Archive for July, 2010

The Art of “Unsee”-ing

Posted in Film, Guest-blog on July 31, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Mark West, horror writer and a regular commenter here (as well as the contributor of the very first guest-blog on these pages), posted the following some time ago on his own blog, Strange Tales. I thought it appropriate in light of the last two blogs I’ve written (Why Horror? & Why Cheap isn’t so Cheerful…). As usual, I would like to hear from other people on this topic, so please leave your comments!!

—()—

I write horror, so I obviously enjoy the genre and I take a lot of enjoyment from it as a consumer – reading and films and some glorious soundtracks – and, in general, I don’t like censorship. I understand its importance, of course, because I have a little boy who’s almost five and very inquisitive and would love to read Daddy’s Fangoria. He knows about horror, because I’ve told him things that I’ve read and seen in a way that he might understand, but he’s never watched anything scary nor have I read anything particularly scary. He needs to be protected, but I’m an adult and I don’t want other adults telling me what I should and shouldn’t watch. So I have a little dilemma on that area.

I tend to self-censor, based on the concept that you can’t “unsee” something. I love horror in all its form – having said that, I’m not a big fan of the ‘torture-porn’ sub-genre, because I think it’s lazy and nasty to no purpose and Eli Roth is a rubbish film-maker – but I’m also very aware that it’s not real. Stephen King once wrote about the zipper on the monsters back and though we don’t get that so much anymore, I can tell latex and most people can spot CGI without too much trouble at all. Horror is about taking you away – certainly, it points you at things you find uncomfortable and, especially with books, prods at it until either you or the character breaks – and in films, it’s make-believe. It can scare you, often it can terrify you, a lot of the time it’ll make you groan with its ineptness but at the end of the day, the actors washed themselves off, Rick Baker packed away his make-up bag and everyone went home.

“Unsee”-ing is much harder if what you’re watching is actually happening and to real people. When I was at school, I loved history in the 5th year because it was ‘modern’ and focussed from about 1939 onwards. I vividly remember one Spring afternoon when sat in the little AV theatre at Montsaye and watched Stevens’ colour footage of the liberation of Auschwitz and I can still see the bulldozer and its terrible load. For VietNam, the images of Kim Phuc running and the Vietnamese man being executed are still lodged there, as is the footage of the burning monks (which makes the Rage Against The Machine album difficult for me to look at ). I feel uncomfortable watching this stuff because – and I must stress, our history teacher wasn’t trying to entertain us – it’s real people, whose lives are threatened or irrevocably altered or ended by the act I’m watching.

Later, two incidents I saw on the news stuck with me too. I was watching the BBC 9 o’clock news with the folks and there was a report from South Africa which, at the time, was still heavily in the grip of apartheid. The footage was in a football stadium and showed a fat black man, wearing a white shirt, running from one side to the other (ie, towards the camera). As he ran, people stepped in his way and he tried to run around them and I assumed they were punching him, but as he got closer to the camera, I noticed his shirt was changing colour. And that the men who were punching him had knives in their hands.

Later still (in 1988), my Mum & I were watching the lunchtime news and saw live the awful moment when those SAS officers drove into the path of a Republican funeral. I remember watching the crowd swarm around their car and the taxi that blocked their escape route, before the feed died and I was able to process how awful it would be to be in that situation. Real people, real problems, with literally life-and-death decisions to be made.

Those things weren’t entertainment, dreamed up and written or filmed for my enjoyment, they were real-life. And I can’t unsee them (and some of them have been in my head for more than a quarter of a century).

What’s prompted this was a discussion I had on Facebook with my friends Gary McMahon and Chris Teague. There’s a new film about called “A Serbian Film” and if you don’t like the idea or concept of extreme cinema, you have already read too much and I would advise you against further investigations. I first heard about this film a couple of months ago and as someone who believes that art should push against the envelope, I read up on the story – the précis and some early reviews – and I’ve decided it’s not for me. There’s one particular sequence that, as a father, I don’t think I could ever tolerate and it’s the inability to “unsee” that pushes me to make that decision – I can’t have that kind of imagery on my mind for the next 25 plus years. Chris is not going to watch it, but Gary is still torn, though he knows that in doing so, he might inflict something awful upon himself.

The ironic thing is, for all our discussion and my comments about censorship above, I can’t see the film getting any kind of major release – there aren’t too many companies who’d be willing to touch something that extreme and those that would don’t have the logistics to get it out to a wide audience. Do I think it should have been made? I’m not sure of the motives, but it certainly doesn’t read as exploitation for the sake of it so yes, if they’re making a point, they shouldn’t be stopped. But will I ever watch it? No. What I can see in my mind from what I’ve read is bad enough, I don’t want to be able to see the images.

So can you watch things that you know will frighten you to the core, even knowing that you’ll never be able to “unsee” them?

