Archive for September, 2010

Guest-blog: ALISON LITTLEWOOD

Posted in Guest-blog on September 30, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

You may not be familiar with the name of today’s guest-blogger, but I can guarantee that you will be very soon. Alison has already appeared in a number of high-profile magazines with her short stories and was recently chosen as one of the authors to be included in the Never Again anthology from Gray Friar Press. I met the very personable Miss Littlewood at this year’s FantasyCon and I can honestly say that she is an absolute delight to talk to – plus her smile is infectious.

Here, she talks about how and why she started writing.

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Hopping Aboard the Horror Train

When I was younger, I didn’t read much horror. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it – I borrowed my brother’s James Herberts and Stephen Kings – it was just that I wanted to read EVERYTHING. (Unless it came packaged in pink covers and swirly writing, that is – I never was much of a girly girl.)

But when I started writing, something happened. One day – this is way back in 2004 – I thought I’d try the BBC’s ‘End of Story‘ competition. This entailed, fittingly enough, finishing a story begun by a famous author. And I read through the story starters, racking my brains as to what I’d write, until I got to Sean Hutson’s. Suddenly my head was full of ideas. Assassins? Severed thumbs? Nightmare train journeys, redolent of hell? Oh, yes. This was the one for me.

I discovered that dark fiction was the most fun you can have with a pen, and I wrote that story with a smile on my face – or rather, a slightly twisted but very gleeful grin. It never really left.

I’ve been writing horror and dark fantasy ever since, along with the occasional visit to the land of science fiction. And the more I write it the more I love it, so the more I want to read it…and the more I want to write it…and so it goes on, or at least until the bookshelves collapse.

Of course, sometimes I think I write the dark stuff because I’m a born worrier. I’m always thinking of the worst thing that could happen – why not use that to feed my story ideas? (Let’s face it: it’s about time that one started to work in my favour.) At other times, I think it came out of nowhere. But then I remember how much I used to love fairy tales when I was a kid.

Back when I was about five I devoured them, cried over them, loved them. One I remember in particular is The Red Shoes, by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s the story of a child who dreams of her dancing shoes when she should be praying in church. And so she’s cursed to dance – but dance ceaselessly, relentlessly, until she’s exhausted and bleeding and the best option she can think of is to beg a passing woodcutter to chop off her feet.

Ouch. Sometimes, I think it was there all along.

Now I’ve been fortunate to have had stories published in Black Static, Not One Of Us, Dark Horizons, Murky Depths – and New Fairy Tales. Recently I was included in the Never Again charity anthology from Gray Friar press.

I’ve also become a serial first drafter of novels, but recently managed to finish one, so hopefully it won’t languish in the dark forever…

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Well, I for one hope that that novel doesn’t languish in the dark for too long, either…..

Many thanks to Alison for taking the time to write this little piece, and I sincerely wish her all the success that is bound to come her way. You should definitely be on the lookout for anything by this up and coming author, before she hits the big time.

Alison’s website can be found here.

The cathartic experience revisited

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words on September 29, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

You probably know what it’s like: you turn on the TV or open up a newspaper and the news is, predictably, savage and dreadful. Murder, torture, genocide, paedophile rings, famine and war – constant bedfellows of this thing we call life. It’s neverending. this mortal suffering…. our capacity, as a species, to visit destruction in all its manifold forms upon our fellow humans appears to be a part of our very genetic make-up, and boundless.

Most of us, it seems, have become desensitised to all the violence and grief that we see on our screens or read in our newpapers daily. And yet, sometimes, when an author, struggling to understand the motivations behind these atrocities, publishes a book or story using a similar theme or topic to a particular incident they’ve read about, they’re accused of being insensitive or exploitative. Perhaps accused of prolonging a family’s grief or, even worse, ‘glorifying the crime’.

That may appear to be the case, but only if you’re looking at the situation on a purely superficial level. Horror (and crime) writers are human, too, and are not immune to being affected by what they see, read or hear when it comes to the world around them. In fact, I would venture that the opposite is true; indeed, that’s their prime motivation for writing in the first place. It’s an act of catharsis and a way of trying to understand why these things happen; what aberrant psychology is at work if someone is convinced it’s okay to do that to a man, woman or child. Or, even further out on the scale, to attempt to justify their horrific actions to the world at large.

For instance, I have been fascinated by the mindset of serial stalkers. The ones who, no matter the restraints placed on them, are convinced that the object of their warped attention ‘loves’ them, despite vehement denials to the contrary. The people who then take that denial as meaning that they’re being tested just to see how much THEY love their target in turn. Or the stalker who is intent on splitting up a couple because they’re utterly convinced that THEY are the one who should be in the relationship, unaware (or uncaring perhaps) that the more they try, the more they get pushed away.

