Friday, 28 March 2014

The Mystery Of The Singing Serpent, by M. V. Carey

Since 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published, I thought it’d be enjoyable to re-read and compile my Top 10 (which might be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here), but this time I will concentrate on my favourite books and try to whittle the best ten from that.

So here we go.
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed in 1973 and never reprinted ), cover art by Roger Hall
(note Bob's tassled waistcoat!)
The Three Investigators stole across the shadowy patio.  Jupiter held a held aside and looked into the dining room.

Then they heard the sound.  It was faint at first - a soft throbbing.  A singing sound, yet in no way was it a song.  It was high and piercing, then a low murmur.  It wavered - then burst forth in hideous gurgling waves.

The Three Investigators listened in mounting panic.

Collins Hardback Second Edition (1975-1978)
which appears to have as its spine image
Pete falling off the wall at Torrente Canyon
It appears that Jupiter Jones might have met his match in Allie Jamison, a smart and independent girl who lives in a mansion up the road from the Jones Salvage Yard.  With her parents away in Europe, she’s being looked after by her Aunt Pat, but there’s a new house guest too, the mysterious Hugo Ariel.  And when a bizarre singing noise is heard - driving away the maid - Allie hires The Three Investigators to find out just what is going on.  They quickly discover that Aunt Pat has become involved in a religious fellowship, run by the mysterious Dr Shaitan from a house on Torrente Canyon and it’s up to the boys and Allie to uncover the truth behind it all before someone gets badly hurt.

This is the second M. V. Carey entry in the series and it’s one of my very favourite stories, as the boys team up with the fiercely strong and independent Allie Jamison (who would re-appear in Carey’s The Mystery Of Death Trap Mine).  Allie's Aunt Pat is an odd type who’s a member of the “Fellowship of the Lower Circle”, along with Hugo Ariel.  Allie is very suspicious of him and his motives and gets the boys to investigate.  At the Jamison's home (hiding on the patio, surrounded by wisteria), they witness one of the ritual meetings, where the cult invokes the power of Belial, who appears in smoke as a serpent that sings a hideous song (and this is very well described, making for an eerie scene).

There are some great set pieces - breaking and entering the butlers flat (the first time I think Jupe deliberately breaks the law) and the bombing of the deli - but the key one is when the foursome infiltrate the cult’s mansion on Torrente Canyon. Gripping and tense, with a real sense of location and some great descriptions, this works brilliantly.  Helping the overall tone of the book is that a lot of the action takes place at twilight or after dark and there’s a real sense of adventure to it.  There are also some nice observations about why people join cults and the power of belief that are sharply written and in keeping with future Carey stories, where she touches upon real phenomenon and deals with it effectively.

Following a conversation with Aunt Mathilda and Uncle Titus, it transpires that Miss Osborne collects movie memorabilia - this drives her element of the plot - and she remembers Jupe from his Baby Fatso days, which doesn’t please him.  “The world’s youngest has-been,” said Pete with a smile.  In fact, there’s quite a bit of humour and Pete has a good role (often to the detriment of Bob, unfortunately), as he develops a good, protective but bickering relationship with Allie.  Worthington also has a good-sized role and proves his mettle once more and there’s clever work to involve the business card and question marks into the story (since Allie doesn’t need to see them).

Great fun, a cracking read, with well developed characterisation and a pace that never flags, this is highly recommended.

Armada format A paperback, printed between 1976 and 1980, cover art by Peter Archer.
There was no format B edition.
There were no internal illustrations for the UK edition (paperback, at least) as far as I’m aware which is a shame, since there are some set pieces that would be ably served by Roger Hall.

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

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Drive - cover reveal and pre-order info

As readers of this blog will know (this post has a brief excerpt), Pendragon Press are publishing my novella "Drive" and launching it at Edge-Lit 3, held at the Derby Quad, on Saturday 19 July 2014.

Things are moving forward apace and I'm pleased to be able to share the cover with you.  I'm pretty chuffed with it (though, to be fair, I designed it so it'd be a poor show if I wasn't...)


The novella now has its own page on the Pendragon Press website and is available for pre-order.  Click this link for more information.

The paperback will cost £4.99 and be limited to 100 copies.  It will also include a bonus chapter and an afterword, neither of which will be available in the ebook edition.

As ever, more details as I get them.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Bad Medicine

Last year, I saw a short film called "Ascension" (and blogged about it here) that I was thoroughly impressed with.  It was written by my old friend Dave Jeffery (the original short story appeared in "Alt-Dead", which I also had a story in) and directed by James Underhill Hart and I interviewed them both for the blog (which you can read here).

Through their Venomous Little Man production company, they're planning to make "Bad Medicine", a feature film anthology and in order to raise funds, they've set up a Kickstarter (and I've pledged to it).

This is the press release.


 A chance to be a part of the UK Independent Film Industry as a project from Birmingham-based award-winning team seeks investors


Birmingham-based film company Venomous Little Man (“VLM”) are looking for investors for their next project, as they prepare to shoot and produce their next motion picture.

With filming scheduled to start in April in and around Birmingham, “Bad Medicine” was written by award-winning author Dave Jeffery, and is the follow-up to the highly successful “Ascension”, which scooped the “Best Director” gong at the 2013 Bram Stoker Film Festival for seasoned producer James Hart.

It is no coincidence that some of the actors who worked on VLM’s previous film have not hesitated to sign up again for this next thrilling project. Based on the praise that “Ascension” received, they have all jumped at the chance to be part of what promises to be another “scarily-good” film.

Both Jeffery and Hart have enlisted a stellar cast for “Bad Medicine”, which includes Barbie Wilde (writer, actress, Scream Queen and the lady Cenobite from "Hellraiser"), Paul Zenon (TV Street Magician), Derek Melling (Ascension, Inbred, The Electrician), Laurence Saunders (Ascension, Deadtime, The Seasoning House, The Village, EastEnders, Doctors),  Tom So (Casino Royale, Sherlock, Being Human), Anthony Miles (Quizmaster, Blood and Bone China) and Mark Rathbone (Ascension, Australia, Inbred, Cradle of Fear). The brilliant Jacky Fellows (“Doreen” and “6 Seconds To Die”) has also signed., along with  Jack Bailey (“It’s OK to be Ginger”, “A la carte”, and “The Well Dressed Man”.)

“Bad Medicine” will be edited by Richard O’Connor; as the prime editor on award-winning “Ascension”, O’Connor has extensive experience in lighting and stage design and an impressive history of theatre.

VLM are looking for investors to help raise the £35,000 it will cost to fund the production of the film. Investment can start from as little as £1, although bigger outlay will understandly result in greater rewards. Every person or organisation who donates will receive something for their commitment - from a special mention on the credit list of the final movie to VIP tickets to the first screenings, or an opportunity to meet the entire cast and crew at the premiere after-party.

The film is scheduled to be launched at Birmingham’s Electric Cinema in May 2015.

The Kickstarter Brief
Anyone who remembers the classic horror anthologies such as ASYLUM, with Robert Powell and Peter Cushing, or King and Romero’s CREEPSHOW will have an idea of what VLM Productions is hoping to achieve with its next project. BAD MEDICINE is a psychological horror film that contains five stories – or segments – united by a wraparound story. The film is set in a modern day mental health unit where a therapist is holding a group therapy session. Five participants each recount their story in the hope the therapist can resolve their trauma and help them to move on. But what happens if the therapist is not what he seems and has something far more sinister in mind for his patients?

The project will be shot in five phases. The first installment, Tainted Love, is expected to shoot in late April, 2014.

Your donations will help to hire professional crew and equipment, industry standard sound, make up and FX artists to ensure that what ends up on screen is of high quality and reflective of the standards an audience expects from a film on a big screen. There will also be a heavy emphasis on practical creature FX as seen in seminal movies such as AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and THE THING.


