a big hug), Mark Morris arrived and we said hello then I saw Steve Harris and we went over to say hello to Chris Teague before heading into the (small but bustling) dealers room.  Adam Millard’s Crowded Quarantine were just inside the door and it was good to finally meet him, after being FB friends for five years (as he reminded  me).  Sitting with him and signing book-plates was Paul Feeney (whose debut print novella, “The Last Bus”, was being launched - I read it earlier in the week and really enjoyed it) and it was great to see him again (we first met at Edge-Lit 3).  At the end of the room was Andrew Hook and his partner Sophie, so Steve H & I went to see him, I bought a book and Steve bought a collection and we caught up on news.

In the bar - Alison Littlewood, me, James Everington, Richard Farren Barber, Wayne, Steve
After meeting Kit Power (who contributed a review of the Fleming novel to my “Moonraker” appreciation blog post) and a quick photo-opp with Chris, we headed for the bar where we met Alison Littlewood & Fergus.  It was great to see them both again, we had a chat and Fergus & I brainstormed some ideas for his zombie novel to rival her forthcoming one.  I spotted Paul Holmes (Pablo Cheesecake) and said hello and he chatted with us all for a while.  By now it was lunchtime so, with Terry Grimwood, Richard Farren Barber and John Travis (all old friends) in tow, Wayne led us away from last years lunchtime treat (the Acropolis (“Pensioner Special - Liver & Onions!”) café) and we wandered around to The Strand and had sandwiches from Baked.  We also utilised their toilet and when it was my turn, I hadn’t clicked the lock into place properly and a lady of a certain age blundered in on me.  She apologised and left, so when I went out I apologised about not locking it properly and she said “I’ve been married 45 years and raised two sons, I’ve seen it all before…”  The sandwiches were lovely and we ate them outside, basking in the sun and chatting.
'Lunch on the strand' (the bench and bus don't make it look as glamorous as it sounds, do they?)
Me, Terry Grimwood, Steve, Richard, Wayne - John Travis, Steve Harris, James
Steve at Eagle Books
James had to head back to the Quad and I led the others through to the Eagle Market where the great bookshop Johnny Mains introduced me to last year, Eagle Books, was situated.  I was thrilled to see he was still there (and had taken over another cubicle) and I think it’s safe to say we all had our fill (and Wayne managed to pick up a Mad Max novelisation his Mum had refused to allow him to buy when he was younger!).  I got some great old horror paperbacks and a nice, smutty NEL one - great fun.

Back to the Quad, Steve, Wayne & I bumped into Jay Eales & Selina Lock, Jethro Lentle, Ray Cluley & Jess, Graeme Reynolds, James Bennett and Roseanne Rabinowitz, I got a nice hug from Adele Wearing, said hello to Simon Bestwick & Cate Gardner, finally got to meet Lily Childs after too many years of missing each other at Cons, Jan Edwards, spotted Phil Sloman and Adam Nevill before heading up to Adam’s panel on ‘Monstrous Regiments’.  The panellists were Sarah Pinborough, Mark Morris and Alison Littlewood and it was a great session.  We headed straight down to The Box for the Spectral launch (saw Theresa Derwin on the way), where Stephen Volk, Mark Morris and Cate Gardner read from their new releases (I’ve already read Stephen’s “Leytonstone”, which is terrific).  After saying hello to them and Dean M Drinkel, we chatted with Sarah Pinborough for a while, which is always fun, then I stayed on for the Knightwatch Launch with Steve H, as Phil was reading at it.  When that session was over (and after a brief hello with Vincent Holland-Keen), we all met back in the bar and since Steve H had to leave straight after the raffle we decided to head out for a curry then.  Anthony Cowin and his daughter Honey had just arrived so, after introductions, they were quickly included in our plans as was Fiona Ní Éalaighthe, who’d also just turned up.  Last year, James organised the curry and we all complained how far away it was from the venue - this year, local boy Wayne recommended a place and we trooped off and ended up at Anoki, the exact same restaurant!  It was very nice though and they accommodated all thirteen of us with no bother and the meal was lovely - though James & I, sitting next to one another, were taken aback at how ‘warm’ our chicken curry was.
The Curriers...
Wayne, Phil Sloman, Anthony Cowin, Honey, Steve H, Richard, Terry, John, James (who's also hiding Fiona), me, Steve B
Racing back to the Quad for the raffle, we took our places (I finally got to meet Kevin Redfern) and hoped the ‘luck of Andromeda’ (see here for more details) would be with us but it wasn’t to be - only Phil and James picked up prizes.  To make up for it, the ‘drawing partnership’ of Sarah Pinborough and John Connelly was good fun and nobody can do a disinterested shrug like Pixie Puddin!  Steve H, James and Phil left (I really don’t like saying goodbyes at Cons), so Richard, Steve B, Wayne & I headed back for the bar and set up at a table with John, Anthony & Honey (later joined by Terry and Chris) and talked the evening away (and I played noughts-and-crosses and hangman with Honey).  It was the perfect way to end the day, which had zipped by much too quickly.  At ten o’clock, as other folks came over to say goodbye to us, we called it a night.  As they’d stored their book haul in my car, Steve, Wayne & I headed over to the Assembly Halls car park together and we chatted for a while.  Edge-Lit was Wayne’s first Con and I was chuffed that he’d enjoyed it (and our company) so much, he’s now coming to FantasyCon too.  We said our goodbyes (Steve gave me a big hug) and I drove off into the night and got home for about 11.30, buzzing with a huge sense of enjoyment and that wonderful creative zing I always feel after a Con.  I’m already looking forward to Edge-Lit 5 (thanks for organising everything Alex!) and, as usual, it was the people who helped make it such a great event (those I've mentioned above and loads more I've forgotten - sorry).  It was also nice to have so many people compliment me on my weight loss, a heartening reminder of the power of friendship in the horror genre.
My book haul (bottom row from Eagle Books)
Brilliant fun!  Great friends, great venue, great organisation, new books and second-hand paperbacks, wonderful food - what more could you ask for?