It appears that normal channels of thought don’t exist for these people. They are firmly of the belief that, at some point, whoever it is they’re fixated upon will see the strength of their feelings and capitulate. Forgetting, of course, to factor in just how their behaviour is seen by others, or could be interpreted in the eyes of the law. What filters have these people lost that prevents them from seeing the consequences of their actions and obsessions?

I know that I used to have an addictive personality (before I met my wife Liz), that I would focus on something to the exclusion of all else for six months or so. Then, once I’d had my fill or exhausted its novelty, I’d jump on to the next thing. Friends used to call me very ‘phase-y’. Now, to a certain degree, I can kind of understand the obsession angle – what I don’t understand, perhaps because (like most normal people) I have something which limits obsessional thinking, is how people then get so fixated that they cannot judge their own actions, and let completely rip.

I would love to write a story/novel involving a stalker (providing I find a particularly original plot/angle), as MY way of getting to grips with this aspect of human behaviour. A means of trying to understand. And, extrapolating from that, this is EXACTLY why a lot of horror and crime writers create the material they do. It has a dual purpose: to entertain (as well as to sell books), and to understand. Very often, their inspiration comes from the real world, from incidents that make the news. Specific incidents, even, that spark off an idea.

BUT it’s the general theme they’re dealing with, NOT the specific event itself. I see it not as exploitative, but simply as a struggle to understand the motivations and dynamics of what happened, through the medium of fiction. A lot of unpleasantness goes on out there and, if you’re a rational, thinking human being, then you’re bound to ponder the reasons why it’s that way. The answers are as complex as the human race itself is, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to fathom it all out. Not all of us have the time or inclination to study a degree course, for instance, dealing in human psychology, normal OR aberrant. So we find our own way of dealing with issues.

In other words, that’s why many of us writers write what we do – it isn’t necessarily to sicken or disgust, it’s simply to understand.

GUEST REVIEWER: John Llewellyn Probert

Posted in Film, Guest-blog on September 28, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

MGM’s Legends of Horror DVD boxset

Firstly, my thanks to Mr Marshall-Jones for offering me the opportunity to wax lyrical about anything I fancy on his blog. Recently at Probert Towers we’ve been having fun with the Hays Code. Or rather, we’ve been having fun watching movies made before and just after this compromising, restricting, subjective set of rules was brought in to govern the content of Hollywood movies in the mid nineteen thirties to “protect” audiences from scenes of excessive violence, sexuality and good old Deviant Behaviour.

If you want to see for yourself what kind of effect this censorship had on films of the time then you need go no further than the MGM Legends of Horror DVD boxset. For your money you get the pre-code horrors of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu, and Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X, as well as post-code movies The Devil Doll and Mark of the Vampire from Tod Browning, and The Return of Dr X starring Humphrey Bogart.

The precode movies range from the excellent (Mad Love) through to the more ordinary (Doctor X) but are never less than interesting. The sight of Peter Lorre pretending to be the Rollo the guillotined knife thrower with his head strapped back on is still pretty unsettling, and the tortures devised by Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu suggest that left unchecked Hollywood may have ended up making the Saw movies in the forties rather than the noughties. As examples of their type they’re not bad at all, and if you like these then you should certainly check out the nasty and naughty Murders in the Zoo (1933) and the Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi double-headers The Raven and The Black Cat (both 1935), all of which contain nastiness that Hollywood wouldn’t be allowed to include in its product for many years following.

Was the Hays Code responsible for a decline in quality? Probably not, in fact I suspect that all it did was prevent ludicrous ‘B’ programmers from adding unpleasant cruelty to their already ludicrous, incomprehensible and badly-researched plotlines. The Return of Dr X (1939) stars Humphrey Bogart as a medic back from the dead after going to the electric chair because he “wanted to see how long a baby could go without eating for”. Hardly the genius surgeon (there must have been far better, exotic and more lurid ways to end up executed, even post-Code, and I bet Lionel Atwill would have known what they were) he comes back to life as a result of blood transfusions. The lecture we get on blood groups is as if Karl Landsteiner, the world-famous scientist who actually discovered this stuff, never existed, and Bogie’s back from the dead just long enough to take a pretty nurse off to his matte painting of an old shack in the swamp where he promptly ends up shot and uttering an ‘important’ last line that’s about as meaningful as the rest of this twaddle.

