Archive for October, 2010

Our earliest influences…

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words with tags , , , , , , , on October 25, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

It’s easy enough to remember the teachers in our school years who had the greatest influence on our young lives, the ones who encouraged us to stretch ourselves or to explore our creativity, or whatever. How many of us, though, think about those people who had a somewhat negative influence – that one teacher who, no matter how hard you tried, denigrated everything you did. OR, in my case (which is even worse in my opinion), took an idea or concept and, despite it being a wonderful thing in theory, managed to put you off it for life.

I confess, I have a big problem with poetry. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of poetry, the concept of distilling the essence of something into a few short lines rather than using up huge swathes of white space, and of creating patterns of words and meanings in a compact form, lending whatever the subject of the poem is an added layer of beauty or style. But thanks to a certain Mr. Singh, who was my form teacher in my very first year of primary school back in 1970, I have an unreasonable dislike of poetry that often blinds me to its innate qualities.

Mr. Singh loved poetry – and that was the problem. He was obsessed with it. He would sit us all down every afternoon for poetry-reading sessions, and I distinctly remember the resigned groans of my classmates every time the sessions were due to start. I always dreaded that hour in the afternoon when he would bring his chair to the head of the classroom, open up some huge book of verse and read something aloud to us. I’m sure I might even have inadvertently dozed off a couple of times during those sessions. More often than not, he would then set us a poetry-writing exercise, based on what he’d just read. I hated writing poetry above all else, because I never ‘got’ it.

It hadn’t always been like that, however. I’d learnt to read at a fairly young age, after a slow start, and I’d become a voracious reader by the time I was five. My parent’s house, as I have mentioned before, was stacked full of books of every description, and volumes of poetry were included in that inventory. There was even a translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales available for me to read, although my dad would probably have been horrified if he knew I was reading it at such a young age (well, some of the tales at least). I was absolutely fascinated with words – the way they sounded, what each one meant, the way they built up into pleasing sentences, or created rhythms and beats within the short space of a line or two. Poetry, especially, emphasised that magnificent power of words. Necessarily, being so young, the deeper meanings and subtexts of the poems went way over my head. That didn’t matter, though – I still derived enormous enjoyment out of reading poetry back then.

That was until I was assigned to Mr. Singh’s class. I can’t even remember if the sessions started immediately or whether they came in gradually. What I can remember is that at some point they became a regular fixture of my school day. I think I even used to rant, in my little childish way, to my parents when I got home (which they would have found highly amusing, no doubt).

I’m sure (nay, positive) that Mr. Singh wanted to cultivate an appreciation for verse in us kids. There’s nothing wrong in that at all. However, what put me (and my fellow classmates) off was his obsession with the whole thing, his insistence on pushing it on us every day. Looking at it now, of course, it’s no different from my liking of a particular literary gene or pursuing a hobby with enthusiasm and almost preternatural tenacity. In fact, it was no different from me obsessing over the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico back then. I think it was that year that Esso were offering little plastic busts of the England squad – one for every so many gallons of petrol that was bought – and I just had to get every one of them (I still had those busts and the stand that was created for them up until a few years ago).

What felt different was how the poetry sessions were presented. They were being foisted on us all in a way that was conducive to mass turning off as soon as the words poetry or poems were uttered. Often, the examples Mr. Singh read out were abstruse and obscure, and sometimes way beyond what a seven-year-old could comfortably grasp. His enthusiasm was evident in the animation with which he used to talk about poetry (which we found funny rather than inspiring, unfortunately) but his sonorous intonations as he actually read a poem out used to dull whatever head of steam he’d built up in the preamble. We just switched off en masse (I guess there must have been a few exceptions, but they kept quiet).