Monday, 6 July 2015

Hunt: The Blog Tour - guest post by Tim Lebbon and a review

Today is the last stop for Tim Lebbon's "The Hunt" blog-tour (which I'm pleased to be hosting) and he's very kindly written a piece for me about his inspiration for the novel.  It's a departure for him, moving out of the horror/fantasy genre into the straight thriller, but I think it qualifies as a major success.  I was lucky enough to read an ARC of the novel and my review of it follows Tim's guest-blog.


Inspiration for THE HUNT 
Tim Lebbon

Since 1997 I've written over 30 horror and fantasy novels, dozens of novellas, and scores of short stories, as well as a handful of screenplays.  So why suddenly write a thriller?

Simple––because of my love of being shot at whilst running.

Well, actually that hasn't happened yet (although I'm sure some race entrepreneur will read this and realise there is a way to top the challenges of Ironman, Tough Guy, and Tough Mudder...).

In truth, The Hunt came about for a couple of reasons.

First, I've always wanted to write a thriller.  I'd never written anything without a supernatural or fantastical edge, and I liked the idea of a challenge.  Before now, anything I've written has always developed fantastical elements, whether I intended it or not.  With The Hunt, that would not be the case (although interestingly, in the very first draft of the first couple of chapters, the character Rose 'knows' that something has happened ... I soon cut that out).  It also felt like a good choice career-wise.  I've been trying to spread my wings a bit, writing YA novels and screenplays as well as horror and fantasy.  That's not really a commercial choice, more of a creative one ... I want to write for a living forever, so experimenting in different mediums is a way of keeping things fresh.  It's all storytelling.  And it has become very satisfying creatively to do this, resulting in books such as the Toxic City YA trilogy, the Secret Journeys of Jack London books (with Christopher Golden), and several screenplays alone and in collaboration.

The last piece of the jigsaw, and the main reason The Hunt was written, was discovering a sport I loved so much––endurance racing, marathons, and eventually triathlon and the epic Ironman.

I only started exercising properly a few years ago.  Before that I was the fast-approaching-middle-aged chubby bloke at conventions, smoking and drinking and generally not really looking after myself.  That changed in 2011 when I committed to tackling the national 3 Peaks Challenge with a few mates.  I had to get fit for that, and pushing myself to achieve something I thought way beyond my reach opened my eyes to the possibilities.  I've always believed it would take me committing to something outrageous to get fit, and I was right.  Training for the 3 peaks, I lost a load of weight and started running.

The next year, I raced my first two marathons.

A year later, after learning to swim and buying my first road bike, I raced my first Ironman.  From any sensible viewpoint, an Ironman is outlandish.  You swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles, then run a marathon.  Cut-off time is seventeen hours.  You start at 6am, which means up at 3am to make sure you get enough fuel on board (bananas, porridge, toast, tea...).  You can burn around 10,000 calories during the race, so you're eating constantly on the bike, too, to fuel your marathon.

Like I said, outlandish.  Ridiculous.  "You must be mad!" I've heard a few times.  But I did it, and pushing myself to do something so beyond my comfort zone quite genuinely changed my life.

It also gave me a scorcher of an idea for a thriller!

So when all these threads came together, The Hunt was born.  I decided to write a chase thriller, a really fast-paced, pared down novel about an endurance sports enthusiast being chosen as target in a human trophy hunt.

If he is caught and killed by the hunters, his kidnapped family go free.

If he escapes, his family are killed.

Into the mix, throw a woman who once escaped her own hunt, and lost her family in the process.  She wants revenge.  He wants to survive and save his family.