Certainly the Hays Code didn’t lead to a decrease in daftness or elderly actors dressing up in women’s clothing, as The Devil Doll testifies. Based on Abraham Merritt’s novel Burn Witch Burn (you can read my review of that, along with its precursor Seven Footprints to Satan, on the Vault of Evil website) the film starts off bonkers and gets worse. Lionel ‘I’ve had the bit of my brain removed labelled “restrained acting”‘ Barrymore escapes from Devil’s Island with a friend. Lionel wants revenge on the men who caused him to be unjustly imprisoned. Thankfully his friend has altogether more utterly ludicrous ambitions that involve shrinking the population of the world to the size of little dolls to solve the world’s food problems. He shows Lionel some plastic models of dogs and then, in a bit of fairly ambitious special effects for the time, we get to see the miniaturised dogs walking around. The serving girl gets the treatment next, which as well as shrinking her cures her of her ‘mental retardation’ for no reason that’s explained. Lionel’s friend dies of a heart attack, which is Lionel’s cue to go to Paris, dress up as an old lady, and use the doll-making device to create miniature assassins and in one case at least to presumably assuage his boredom (there’s no other reason for him shrinking a horse and where the hell does he get the room to do that anyway?) Clearly far too comfortable in his old lady getup Lionel finally clears his name and we get a rather odd coda that’s presumably Browning’s nod to the Hays’ Office to let him off the blatant female microphilia we’ve seen in the swampland laboratory scene.

However daft The Devil Doll may be it’s neither as patchy nor as ultimately unsatisfying as Mark of the Vampire, made by Browning a year earlier and featuring another performance from Lionel Barrymore who has obviously been told to forego his usual timidity and really play things up. Bela Lugosi’s in this one too, in all the scenes that get used as stills, and with just one line. The vampire bits are superbly atmospheric but once we get on to plot it’s almost as stagy as Browning’s Dracula and you get the feeling his heart wasn’t in it.

Watching a box set like this makes one wonder what would have happened if a similar code had been brought in for literature. In the UK the main fiction to suffer would probably have been Christine Campbell Thompson’s Not at Night series, Charles Birkin’s ‘Creeps’ and of course the dear old Pan Book of Horror. Some would argue that this might not have been such a bad thing, but on the other hand without those stories I wouldn’t have become the horror fan that I am and consequently you wouldn’t be reading this now. But all of that is quite another story…

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John Llewellyn Probert is a writer and a larger-than-life character. If ever you get the chance to witness him performing (not just reading) one of his stories, then I strongly suggest you do so… excellent entertainment! You can find his website here.

Thanks to John for writing this!

BOOK REVIEW: Fungus of the Heart, by Jeremy C. Shipp

Posted in Book Reviews on September 27, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

There are times when I can liken writing to the fine art of crafting a wine. There will be some writers who, in order to get their point across, will serve up a cheap commercial variety, with a blunt, unsubtle palette. Its purpose is simply to bludgeon, and isn’t afraid to show its true colours from the off. Then there are those writers who want their words to be appreciated and mulled over, and so consequently craft their stories exactingly and with attention to the minutest detail. Nuances are allowed to reveal themselves slowly, almost shyly. There are layers upon layers of ideas and images, and each time you reread them new ones show themselves. There are times when complexity disguises itself as simplicity, those very qualities concatenating unexpectedly into a sensation that is at once surprising and delightful. These stories are not meant to be read just the once or casually imbibed without regard; they have been lovingly created to be savoured.

So, if the metaphor holds, then Jeremy C. Shipp’s tales are amongst the finest of vintages indeed. Each of the thirteen stories contained within this collection are rich, exotic, and rare nectars, culled from all the far-flung corners of Shipp’s imagination. However, just like those long ago days of the Age of Exploration, as rich and exotic as those corners are, seen from the outside they’re dark and sometimes dimly lit, full of mystery and hidden dangers. The people, places and situations are as familiar to us as daylight, yet there is an edginess and darkness to them that warns us to keep ourselves at arm’s length. And this is the central core of Shipp’s art; that he is able to twist and subvert the stuff of the everyday and make it somehow menacing and threatening, whilst simultaneously emphasising just how extraordinary and wonderful it all is.

Superficially, like the best of the vintner’s artistry, the tales are delicately and minimally spun, slippery, elusive and fragile, brightly absurdist and dizzyingly surreal, transporting us to other places and other times. Don’t let that fool you, however, because running underneath the seeming fragility are hints of darkly delicious and sinister flavours of terror and malignancy. These tales are exactly like the delicately scented wine that, upon tasting, proves to have a surprisingly strong backbone and can more than hold its own.