As a project, we at VLM Productions are excited at the prospect of revisiting the classic kind of storytelling that has made shows like THE TWILIGHT ZONE, TALES FROM THE CRYPT and OUTER LIMITS such a long lasting success. We believe that quality filming making from an award winning company BAD MEDICINE will resonate with any member of the audience who wants more from their movie experience than cheap make up and violence.


For more information on how to be a part of this exciting new project, simply visit VLM’s Kickstarter project page (linked from here) or visit www.venomouslittleman.co.uk

VLM can also be found on Twitter and Facebook

For more information contact
James Hart (Director)                                                            Dave Jeffery (Writer)
Tel:         07795 556302                                                             Tel: 07817 863324

Friday, 21 March 2014

Nostalgic for my childhood - Snoopy, Charlie Brown & Peanuts

Last year, I started a thread on the blog that I called “Nostalgic for my childhood” (you can see a round-up at this link, or use the label), covering books and films and various things that I remember fondly  It’s a thread I'm continuing and this is one of those posts, though it’s nostalgic for me in a slightly more oblique way.

Tracy, me and her Snoopy
When I was growing up, Snoopy was a big part of my life since my sister, Tracy, loved him.  Through her, I read the books and watched the films and saw the toys and I enjoyed it, I enjoyed sharing something with her.  Sadly, Tracy passed away in 2003.  A few years back, I was in a second hand bookshop and picked up a couple of the Coronet Peanuts collections for a couple of quid.  Reading them again, after a break of years, was a delight - I enjoyed the artwork, the comedy and the pathos as much as if I was just discovering it for the first time, but there was also this wonderful nostalgic tinge, this nod to the past of two kids sitting in the garden, reading those Coronet paperbacks and laughing and sharing the joke.  Since then, I’ve collected a lot more and now Dude has started reading them too, which makes me feel very good.

So to that end, since today is Tracy’s birthday, I’m going to talk about Peanuts.

Charles M. (Monroe) Schulz was born in Minneapolis in 1922, an only child who liked to draw and sold a picture of his dog Spike (who ate pins and tacks) to “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” magazine in 1937.  His drawings were rejected by his high school year book though the school in question - Central High - had a five-foot tall statue of Snoopy placed in the main office sixty years later.  His mother Dena, to whom he was very close, died of cancer in 1943 and not long after, Schulz was drafted into the army where he saw active service at the end of the war.  In 1951, he married Joyce Halverson and they had four children together, as well as an adopted daughter, moving to Santa Rosa, Califorina, in 1969, where he lived and worked.  The Schulzes divorced in 1972 and in 1973 he married Jean Clyde, a union that lasted until his death.

In the 1980s, Schulz complained of a shaking in his hand that sometimes got so bad “I have to hold my wrist to draw”, which was diagnosed as an essential tremor.  In November 1999, he suffered several small strokes and it was later discovered he had colon cancer that had metastasized and as he could neither read or see clearly and was undergoing chemotherapy, he announced his retirement on December 14th 1999.  When asked if, in the final strip, Charlie Brown would finally get to kick the football, he said “Oh no!  Definitely not! I couldn't have Charlie Brown kick that football; that would be a terrible disservice to him after nearly half a century.”  However, in a later interview, he is quoted as saying “'You know, that poor, poor kid, he never even got to kick the football. What a dirty trick…”

Charles M Schulz died in his sleep on February 12th 2000 and his last Peanuts strip was published the next day.  As part of his will, he requested that no new comic strips based on the characters be drawn.  On May 27th 2000, more than 100 cartoonists paid homage to him and Peanuts by incorporating his characters into their comic strips on that date.

Although he created other strips, Schulz will be forever known for Peanuts, a name bestowed by Universal Feature Syndicate that he always disliked (in a 1987 interview, he said it was “totally ridiculous, has no meaning…or dignity”) so whenever the strips were collected, the books either had “Charlie Brown” or “Snoopy” in the title.

The first strip
The Peanuts strip debuted in nine newspapers on October 2nd, 1950 in the four-panel format that would become its trademark.  Snoopy first appeared in the third strip, with what would become the main stock company of characters not appearing until later:  Schroeder in May 1951, Lucy in March 1952 (and bearing in mind the huge part she later played, it makes you wonder what happened in those early strips), Linus in September 1952, Pig Pen in July 1954, Sally in August 1959, “Peppermint” Patty in August 1966 (though her partner-in-crime Marcie wouldn’t appear until July 1971) and (most astonishing to me, considering how closely he’s associated with Snoopy), Woodstock in April 1967 (though he wasn’t named until June 1970).

Over the 50 year run, most of the characters’ ages don’t change any more than four years (Charlie Brown started as a four-year old and aged over the next two decades to settle as an eight-year-old for the remainder of the strip) and when characters are born (such as Sally), they age only until they’re small children.  Having said that, the characters aren’t defined by their ages and often discuss literature, art and music, faith, loneliness and depression, as if they were adults.

Of course, the characters are key to the strips success, with Lucy’s forthrightness, Patty’s self-confidence and Snoopy’s joie-de-vivre contrasting well with Charlie Brown’s melancholy.  In fact, for me, it’s that mixture of pure fun and occasional poignancy that keeps drawing me back to the strip.

Charlie Brown is the key character (apparently developed from some of the painful experiences of Schulz’s formative years), drawn to melancholy but also full of admirable persistence (he wants to win a baseball game, he wants to fly a kite, he wants to kick Lucy’s football  and he will keep trying until he succeeds).  He also has an unrequited crush on the “little red-headed girl”, which is just marvellous to read (and she herself was only seen once, in 1998, as a silhouette).

Snoopy as Joe Cool, with an equally cool Woodstock
Snoopy is probably the best known character and the strip began to focus more on him in the 60s, with his wildly imaginative fantasy life being given plenty of room to thrive.  From the “World War One Flying ace”, to a ‘world famous attorney’ (often representing Peppermint Patty and often losing), he was also a (somewhat failed) best-selling suspense novelist and, of course, Joe Cool.  Although the other characters seemed to wonder what he was doing at any given time, most of them generally participated in the fantasy.

At no point does an adult enter the world - the reader is made aware that they’re about, from parents to teachers, but only ever sees the children.  In the TV special, grown-ups are seen but all talk in a trombone-like special effect.

No definite location is ever given (though Linus is once shown hugging a sign that says “Pinetree Corners Population 3,260”), but several addresses seem to suggest it’s set in Minneapolis, where Schulz was born and grew up.

Shulz decided to produce all aspects of the strip himself, which lent it a unified tone, though the early artwork is different - cleaner and sleeker - than the more popularly known strips from the 60s through to the 80s.  He employed a minimalistic style, generally without too much background and his sometimes frazzled lines forced “its readers to focus on subtle nuances” (according to art critic John Carlin).

The 1960s is known as the “Golden Age” for the strip and certainly, during this period, several well known themes and characters appeared for the first time including “Peppermint” Patty and Marcie, the flying ace and Franklin (and by extension, a matter-of-fact assumption of a racially integrated school and neighbourhood).  Further social commentary came with the fact that Charlie Brown’s baseball team had three girls in it and the 1966 TV special “Charlie Brown’s All-Stars” showed him refusing sponsorship because the sponsors said the league didn’t allow girls or dogs to play.  There were also satirical barbs on occasion, over a raft of topics, with the key one focussing on childhood activities becoming so organised that they often wore down individuality.  Whilst not a violent strip, there were occasional scuffles, mainly from Lucy who often threatened to ‘slug’ someone, though it was generally the girls being mean to the boys.  Religion was another theme touched on occasionally, in both the strip and most notability the 1965 TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.