That's how the story began.  A vague idea, building into something more rounded.  I researched trophy hunting ... not nice reading.  I'd always found it disgusting enough, rich fat cats paying huge sums for the chance to kill lions, giraffes, elephants.  I couldn't really understand what they'd get from it.  Then I looked deeper and realised that the animals are usually hobbled to make the hunting easier, and more likely a success, netting a 'bagging bonus' for those arranging it.

One small leap shifted the idea of trophy hunting from big game to people.  And the scary thing?  It really isn't that much of a leap.

So I had the idea, and I also knew enough about the subject matter to 'write about what I knew'.  And writing the novel was an absolute pleasure from start to finish.

I wrote the book on spec, which means I was not under contract.  This was written just for me (of course, always with the hope that it would interest a publisher), and I had fantastic fun writing it.  A bit of research was required.  In fact, probably more than with any book I've ever written.  Reading about trophy hunting wasn't nice.  But when the bulk of the research is spending time in Snowdonia, and running around my local mountains, it's not hardship at all.  Especially when much of it was tax deductible!

Avon bought the book (and a follow-up which I'm working on now), and now it's out there in the wild.  The ebook is going well, and on July 16th it will hit the shops.  It's going to be a surreal experience seeing my book for sale everywhere, including the supermarkets.

I do hope you'll take time to try The Hunt.  And if it kick-fires an interest in running or triathlons ... I'll see you on the start line!

My review of "The Hunt"
She will hunt down the men who took her family. She will have blood. Rose is the one that got away. She was the prey in a human trophy hunt organised by an elite and secret organisation for bored super-rich clients seeking a unique thrill. She paid a terrible price - when she escaped The Trail murdered her family. Every moment since she has been planning her revenge. Watching, waiting ...And now her day has come.

Chris returns from his morning run to find his wife and children missing and a stranger in his kitchen. He's told to run. If he's caught and killed, his family go free. If he escapes, they die. Rose is the only one who can help him, but Rose only has her sights on one conclusion. For her, Chris is bait. But The Trail have not forgotten the woman who tried to outwit them. The Trail want Rose. The hunters want Chris's corpse. Rose wants revenge, and Christ just wants his family back.

The hunt is on...

Chris Sheen returns home after an early morning run to discover that his family - wife Terri and girls Gemma and Megs - are missing and a stranger is standing in his kitchen drinking coffee.  He’s told by a shadowy operation called The Trail to run and that if he’s caught and killed, his family will go free - if he escapes, they will die.  Into this maelstrom comes Rose, who was once hunted by The Trail herself but lost her family when she beat the chase.  Now Chris needs help, she wants revenge and he’s the perfect bait.

Riffing on “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell, Tim wastes no time in setting up the situation and it’s beautifully simple.  The Trail takes a person who can, in theory, handle themselves (Chris is a good distance runner), pits them against rich idiots who’ve paid for the pleasure of hunting a human, puts them into a games arena (in this case, it was supoosed to be downtown Cardiff until Rose stepped in) and monitors the situation so the rich never lose.  The Trail members that we meet are well trained and vicious, though we only tend to see them moments before Rose kills them, except for Vey - she was the one who killed Rose’s family and is now standing guard over Chris’.  Without any semblence of emotion, we see her through the eyes of Gemma, who is old enough and sharp enough to try and understand why she, her Mum and sister have been kidnapped.  With Rose’s intervention, the hunt is moved to the Welsh mountains (somewhere around Snowdonia, though it’s never specified) where Chris has a slight advantage and she has enough space to figure out how to reduce the odds.

I liked this a great deal.  I immediately identified with Chris (not the running part, but certainly getting fitter) and his fear for his family and because the book wastes no time in ‘cutting to the chase’ (sorry), you’re immediately thrown into the middle of things.  His progression over the book - fearful, resilient, resourceful and, above all, determined - is well handled.  Rose is equally good, at first a killer like the Trail until her character is revealed through flashbacks and we get a better understanding of what set her up in this way.  The hunters are mostly seen from the distance, generally overweight and sloppy people who just want to get their jollies but when the tables are turned, it’s nice to see their arrogant facades melt quickly (especially when one is recognised and smiles at the attention, completely forgetting his situation).  Tim uses the wild locations well, making us feel the elements and see the barren mountains and valleys that Chris has to traverse, where the ground is as liable to hurt you as those high-calibered rifles are (and the swim in the mountain lake is truly terrifying).  Having spent time in Snowdonia, he not only captured the atmosphere of the place well but made the bleakness of the area - and the lack of other people - almost another character.  The pace is relentless, barely pausing for breath as you’re dragged through lean and sharp scenes, whilst the set-pieces are superbly handled and thoroughly gripping.  The book doesn’t shy away from the terror of the situation either, from Chris’ terrifying ordeal on a cliff-face to the sudden bursts of shocking, brutal violence, but it’s all the better for that.

Marking a tangent for Tim, who before now was better known as an award-winning horror/fantasy writer, this is an assured thriller debut, well written, told at a breakneck pace and engrossing from the first page.  I highly recommend it.