Here, the fragility extends to the people who inhabit the tales; the fragility of relationships, how we see ourselves, how we see others and how we relate to each other, as well as the brittleness of ideas. Like the ‘war’ hero in The Escapist, where the idea of the heroic man (or Gnome, in this case) as a symbol of hope in a time of war is easily shattered by the onslaught of the realities of conflict, and the atrocities it inspires in otherwise ordinary folk. Or, perhaps, the eggshell thin psyche of the father in Kingdom Come, a man whose reality breaks when the truth intrudes on his seemingly idyllic life. Or how the ‘ghost’ in Haunted House is just as fragile and fractured as the girl he’s trying to help: in bringing suppressed memories to the surface it triggers some of his own. Or maybe we should ponder on the fragility of both love and memories, as exemplified in the eponymous story, Fungus of the Heart. Human frailty is found even in the midst of strength and purpose, and love lurks where it is least expected. And sometimes relationships, once strong, shatter and change irrevocably through simple words, as in the beautifully and strangely simplistic Just Another Vampire Story.

The strongest element of Shipp’s spare and minimalist writing is its deep humanity. Look beyond the strangeness and the fantastic, and you’ll find the entire panoply of human experience and emotion arrayed before you. Despite the weirdness you’ll meet people very much like the ones you know or have met. However, it’s those very elements of the outré and magical that draws the reader in, and enables them to hone in on the solid heart of the matter. They may delight, infuriate, frustrate and entertain, but they’re no mere baubles; look deeper and you’ll discover that here are parables for today. That, my friends, is the art and craft of the verbal vintner that is Jeremy C. Shipp.

(This review originally appeared at Beyond Fiction)

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Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Raw Dog Screaming Press

Publication Date: November 2010

ISBN: 978-1-935738-00-8 (hc)/978-1-935738-01-5 (pbk)

Guest-blog: GARY McMAHON

Posted in Guest-blog on September 26, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Today’s special guest-blogger is Mr. Prolific himself, Gary McMahon, author of such works as How to Make Monsters (Morrigan), The Harm (TTA Press), Rain Dogs (Humdrumming), and also ahort stories collected in Different Skins (Screaming Dreams) and Pieces of Midnight (Ash-Tree). Forthcoming from him are two Angry Robot books, Pretty Little Dead Things (2010) and Dead Bad Things (2011), and a little project due to be launched at FCon 2011 (about which I am saying little at present). He is currently working on the Concrete Grove series of books for Solaris.

Recently, I’ve written a couple of posts on my dislike of e-readers (for purely nostalgic and romantic reasons, admittedly). Here, Gary looks at things from the opposite viewpoint and makes the case for such devices.

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Loving the Onion

When I was a small child I hated the taste of onions – and I mean fucking loathed them. Nothing made me feel more nauseous than the thought of onions on my plate. Whenever a meal containing the wee stinkers was served up in the McMahon household, I’d carefully, methodically (and probably a bit obsessive-disorderly) pick out every single piece with my fingers and put them on a small plate next to me before I could even think about eating my dinner.

As time moved on I began to realise that this hating of the onions was a difficult (and rather unfair; I mean what had they ever done to deserve that level of prejudice?) way in which to live my life. Every single recipe I enjoyed contained onions. Onions were, in fact, the bedrock of culinary creativity. You struggle to make a decent meal without them. By this time I was about twelve years old and despite what anyone tells you about that squashy-faced boy with the thin arms who lives in our cellar, my mother didn’t raise no fools.

So I embarked upon an ambitious project focused around the notion of forcing myself to like onions. Not just to live with them, or to tolerate them, but to enjoy them. Perhaps, I thought wistfully, even some day I might even learn to love them.

At first I would continue to pick out something like 90% of the onion in my meal, and ate the remaining 10%. As I got used to this the ratio altered and I was soon eating 50%, 60%, 70%, and then – oh, day of days! – 80% of the onion from my plate.

After what seemed like a year but was in all probability about a week-and-a-half, I was no longer removing any of the onion from my dinner.

Now, aged forty-one, if someone tried to take my onion from me I’d probably kill them. I like the onion. Onions rock. I heart the onion. Often, I pretend that I am the onion.

All of which, of course, brings me to the subject of e-books.

No, it does. Really.

Stay with me on this; there’s logic here somewhere. There’s a point to all this random onion-based blathering, which will eventually show itself like the creamy-white flesh beneath the papery husk of a good shallot.