In just that one year, I was left with an indelible aversion to poetry, a dislike which followed me throughout my school career. In grammar school (how much cooler would it have been if it had been called a grimoire school?) we studied various poets at ‘O’- and ‘A’-level, with the added bonus of picking apart every single line and deconstructing it for nuance and meaning or whatever. Rather than leaving me with a love of the form in particular or the English language in general, I came away with a distrust of literary criticism, especially when it came to those poets (and writers, too) who had been dead for years. They had no comeback to say whether what the ‘experts’ were telling us was the correct interpretation of their work. This was brought home to me when (apparently) a living poet took an ‘A’-level exam, where his work was part of the syllabus, and he failed miserably. If it’s true, then it truly says a lot.

Since those days, I’ve come to realise that I can separate myself from that negative impression I have of the poetic form and look at things anew. I still have some trouble with the form even so. I sometimes find the ‘density’ of poetry almost impenetrable, the underlying meanings too obscure – whether this is the result of some kind of mental block or that when it comes to poetry I’m completely thick, I don’t know. I suspect it’s the former (or at least I’d like to think so). I still like the idea of poetry, and the potential the form harbours. The actuality is different, however, even 40 years later.

And, in an ironic twist, I’m now a book reviewer, whose job it is to analyse the worthiness or otherwise of prose literature. It isn’t quite as deeply analytical as literary criticism in its purest instance, but close enough. I still look at whatever I review with an eye for meanings and subtexts, use of language, rhythms and cadences. I still try to put myself into the mind of the author (and when it comes to horror, that isn’t necessarily a good thing….) and try to divine what he/she was thinking at the time or what motivated them to write it the way they did. I pick it apart and deconstruct both the story and the prose. Just like the literary critics and academics did to the texts that were set  for our exams way back in my schoolhood.

It’s amazing how life turns out, eh? =)

(Did you have a similar teacher at your school, who left you with a distaste for something interesting?)


Posted in General Musings, Writing and words with tags , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

It’s a Sunday morning, cold and breezy but sunny with an almost flawless blue sky. A perfect day for ruminating philosophically on the endless possibilities of life and the universe. And yet, what is it that I find myself thinking about? Negativity. Yes, negativity. Or, rather, that seemingly natural propensity for humanity to dwell more on the bad things in opposition to the good.

There’s a story my wife told me some years ago, when I first met her, about a newspaper venture that promised it would print nothing but good news. A welcome respite from all the darkness that appears to surround us every day, one would think. Not according to the newspaper-buying public, however: it folded very soon afterwards. Which inevitably leads one to the question: do we, as a species/society, naturally gravitate towards the less salubrious aspects of life just as a matter of course?Is there an element of schadenfreude, a streak of “I’m okay and you’re not”, even if it isn’t a consciously-acknowledged train of thought?

It appears that that attitude is hard-wired into us, to the extent that we do it without even being consciously aware of it. It’s an unspoken wish to confirm to ourselves that our lives aren’t as bad as all that, that there are people who have things a lot worse than we do. There are some out there who do seem to physically thrive on the misery of others, but I would like to think that they’re in the minority. I am talking here, though, about the majority, those who are just the kind of people like you and I are.

I’m a particularly good example of this – I’ve been fascinated by the darker side of life ever since I was a child. At six, I was constructing headstones and gravemarkers out of Lego, and then lining them up on a little patch of ground in the back garden. I was also fascinated, round about the same time, with Ancient Egypt and its pantheon of gods and goddesses, and also of its conception of an afterlife. In paticular, I was entralled by their philosophy of making preparations in this life for the next one, and how everything they believed and did was geared to ensuring that one’s passage into the afterlife was as smooth amd as glorious as possible. However, as morbid as we find the idea these days, it was a natural part of everyday life for them and was considered eminently normal. It was a natural progression, then, that when I became a teen I became involved in the occult and, later on, got into the goth scene.

Even at that very early age, I don’t think I was actually afraid of death. Certainly I’d figured out that it was an inevitable part of life and, in my own childish way, realised that a life was clearly defined as much by death as by what you did with that life. My parents were worried, of course, to the extent that my mother sought the advice of a child psychologist – and his view was that it was perfectly natural for a child to start exploring all aspects of life, in other words, it was my way of getting to grips with the idea of death, that one day everything that I consciously felt and experienced would cease.