TIM J LEBBON is a New York Times-bestselling writer with over thirty novels published to date, as well as dozens of novellas and hundreds of short stories.  Recent releases include The Silence, Coldbrook, Into the Void: Dawn of the Jedi (Star Wars), Reaper's Legacy, and Alien: Out of the Shadows.  He has won four British Fantasy Awards, a Bram Stoker Award, and a Scribe Award, and been shortlisted for World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson awards.  A movie of his story Pay the Ghost, starring Nicolas Cage, will be released soon, and other projects in development include My Haunted House, Playtime, and Exorcising Angels.

He has had around 20 novellas published and hundreds of short stories, steadily building a dedicated following among the horror & dark fiction community.  A movie of his short story PAY THE GHOST was filmed last year in Toronto, starring Nicolas Cage and Sarah Wayne Callies, directed by Uli Edel. He is also working on two TV series ideas, as well as a new original screenplay.

He has won 4 British Fantasy Awards (3 for Best Novella, one for Best Novel), a Bram Stoker Award and a Scribe Award.  He has also been shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award multiple times, the World Fantasy Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award.

Thanks to Charlotte Woods for all her help

Monday, 29 June 2015

James Bond And Moonraker (in film and print)

“Moonraker”, the eleventh James Bond film in the official EON series, opened in the UK on June 28th 1979.  It was directed by Lewis Gilbert (his third and final Bond film), produced by Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and written by Christopher Wood.  Ken Adam was the production designer, Derek Meddings supervised the special effects, John Barry wrote the score whilst John Glen edited the film and directed the second unit.
I was ten, it was the first Bond I was aware of before it was released and it was a film I was really eager to see - James Bond!  Roger Moore!  Space Shuttles!  I know the film has its detractors (and yes, there are bits that make me shake my head) but I liked it then and I like it now.

At the close of “The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977), it was promised that Bond would return in “For Your Eyes Only” but following the huge success of “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” and the subsequent rise of the sci-fi genre, producer Cubby Broccoli decided to change course.  Based on the 1954 novel by Ian Fleming (which itself was based on a screenplay he’d written earlier), it needed updating (Broccoli, in interview, said it concerned a “piddling little rocket”) but fitted perfectly.

As with most Bond adaptions, the screenplay ignores a lot of the novel and, in this case, the name of Hugo Drax is the only real link (though the character in the novelisation is closer to Fleming’s).  In the film, Bond investigates the hi-jacking and theft of a Moonraker space shuttle, which leads him to Drax, the owner of the manufacturing firm.  Along with CIA agent/scientist Dr Holly Goodhead, Bond follows a globetrotting trail from California (complete with transplanted French chateau) to Venice, Rio de Janeiro to the Amazonian rainforest and finally into outer space, where he foils a plot to wipe out the world’s population so that Drax can re-create humanity with his own master race.

Ken Adam's space station set
Marking Sir Roger Moore’s fourth time in the role, production began on 14th August 1978 on a budget of $34m (a substantial figure then and twice as much as “The Spy Who Loved Me” cost).  Due to the high taxation situation at the time, shooting was transplanted from the 007 Stage at Pinewood (though the miniatures and cable-car interiors were filmed there) to three of the largest film studios in France, at Epinay and Boulogne-Billancourt.  The massive sets designed by Ken Adam were the largest ever constructed in France, required more than 222,000 man-hours to create and the three-storey space station (built at Epinay) used 100 tonnes of metal, two tonnes of nails and 10,000 feet of wood.  The exterior of Drax’s mansion was filmed at the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, southeast of Paris (the shot from the helicopter, of Silicon Valley, was a matte painting), as was the Grand Salon whilst the remaining interiors were filmed at the Château de Guermantes.  Extensive sequences, including a recreation of the famous carnival and a fight on the Sugarloaf Mountain cable cars, were filmed in Rio de Janeiro while Iguazu Falls, in southern Brazil, were utilised for the speed boat chase.  The exterior of Drax’s headquarters in the Amazon was filmed at the Tikal Mayan ruins in Guatemala (ironically also the location of Yavin 4 in “Star Wars”) and all the space centre scenes were shot at the Vehicle Assembly Building of the Kennedy Space Centre in Floria (though early shots of the Moonraker assembly plant - those that weren’t miniatures - were the Rockwell International manufacturing plant in Palmdale, California).

BJ Worth (in brown) and Jake Lombard (as Bond)
The pre-title sequence where Bond is pushed out of an aeroplane without a parachute was filmed in California under the supervision of second unit director John Glen.  Supervised by Don Calvedt and using equipment developed by him and skydiving champion B.J. Worth, the crew undertook 88 dives to capture the footage, with Jake Lombard doubling 007 and Ron Luginbill as Jaws (Worth doubled the ill-fated pilot).  The cameraman used a lightweight plastic Panavision lens, which producer Michael G Wilson found in a pawn shop in Paris.