—()—

What Mark is saying here ties in neatly to the central thesis of Thursday’s blog – the idea that humanity itself is far crueller and more violent than any “make-believe” story or film could ever be. Plus, we have the capacity, as thinking adults, to be able to decide for ourselves what it is we watch or read, and how far along the road we want to travel. Like Mark, I have a problem with censorship (and also recognise that it’s a double-edged sword), and that I firmly believe in the right of every individual to determine for themselves whether they want to watch a particularly violent film, or choose instead to something completely innocuous. No-one should dictate what it’s ‘safe’ to read or see to anybody, bearing in mind, of course, Mark’s very pertinent remarks about protecting children. The latter is a very essential responsibility. It’s very likely, however, that this debate will stretch on and on, and will never find a satisfastory resolution.

Many thanks to Mark for permission to reproduce this!!

Why cheap isn’t so cheerful…

Posted in Rants on July 30, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

This blog is a little riff on what I blogged about yesterday. Mark West, writer and regular commenter here, remarked that a lot of horror, especially when it comes to the cinematic variety, is badly written and filmed. In other words, it appears that someone somewhere has got it into his/her head that all you need is a cheesy clichéd plot, throw in some monster or supernaturally-inspired violence, spray lashings of the red stuff around liberally (more than a single human body could ever hold, for one thing), maybe put in some reference to some dread tome or other, get the actors to speak some portentous drivel, put some heavy metal music in the background as a soundtrack and hey presto kids!! You have a horror film! Sit back and watch the hordes flock to the cinema!! You’ll become horror heroes and have them queueing around the block for your autograph at conventions…

Errr… no, actually, you’re not, and never will be, horror heroes. All you’ll have proved to the rest of the world is that you’re artless wannabes who have absolutely NO conception if what horror is. Okay, so I’ll agree that there are film-makers out there who CAN make visceral horror look like art, but generally speaking there’s this impression out there that horror-flims are cheap, nasty, and nothing but unreconstructed dross. And I believe it’s all the fault of those low budget ‘auteur’ directors who continually churn out repetitive film after film, all based on loose variations of the same plot, year after year after year. And then there are the suckers who buy into all that ‘it’s-so-bad-it’s good’ thing.

I hold my hand up – I am just as guilty of it  as I used to do exactly the same thing. About a decade a go, I had amassed a HUGE collection of videos, ninety-percent of which were horror. And out of that lot, about forty-percent (or maybe more), were just slightly above amateurish efforts. Back then, I laboured under the inpression that their very cheesiness was part of their charm, and was the very quality that saved them from being completely hopeless. Ten years later, now that I am actually involved in the horror scene, I see otherwise.

Those of us who choose to watch horror movies, read or write horror stories and books, or get involved at any level of the horror media, should be ashamed at some of the dross that gets pumped out. Those people not into the macabre and scary look at what we watch and read, see the lack of ‘artistic merit’ as they would term it, and consider us buffoons for even tolerating the standards of much of horror cinema and literature. We only reinforce their stereotypes of us. And, having seen as many dumb films as I have (and I think Mark would agree with me here), is it any wonder that people like the Booker Prize Chair, for instance, look down on our choice of reading and declare that it isn’t ‘literature’.

Yes, there are quality films and books out there (I certainly know about the latter, as I have read some absolute crackers recently), ones that elevate the form way above the morass of sewage out there. And I suppose that there will always be a market for the kinds of films that Uwe Boll churns out for instance. I just find it depressing when horror-fans bemoan the fact that the mainstream doesn’t take the genre seriously, when they go and watch some absolutely dreadful low-budget flick made in the Phillipines on a shoestring, that has absolutely no plot, and even fewer saving graces. The genre itself is to blame.

I am not advocating that all of us suddenly become high-minded litérateurs or auteurs ourselves, but simply that we think hard about what we watch or give our hard-earned money for. I am also not saying that we should should elevate ourselves into the rarified atmospheres that many writers and film-makers inhabit, but that we at least try to aim to get our genre taken seriously. It would nice to think that one day, horror and sci-fi books for instance won’t be relegated to the dark end of the bookstore.

I don’t have the answers, but it’s something that is beginning to bug me. I am not proposing a crusade of any kind – just, perhaps, that we start paying more attention to what our favourite genre throws up sometimes, and perhaps be more discerning when it comes to choosing what we watch or read. Maybe then, in some far future, Barker will be described in the same glowing terms as Hemingway – well you get what I mean.

Okay, rant over – thanks for reading!

Why horror?

Posted in General Musings on July 29, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

I don’t know about you, but I know there are people who assume that just because people like us like horror films and books that we must necessarily be sick people. That we somehow revel in the suffering of others, that we LIKE to see people on screen or on the page being knifed/dismembered/torn apart in a shower of blood. They question what sort of ‘thrill’ it is that we get out of that kind of ‘entertainment’ – if even they consider it entertainment at all. There are even some, no doubt, who would dearly love to see such things removed entirely from this world.

Well, I have news for those detractors – this world in general, and humanity in particular, is capable of far worse than anything a writer sitting at a computer would ever be able to think up. Just look back through history, and it won’t be too long before you’d come across numerous examples of horrendous cruelty and barbarity, perpetrated by homo sapiens upon their fellow homo sapiens. Take the Inquisition, for instance. If those torturers were around today, we’d call them psychopaths and murderers – and more to the point, they’d be practising their destructive ‘art’, not hypothetically on paper, but on real people. And, it appears, not think twice about what they were doing.