Not that long ago, I would gleefully scour the newspaper obituary columns every day. Plus my preferred reading in any newspaper were the items on death, doom and destruction. I appeared to derive a grim satisfaction from reading the accounts from the safety of my warm, heated house, surrounded by all the creature comforts that life affords these days. It’s almost like a species of perverse reassurance that I was alive and that I was okay. That I wasn’t the one suffering the hardship, or that I was the one lucky enough to have escaped the Grim Reaper’s scythe for yet another day.

I guess this why I love horror film and literature – it’s another kind of reassurance, albeit in a much diluted form. It’s also why I occasionally take up the word-processor and write a horror/supernatural tale or two myself. It’s a kind of exorcism, a way of dealing with the world outside the walls and windows. There’s a lot out there that angers me or worries me, and if I didn’t have that verbal therapy there to hand when I needed it, then who knows how else I would express it. This goes for a great many people out there, too, all those artists and film-makers and writers and musicians who see their world slowly disintegrating and yet they feel powerless to stop it. Their only recourse is to express themselves through their creativity.

And that’s why people respond to horror in particular, I think – yes, in part it’s because people like to be scared, but also because they’re not the serial killer’s victims, or they’re not the ones to be turned into zombies, or they’re not the one who has become another faceless statistic in the wake of some otherworldly creature’s unstoppable rampage. These media are safety valves. And it’s exactly the same as when others scan the newspaper reports for all those items that deal with natural disasters, or a gunman’s rampage, or the latest atrocity in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the latest terrorist outrage in a Western city. They feel safe in the knowledge that it’s others who will have to deal with any aftermath. Once they’ve  shut down the online newspaper then they’re safe to forget about it and get on with their lives. After we have closed the book or left the cinema, we can do the same.

In some ways, then, horror serves as a both a safety valve so we can relieve the pressures thar daily life brings and it also performs the job of grounding us, and letting us come to terms with our fears. I consider myself a well-rounded and very stable person, subject to all the frailties of human existence yes, but, on the whole, not an unpleasant person to be around. I owe a lot of that balance to literature and film, and I would venture to say that I would be a very different person today were they not there for me to use. So, when someone says to you that horror, as a media genre, is sick and only sick people would want to get involved, then tell them this: without those outlets and the exorcism they offer, this world would be a considerably worse place.

The uninvited guest

Posted in General Musings, Other with tags , , , on October 23, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Yesterday, it was brought home to me quite forcefully that, no matter how inured we are as aficionados of the horrific in literature and cinema, when death steals unexpectedly into our real lives we are still shocked and moved. That clash between the fictive and the real is nothing short of seismic, a genuine soulquake that leaves us bewildered and dumbfounded, not to say wondering. More to the point, it illustrates just how tenuous life really is, and also that we all have that line beyond which it all seems to have no meaning.

I lost a very good online friend on Wednesday night, Chris ‘Choppie’ Votaw, a man who was very much on the same kind of wavelength as me. Both of us believed in the freedom of the individual to decide for themselves what they stood for, what beliefs they held and how to express themselves, whilst also acknowledging that tolerance of the views of others is of paramount importance. That we should lead by example, and show others the way forward. Although he was an atheist, he possessed a deep understanding of religion and belief, and how it sometimes blinds us to the truth of the world around us. And when I say deep understanding, I mean he studied it properly – not merely scooting the web and picking bits up here and there; no, he studied for a degree in theology. I would say that he grappled with the basic questions that belief asks, but he also struggled with what religion can make people do. He sought to go beyond mere pat answers – he wanted to get to the very heart of the matter, to witness for himself the pulse that quickens the very philosophies on which they were built.