During the sequence at the Venice laboratory, Steven Spielberg gave permission for Cubby Brocoli to use the five-note melody from his film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.  In 1985, Broccoli returned the favour, granting Spielberg's request to use the James Bond theme in “The Goonies”.

The film also broke two world records.  The sequence in the Venice glass museum (filmed at Boulogne Studios) used the largest amount of break-away sugar glass in a single scene whilst the climax at the space station had the largest number of zero gravity wires in one scene.

The work of Derek Meddings and his team
The miniature work was supervised by Derek Meddings (who I wrote about extensively here) and since NASA’s Space Shuttle hadn’t actually launched, his team had no reference footage.  The very realistic launches incorporated signal flares for take-off, whilst the smoke trail was made of salt (Sir Roger later commented that “if [NASA] had our boys working for them, the real Shuttle would have been launched by now”).  There wasn’t time to utilise the optical printing process that “Star Wars” employed (where many layers of film are added together) and instead, Meddings used an old process where the film was rewound after an element (the shuttle, painted background, spacemen, probes) had been filmed.  Whilst this gave the special effects sequences excellent definition, some shots had upwards of 40 elements so the tension to get everything right first time must have been immense.

Top - Lois Chiles, Sir Roger Moore, Corine Clery
Bottom - Michael Lonsdale, Toshiro Suga
In addition to Sir Roger, series stalwarts Desmond Llewellyn (as Q) and Lois Maxwell (as Miss Moneypenny) returned, as did Bernard Lee as “M” though this was his last appearance (he died in 1981).  Hugo Drax was going to be played by James Mason, but once the decision was made for the film to be an Anglo-French co-production, to satisfy qualifying criteria, French actor Michael Lonsdale was cast as Drax whilst Corinne Cléry was chosen for the part of Corinne Dufour (originally Trudi Parker, she’s a Californian Valley girl in the novelisation).  American actress Lois Chiles (who had apparently turned down the role of Anya Amasova in “The Spy Who Loved Me”) was cast as Dr Holly Goodhead after being seated, by chance, next to Lewis Gilbert on a flight.  Jaws, played by Richard Kiel, re-appears from “The Spy Who Loved Me” and although he starts as a villain (he pushes Bond out of the pre-title sequence plane), he comes good before the end - a move, according to Lewis Gilbert, prompted by fan mail from small children asking “why can’t Jaws be a goodie and not a baddie?”  Jaws also gets a love interest with diminutive French actress Blanche Ravalec, who was the same height as Kiel’s real-life wife.  Drax’s  henchman Chang was played by Japanese aikido instructor Toshiro Suga, on the suggestion of Michael G. Wilson, who was one of his pupils.  Wilson himself appears in the film (as is his tradition), first as a tourist at the glass museum in Venice, then at the end as a technician in Drax's control room.

“Moonraker” premiered on 26th June 1979 in the UK, before going on general release on 28th June.  It was released in the USA on 29th June, with most mainland European countries releasing it during August except France which, even though it was filmed there, didn’t open it until 10th October.  It received its UK TV premiere on 27th December 1982.  On a budget of $34m, it is currently estimated to have taken $210.3m worldwide ($19.4m at the UK box office) and was the highest grossing Bond film until “Goldeneye” in 1995.
left to right - Ken Adam (production designer), Cubby Broccoli (producer), Lewis Gilbert (director), on location in Venice
The film received a somewhat mixed reception from critics.  Vincent Canby, in the New York Times, wrote it was “one of the most buoyant Bond films of all. Almost everyone connected with the movie is in top form, even Mr. Moore. Here he's as ageless, resourceful, and graceful as the character he inhabits.”  Jay Scott, in The Globe and Mail, said that “in the first few minutes – before the credits – it offers more thrills than most escapist movies provide in two hours.”  Frank Rich of Time wrote that it was “irresistibly entertaining as only truly mindless spectacle can be” whilst film scholar James Monaco wrote in The Connoisseur's Guide to the Movies that it was a “minor masterpiece” and the best Bond of them all.

However, the spectacle, the space angle and the comedy elements didn’t sit well with everyone.  Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, praised the special effects and production design but criticised the pacing with “it's so jammed with faraway places and science fiction special effects that Bond has to move at a trot just to make it into all the scenes.”  Even Richard Maibaum, a previous (and future) Bond screenwriter said “With “Moonraker”, we went too far in the outlandish. The audience did not believe any more and Roger spoofed too much.”
On the promotional trail (Sir Roger was making "North Sea Hijack", hence the beard)
left - Corine Clery, Sir Roger, Richard Kiel / right - Michael Lonsdale, with Moore and Kiel
For what it’s worth, I just don’t understand the dislike of it (though I appreciate I’m biased by the age I first saw it and the fact that Roger Moore is MY Bond - as I may have mentioned once or twice).  In its place, I’d offer “A View To Kill” for the worst Moore film (he should have given up after “Octopussy”) whilst I’d suggest the soggy “Die Another Day” or so-what “Quantum Of Solace” are far poorer but it’s all subjective.  It is larger than life, yes and it does have some poorly chosen comedy moments (that damned double-taking pigeon on St Marks Square rankles me every time I see it) but it’s spectacular, it's action-packed, the script is spot on (as is Moore) and the special effects are superb.  And who could deny a film that gives “Q” perhaps the greatest double entendre ever with, “I think he’s attempting re-entry sir!”