We have, apparently, become more civilised since those days, but people still kill each other, in every city, on every continent, every day. I get tired of reading in the newspaper about the constant round of death and destruction, the intolerance, hatred, belligerence and stupidity of mankind. Also, it seems that a large proportion of our society has sunk into a species of senile vacuity at best, where the things that are worth celebrating have now been marginalised as being irrelevant and that instead puerility is being touted as the new virtue. Plus there’s the horror of the everyday: anti-social behaviour, lack of respect for others, social maladjustment, paedophilia, racism and religious fundamentalism (of ALL varieties, NOT just Islamic). If I didn’t have those avenues of writing, or reading, or being able to watch a film, then all this would, inevitably, get on top of me. I see it as a necessary safety valve , especially if I’m reading others’ stories or watching some gory film.

I detest violence of any sort, but I do still feel anger, and if I bottle it up for too long, I feel that pressure building, and pressure will always seek an outlet. I think, in hindsight, that this kind of anger, and the pressure it inevitably engendered, contributed in large part to the stroke I had thirteen and a half years ago. Yes, I had my painting as an outlet back then, when I was seriously pursuing a career in art, and they tended to reflect to a very large extent the bottled up fury and disgust I felt (the colours I predominantly used were black and blood red – VERY angry). Painting no longer does it for me, however, mostly because I find the fiddly rigmarole of setting things up (plus the actual process of painting) to be such an almighty pain in the rear.

That vexed state of mind is best expressed through the medium of horror, or at least I think so. There are times when I wish I was a musician, but I have zero facility and talent in that direction. I could continue with the art, I suppose, but until I can get a permanent studio and set-up, then it’s a no-go for the reason cited above. So, I am left with the writing, and at least I know I have a modicum of talent with words.

And THAT’S why I write mostly horror – it’s a good platform on which to get out all those urges to go out and commit mayhem, and it’s legal too. So next time someone asks YOU why you write/read/watch horror, as them this: “What would YOU rather me do? Go out and kill someone, depriving a family of their mother/father/daughter/son/sister/brother? OR writing an entirely fictitious story about it, harming no-one?”

(I would also love to know why YOU write/read/horror – could be an interesting exercise in where people find their motivation to lean towards the macabre and blood-soaked…. please leave a comment here!!)

Guest-blog: JS CHANCELLOR

Posted in Guest-blog on July 28, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

JS Chancellor is a recent addition to the epic fantasy scene, but she is already making an impact and, according to her website, she has a whole slew of book projects on the go. She is also the editor/publisher for a new periodical, The Asylum, which is due to debut in December 2010 (in which one of my stories appears). Her debut novel, Guardians of Legend Trilogy, Book One: Son of Ereubus, is published in November of this year. Here, she reminds all of us aspiring writers that, in the end, persistence does indeed pay off, it’s just a question of finding the right arena for your work.

—()—

Being an author can be a whole lot like being a prostitute. No, really. Agents are reminiscent of pimps; publishers of johns. Guess who gets screwed. Sometimes. So allow me a moment to show you what the middle ground looks like.

I tried querying agents first. I heard most often, “I like this, but epic fantasy isn’t selling right now. Keep us in mind when the market changes.” Okay, but what do I do in the meantime? After one year and three weeks of writing on other stuff, I decided to try something I’d read in an agent’s blog: query small publishers. I’d already queried one and sadly, it went defunct a month or so later, so I was hesitant to take this advice. Nonetheless, I sent the query to a small, new publisher, and didn’t bother holding my breath because I figured their rejection would be the first of many. I mean—I had already sent 47 queries—heard 47 ‘no thanks.’

They didn’t say ‘no thanks.’

Not only did they not say no, they were excited. Rhemalda Publishing believed in me as an author, and my work. They listened to all of my questions. In fact, because they understood how important the date was, I was able to announce the book deal (it had JUST arrived a few hours earlier) to my in-laws when we went out to eat on my birthday. Best. Birthday. Ever.

Did I sign a multi-million dollar deal? No. Did I sign a deal worth millions? Yeah—I did. It was priceless when you consider what it did for me as an author, for my career. I was stuck in the mire of wondering whether or not I would ever see my work truly polished and for sale in a traditional way. I was downtrodden and uninspired.

I’m as far from that place as I can be now.

Now, I’m knee deep in marketing/publicity stuff, and finishing up another manuscript for a stand-alone fantasy that I’d previously been unable to finish because of nerves alone. I leave my phone on more often now because it might be my publisher. I check my email with a smile on my face because there won’t be rejections in my in-box. I am planning a vacation, not to escape the frustration of the process, but to attend an event with my publisher and meet booksellers and sign books. My books.

But, the most important thing career-wise that has come from all of this: I have my foot in the door. Agents read your query more closely when it has publication credits attached to it, just like they read it more closely when you run a blog with high readership. It is one step closer to a solid, well-established career.