The strip remained massively popular during the 1980s and 1990s (though rivalled by Garfield and Calvin & Hobbes respectively) and is reputed to have earned Schulz in excess of $1bn.  Peanuts is regarded as one of the most influential comics strips of all time, with Schulz receiving the National Cartoonist Society Humor Comic Strip Award, the Reuben Award twice (the first cartoonist to receive the honour twice), the Elzie Segar Award and the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award.  The TV specials won two Peabody Awards and four Emmys and Schulz has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well as a place in the William Randolph Hearst Cartoon Hall of Fame. Peanuts was featured on the cover of Time Magazine on April 9, 1965, with the accompanying article praising the strip as being “the leader of a refreshing new breed that takes an unprecedented interest in the basics of life.”  In addition, the Apollo 10 lunar module was nicknamed “Snoopy” and the command module “Charlie Brown” and Snoopy is the personal safety mascot for NASA astronauts (NASA issues a Silver Snoopy award to employees that promote flight safety).

At its height, Peanuts was published daily in 2,600 papers across 75 countries and in 21 languages, with Schulz himself drawing nearly 18,000 strips over 50 years.  His routine, he once wrote, consisted of first eating a jelly donut and going through the day's mail with his secretary before sitting down to write and draw the day's strip at his studio. After coming up with an idea (which he said could take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours), he would draw, which could take an hour for the dailies or three hours for Sunday strips.  Asked why he never used assistants to help produce the script, he said “it would be equivalent to a golfer hiring a man to make his putts for him.”


The final daily comic strip was published on January 3, 2000 and on February 13, 2000, the day following Schulz's death, the last ever strip was published.  It shows Charlie Brown answering the phone to someone presumably asking for Snoopy.  “No,” says Charlie Brown, “I think he’s writing.”  Snoopy is shown sitting at his typewriter, which contains a note from Schulz that reads:

Dear Friends,

I have been fortunate to draw Charlie Brown and his friends for almost fifty years. It has been the fulfillment of my childhood ambition.

Unfortunately, I am no longer able to maintain the schedule demanded by a daily comic strip. My family does not wish "Peanuts" to be continued by anyone else, therefore I am announcing my retirement.

I have been grateful over the years for the loyalty of our editors and the wonderful support and love expressed to me by fans of the comic strip.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy... how can I ever forget them...

— Charles M. Schulz


Fittingly, Charlie Brown was the only character to appear in both the first strip and the last.

Happy birthday, TJ!

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Interview with Jim Mcleod (of The Ginger Nuts Of Horror)

When I was discovering the horror genre, it was in the 80s when the Internet wasn’t even a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye.  I found information through magazine articles (thank you, Fangoria), bits and pieces on TV and occasionally articles in newspapers and whilst I wouldn’t change that rite-of-passage for anything, I obviously missed a lot.  People getting into the genre now have not only the benefit of the Internet but also dedicated resources like Jim Mcleod’s The Ginger Nuts of Horror.
Covering the genre, from books via films to music and more, Jim is a champion of horror with interviews and reviews that are always perceptive, always honest and always entertaining.  I managed to tie him down for a few moments.

MW: Thanks for agreeing to this, Jim, much appreciated.  To start with, can you tell us a little about yourself?

JM: I can only tell you little bit about myself, if I give too much away the authorities might finally catch up with me.  To be honest there’s not really that much to tell.  I was the first person born on Christmas Day in 1971 in the whole of the UK, I’ve been a championship winning rugby captain and a Scottish and British kickboxing champion.  These days my times is divided between work, my wonderful family and Ginger Nuts of Horror.  It’s a good thing that I really don’t sleep.

MW: How did you get into the horror genre?  How old were you and what was your first realisation it was there - a film, a book or something on TV?

JM: I had a pretty normal childhood, until at about the age of ten when I discovered James Herbert’s The Fog in my local bookstore. I don’t know why I decided on that day to pick it up, let alone read it, but ever since that fateful day my love of horror and in particular horror fiction has never faltered. It’s been through some really bad times, especially recently, but there has always been and always will be shining lights in the darkest of genres to show us the way.

With regards to films I‘ve never been that big a fan of horror films.  This probably stems from the night I crept downstairs as a young child and watched Hammer Horror’s Dracula.  Boy did that terrify me.  I spent the next month sleeping with a bible and a crucifix in each corner of my bed.  My mum also had to check under the bed for vampires and the killer nun that sometimes liked to hide under there.

MW: Ah, killer nuns.  So what made you decide to create The Ginger Nuts of Horror?

JM: I was on a long term absence from work after a particularly nasty operation on my wrist and hip.  I can’t quite remember how it started but it was either Willie Meikle or Ian Woodhead who suggested that I start interviewing the authors who frequented the horror forum that we were all members of.  Ginger Nuts just sort of organically grew out of that.

MW: It clearly has a lot of respect from horror fans, with over 100,000 hits per month.  What do you attribute this success to?

JM: I really don’t know, a lot of it has to be because of hard work.  But there are other factors such as having great authors on board, who know how to give great guest posts and great interviews.  My readers are also great, a huge amount of the sites success must be down to them sharing the articles around social media sites.

At the risk of sounding like a big head, I also think that Ginger Nuts of Horror is rather unique in its place on the internet.   There aren’t that many websites that cover the topics I cover, sure there are hundreds of blogs that cover horror fiction, but 99% of them come across as more of a hobby than something that strives to be a bit more.  Don’t get me wrong, there are sites that offer far better and more comprehensive reviews, ones that really discuss the art of writing and all its nuances.  However where I think that Ginger Nuts excels is in its sense of fun, hopefully my sense of joy for horror comes across, and it does seem that this is something the readers enjoy.

Jim with Adam Nevill (photo: Stephen Edwards Thom) 
MW: I think it certainly helps.  But what drives you to keep going with it, the workload must be punishing since you’re a one-man-band?

JM: I think it is same undefinable urge that makes writers write.  I’m addicted to it, especially the interviews.  I love hearing author’s thoughts on the genre and the process of how they write.  It can give a fascinating insight into the minds of creative types.  It is punishing, I was on my yearly treat of a week off work while everyone else in the family was at work and school and before Ginger Nuts this would have been a week of catching up on films, books and video games.  It has now transformed into a week of getting up at 4am and catching up on reviews, interviews and emails.

Being a one man band  is tough, and it is something that a lot of people still don’t know.  The hardest part of being a one man band is keeping up with the administration part of the site, answering emails, keeping on top of Google analytics, and such like.  I spent a whole day just trying to clear my in-box.  That’s the point at which it gets depressing.  You should see some of the emails I get.

MW: Leading on from that and having seen some of your comments previously, can you enlighten us with some amusing faux pas from various potential ‘contributors’?

JM: The ones that really get me are the ones that don’t even take the time to find out your name.  I understand that authors have to use mass emails but, it really doesn’t take much time to stick my name at the start of the email. It’s only three letters.

The use of silly fonts, please, please for the love of all Gods, don’t use them.  If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to act professional, silly fonts don’t make you look professional.  They make you look like a nursery school kid.

Uses of phrases like “THE NEXT BIG THING” don’t work either.  I know you want to stand out from everyone else. But that just makes you sound arrogant.

Someone actually sent me an email that said;

“Jim here is my book for you to review you can buy it from following this link to Amazon”
Needless to say I bought three copies.

Oh and please don’t ever send a hand written covering letter, which has been written in your own blood.  True story folks this happened to me.

If you want book reviewers to engage with you, it’s really rather simple, be polite and be interesting.  I get hundreds of emails, and time is finite, so if your first point of contact is a bog standard dull email that doesn’t hint at your personality it is likely to get ignored.  It sounds harsh but we reviewers have to have methods to reduce our workload.

MW: To turn your own brand back to you, what was “The Book That Made You”?