Derek Meddings, Paul Wilson and John Evans were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, but lost to “Alien”.  The film was also nominated for three Saturn Awards, Best Science Fiction Film, Best Special Effects, and Best Supporting Actor (Richard Kiel).
* * *
Since the screenplay of “Moonraker” differed so much from the Fleming novel, screenwriter Christopher Wood was allowed to write a novelisation (as he had with his previous “The Spy Who Loved Me”).  It was published in 1979 as “James Bond And Moonraker”, to avoid confusion with the original novel.

I decided this year, after watching the film for the umpteenth time, to read the Wood novelisation (having found it in a second-hand shop a couple of years ago).  I mentioned it on Facebook at the time and my friend and fellow writer Kit Power said that he was keen to re-read the Fleming novel.  So we both did and these are our thoughts…

James Bond And Moonraker
by Christopher Wood
Panther paperback 1979, cover scan of my copy
A very regrettable incident has occurred.  A US MOONRAKER space shuttle, on loan to the British, has disappeared - apparently into thin air.  Who has the spacecraft?  The Russians?  Hugo Drax, multi-millionaire support of the NASA space programme, thinks so.  But Commander James Bond knows better.

Aided by the beautiful - and efficient - Dr Holly Goodhead, 007 embarks on his most dangerous mission yet.  Obective: to prevent one of the most insane acts of human destruction ever contemplated.  Destination: outer space.  The stakes a high.  Astronomical even.  But only Bond could take the rough so smoothly.  Even when he’s out of this world…

Not to be confused with the Fleming original, this is the novelisation of the screenplay (which Wood also wrote) - hence the title - and follows the film closely, though it does include some interesting tangents.  The James Bond portrayed here is closer to the novels than Sir Roger Moore ever played him and even though this includes the same wit and one-liners as the film, there’s a more gritty atmosphere to it all.  The gondola chase is shorter (and has a much more abrupt ending than the bit in St Marks Square and so misses the bloody double-taking pigeon), the boat chase in the Amazon is preceeded by the fact that Bond has endured three days on the boat and we don’t get the scene where Corinne is chased by the dogs (Holly tells Bond about it when they get together in Venice).  In fact, the book was written before the filming was shifted to France, since Corinne Dufour (the helicopter pilot who helps Bond and then pays for it) is Trudi Parker here, a Californian Valley-girl (when the production shifted to France, it necessitated the casting of a French actress).  Jaws is very differently portrayed, with little of the slapstick - he’s not on the plane at the beginning or the boat in the Amazon, though he’s wet when he pulls Bond from the pool - and a nice touch of melancholy at the end (when he’s finally joined by a girl in the part of the space station that drifts off).  Hugo Drax is as good a character as the film would suggest, though he’s clearly not Michael Lonsdale - the novelisation Drax “is a large  man with shoulders like an American football player”, a “red head, with plastic surgery scarring  on his right temple”, his right ear is badly mangled and his face has a “lopsided look because one eye was larger than the other”.  Bond assumes this is because he was injured in the war but it made me wonder why a multi-millionaire hadn’t paid for the plastic surgery to sort it out.  

I liked the book (I like Wood’s writing, generally), it has a good pace and a nice sensibility about it, but I can see how that might be influenced by my liking the film.  As it stands, I enjoyed it and for a fan of the film, I’d say it was very much recommended.  Fleming purists, however, might well disagree.

by Ian Fleming
review by Kit Power
Or, Why Moonraker Is An Awesome Book Even Though It's Horrendously Sexist, Racist, And Dated.

Because it is, and there's no way to talk about that without talking about it, so let's just get the obvious out of the way: This book is ugly in many places. Whilst it's not quite as breathtakingly, gut-punch racist as Live And Let Die (“The kind of banana handshake that made you want to wash your hand afterwards”) or a jaw-droppingly misogynist as Casino Royale (where a woman - a woman Bond professes to himself to be falling for – is sufficiently headstrong and independent that 'sex with her would always carry the sweet tang of rape'), it stars the same protagonist and is cut from the same cloth. So, yeah, there's a 'strong female' companion, a Special Branch officer assigned to the same case as Bond, but the inside of Bond's mind as they interact is not a particularly pleasant place to be, and you will read some assumptions and comments about Germans that make 'Allo 'Allo look subtle and nuanced.