A year ago I despised the very idea of e-books. I raged passionately, to anyone who’d listen (and even some of those who stuck their fingers in their ears and went “Tra-la-la. I’m not listening”) that e-books were: B.A.D. (that spells ‘bad’, by the way), and that they were in fact the tools of the devil. I waxed lyrical about the feel and heft and, yes, even the smell of real books as opposed to the empty plastic non-feel, non-heft and, well, non-smell of e-books. I was a zealot, a man on a mission. I fucking hated e-books!

No way was I reading an e-book.

Not for me, buddy. Uh-uh. You can stick that thing in your cyberspace.

And I certainly wasn’t ever going to buy an e-book reader. Not on your nelly. I laugh at your poxy little e-reader. I fart in its general direction. Twice.

Then, about a month ago, I began to realise that in the very near future e-books are most probably going to dominate mid-list publishing, pushing physical books further towards the margins, the niche markets, and making them specialty items. Economics dictate that in far fewer years than we might all like to imagine, we’re going to be downloading and reading stories on our little hand-held devices instead of from between the (wonderful, glorious, rather nice-smelling) covers of paperback books.

That was the point, the “nuclear moment”, when I decided that rather than fight the future I’d prefer to tentatively embrace it. Technology wins, you see; it always does. Haven’t you seen The Terminator? He never really dies; he always comes back for the sequel. In T5 it’s rumoured that he’ll be carrying an e-reader.

As a writer, you need to be open to new ways of getting your work out there, especially if the market is slowly beginning to shape the nature of those new outlets. And if you start early enough, you might be in with a chance of staying the course.

I’ve already made my choice in this invisible war.

I’m getting a Kindle for Christmas.

I already have the Kindle for PC downloaded onto my laptop and I’m willing to use it.

It’s all about changing, adapting, making it work for you the best way you can. It’s about surviving those changes.

It’s about forcing yourself to love onions.

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Some very good points cogently made there, especially from the writer’s point of view. I am not entirely convinced, but neither am I dismissive of the whole enterprise. I guess I will always be one of those hopeless (and hapless) romantics who will desperately cling to a portion of the past when it comes to books – I guess it’s been bred into my very genetic structure.

Many thanks to Gary for writing this – and for shining a light on the other side of the coin, and for providing some balance in the debate!

Newsy stuff

Posted in News on September 25, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

First off, I forgot to mention one of the PDF’s that came my way last week, for review:

House of Canted Steps, by Gary Fry (PS Publishing)

Looking forward to reading this one, as it was launched, along with six other titles, at FantasyCon 2010.

Now on to other news:

Sometime next year, I am looking to launch my very own chapbook imprint, to be called Spectral Press, specifically concentrating on the ghostly/supernatural end of things, rather than the horrific (although, no doubt, there WILL be elements of horror in some of the stories published). They will, similar to the Nightjar imprint, feature just the one story per publication and, also similar to Nick Royle’s project, be high-quality, with professional printing and production values. Releases will necessarily be infrequent, at least initially; publishing schedules will likely only stretch to four per year at the very most. They will be limited edition, in runs of no more than 100 possibly, and are envisaged to have full-colour covers and each individually signed. All the books will have a uniform look, identifying them specifically as Spectral Press publications.

At present, I am looking for expressions of interest from authors, both established and aspiring, to contribute/submit short stories (word limit in the region of 7500 or thereabouts) to this project. The first chapbook will, hopefully, be launched at one of next year’s Cons – possibly FantasyCon 2011 in Brighton. I am also looking for a graphic designer, willing to work for nothing as I attempt to get this enterprise off the ground, to help establish a Spectral Press look.

One of the other ideas I am pondering upon is republishing old, public domain and copyright free ghost/supernatural stories, but this is an aspect of publishing that I need to thoroughly investigate further. (Any help from those already doing something along these lines would be greatly appreciated).

All these are just ideas floating around at the moment: right now, I am in the process of gauging interest and reception to such an idea. All suggestions and thoughts on this are very welcome. Please leave a comment here and I will get back you.

Baddies vs Goodies

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words on September 25, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Many a time, when I’ve read an interview with an actor, the opinion has been expressed that playing the antagonist is infinitely more satisfying and interesting than playing the hero. Presumably this is because they are acting against the constraints that society has imposed upon them, but in a safe way (ie, they won’t actually get into trouble for ‘committing a crime’). In other words, acting the part of an amoral or evil character constitutes a kind of freedom not afforded to us in real-life and also, harking back to a previous post, a species of catharsis.