There are down sides to small publishers. You’ve got to be prepared to work twice as hard to get publicity. Distribution can be an issue since the slots for books on the shelves are filled first by the larger houses’ offerings. But, larger houses will give you far less time to make it or break it. You’ve got a matter of months to sell (if I read this correctly) at a 65% or higher rate before your novel gets pulled. Small publishers stick around longer and tend to be more loyal to you when it comes to subsequent manuscript submissions. Large houses produce books and occasionally well-known authors. Small houses produce authors and occasionally well-known books.

It is up to the individual publisher and your ability to shamelessly market yourself, which way a book deal goes, regardless of the size of your publisher. I know several authors who were published with one of the big five who are now going to the self-publication route because no one will sign them after a couple of bad book runs. Their novels were pulled before they had a chance to succeed. I also know of a few well-known authors whose work was first published by a small press.

You might have heard of this one: J.K. Rowling

“The book was submitted to twelve publishing houses, all of which rejected the manuscript. A year later she was finally given the green light (and a £1500 advance) by editor Barry Cunningham from Bloomsbury, a small British publishing house in London.”  (Wikipedia)

Obviously, Bloomsbury isn’t quite so small anymore.

The biggest difference though, and why I’m glad to be starting out with a small publisher, is that they know you.

Rhett (Rhemalda’s president) knows that I am up all hours of the night and that I have two dogs, but no children. Rhett knows that my husband is a cop, that I hate it when words are repeated too much in a manuscript and he knows what I look like—we’ve done video conferences.

Rhemalda is more than a company, they’re flesh and blood folks who treat their authors like family. I’m not a commodity. I’m a contributor. If things go well for me, then we all benefit from it and they know that.

Larger houses can be just as warm and wonderful, so I don’t mean to get anyone’s knickers in a knot. But, what is undeniable is the difference in how you’re treated as a new author versus a seasoned, proven one. You vs. James Patterson.

So, if you’re in the same place I was…you might consider looking for middle ground. It just might be the first step in the largest staircase you’ll climb in your career.

—()—

You can find out more about JS Chancellor’s work at her author website: http://www.jschancellor.com or at the blog she runs dedicated to the craft of fiction: http://www.welcometotheasylum.net.

Lastly, you can find out more about her debut trilogy, Guardians of Legend, by visiting http://www.guardiansoflegend.com.

Many thanks to JS for taking the time to write this!!

Books: traditional or electronic?

Posted in Writing and words on July 27, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

This particular topic has been bouncing around in my head for a while now, especially in light of the number of updates on FB from a certain JA Konrath concerning his earnings from the sales of his e-books. It appears that e-books could be a nice little earner for writers. However, is reading from an electronic device the same as actually reading the words from a ‘real’ book.

I will point out here that I have nothing against new technology and innovation, in fact quite the opposite.I love science and technology, mainly because it still has an aura of the whizz-bang surrounding it as far as I’m concerned (gained, no doubt, from watching too many sci-fi films in the 60s and 70s). And THAT’S because I am, admittedly, mostly technologically inept. Even my mobile gets me all tangled up occasionally (although, if I’m honest, about 98% of the features programmed into it are superfluous to my needs). Conversely, I embraced both the internet revolution and CDs when they came blinking into the daylight two decades ago, and with unseemly haste too.

However, e-books are different for me, somehow. It just doesn’t feel right to me to be reading a book on a monitor screen. I find it difficult to read vast chunks of text on my computer. When I did a computer multimedia degree course back in the early nineties, one of the things I was taught was that people get put off having to read a screen crammed full of words. I was told to break the text up into smaller clumps, so people could assimilate what they were reading much better. I guess, though, that with the spread and universal ubiquity of computers nowadays, and the fact that kids are growing up with computers, our brains have evolved to accommodate things differently and that we have learnt to adapt. Is it any wonder that traditional book sales continue to slide, or so I am led to believe.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still prefer the look and feel of a real paper-based book, not to mention the smell associated with them (especially second-hand ones). Additionally, I find their solidity reassuring and comforting. There’s a deep sense that  books contain a whole world within their covers, just waiting to be opened and discovered. With an electronic device, however, despite efforts to the contrary, I just feel that the ‘book’ I’m reading is simply a collection of bits and bytes, of nothing more than digitised ones and zeros.

That thought tends to destroy any romantic notions that books engender for me, certainly as a reader. I think it’s the result of the way I was brought up. My father was an avid reader, as I have noted elsewhere, and he passed on his respect for them to me. He would get irritated if I even thought about bending back a corner of a page to act as a place-marker. I started reading at a relatively young age, because the house was full of them, and my parents would deliberately leave tomes lying around so my natural curiosity would make me want to pick them up and demand to know what was inside them. By the time I was six, I was reading a couple of books a week and, at six years-old, I read Lord of the Rings (mainly because it was my dad’s favourite book).

As a writer, I think it does behoove me to look into it, and see whether, should I make any sort of impact, that releasing e-books will bolster any potential income. That’s a big if though. Even given that, it would definitely be Luddite in the extreme to ignore the possibilities inherent in the medium. As a punter, however, I doubt whether I’ll ever invest in a reader – it would be a false economy, simply because it wouldn’t receive much use and lie forgotten in a corner somewhere, collecting dust.