Here Be Dragons, in other words – the cultural dragons of the British empire, to be precise. Back when they still had wings and fire and teeth. In that sense Moonraker, alongside the other Bond books, stands as a vital and deeply uncomfortable cultural marker. Much in the same way that Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories indict the hypocrisies of Victorian England, even as they are told from within the establishment and intended to be endorsements, so too does Fleming's Bond shine a light on some of the darkest corners of post war Britain's establishment and it's view of the world.

For me, that's actually a big part of what makes this an awesome book. Our tale begins with Bond working his way through a typical Monday at the office – shooting practice followed by reading  top secret documents to assess if they need wider circulation to the other 00 agents, and perving over his secretary.

The level of detail is insane. Fleming names the brand of air conditioner that sucks up the gun smoke from the basement shooting gallery, and provides the contents of the first couple of dossiers verbatim. It really does make the reading experience intensely voyeuristic – we're hovering just behind the eyes of one of three of the UK's trained assassins as he goes about his daily tasks. That level of detail continues throughout, giving us such treats as the brand of muffler on Bond's car, the mixture of chemicals that the Moonraker rocket burns as fuel, right down to the brand of cigarette lighter on Drax's desk (Ronson, of course).

Depending on your preferences, this level of detail is either boring or fascinating. For me, it's spellbinding – a window into both a time and a place that is at once recognizable and almost totally alien.

Similarly, the pacing is... odd. The Pan paperback I read came in at under 200 pages – most Fleming Bond books come in around this kind of page count, some significantly shorter – so obviously it's in many ways a quick read. On the other hand, the story takes place over the course of five days, and fully the first third revolves entirely around a game of Bridge in a private members casino in central London, of which M, Bond's boss, is a member.

Now, again, how much you enjoy this will be heavily predicated on how much tolerance you have for painstaking descriptions of a fictional but no doubt representative high society gambling joint. But I have to say, as someone for whom long descriptive passages are normally my cue to pick a different book, I was transfixed (and bear in mind this has to be my fifth or sixth read of this book). It's so damned evocative, that's the thing; and again, there's a voyeuristic satisfaction of seeing the inside of such exclusivity. In this way, Bond is a brilliant guide, because he's there as a guest of his boss (investigating a possible case of cheating that for various political reasons needs to be dealt with without the cheat actually being formally unmasked, because oh! The scandal!). Not being a member himself, he brings an outsider's view, along with a sense of longing that is unspoken but runs underneath the whole scene. Bond is clearly in love with this place, and with the version of England it represents to him.

After which, he proceeds to drink the best part of two bottles of champagne (to 'appear drunk'!), ingests a healthy dose of Benzedrine, and then proceeds to out-cheat a cheat at a game of ludicrously high stakes Bridge.

Now, I can't play a note of Bridge. I don't even know how to play Hearts. And the Bridge in this novel is told in fairly close detail, right down to a pictorial representation of the key hand. So this should have been both impenetrable and dull to me. It was not. It was, is in fact, one of my favorite pieces of sustained thriller fiction ever.

Why? Well, there's a fantastic sense of the stakes, for starters. Drax is a national hero, the war survivor and self made multi-millionaire who is set to provide the UK with an independent nuclear deterrent in the form of the Moonraker rocket (due to be test fired on Friday). And he's cheating at Bridge, in one of the most exclusive clubs in London. Exposure of his cheating will lead to a scandal and could end the rocket project. At the same time, well, gentlemen are being hurt. Something Must Be Done. So Bond has to out-cheat the cheat - burn him bad enough to play straight in future – without either getting caught or exposing Drax for what he is. Whilst, as I previously mentioned, bombed out of his mind on champagne (to 'appear' drunk) and Benzedrine (for 'confidence'). Only the security of the realm at stake. No pressure.

Fleming also clearly loves the game of Bridge and high stakes gambling in general, and that love is infectious. So much so that you can follow the action even without having the first clue of the rules – or at least I could, and as a writer, I'm pretty much drowning in envy at the level of storytelling skill that represents.

Add in the aforementioned voyeurism, the extraordinary sense of place, and it's pretty much catnip for me - tense, exciting, combative. Masterful.

Truthfully, I don't enjoy the rest of the book quite as much as that first third – there's a purity to it that burns incredibly bright, and of necessity can't sustain throughout the rest of the plot. Nonetheless, for my money the book does a good job of building the tension throughout the rest of the narrative, throwing odd facts and circumstances at Bond and letting us inside his mind as he sifts the pieces, trying to make the puzzle picture that fits the facts. The climactic car chase is gut-wrenching, and taut, as is the inevitable 'captured-by-the-villain' monologue (was that a cliche in 1955, I wonder, or was it a Fleming invention?).

One other note: Fleming is exceptional at describing physical discomfort and torment – economic to the point of terse, and yet at certain points I found myself gritting my teeth.