This got me to speculating whether authors see the ‘writing’ of evil characters in the same way – a way of letting their hair down, so to speak. A means of kicking against the limitations, laws and rules that necessarily govern civilised living. Also that they see it as a safety valve, venting their frustrations at the unfairnesses and iniquities of life. Or, on a purely superficial level, that it’s just that much more interesting and fun to write a baddie than a goodie.

‘Goodies’ obviously have to work within the moral bounds of what is considered to be right and proper behaviour (without necessarily being paragons of virtue themselves). ‘Baddies’, on the other hand, see such constraints as needless and incredibly limiting. For them, ‘morals’ and ‘laws’ are concepts that are old-fashioned, only for those who have not the wit to think outside the box. Essentially, that law-abiding citizens are fuddy-duddies (btw, I am oversimplifying things into black and white here deliberately, just to get my point across).

Writers, just like all members of the society they belong to, follow the rules and regulations currently in force; although they may object to some of them on the grounds of their moral consciences, still for the most part they abide by the rules simply because they want to get on with doing what they love best, which is writing. Thus, writing a goodie character can be seen as being just an extension of themselves (again, oversimplifying the case, but just humour me okay). Extrapolating from that, writing the baddie, necessitating as it does breaking all the rules of society, allows the writer’s alter-ego, the one that detests all the impositions of moral constraints, to let rip.

But why do writers/actors/film-makers (as well as readers/audiences) sometimes identify more with the villain than they do with the hero? Is there within us all a kind of unspoken envy of anyone who has the balls to step over that line and act according to their own precepts, effectively dismissing what our ‘moral’ guardians and lawmakers have deemed to be good for us and the correct way to live? Or is it that, sometimes, we get a vicarious thrill from seeing someone demolishing the boundaries and having ‘fun’ whilst going about it?

I imagine that it’s a mixture of all of the above, plus a need for that thing called catharsis. It’s true that heroes can help us achieve catharsis in their own way, when he overcomes all odds and triumphs against adversity, and vaquishes his foes. However, in other, no less significant ways, the villains also aid us in venting the frustrations that inevitably mount up in our daily lives, especially if we see some sleazy low-life or unworthy getting it. Plus I guess it fulfills a need in everyone, the wish that we could act like that and not care about the consequences. Also, that we need baddies in our lives; they can be the ones who cause all the chaos and that we know it isn’t real. I suspect that there are many who have a sneaking regard for the amorality of some of the psychopaths and murderers in their favourite stories/films, even if they wouldn’t necessarily vocalise it in public.

Ultimately, however, and this is where the balance is restored, we get immense satisfaction when the baddies gets his comeuppance. After all, none of us want to carry him with us into real-life. Killing him/her means that we can leave them behind in the world of make-believe, where they belong, meaning they can’t intrude into reality. Which means that we are less troubled by our subversive indentification with the villain/monster in the book/film. He has safely been disposed of and we need no longer worry about him/her.

Fiction, whether it’s in the form of reading or viewing material, is an important medium for us out here to cope with, or even exorcise, those feelings or urges that are normally frowned upon in society (and for very good reason, too, I may add). We may not even be aware on a conscious level that that is exactly what is happening whilst we are watching the latest entry in the Saw or Friday the 13th franchise. Certainly in my case, I feel immensely better after watching a film where the villain is chewing up the scenery (and presumably having fun whilst doing so). Having said that, however, I still feel relieved that the bad guy gets his just desserts in the end, that justice has been served and been seen to be served.

The same could be said of the creators of these rotten apples – it’s the author’s way of negotiating the often difficult, rock-strewn paths of life and morality. Even on just the superficial level, it could be that they get humongous amounts of fun and pleasure out of metaphorically loosening the restraints, and just going with the flow. Maybe they feel better after their pychopathic vigilante has offed some particularly loathsome individual, the head of some environmentally-destructive corporation or a corrupt politician. How many times have we wished, against our upbringings and natures, that we could get rid of some brute or stupid ignoramus in some random act of violence. We may not be able to enact it in real-life, but writing out the scenario often brings with it the same level of satisfaction – merely without the inevitable consequences.

Guest-blog: THANA NIVEAU

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

Today’s guest-blog is from a new and upcoming writer, the stylish Thana Niveau (and, it has to be said, that her and Lord P made something of an elegant pair at the recent FantasyCon in Nottingham). Don’t let her own somewhat self-effacing description of herself (taken from the bio in the Never Again anthology) fool you: “Thana Niveau lives in a crumbling gothic tower somewhere near a place called Wales. She writes horror and shares her re-animated life with the mad surgeon who stitched her together from pieces of fallen women.” She is in fact a delightful woman and a joy to converse with.