There ARE advantages to someting like an iPad; you aren’t limited to bringing just one or two books with you on holiday, for instance – you could bring an entire library with you. You can’t fault them for their convenience. Plus, e-book titles are cheaper to buy than their paper cousins. Even if you take the initial reader price into account, especially if you’re a voracious reader. You can just slip a reader into your bag, containing thousands of titles (more than you could possibly read in an entire lifetime probably), and be on your way.

I suppose I’m a hopeless romantic when it comes to books. There’s something stirring when I look at all my books lined up on my shelves, a feeling that I don’t think I’d get if I was looking at a file index on a computer monitor. It’s been the same with my music collection – unless it’s extremely hard to find, then I would prefer to have the actual object, either CD or LP, in my hand. Nothing else would do. That dictum applies to books as well, and it always will.

It’s all about perceptions, I guess. I see books as worthy objects in themselves, not just as a way of filling up the time on a train journey, or as a means to stave off boredom on a wet Sunday afternoon. Apart from anything else, I love collecting old 50s and 60s paperbacks, in particular genre books and pulps. Handling and reading one of those gives back a vibe – who owned this book originally? What were they doing when they bought it? Where did they buy it and why? Why did they dispose of it?

You can’t get that with an electronic device. I may be one of a sadly dying breed, but I can’t help feeling that with the advent of e-books we’ve lost something. It’s that sense of wonder that I still possess, inherited from my father. Of course, it’s been blunted slightly, but it’s still there nevertheless. For my part, I hope that feeling will never fade…..

Some books and some news, too

Posted in Book Reviews, News on July 27, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Just to fill the gap, and to give me time to think of something to enthrall you with, some little snippets. First off, two new books for review have landed on my desk, to wit:

The Bitternest Chronicles, by Alan Draven (Pixie Dust Press)

Wolfsangel, by MD Lachlan (Gollancz Debut)

In addtion to that, I will be providing a little line or two for some back-cover blurb for Drew Stepek’s Knuckle Supper, an in-your-face, no-holds-barred story of some pretty out there vampires. DEFINITELY not one for your teeny-emo-Twilight-sensitive-vamp-lover brigade. BUT some of the money earned from sales will go to Children of the Night, a charity that helps teenage prostitutes get off the streets and build proper, secure lives – a worthy charity indeed.

Now THAT’S what I call eerie 1

Posted in Nostalgia on July 26, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

It’s a Monday morning, and I am never at my best – so instead of coming up with something deep and useful, I thought I would carry on down the path of nostalgia that I started walking on yesterday, and talk about one of my favourite films, Carnival Of Souls.

So, you’re a producer/director of industrial and educational films, and you decide to make a horror film. Not exactly the best of credentials, when you think about it. If you went to a ‘proper’ film producer you would be unlikely to get past the security guard at the entrance, let alone get to pitch your idea to the man himself. The only way to get this done would be to make the film yourself.

And that is exactly what Herk Harvey did, and put up an estimated $33,000 of his own money to make his ambition happen. And what did he eventually produce with that money? Carnival of Souls, one of the eeriest and most atmospheric films I have ever had the pleasure of watching.

I first came across the film on a late night TV showing, courtesy of Alex Cox’s Moviedrome. I had been aware of the film for a while before then, after seeing references to it in my favourite magazine at the time, Fangoria. Plus I had seen still images of The Man in ads in the same magazine. I was certainly intrigued, but simultaneously wary of any hyperbole attached to the film.

So, what’s it all about? (Those of you familiar with the film can skip this bit…) The plot is centred around Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a young organist, who gets challenged by a group of boys in a car to a drag race. While the two vehicles hare across a bridge, Mary’s car gets nudged off it, plunging her and her female companions into the river below. Somehow, she is the sole survivor, walking unexpectedly up the bank after a search had failed to locate her. The other girls in the car died when the vehicle hit the river below.

And from that point on things get weirder and more frightening. Mary takes a job in Salt Lake City as a church organist, and while driving there she passes an old abandoned pavilion, to which she feels strangely attracted. Not long afterwards she encounters The Man (played by Mr Harvey himself), when his image replaces her reflection in a mirror. Gradually, that image begins to haunt her more and more regularly, and there are also times when, most frighteningly, she herself begins to fade out of life altogether as if she wasn’t there, when those who surround her fail to acknowledge her existence, even when she stands right in front of them.

And so the dislocation she experiences gets more and more acute, until she finally finds herself at the pavilion she passed on her way to Salt Lake City, where she finally encounters the ghoulish Man who has been dogging her footsteps. And, right at the end, we finally get to learn the truth behind what’s been happening.

I am not going to reveal everything about the film because there may be some out there who have never seen it. To my mind, however, it’s a tour de force of atmospheric film-making, the strangeness only emphasised by the fact it’s shot in b&w. From the moment Mary is pitched over the side of the bridge and then, a few hours later, comes stumbling up the river-bank, you can just feel that something is awry here. That sense of displacement and dislocation only increases as the film progresses, as the distance between Mary and real-life streches out.