In summary, I really feel like I can thoroughly recommend this book. It's far from the best Fleming Bond (Doctor No, Live And Let Die, Goldfinger, and The Man With The Golden Gun all top it easily, for my money), yet it's worth the price of admission for that opening third alone, and the window it offers into a world long gone, for good and ill (mainly, IMO, for good). And as for the laughably one dimensional Germans, well... it was first published in 1955 – only ten years after VE day. That doesn't excuse the attitudes expressed in the book – but it does to a large degree explain them. Fleming was an amazing talent as a thriller writer, and whilst his attitudes towards women, race, and empire feel cartoonishly dated at this point, it's worth remembering as you read, eyebrows occasionally raised so high they feel stuck to the ceiling, that there was a time in living memory when such attitudes were not merely commonplace, but actually informed the decision making process at the very highest levels of our society.

We've come a long way, baby. Take a trip down Fleming's all-too-vivid memory lane, and see just how far.

Or to put it another way, Moonraker is an awesome book in large part because it's, sexist, racist, and dated.

Which is not a statement I'd make too often.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Mystery Of The Flaming Footprints, by M. V. Carey

2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published and, to celebrate, I re-read and compiled my all-time Top 10 (safe in the knowledge that it would be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I posted my list here, having previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here).

This year, I decided to read through some of the books that I'd missed on that second read-through, without any intention of posting reviews but, as is often the way, it didn't quite work out like that.  So here's an additional review...
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed in 1972 and never reprinted), cover art by Roger Hall
Jupiter stared into the kitchen where three weird green flames leaped and flickered without a wisp of smoke.

"It's the Potter", murmured Hans, the German boy.  "He's come back to haunt the house."

"Impossible!" Jupe said hotly.  But there, burnt into the linoleum, were three ghostly footprints...

Collins Hardback Second Edition
(printed between 1974 and 1978)
cover scan of my copy
Jupiter Jones is helping his Aunt Mathilda at the Jones Junkyard when local eccentric The Potter - all white hair, thick beard and flowing robes - drives in.  He’s looking for some furniture for house-guests but, when another car with mysterious occupants arrives, he disappears.  His visitors - Mrs Eloise Dobson and her son Tom - then arrive and Jupiter helps them to move in to The Potter’s house (having already been mistaken for a cat burglar).  It isn’t long before the Dobson’s and Jupiter witness the unearthly phenomenon of the flaming footprints and, combined with two new occupants at the long deserted Hilltop House and a mysterious (and jaunty) fisherman, he realises it’s time for The Three Investigators to step in.  

This was the debut entry in the series for M. V. Carey and, in general, it works well.  Sticking very close to home (it never leaves Rocky Beach and a lot of action takes place in the Jones Junkyard), it has some nice flashes of humour and features Headquarters a lot, something Carey wouldn’t do often with future books.  There’s plenty of room for Aunt Mathilda, who comes across well and although Pete and Bob don’t appear until chapter 4, the boys have some good interplay and there’s even a cameo role for Worthington.

The Potter is actually Alexis Kerenov, friend to the Azimov’s who once ruled the small European country of Lapathia.  Following a coup, Kerenov escaped, took up pottery (and adopted a new surname) and started a family.  But every year, he places an ad in all the major US newspapers, requesting his old friend Nicholas Azimov gets in touch.  This year, that ad was spotted by Farrier, the jaunty fisherman and also Mr Demetrieff from the Lapathian Board of Trade, who brings in the feared General Kaluk.

The tone of the piece works well, the mystery is solved piece-by-piece by Jupiter and everything slots neatly into place.  The Dobsons are good characters - strong and vibrant - and contrast nicely with Kaluk, whilst the attitude of police officer Haines, who is called to the house and knows Jupiter, is amusing.  Oddly enough though, Chief Reynolds is grouchy all the time, especially to the First Investigator, which doesn't feel right.  The story has a wonderful sense of atmosphere that is maintained throughout and Carey uses her locations - the Junkyard, the Seabreeze Inn, the Potters house and Hilltop House - to great effect.

As well written as you’d expect from M. V. Carey, this has some smart set pieces though it does get a little bogged down with Lapathian political history at times and I found the central conceit - the flaming footprints themselves - to be a real macguffin.  The lead characters don’t understand what they are and the origin of them is only briefly sketched in but I suppose they provide the supernatural hook the series wanted (and “The Disappearing Artisan” probably wouldn’t have worked so well).  Otherwise this has a quick pace, a smart plot, a terrific atmosphere and the boys bounce off each other well.  A good read, this is great fun and I highly recommend it.
Armada format b paperback (printed in 1982, reprinted in 1983), cover art by Peter Archer
(it's the same cover art as used by the format a paperback, printed between 1974 and 1980)
cover scan of my copy

There were no internal illustrations for the UK edition.

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)