Thana has a story in the Never Again anthology, as well as having a forthcoming appearance in The Black Book of Horror (see accompanying photo). She also won the Whitechapel Society’s Jack the Ripper contest last year.

Here, she tells us what started her off writing.

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Would you choose The Tell-Tale Heart as a bedtime story for your 9-year old? My mother did. I still have the little hardback collection of Poe stories I got as a birthday present that year. Naturally, I didn’t understand everything in the book, but I truly loved the scary bits. And I made her read me that story again and again. More than any other single thing, the beating of that “hideous heart” made me want to write horror.

The year before that I’d been to see Alien in the cinema with my parents. All I remember of the ads was the title sequence with the letters slowly forming over the blackness of space. I didn’t know what the word was but I thought it was pronounced a-LEEN and I was both terrified and intrigued by the possibilities. I only remember two things about the actual film: the facehugger leaping out of the egg and the scene where they try to get it off John Hurt’s face and it bleeds acid. That was enough for me. I’d already seen too much. I burrowed as far into my father’s chest as I could and I don’t even know if I made it to the end of the film. I spent the whole night lying awake in my room with all the lights on, staring in wide-eyed dread at the striated wood pattern on my closet door, convinced that it was the legs of the alien slipping down from inside the closet.

I watched everything that looked scary, and most of it scared me plenty. But then, I was already a fearful child. I was plagued by nightmares. Horror saved me. The films gave me an outlet for my anxiety. Fear became my friend. Jason and Freddy were my childhood companions. On the literary side, Poe was my first great horror love, followed swiftly by Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell. Their stories scared me silly while at the same time inspiring me. I still had nightmares, but now they were more like visits from a slightly sadistic muse. Writing all the scary stuff down turned it from a curse into a blessing.

While I’ve been writing all my life, I’ve only just begun to publish. My story From Hell to Eternity won the Whitechapel Society’s Jack the Ripper contest last December, which gave me the courage to submit other stories. My story The Pier is the first offering in The Seventh Black Book of Horror and The Death of Dreams appears in the charity anthology Never Again. I’m working on several other stories for a collection of my own, but my real love is for novels and I’ve plenty of ideas along those lines.

I hope you’ll be seeing more of me in the future!

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I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that we will be hearing a lot more from the fabulous Thana in the not-too-distant future. I would also suggest that you go and find yourselves copies of both Never Again (edited by Allyson Bird and Joel Lane) and The Black Book of Horror (edited by Charles Black) as soon as possible!!

Many thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Thana!

Influences: Philip K. Dick’s VALIS

Posted in Books, Nostalgia on September 23, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

I’ve read many of Philip K. Dick’s novels over the years and I would say his vision is probably the most memorable, not to say influential, of all the science fiction authors whose work I’ve digested. All his stories are sideways glances at life, and are often peopled with odd characters with fractured psyches (Dr Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After The Bomb) or who have identity issues (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said, and A Scanner Darkly). Dick expertly and fluently plays about with the plasticity of reality, especially in the last two books mentioned, but perhaps the best example of questioning the very nature of reality, at least for me, is his 1981 novel VALIS, written just before he died.

It isn’t a coincidence, I think, that VALIS came in the wake of Dick suffering a major nervous breakdown, which, I seem to remember, he once described in terms of a ‘revelation’. The main character in the novel, who goes by the unlikely name of Horselover Fat (apparently a play on the meaning and derivation of his own name), is essentially Dick himself; however, it can be seen as a species of a personality splitting into two, as Dick uses the device in order to argue about Fat’s (Dick’s) theories regarding the ‘revelation’ that the protagonist has after he has suffered a similar crisis. The VALIS of the title is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, an artificially intelligent satellite orbiting the Earth that he and his friends believe is aiding them in their quest to divine the reality behind the reality, so to speak. The novel, then, charts the characters’ search to understand the reality around them.

Dick appears to imply that meaning and truth are to be found outside ourselves, rather than inside us. Also, that there is something ‘greater’ moving behind the scenes, directing and arranging. This, of course, is a common thread through the whole of human civilisation and thought, the possibility that we are merely the players on a stage, and that we are simply reciting our lines and acting out some manner of script that we have no influence over and cannot change. VALIS is also a treatise, disguised as fiction, on perceived truth, as opposed to objective truth: truth itself, despite our species-long search, is one of the hardest things to find.