I’d have to go right back to the very first book I remember buying for myself, The Last Legionnaire by Douglas Hill.  It was a sort of Star Wars rip where the hero’s planet is wiped out by the Galactic Warlord.  Dying from radiation exposure he is rescued by a mysterious alien who replaces his bones with an indestructible plastic alloy.

The books see him searching out the Warlord to enact vengeance.  Yes they were rather cookie cutter in their approach to storytelling and characters, but there was something just so fantastic about them.  They really captured my imagination like no other book before them.  If you haven’t read them track them down and read them to your kids they will love them

MW: Excellent, one of my favourite books from my childhood was “The Galactic Warlord”!  I love it when you realise that someone enjoyed the same stuff as you, because at the time I was the only kid I knew who’d read it.  Anyway, moving on, what was “The Film That Made You”?

JM:  This is a tricky one, I’ve never been much of film watcher, probably due to my inability to sit still for any length of time.  You know what?  I’m going to have to pass on this.

MW: Paper or e-book?

JM:  It would have to be paper.  I know this sounds romantic, but reading as an experience is more than just reading the words.  It’s a sum of everything that goes into making the book and the environment that surrounds you when you read it.  A book is also a very personal thing, even the ones you get as presents. When someone gives you a book as a present it means that person really knows you, they have put a lot of thought into getting a book that is right for you.  It just doesn’t feel the same when they give you a link to download it.

A few years ago I gave my son my battered and well-read copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree.  This book has been read countless times, seen me through good and bad times.  The book is infused with my emotions and memories, there is no way in hell that giving an e-book copy of this to my son would have meant the same to me.  And when Campbell chose to take The Halloween Tree to school when his teacher asked them to bring their favourite book in, it really brought a little tear to my eye.  Just to know that this book which meant so much to me, now means so much to my son.  You just wouldn’t get that with an e-book.

MW: Who are some of your favourite authors?

JM: How much time do you have?  Here’s a quick of the top of my head list.  M.R. James, Graham Masterton, Brian Lumley, Gary McMahon, John Llewellyn Probert, Mark West, Thana Niveau, Alison Moore, Adam Nevill, Nathan Ballingrud, Lynda E. Rucker, to name a few.

MW: Thank you, there’re some terrific names in that list (and mine).  So what are you reading now?  What’s your favourite read of the year so far?

JM: I’m reading two very good highly sought after ARC’s.  Sarah Lotz’s The Three, which is written in the form of a documentary with viewpoints and comments from characters rather than a traditional narrative.  It looks like this could be the big breakout novel of the year.  It’s set in the years after four planes mysteriously drop out of the sky, and the frightening truth about why this happened.

The second book is not normally a book I would attempt to read.  It’s a zombie novel, but one where they only really exist as a point on which to hang a thesis about loss, memory and humanity. It’s a dense novel, one that has had me reaching for a dictionary more than once, but it is one that is deeply moving.  Keep an eye out for A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims.

My favourite read of the year so far has to be Joseph D’Lacey’s The Book of the Crowman.  This is the second and final book of his brilliant apocalyptic dark fantasy and again it uses the narrative to explore some deep issues.  Hopefully this will be the book that sees Joe break out into the big time.

MW: Do you have a prize interviewee?

JM: Sadly most of my prized interviewees are now no longer with us.  I would have killed just to have been able to ask James Herbert one question.  Most people would expect me to say Stephen King, but to be honest I’m not that big a fan.  It would have to be a tossup between Clive Barker and Graham Masterton.  I would be fascinated to compare their creative processes.

MW: Where do you see the horror genre heading?

JM: As a genre it’s always seen as the dirty cousin to fantasy and science fiction, it’s a position that many of those working within it don’t help to alter.  There is far too much reliance on the same old story, zombies, and vampires are just so boring these days.  I hope that these days get left behind, and we see more authors trying to push the boundaries.  There are a lot of great writers out there who realise that horror really isn’t about the monster lurking in the darkness.  Horror is more about feelings and emotion.  Writers like yourself, John Lanagan, Laird Barron , Gary McMahon and Nathan Ballingrud use horror as a framework from which to hang stories that are full of great characters and emotional depth.

I’d love to see the genre make its way out of the ghetto.

MW: What do you see as the future for the Ginger Nuts site?

JM: To be honest I’m just going to keep on doing what I’m doing.  I’m toying with the idea of moving into horror films, but I’m not sure about it.  I like the idea of a quick turnaround, but there are so many great sites out there that do this sort of thing perfectly.  We’ll see, maybe the world needs a Ginger Nut spin on film reviews.

MW: Thanks for your time, Jim, best wishes to you and The Ginger Nuts of Horror for the future.

JM: Thanks Mark, it’s been a pleasure to be on the other end of the stick for a change.  I can’t go without saying thank you for all your support over the years.  It really does mean a lot to me, you’re constantly sharing and promoting my site, a lot of authors don’t even bother.  You are a true gentleman, here’s to September when we can finally raise a pint or two together.

MW:   You’re more than welcome, I’m looking forward to finally meeting up too.  And thank you, as ever, for your continued support.



Where to find The Ginger Nuts on the Net

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Snoopy at the movies

Regular readers of this blog might remember that I'm a big fan of Snoopy and the Peanuts cartoon strip (as mentioned here, as well as several other places).  I have a big "nostalgic for my childhood" post planned for Friday but in the meantime, here's another piece of Snoopy news.

When I was researching the post for Friday, I discovered that a new animated Snoopy movie was in the works.  Fearing the worse, I checked it out and found that not only were the Schulz family involved, but it was being made by Blue Sky Studios (the Ice Age and Rio series) and Twentieth-Century Fox Animation.  Hmmm, that sounds okay.

Yesterday, the first official trailer was released and my expectations rose.  The animation looks great (and is in keeping with both the strip and the Bill Melendez films), the music is perfect and both Charlie Brown and Snoopy sound just like they should.

I showed it to Dude and he spoke for both of us - "we're going to see that..."

 

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Mystery Of The Vanishing Treasure, by Robert Arthur

Since 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published, I thought it’d be enjoyable to re-read and compile my Top 10 (which might be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here), but this time I will concentrate on my favourite books and try to whittle the best ten from that.

So here we go.
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed between 1968 and 1970), cover art by Roger Hall
“Gnomes, sir?” Jupiter was baffled.

But that was exactly what Alfred Hitchcock had said - he wanted The Three Investigators to help a friend of his who was being troubled by gnomes.  But who believes in them?  The boys don’t - at least, not until the gnomes take them prisoner!

illustration from the Collins/Armada
editions, by Roger Hall
The Three Investigators visit the Peterson Museum on Children’s Day, to see the world famous Nagasami Jewels, which are on special display.  Whilst there, a daring robbery takes place and the priceless Golden Belt is stolen with the only suspect an old actor friend of Jupiter’s who, it quickly turns out, had nothing to do with it.  Jupiter offers his services to Mr Togati, head of security, but is turned away though his disappointment is termpered by a call from Alfred Hitchcock.  He wants the boys to help his old friend Agatha Agawam, a childrens writer who is having trouble with gnomes.  No-one but Hitchcock believes her, so the boys stay the night at her house in an area of Los Angeles that is being modernised, in order to try and get to the bottom of the case.

Another one of my all-time favourites, that I loved as a kid and never lost my affection, this is a rollercoaster of an adventure that doesn’t lets up and covers a lot of ground.  From the initial robbery (a cleverly staged set-piece), to the details of the gnomes (when they’re first seen, it’s quite a spooky sequence) and beyond (including a terrific chase in an abandoned cinema), this is full of assured writing and helped by a great sense of location and atmosphere.

It also has a sense of melancholic nostalgia (which I probably missed as a kid but now realise is a signature of Robert Arthur), where the differences between past and present are not generally good.  In this case, it’s Ms Agawam reflecting on the lack of children in the area as those she once read to - and wrote for - have now moved away to start families of their own and it’s also about how old LA is being demolished (the old Moor theatre next door) to make way for the new.  I really appreciated that on re-reading it.