And the setting of the abandoned pavilion makes it even more unsettling and otherworldly. The place takes the role of a bridge between this plane of existence, and the hellish shade-filled world of The Man. Adding to the air of uneasiness is the magnificent theatre organ score by Gene Moore. The viewer is drawn in to the paranoia and confusion experienced by Mary, as she struggles to make sense of what is going on around her. Harvey effectively portrays what she’s experiencing by using simple tricks, like having the characters around her not ‘see’ her and also by cutting all sound. There is also an excellent scene where Mary starts playing hymns on an organ that slowly metamorphoses into atonality and dischord, signalling that she’s making a transition from here to somewhere else, a somewhere that’s considerably less wholesome and reassuring.

The Man never speaks during any of the encounters and always appears as a pale-faced ghoul. For me, the sequences where he and the other spectres are lying silently in a pool, eventually rising slowly out of the water and then beginning to dance is a magnificent example of delineating horrific, terrifying imagery on-screen without needing to use gore or violence. Accompanied by the bizarre organ music, it is extremely shiver-inducing.

If ever you get the chance to watch this film, then do so. Okay, some of you out there may feel that it’s dated and very redolent of its era, and perhaps the dénouement is obvious once the end is revealed. That’s not the point here. It’s the art with which Harvey has constructed the film, his slow piling on of the mysterious confusion and distress in Mary’s life, and that masterful use of the pavilion at the end and the sequences fimed therein that mark this out from many films of both then (with the possible exception of Robert Wise’s The Haunting) and now. It was remade in 1998, but I haven’t seen it so I can’t pass judgement, but from what I have gleaned it wasn’t even given a theatrical release and went straight to video, even though Wes Craven’s name was attached to it. That isn’t a good sign in my book.

In its own way, Carnival of Souls is a testament to an ambition nurtured by a man who, I don’t think, ever thought that it would ever garner the critical appraisal and cult following it has since gained. It’s also a reminder that sometimes the most affecting and successful things are nothing more than the result of pure accident and fortuitous timing. Even so, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could ALL do just one thing, like Harvey did, that would leave such an indelible mark behind. Essential viewing.

Tripping down (bloody) memory lane…

Posted in Nostalgia on July 25, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Today, I thought I’d indulge in a bit of unapologetic  nostalgia. The book-cover you see to the left, The 8th Pan Book of Horror Stories, edited by Herbert van Thal, was one of those vintage tomes responsible for me getting into the horror genre in the first place, along with Elliott O’Donnell’s The Screaming Skulls & other Ghost stories, which I have written about elsewhere. Like the latter book, I distinctly remember the slim volume being on the bookshelf that was at the top of our stairs, just outside my bedroom door. I do remember reading it and doing so at quite an early age, too – by the time I was about seven or eight I was getting tired of children’s books and started reading ‘adult’ books (but not those kind of adult books, I hasten to add – I wasn’t that precocious). I have no doubt that, because of its subject matter, I felt that reading it was somehow dangerous and illicit. And I do remember being utterly fascinated by that cover.

And, just like the Screaming Skulls volume, to this day, I have no idea as to who bought the book – I assume it must have been my brother, simply because it wasn’t the sort of thing that either my mum or dad would buy, plus he was older than me by seven years, so he would have allowed to buy books like that. Dad was more into classic sci-fi (Asimov, Clarke, Silverberg, Heinlein, et al – although his absolute all-time favourite book was the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which he read many, many times) and mum mostly read Catherine Cookson, I seem to remember. My brother was heavily into the sci-fi material, too, and so maybe horror was in the mix as well.

However, that was over 37 years ago now, and there have been a lot of books read, and memories built up, over the intervening years. The book has long gone, probably offered to some charity shop or other after I left home (along with my Dagon ‘zines, no doubt – that was my fault). I have to admit that I can’t remember anything about any of the stories, but that cover image has stayed with me, although I clearly remembered the severed head and not the hatbox (it was actually Johnny Mains who put me right on that one – I thought the head was in a wastepaper basket). It was one of the defining images of my childhood.

Anyway, I decided to try and find out what stories were contained in the book. And I found the table of contents at the Trash Fiction website (specifically here) and wasn’t all that surprised to find that most of the authors showcased I’d never heard of – except for one of course: Ray Bradbury. And, very appropriately (in light of yours truly’s current colourful appearance), the story of his that was included was ‘The Illustrated Man’. Unfortunately, however, just like all the other stories comprising the volume, I have absolutely no recollection of the story. I intend to put that right at some point in the future, however.

(As an aside, Johnny Mains will be writing a future guest-blog just prior to the reissue of the very first Pan Book of Horror Stories, which was originally published in 1959. Johnny has been hugely instrumental in getting this project off the ground, and the reissue will be released from the vault later on this year. Johnny also runs the Pan Horror Website, which can be accessed here.)

No doubt, even though I have completely forgotten them, those stories buried themselves deeply within the unlit recesses of my psyche, helping to shape the person I am today. I have always had a certain sideways outlook on life (aided and abetted by constant illness right up until the age of sixteen), a view that most of my peers at school failed to understand (and wouldn’t be interested in understanding, either). I was definitely one of the ‘uncool’ kids. I also have no doubt that it fashioned my subsequent tastes in art, music and film. In addition to that, like many who prefer genre literature and media, I have never particularly had a reality-based or earthbound imagination. I was always the one who was drawn to being an archaeologist (specifically, an Egyptologist), or an astrophysicist, or a specialist in some obscure topic.  And yes, I have always veered more towards the transgressive side of literature and cinema, often deliberately steering clear of and deriding mainstream popular culture.