And of course, that particular uncertainty, that spiritual no-man’s land, is the region cannily inhabited (some would say cynically exploited) by religion. If truth could be solidly objectified, it stands to reason that ALL of humanity would see things in exactly the same way. Patently, that isn’t the case. My reading of VALIS bears this out; what Dick appears to be saying is that the fracturing of Horselover Fat’s mind, due to the breakdown, can either be seen as a disintegration of his mind OR that he’s been allowed to see the dismantling of the machinery of reality itself through having had a mental crisis. The point is that, to Fat the reality he sees is the one he believes is the real one, while what others see is the totally different, false reality.

The novel also has the character of presenting itself as a conspiracy, painted on a much broader and more profound canvas than anything the current crop of ‘conspiracy thriller’ authors could possibly come up with. Here, in Dick’s vision, the plot revolves around something ‘other’, be it ‘God’ or an artificially intelligent satellite, occultly directing the ways of man and with its own inscrutable agenda. Humans are merely the actors, starring in a vast cosmic play written and directed by some kind of intelligence, which is to be hoped is benign in nature. Fat’s breakdown has essentially ripped the veil from his eyes, enabling him to get a glimpse of the machinations being perpetrated by this ‘other’. In his search, he becomes obsessed with various religions and philosophies, such as Christianity, Taoism, Gnosticism and Jungian psychoanalysis, in a search for what Wikipedia describes as a “cure for what [Horselover Fat] believes is simultaneously a personal and a cosmic wound”. Ultimately, Sophia (to be equated with wisdom), in the form of a two-year-old girl, manifests at the end of the book, telling Fat that the ideas and conclusions he has come to are essentially correct.

Even from the above necessarily brief précis, it’s obvious that the book is a deeply thoughtful and complex book, at least in terms of what it sets out to do. Dick’s meditation on the subjects he is attempting to elucidate raises this novel from the level of a mere science fiction book, to that of a vitally important rumination of the nature of everything, from reality to mind itself. In my opinion, this book single-handedly gives the lie to some high-minded people’s insistence that sci-fi is ‘not literature’ – on this showing certainly, it knocks the spots off any ‘modern’ novel whose aim is to grasp at life and wring truths from it. Over and above that, it lays everything out in an accessible style, plus it has that one element missing from many a current ‘lit-fic’ novel: a story, and an engaging one at that.

Added poignancy is provided from knowing that Dick himself experienced a similar breakdown and a fracturing of the carefully constructed façade of reality. According to Wikipedia, the life of his son was saved through one of the ‘revelations’ he received from the ‘real-life’ VALIS – despite the doctor’s assurances that his son was in fact healthy, Dick insisted that he was suffering from a malady that was life-threatening. So tests were ultimately performed on the boy, and Dick was proven right. Dick attributed this insight to his contact with the higher  intelligence.

Whatever you make of the provenance of the story, it’s a wonderful tale, written by a singular human being who possessed a master-storyteller’s gift. Iwould recommend not only this particular novel, but would also direct you to any of his other works as well. The richness of the language and his imagination reap their own rewards. Rather than pity the man for having had a breakdown, marvel at the brain that consistently produced such masterworks over a thirty year period. Not many writers can clain such a fine literary pedigree.

Boooooooooooooooooooks (and stuff…)

Posted in Book Reviews, Books on September 22, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Okay, some more items for review have found their way to my door, asking for shelter and succour (as well as a review or two), which are:

Black Country, by Joel Lane (Nightjar Press)

When the Door was Closed, it was Dark, by Alison Moore (Nightjar Press)

Concrete Operational: The Collection, by Richard Galbraith and others (a multimedia boxset containing an art-book, a novel and a CD of music)(Rawstone Media Industries) – I am particularly looking forward to getting to grips with this one – an interesting concept indeed. For more details please go to http://www.operationconcrete.com/epk/

I have also received some PDFs as well, to wit:

What Happens When you Wake Up in the Night, by Michael Marshall-Smith (Nightjar Press)

The Safe Children, by Tom Fletcher (Nightjar Press)

Killing Kiss (The Vampire Gene Trilogy 1), by Sam Stone (The House of Murky Depths)

Futile Flame (The Vampire Gene Trilogy 2), by Sam Stone The House of Murky Depths)

Demon Dance (The Vampire Gene Trilogy 3), by Sam Stone The House of Murky Depths)

Frightening Fables and Freaky Fairy Tales, edited by SE Cox (House of Horror)

Stitched up – A Collection of Stitched Up Flesh, edited by SE Cox and Nandy Ekle (House of Horror)

Can someone just make sure that food and drink are regularly left outside my office door, please? Much obliged, thanks!