Although this features another non-Investigator POV sequence (very brief, but still jarring), this is a brilliantly written story, with some terrific set pieces (Headquarters features heavily in the exciting climax), characterisation and dialogue.  Great fun and very highly recommended.

Armada format A paperbacks (unusually there were two designs - edition on the left was published in 1970 and never reprinted, the one on the right was published between 1972 and 1979).  Cover art by Peter Archer.

Armada format B cover (published in 1980 and never reprinted) by Peter Archer

The internal illustrations for the UK edition were drawn by Roger Hall.

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

Friday, 14 March 2014

Interview with Joe Mynhardt

Joe Mynhardt is the man behind Crystal Lake Publishing and an accomplished writer and editor in his own right, who hails from Namibia but now lives in Bloemfontein with his wife and two dogs.  Writing since November 2008, he’s had over 60 short stories published and moderates a writers forum too.  Crystal Lake published “For The Night Is Dark”, edited by Ross Warren, which featured my story “Mr Stix” so I decided to see if Joe had time for a few words.

MW: Tell us a little about yourself.

JM: Let’s see, I was born in Walvisbay, Namibia, in 1980. I was pretty much an introverted loner, until I started taking Karate at age 9, which really boosted my self-confidence – thank goodness for that. We moved to South Africa in 1992 after Apartheid ended, and now I find myself living the grownup-life in Bloemfontein. I started teaching in 2005 and writing horror in November of 2008. A lot of doors opened up after that; I guess all the hard work and networking really paid off. I pretty much spend every second of each day writing, reading, editing, or thinking about writing and the genre. I do whatever can make me a better writer, editor and publisher. Yes, that includes acting like an idiot in front of my friends… sometimes – I call it research.

MW: So what is it that draws you to the horror genre?

JM: Since a young boy I’ve always been interested in the supernatural. I loved scary movies. I didn’t care if there weren’t really any monsters creeping around in the dark. It was the possibility that excited me. You put two kids in a dark room with an open closet and each one will imagine their own unique monster.
     I’d say the biggest turning point was when I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Final Escape episode. The twist in the tale story has been my favorite ever since. And let’s not forget The Monkey’s Paw.
As writers we quickly learn what grabs the attention of readers. Things like drama, action, conflict, strong characters, dire situations and an antagonist that wants the exact opposite of your hero. And if you look carefully at these aspects, you’ll see they all play a big role in all stories. Horror is in every genre: losing a loved one is a horrible event; standing on a stage in front of people; being laughed at; losing a fight; being dumped, getting married (just kidding).
     Plain and simple, horror stories are exciting. You never know what to expect.

MW: What first attracted you to horror writing?

JM: Growing up, I was lucky enough to have parents who allowed me to watch horror movies and read whatever comics I wanted. So I basically grew up watching movies like Nightmare on Elm street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Poltergeist, Child’s Play, and a bit of Alfred Hitchcock and Twilight Zone as well. What’s really strange is my own family now don’t understand why I want to write horror. Go figure. Anyway, since then I’ve been extremely interested in whatever classic horror movies or books I could get my hands on, including Stephen King, Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood, Lovecraft, Poe, Campbell, Howard and many, many more. I’ve got so many favourite authors right now, I couldn’t even begin to mention them
     What made all these books, movies and comics so much more educational for me was the fact that I looked at these highly intriguing characters and wondered where they came from. Who invented them? Who drew them and gave them names? Essentially, who gave birth to them?
     My ever-growing imagination was also complimented by my need to create. Where that need originated from I have no idea. Since age nine I always wanted to build or invent something. Why horror stories and books? Because horror gives the writer more creative space than any other genre. Anything can happen. And it’s that uncertainty, that fear of the unknown, which makes horror so damn great.

MW: Which writers were your biggest influences growing up?

JM: I wasn’t a huge reader growing up. I actually struggled to sit still long enough to read anything other than a comic. I was however a big fan of stories, be it movies, comics or whatever forms they came in. I can’t recall seeing a lot of short story collections in libraries back them. I loved going to the library, mostly for looking at covers, reading back page blurbs and, of course, for Asterix and Tintin.
     I eventually got hooked on Stephen King, thanks to my sister. IT was the very first King book I read, and except for Dracula, it was also the thickest book I ever took on as a youngster.
     I especially enjoyed weird stories like the Twilight Zone episodes, and Hitchcock Presents played a very big role in my love for horror and all things dark and twisted.
     My biggest influence will still have to be Dracula.

MW: Do you prefer all out gore or psychological chills?

JM: Definitely psychological chills. Without the psychological manipulation of a decent writer, the gore bits would mean absolutely nothing. No one would care about the character. With today’s special effects in movies, people have been a bit desensitised. That’s why some writers now feel they have to go overboard with gore scenes. Look back at the older movies, remember how they never actually showed the monster eat the victim. They just zoomed in on his approach and faded to black. Still scared the hell out of me and everyone who watched it. Why, because we cared about those people. The writer made us care. But, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing better than a perfectly timed bit of gore that makes you go, “Awesome!”
     A great approach is to show the carnage the ‘monster’ or whoever has done, without actually showing him or it until the very end. That way you have the chills and the gore. There are great stories with only the psychological horror, but too many of them in a row tends to weaken a collection, in my opinion.
     I tend to put a lot of gore into a story where the bad guy finally gets what he deserves. In the title story of my Lost in the Dark collection, I have a bad guy who gets the tendons behind his knees, ankles and arms severed (even his eyelids), then he gets tied to a tree and torn apart by wild animals. The timing was perfect, because by then the reader despises him for all the horrible things he had done, things much worse than what happened to him, and it made me go, “Awesome!”

MW: You are a writer, publisher and editor, three very different hats. Which one fits you best?

JM: I’d have to say publisher. I’ll never stop writing my own stories, but there’s just no greater reward than working with others. I’m a pretty good editor. I still have lot to learn and experience to gain, but I have a very sharp eye when it comes to mistakes.
     With the publishing, I’m a lot more driven and fulfilled. I do my best to promote their work, or push them to become better writers by teaming them up with other writers.  The authors tend to push themselves when they share a TOC such other big-name authors, focusing on their strengths and improving their weaknesses. That’s another reason why I love anthologies so much, it introduces readers to other writers they might enjoy.

MW: What made you decide to get involved with the publishing side of the business?

JM:   I just love working with other writers. It’s one of the best perks of being more than just a writer.
Also, sport injuries hinder me from sitting hours and hours behind a computer, so it’s pretty cool that I can now work according to my own schedule; although it’s still pretty hectic.
     Plus, my main goal in life is to create, whether it’s a book written solely by me, or an idea that becomes a great book.  I can’t begin to describe the amazing stories I’ve read and edited so far. It’s pretty awesome to be able to read top notch stories months before the world gets to see it – to be part of such an amazing process with other writers. Writing tends to get lonely, but compiling an anthology or working with an author and the cover artists is pretty damn cool.

MW: Crystal Lake Publishing started in August 2012, and has gone on to launch quite a few books since then. Was the response from the public positive from the start?