And lo! these many years later, I still feel the same way, although to a much lesser degree  – getting older has sanded off the prickly, sharp spikiness of youth. I am still fascinated by the darker corners of life, the ones which people do their utmost to sweep under the carpet or do their best to deny. I have an abiding interest in social and cultural attitudes to death and dying in western society since the medieval period – if I could, I’d go back and study for an anthropology degree and delve into the subject deeper. I still read a great deal of genre material, of course, but I have also taken to dipping into other styles of fiction, as I am in love with (and highly valuing) the power of the written word.

Even so, I know my heart and mind will always belong to the bizarre, the odd, the weird and the horrible. It’s funny to think that where I am now was in all likelihood started by a small, cheap paperback lying on a bookshelf, in a home that is now a lifetime away. I suppose I have to be grateful to (and simultaneously blame) Herbert van Thal and Elliott O’Donnell for that.

Guest-blog: STEPHEN VOLK

Posted in Guest-blog on July 24, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

It’s more than likely that you’ve seen a lot of today’s guest-blogger’s work on TV and in the cinema but not be familiar with his name, which is a great pity (and something of an injustice). Stephen Volk is a script-writer, whose credits include Ken Russell’s Gothic; William Friedkin’s The Guardian; Superstition; and Octane. His most recent work was as creator/writer for the multi award-winning paranormal television drama Afterlife. He was also responsible for 1992’s (in)famous Halloween hoax ‘live’ broadcast programme Ghostwatch (which even raised questions in Parliament, apparently), which still stands up even today. He has also written short stories, collected in Dark Corners, and a novella, Vardøger (both Grey Friar Press), the latter of which was nominated for both a Shirley Jackson Award and a British Fantasy Award. Stephen lives in Wiltshire with his wife, the sculptor Patricia Volk.

Here, Stephen relates some of his experiences while on-set, seeing his words become moving images.

—()—

Recently I was invited to visit the set of a feature film I wrote called The Awakening (starring Rebecca Hall, Dominic West from The Wire and Imelda Staunton) in South London.  It was all there. Dozens of 1920s vintage cars. Fifty or so extras in period costume.  Urchins, policemen, Chinese opium peddler, rag and bone man, horse. Lights. Rain machine. Grit covering the yellow lines on the road. Crew of about seventy. Catering. Coffee. Endless assistant directors and assorted technicians, grips, and so forth… And I’m palpably hit by the feeling I get whenever I visit a film set of something I’ve written and it’s this.

Everybody’s looking at me thinking: “Who the fuck are you?”

A friend suggested I print the answer on a T-shirt: “I’m the writer. That’s who.”

Still, the producers had the good grace to ask me and I’m not complaining and, hopefully (prime directive) not getting in the way. The director Nick Murphy says hello and admires my “Overlook Hotel” T-shirt then goes straight back to work.  Quite right too. He has other things to worry about, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.  Then I meet the BBC lawyer.  She introduces herself, shaking my hand, and I recognise the name.  The same lawyer who gave my agent such grief and bollocks over the contact about eight years ago.  And she’s wearing, wait for it: headphones.  “Quiet please for a rehearsal!” cries the First AD.  Then I realise, slowly.  Oh my shit. She’s listening to the dialogue.  The BBC lawyer is listening to the fucking dialogue, and I’m not.

Welcome to the movies, Part One.

I watch the proceedings. It’s thrilling. No doubt about it. Tracking shot.  Beautiful. I love seeing things come together like this, the moments a director creates from words on the page, the chaos of the crew, the action fleeting then suddenly grasped, and gone. Straight on to the next set-up. There’s something about seeing the actors making the scene move in real time and the camera capturing it that’s intoxicatingly wonderful and I’m smiling, thinking: “The last time I saw this it was in my head.”  Which is when one of the extras, one of the Edwardian coppers in uniform, says to me: “Actually, I’ve written a screenplay.  It’s good, really good, but I’m not sure what to do with it. You could read it if you like.”

Welcome to the movies. Part Two.

I’ve been on quite a few film sets in the last twenty-five years of doing this screenwriting lark. Lots of times, you’ve come off the project long ago and you’re ancient history, actually not even that, because people remember history.

But being on set for the writer always feels like the same thing. Looking through a chain-link fence at a bunch of people playing football with your ball. Or being forced to watch a stranger slap your child around the face.

The first set I visited was Gothic directed by Ken Russell. It was amazing for me to see my candle lit dinner party scene in which Gabriel Byrne is Byron, Natasha Richardson is Mary Shelley and Tim Spall is Dr John Polidori, all in costume.  The last time I saw this it was in my head. You think, how can anybody say being on a film set is boring?  Jesus Christ! This is fucking incredible!

But after five days? I tell you. Boring. Boring. Boring!