JM:   Definitely. I think it was a combination of timing and knowing the right people. I published my own book (Lost in the Dark) first, just as a tester to sort out any kinks before taking on other authors. I’d rather screw up my own book, and then learn from my mistakes. It was quite the learning curve.
   I chatted with Ben Baldwin about doing a cover, who I met through a project with my friends over at Dark Minds Press. I commissioned Ben to make the cover of my book and the next book, which would be an anthology.
     I played it smart, and only started filling the TOC once I could show the authors the cover. Authors love nice covers. I then posted the cover on Facebook and continued to invite authors, adding them onto the ever-growing TOC, right there on Facebook where everyone could see it. I quickly received messages from authors I actually wanted to invite anyway, asking if I’d consider their work. I couldn’t stop smiling.
     After For the Night is Dark, I contacted Daniel I. Russell about doing a collection of his own. And things just picked up from there. I knew that, although it came down to quality, I had to put in the hours and really push to get a few titles out within the first year or so. Nobody takes a publisher with only two titles very serious.
     So I spent a lot of time studying the market and learning more and more about publishing and marketing (still busy), but it’s a combination of a lot of strategies, contacts and effort that helped launch this company.

MW: Why should people read Crystal Lake’s work?

JM: Straight answer, because I enjoy reading every story I’ve published. I’m a horror fan, but mostly a fan of stories. Whether the story comes in the form of a book, comic, movie, series, play or even a song doesn’t matter. So I write and therefor publish what I would like to read. I’m not naïve enough to believe there are no people out there like me. Lots of people enjoy the same stories I do, and the better I become at the craft of writing and editing, the better I can bring all these stories to life.
     I’m actually just happy just to see people reading more. I don’t shy away from promoting other indie publishers or great authors, no matter where they’re published. A lot of my best friends are publishers.

MW: One upcoming project that I have a small involvement in is your ebook non-fiction project Horror 101.  What can you tell us about that?

JM: What started out as a small EBook project, meant to be given to newsletter subscribers, ended up ballooning into a multi-author venture into professional career advice.  I've seen a lot of authors celebrate small successes on forums and Social Media, only to see them lose speed a few months later. It's like they don't know what to do after they have their first successes. Other authors come to a point where they need to expand or change their course, but they don't know what options are available to them.
     And that's what Horror 101 is all about.
     This book is loaded with 4 types of articles: a few on what horror writing is or should be; a few on getting the work done; some offering career advice by those who've been in the field most of their lives; and the main body of the book: articles about many different avenues available to horror authors, from working on articles to comic books, screenplays, podcasts, reviews, publishing, editing, self-publishing, audiobooks... the list goes on.  And the talent in this book goes all the way up to Graham Masterton, Jack Ketchum, Ramsey Campbell and Edward Lee, along with an introduction by Mort Castle.

MW: What else we can expect from Crystal Lake Publishing in 2014?

JM: Except for a surprise novella (which will then be combined into a collection later the year), there are quite a few books already lined up:
William Meikle’s Samurai and Other Stories.
The Outsiders (a Lovecraftian, shared-world anthology).
Horror 101, as mentioned above
Tales From the Lake Vol.1.
Children of the Grave (a zombie, shared-world, choose your own adventure collection, where each author writes a different direction).
And if everything goes well and things aren’t too hectic, I’ll be able to finish my second collection by the end of 2014, but it’ll probably only be out early 2015.
The second Tales From the Lake horror writing competition.
But you never know what opportunities will come along. I always leave a bit of room in case something big comes knocking. You see, always be ready when opportunity comes knocking.

MW:        Thanks for your time, Joe, much appreciated.  If this has piqued your interest, Crystal Lake Publishing can be found online in the following places:

Website: www.crystallakepub.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/crystallakepub
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/Crystallakepublishing

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The House Next Door, by Anne Rivers Siddons

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book that I've read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.  Of course, this book is now 36 years old so it might be that I'm the last one left who hasn't read it...

It was an architectural masterpiece - every young couple’s dream house.  Suddenly, within it and everywhere around it, families began to suffer, to go mad…to die.

And then, with mounting terror, the family next door was struck with the paralysing fear that they were next…that the pure horror of the house could not let them live…

that their salvation lay in fire and murder…and that to survive, they must enter and destroy - 
The House Next Door

(from the back cover of my 1982 Ballantine Books edition)


Their love would never be the same.
Colquitt and Walter Kennedy enjoyed a life of lazy weekends, gathering with the neighbours on their quiet, manicured street and sipping drinks on their patios. But when construction of a beautiful new home begins in the empty lot next door, their easy friendship and relaxed get-togethers are marred by strange accidents and inexplicable happenings.

Though Colquitt's rational mind balks at the idea of a "haunted" house, she cannot ignore the tragedies associated with it. It is as if the house preys on its inhabitants' weaknesses and slowly destroys the goodness in them -- ultimately driving them to disgrace, madness and even death.

Anne Rivers Siddons transports you deep into the heart of a neighborhood torn apart by a mysterious force that threatens their friendship, their happiness and, for some, their very existence.

I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time - ever since, in fact, I read Stephen King’s analysis of it in “Danse Macabre” - and although it took me a long time to get hold of a copy (I finally found mine, the 1982 Ballantine edition from Canada, in a charity shop), it’s definitely been worth the wait.  Written as a contemporary novel and published in 1978, this still works perfectly with only a few hints betraying the fact that (as I write this review) it’s 36 years old.  

Col narrates the novel (apart from a brief epilogue) and she and her husband Walter are normal people, as the prologue spells out.  Thirtysomething and deeply in love, they’re not rich but not poor, they have good friends, they have a nice house in a nice area (plus a summer cottage on ‘the island’) and life in Atlanta treats them well, with Walter a partner in an ad agency and Col a freelance PR person.  When Col hears that the McIntyre lot next door to them is due to be developed, she hates the idea since it means that a lot of trees and wild life will have to go, along with their privacy.  Then she meets Kim Dougherty, the architect, who is very proud of his creation and once the house is up, Col falls for its beauty.

"[The house] commanded you, somehow, yet soothed you.  It grew out of the pencilled earth like an elemental spirit that had lain, locked and yearning for the light, through endless depths of time, waiting to be released…The creek enfolded its mass and seemed to nourish its roots.  It looked - inevitable."

The first occupants - part one of the book - are Buddy and Pie Harralson, expecting their first child and from moneyed Southern families.  Buddy is a lawyer, Pie is a perky kid who has a complex about her “daddy” and it’s clear the two men don’t get on.  Very soon, small animals - birds, chipmunks, the Harralson puppy - are killed, “smeared out of life”, though after the police are called, the murders stop.  “It was as though the murderer, having made some small point to the Harralsons, had moved on.”  The Harralsons host a house-warming party and everything goes wrong - a display of homosexuality leading to a heart attack - in a way that not only destroys lives, but the trappings of it, the reputations and standing.  It also takes its toll on Dougherty - he’s very proud of his creation but it blocks his creative drive and at the party, he realises “there’s something wrong with this house.”

Part two picks up the story as Buck & Anita Sheehan move in.  She’s been ill and he seems over-protective, though as the days and weeks pass, it comes to light that they lost their only son in Vietnam (in a tragedy similar to the one in which Anita lost her father and brother).  Anita receives phone calls with no caller and she sees her sons death in a TV movie that no station was carrying.  As she retreats into depression another neighbour, the well-respected Virginia Guthrie, helps out but can’t prevent the ultimate betrayal.  Although I won’t say what that is, Col witnesses the incident and she’s unable to tell anyone else, which ties her into the dark secrets of the house.  The house affects Kim further, leading him to try it on with an uncomplaining Col and their almost-tryst is witnessed by Walter, who is driven into a rage that they only just manage to avoid.  From this point on, as our heroes become keenly aware that something is askew, the tension begins to crank up.

Part three has the Greene’s move in.  On the surface, Norman is an overbearing, ex-army college lecturer and his wife Susan is quiet, tolerant and moneyed.  Their daughter, Melissa, is 8 and during a party she has an accident that - again - causes distress but also highlights that Norman is a monster.  At this point, the house comes between Col and her close friend Claire Swanson, another neighbour who has always been supportive and this section is beautifully written and full of pain.  When the end comes for the Greene’s, that resolution - a tragedy of the mundane - is heartbreaking as it plays out.  At this point, Col and Walter decide enough is enough and finally make a stand but the reaction is one they expect - ridicule, ostracisation and pity - and we see this once lively couple driven to extremes that couldn’t have been contemplated at the start of the book.  As everything collapses around her and Col mourns her previous life, with friends and laughter and good futures to look forward to, there’s a real sense of loss.