Because, get this. As the writer you’re the only one there with no job to do. Nothing to do, in fact, but get anxious they’re doing it right or to fret over a line of dialogue they suddenly want changing. Once, I was there when the actors and Ken suddenly decided to cut a line, and I had to jump in and say the following scene wouldn’t make sense without it. The fact that it would have just happened if I wasn’t there filled me with such horror, I decided to leave the location and never come back. I got a birthday card from the lovely cast saying: “Come back, Stephen! We’re having fun!” but it was too late, my nerves were shot.

Fast forward to the Summer of 1992, when we were making Ghostwatch for its pretend “live” transmission on Hallowe’en of that year.  Mostly what I remember about visiting that location was my car breaking down three times on the way to West London and having to call out repeatedly an AA man, who, by the end of the evening, thought I was taking the piss.

“Maybe our poltergeist, eh, Dr Pascoe?”

The movie Octane was another kettle of fish. My script was originally called Fuel and was about a bunch of scavenging vampires posing as the emergency services on the M4.  The producers demanded it wasn’t the M4 but the American freeway system with a US star, Madeleine Stowe. Then they decided to shoot it in Luxembourg (Tax breaks, duh!). And the director didn’t want them to be vampires any more. So it goes.

Again, they were gracious enough to allow me to visit, but frankly, though my name is the only one credited, after ignominious rewrites, the script wasn’t mine any more. After a while in the US truck-stop set I introduced myself to Madeleine, the star, and she said, “Oh! I thought you were some art director or something.”

I’m the fucking writer. That’s who.

Thinking, I dreamt this up, but it isn’t my dream any more.  It’s everybody else’s.  And they’re changing everything and I want to love it and I want to trust them but I don’t know if I can even like it or bear it any more.  And by that stage you want to run home to the comfort of the keyboard, and dream again, dream better, and hope, hope this time…

But it’s not always like that.

When we shot the ITV paranormal drama series Afterlife a few years ago I made sure I visited the set every single episode. Apart from anything else, I wanted to tell my mum I’d met the actors. No: I wanted to meet the actors. And you know what? I was welcomed with open arms. I never felt there was a creative “battle” between me and the directors: far from it. Because we had a terrific producer in Murray Ferguson we knew before the first day of shooting we had a script we all concurred upon. I’d worked with the stars during rehearsals, and, more often than not, I was called on to do rewrites during the filming, too. And, guess what? It never scared or panicked me, because I knew the producer and script team would support me 100% of the way, or argue their point until I was happy with it. And that made me, I think, do my best work.  It was genuinely inclusive and truly exciting in a way that arriving and merely seeing the costumes isn’t.

My biggest buzz was getting to watch Andrew Lincoln and Lesley Sharp acting, so that by the time I was writing episode five, I’d seen them in episode one. That was tremendously liberating and professionally life-changing. I felt I could talk openly to actors for the first time in twenty years’ of drama writing. When Lesley said: “You know what? I’d love to have a scene where Alison gets really, nasty drunk and tells Robert exactly what she thinks of him.” I thought, right-oh. And it was the most fun I’ve ever had, writing that scene, because I could see them. It was almost like channelling. (Ironic, for a series about a spirit medium.)

So, The Awakening notwithstanding, it doesn’t always have to be clinging to the railings watching them playing with your football.

Sometimes it can be you on the pitch, speeding up the wing, playing in sync with a great team and a great manager. And sometimes, just sometimes, you might even score a goal.

—()—

Many thanks to Stephen for taking the time from his busy schedule to write this fantastic and insightful piece. So you thought being in the TV/film business was all about glamour eh? =)

Stephen’s website can be found here.

Future plans and coming attractions…

Posted in General Musings on July 23, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Just thought I’d give you guys the heads-up on some of the plans that I have for this blog, mainly to give an indication of where it’s going. =)

First off, in light of the Patience and the Small-Press blog’s popularity (and a discussion I had with Allyson Bird), I plan to run a regular series of features on small-press publishers, taking a different publisher a week and having the people who run them have their say. There are a lot of quality publishers doing great work out there and I would like to do my part, however small it is, in helping bring them to people’s attentions. The big boys don’t need any help; they have professional marketing departments to do that for them. It’s those who run these imprints in their spare time. just because they love the genres they publish, who need a little bit of a promotional spotlight now and then, and who better to do the promoting than the owners themselves? And I am not just talking about horror imprints here, but any medium of dark or genre fiction in either prose, poetry or comics form. Any small-press publishing outfits are encouraged to get in contact with me if they would like to be featured here…

I am also looking at writing pieces on classic genre books (sci-fi/horror mostly) maybe, or even better, I might take a look at some of those gloriously lurid covers that form part of the charm of vintage paperbacks.

Besides that, there’ll be the usual wittering from me, as well as the guest-blogs (including the second part of Barbara Roden’s excellent piece on editing, and new ones from Allyson Bird, Stephen Volk, JS Chancellor, and Rhys Hughes amongst others…). I will also keep posting the book reviews, a couple of days or a week after they first appear at Bookgeeks. And, of course, there’ll be the odd notification of an acceptance or the actual publication of something I appear in.

I’m sure there’ll be other stuff I’ll think of as time goes on…. but I reckon that’s enough for now…. thanks for dropping by!! =D