Then we get the final, shocking twist of the knife.

This is a wonderful book, that had me enthralled from the start to the gut-punch finish.  Wonderful written (and simply told), the whole thing is perfectly constructed and the language is often beautiful (when the Swansons move out, Col observes - “About a waiting house [there is] a sort of mournful abandonment, a wistful air of ‘Why are you leaving me?  What went wrong?'").  For the most part, Col has a lovely narrative voice and the home she shares with Walter, their sanctuary, is the exact opposite of Dougherty’s modern marvel and Siddons uses it to create a warm, homely base.

The Atlanta location is well used, from the seasons (Siddons writes the heat of summer and the coolness of the evenings so you feel as if you’re sitting on the Kennedy patio) to the mixture of old and new money (and old and new values) and the dialogue has a lilt that is pleasant to read.  The characters are well-drawn and believable within the situation (even if, as with Col sometimes, they are occasionally too stuck-up about things to be sympathetic) and the book has a nice pace to it, taking its time to set things up but with a mounting sense of tension behind it all.  The three stories (each new neighbour has its own part) give it a feel of interlinked novellas, but that works too, with Col acting as the bridge between them.

However, the novels masterstroke is the house itself.  Whilst a lot of bad things happen in it, most of them - as characters point out - could be ascribed to terrible bad luck and it’s only as a sum of the whole that gives Col’s fear of it being haunted any credence.  But is it, or is it just the fact that we have an unreliable narrator who is slowly unravelling over 278 pages?  Personally - especially regarding the ending - I think it’s the house because it doesn’t only wreak havoc on its occupants but destroys the people around it, fragmenting the neighbourhood, wrecking long-standing friendships and creating terrible secrets that help to grind down daily life.  As the blurb says, “It is as if the house preys on its inhabitants' weaknesses and slowly destroys the goodness in them -- ultimately driving them to disgrace, madness and even death” and that’s perfect.  

“The House Next Door” is a great read and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Reaping The Dark, by Gary McMahon

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book that I've read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.


A streetwise getaway driver…

A drug raid that ends in bloodshed…

A violent criminal hell-bent on revenge…

A secret order of occultists…

And something summoned from the darkest depths of nightmare.

Who will survive this long, dark night, and how will it change them? And what kind of horror will be born from the chaos left behind?

If the old adage is true and we reap what we sow, then only evil can be unleashed by Reaping the Dark.


‘Nobody is interested in the driver until it’s time to get away’.

Clarke, the getaway driver in question (known to his peers as Driver Z), was orphaned at an early age and mentored by Oakes, who now acts as his go-between.  Carving out a “walk away quickly” lifestyle with his pregnant girlfriend Martha, who shares his views - virtually everything in their flat is rented - he dreams of becoming a stuntman, realising that his life must change when he becomes a father.  His latest job, a drugs raid that goes badly wrong, takes place at an abandoned Masonic Lodge (which, the news later informs him, was also the base for the mysterious Order Of The Darkened Veil) and Clarke suddenly finds himself in possession of £300k and pursued by a psychopath and something much, much worse.

Apart from the prologue, this is told in present tense and whilst it takes a while to adjust to that, it suits the story perfectly and gives the whole thing a lovely, noir-ish feel.  The tonality of the first half reminded me somewhat of the film “Drive” (indeed, McMahon says the story was inspired by wondering what would happen if James Sallis wrote a Dennis Wheatley story) and there’s also a Michael-Mann-like sense of detachment (it’s a very filmic story, you can almost see the neon soaked visuals as you read).

A mixture of styles, from the existential start to the siege mentality second half, this moves at a cracking pace taking in brutal violence, perceived history, the honour - or lack thereof - of thieves, a wonderful sense of atmosphere and location whilst all the while giving us well-rounded characters who have very believable relationships.

An assured novella, very well told and superbly realised, this is highly recommended.

4 out of 5 stars.


Available from Dark Fuse and all good online bookshops

eBook $3.49 | Limited HC $37.50


Quick note and a declaration of interest.  I make no secret of either my friendship with Gary McMahon, nor my immense respect for his talent.  I was lucky enough to read this novella in draft and the above post was an honest review based on that.

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, by J. W. Rinzler

As regular readers of this blog will know, I'm not only a big fan of the original "Star Wars" trilogy but also of behind-the-scenes books.  Having read J. W. Rinzler’s excellent “The Making of Return Of The Jedi” earlier this year (you can read the blog here) , I decided I wanted to go back into the wonderfully informative environment he created and asked for this for my birthday.  Luckily for me, since I’m so difficult to buy for (apparently), it was gratefully bought.


Using mainly contemporary interviews (from late 1977 through to 1980), with a few conducted in the 90s and 00s, this covers the whole of the production from the opening of “Star Wars” (which took everyone by complete surprise) to the opening of “Empire Strikes Back” and touches on pretty much every aspect of the production in between.  As with the Jedi book, the research is thorough and extensive, which even extends to captioning pictures and identifying people way in the background.  The success of “Star Wars” does help the cause a bit here, since “Empire” benefited from an accomplished unit publicist in Alan Arnold, who later published “Once Upon A Galaxy: A Journal of the making of The Empire Strikes Back”, which I read a couple of years ago.  A thick paperback, it was the official making of (there was also a magazine too) and Rinzler quotes from it extensively, whilst also drawing on other interviews Mr Arnold made at the time but which have previously been unpublished.  At first I thought this overlap of information might be too repetitive but it isn’t at all, with the longest lift (where Irvin Kershner was miked up on the Carbon Freezing set) being interspersed with later comments made by the principals concerned.

By the end of 1977, George Lucas was already at work on the sequel and brought in Leigh Brackett to shape the screenplay.  The script conference transcripts published here only have his contributions (no explanation is made as to why) but they’re very interesting, with the bare bones of the film clearly already in place in his mind (though he gets as stuck here with Vader living in a castle as he did the Empire planet during the Jedi conferences).  As it was, Brackett died before she could work on the second draft and virtually none of what she wrote was used, though Lucas ensured she retained a screen credit.  Instead, Lawrence Kasdan was drafted in - he’d just written the “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” script - and his approach is clearly like a breath of fresh air, as he questions ideas and motives and suggests (on occasion and usually unsuccessfully) that Lucas might not be right.

Irvin Kershner talking with Marcia Lucas, George's then wife.
Adamant that he wouldn’t direct, Lucas suggested his old USC film tutor Irvin Kershner for the role with the latter agreeing after several conversations (I imagine the fact that his son was ten-years-old also played a part).  Kersh, as he’s affectionately called by everyone, was clearly a different director, keen to take his time on composition and although Lucas had concerns about producer Gary Kurtz’s ability to rein him in, he chose not to air them - a decision he would later come to regret.

As well as the pre-production of the film, the book also follows the formation of several Lucasfilm entities, including Black Falcon (the licensing arm, which I only discovered the existence of in the Jedi book), how the various divisions were structured and the plans for Skywalker ranch.  Having read “Skywalking” (which is not listed in the bibliography at the back of this), I love that whole late seventies period, as the company sets up and operates out of The Egg Company in LA and ILM hides in plain sight as The Kerner Company in San Anselmo and Rinzler is thorough in his exploration of this period.  It’s also interesting to see how the merchandising helped the entire operation, with Black Falcon lending money to both Lucasfilm and ILM to get things moving.  Best of all though is the information about the ranch - the plans, the daytrips, the fourth of July picnics - and Rinzler paints a wonderful picture of the era, the atmosphere remembered fondly by all those involved in it, a tight and small close-knit group that felt like a family.  But even as the production wore on and the dealings with the banks got more intense and Lucas was pushed into an executive role with his companies (Lucasfilm funded the whole project), things were changing.  Lucy Wilson - Kurtz’s assistant and one of the original employees - comments that where once she and Lucas could say hi and chat, she soon had to book appointments to see him.  As it is, this seems as troubling to Lucas as anyone else.

On location in Finse, Mark Hamill is filmed on one of the Tauntauns
Production began with the main unit at Finse in Norway and it seems to have been a disaster from the beginning.  Weather delayed shooting, Kershner took his time and things got away from Kurtz, leading to his eventual estrangement from the Lucasfilm group, with Howard Kazanjian (who would go on to produce Jedi) getting more involved.

Things were more settled at Elstree Studios in London, though Kershner, working with his DoP Peter Suschitzky to produce the best work possible, played havoc with Lucas’ plans.  As his pace upset the schedule and pushed the film over budget, issues with cashflow and the banks kicked in, adding further to the stresses that Lucas was trying to hide from his director.

Rinzler covers every aspect of the production in equal detail (I loved the discovery that the filming was juggled to fit the sets - since the Falcon was built full-size, it pretty much stayed where it was and new sets were built around it) and doesn’t shy away from some of the more candid conversations.  Lucas was a large presence on set (but not to the extent that he would be on “Jedi”) and although he takes every opportunity to point out he’s not the director (he didn’t do any of the publicity tours), the very thought of it clearly annoys Kershner, who bristles with journalists who suggest it.  For his part, Kershner comes across well, imbuing the material with depth and emotion and working hard with his cast and crew to make things are good as they possibly can be.  Working in the moment, having already planned thoroughly, he liked to leave enough room for conversations and discussions with his actors (the Carbon freezing sequence, as mentioned above, shows this brilliantly) that clearly benefit the film.

The now iconic group shot - Hamill, George Lucas, Carrie Fisher and
Harrison Ford.  The lady shown standing behind and between Fisher
and Ford is Robert Shaw's daughter, who worked on the crew.
Of the actors, Mark Hamill comes across very well, though he does comment he and Carrie Fisher clashed a few times.  In fact, Fisher also clashes with Kershner and Harrison Ford (in the miked-up section) and Billy Dee Williams later tries to be diplomatic, in saying that her mind perhaps wasn’t on the job all the time.  In fact, with the production keen to film her scenes and release her, it appears her well-documented foray into addiction was already taking hold.  Ford, for his part, comes across as occasionally stroppy but always keen to do a good job.


Stuart Freeborn (make-up effects supervisor, on left)
 talks about the Yoda head with Frank Oz and Jim Henson
As production released cast members to move into the Dagobah set and the schedule goes ever further over, you can almost hear the rankling in Lucas’ comments as the pressure being put on him - as the financier - must have been incredible.  That’s not helped by the whole Yoda situation and it’s worth noting that whilst the world readily accepted the puppet as a living, breathing character, at the time it was an enormous risk.  We watch “Empire” now, we see Yoda everywhere and we take him as read but back in 1978/79, nobody had tried anything like it before.  I was surprised to read that Frank Oz only worked on the film for 12 days (he was lent out by Jim Henson’s company as they were gearing up for “The Dark Crystal”) and completely agree with Kershner’s observation that the Dagobah sequences are made by the sincerity of Mark Hamill’s acting.

Another thing I discovered is something I’ve long wondered, that the second and third films can’t have been as much fun for Hamill since Luke was often split up from the other characters.  He’s quoted as saying, “It was almost like two separate films were being made.  I got nostalgic for the grand old days on the Death Star, when Harrison, Carrie, Chewie and I were all together in the trash compactor.”  Hamill ended up working on the film for 103 days.

Effects Supervisor Richard Edlund, George Lucas and
modelshop supervisor Steve Gawley with the Medical Frigate model.
Production complete, the action moves back to California.  ILM was put together again in San Anselmo, moving away from LA and the original building and leaving John Dykstra and several colleagues there.  In between designing shots (far more than the original film) and creating new worlds and ships and creatures, the team also had to design and build new equipment and the schedule very quickly becomes constrictive.  Everyone keeps their sense of humour though - especially effects supervisor Ken Ralston - and by the end of the period, they’re even changing original shots (the Wampa monster) because they don’t want anything “crappy” popping up in ‘their film’.

(from left) Dennis Muren (effect Supervisor), Phil Tippett and Jon Berg
with the Tauntaun puppet
Rinzler, as with every other aspect of the production, is exhaustive in his approach to the ILM work, with shots often mapped out by the frame so that they fit into the already fine-edited final cut of the film (which Lucas would add a few shots to, between the initial limited-run 70mm release and the wide 35mm one).  Phil Tippett and Jon Berg quite rightly get a lot of attention for their stop-motion work with the AT-AT’s (another risky visual image) and Tauntauns, but it’s clear to see that ILM was a more harmonious place with everyone being given a chance to shine (Lucas later says he was very pleased with the work they did).  Hoth seems to have been the hardest work in terms of technical difficulties (not only colour matching snow and hiding matte lines, but also trying to comp stop-motion creatures into it), with a lot of effort put into them - Bruce Nicholson, head of the optical department, shrugs away his successes by saying he used a “Norway filter”.

from left - Irvin Kershner, Gary Kurtz, George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan - on the Hoth set
Towards the end of post-production, Alan Ladd jr left Twentieth Century Fox, which didn’t help Lucas with the studio or the banks since Ladd was their key supporter.  Lawrence Kasdan was also caught out, since Fox was going to make his noir-thriller “Body Heat” and once Ladd left, the film was put into turnaround.  Ladd set the film up at his new Ladd Company and Lucas was sponsor on the film, with the proviso that if it went over budget, the funds should come from his fee.  As Kasdan says, “this was a generous, supportive thing to do”.

Rinzler examines contemporary interviews and one, from Time magazine in 1978, seems particularly pertinent.  When asked about his future directing ambitions, Lucas says “I will go back and direct another [“Star Wars”] film, but it will be toward the end of the cycle, about 20 years from now”.  The Phantom Menace was released in 1999.

Rinzler also details how perceptive Lucas was with future technology and how it would assist the film-making process, especially with digital images.  Sprocket Systems (later renamed Skywalker Sound) had a Computer Research and Development Division set up within it, headed by Ed Catmull, to develop computer aided visual and sounding editing equipment.  They also developed the Pixar system, which would later become the Pixar Division and be sold off to Steve Jobs.

The post-production part ends with a section on the matte paintings which Harrison Ellenshaw, Ralph McQuarrie and Michael Pangrazio created.  Showing them in progress and often against the final frames, these are gloriously reproduced and a real sight to behold.
Harrison Ellenshaw's matte painting of Slave 1 on the Cloud City landing pad.  The only live action in the shot was Boba Fett and the guards carrying the carbonite block.
As with Jedi, the final part of the book deals with the release and reception of the film, as Lucas’ risky venture proves a hit with the paying public (he made his money back in three months), if not all of the critics (though some would change their tune over the years) though it did win several awards in 1980 (including a special Academy Award for the visual effects).  Reading some of the reviews back - again with the benefit of hindsight, knowing that this sequel is generally considered the best film of the trilogy (I prefer “Star Wars”, as it happens) - it’s interesting to see how people’s perceptions changed.

Candid, thorough and superbly researched, this is painstakingly extensive and never less than readable and filled with beautifully reproduced photographs.  I thought the Jedi book would be the benchmark but I think Rinzler has excelled himself here.

I’m a huge fan of the original trilogy and Making Of Books and this is pretty much perfect, to the extent that I dragged out the last few pages because I didn’t want it to end.  Very highly recommended.