We met on an online forum, now defunct, many years ago. His breadth of knowledge and erudition were obvious from the very start, and he dispensed wisdom without appearing to do so for his own glory or standing. By his very words he encouraged us to think and to question, even ourselves and our long-standing beliefs. And he always did this with a twinkle in his eye, a ready smile and a humorous remark that would invariably leave you crying with laughter.

More important than all this, however, was that he was a good husband, father, brother and friend. He had time for anyone and everyone, and would listen. He was open, but forthright when needed. He was generous, beyond even the bounds of the definition of the word. When Liz and I got married, he sent over, at his own expense, some wedding presents (some bottles of absinthe and Goldschlager) – and this was at a time when we still didn’t know him that well. This was the measure of the man. He didn’t care that we had never met him – he just knew what kind of people we were and he was showing us his pleasure at having met us. That was a gesture that neither of us have forgotten, and indeed are very unlikely to forget, ever.

This is but a short eulogy – and I am not even sure that I possess the proper words to express my deep respect for this man. I have only touched upon but a miniscule fraction of what the man known as Choppie represented. Words are never enough – it is what I and all the people and friends he ever touched carry in their hearts that matters. There, we know, and we feel, what he meant to us. And, ultimately, what he meant is inexpressible.

My heart goes out to his wife Sarah and his children – I sincerely hope you all gain the strength needed in the coming days from all the love of his many friends. My heart also goes out to the rest of his family. Most of all, my heart goes out to the man himself – may you find peace on your onward journey, whatever Valhalla it is you’ re going to, and, like I have said elsewhere, I still owe you more than a few drinks – and I will always keep my promises on that one.

See you on the other side, Chris!!

TV REVIEW: “Edgar Allan Poe: Love, Death and Women”, Wednesday, October 21st, BBC4, 9pm

Posted in Reviews, TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Tragedy and great art appear to be well-acquainted bedfellows in the history of culture. People seem to harbour a notion that, in order to truly produce immortal prose, poetry or art, artists have to have suffered lives that know no happiness, to experience a deep grief of the soul –  and this is the fire in which that immortality is forged. If that is indeed the case, then the subject of this BBC4 documentary, Edgar Allan Poe, fully deserves his place in the pantheon of literary greats.

There’s absolutely no question that Poe endured a very hard life – in equal measure it was as a result of some events being completely outside of his ability to influence but also there was much where he lost conscious control. Alcoholism was a recurrent feature of his life and, indeed, played a major role in his death – it started in his teens, possibly as a result of his inferiority complex gained through his social circumstances and his relationship with his uncaring adopted father. When his adopted mother died, his father cut him off completely without any means of supporting himself.

In this programme, however, crime-writer Denise Mina explores the relationship that this tortured soul had with the women in his life, namely Eliza Poe (his mother), Virginia Clemm (his first, and only, wife), Frances Sargent Osgood (poet and darling of the New York literary scene), and Sarah Helen Whitman (eccentric poet, essayist, transcendentalist, and Spiritualist). Through his often damaged encounters with these women, his writing took on the dark and malign shapes it did, implying that had he NOT had them the Poe we would know today would have been very different, if we’d have known about him at all.

Mina makes a very strong case here – certainly all these women are separated from Poe either through tragedy or the strict social mores of the day. He first tasted death at just two years old, when his mother Eliza died of tuberculosis: she was an actress, a profession that was considered just a notch above prostitution. Not a great start in life then. To a small child, his mother constantly ‘dying’ on stage and yet miraculously coming back to life afterwards was normal. Consequently, reanimation of the dead is a frequent theme in his work, and it would be fair to say that his early theatrical experiences, tied in as they are with the first woman in his life, is where it all started. This notion appears to have bled into real-life – certainly, according to this programme, he did have trouble understanding why his mother never came back after she died for the final, and very real, time.

Another recurrent theme, which is also played out in real life, is loss. Poe loses his first (and only) wife, his cousin Virginia Clemm, to the same disease that took his mother – tuberculosis – after a long, five-year battle with it.  Her death was hastened, it appears, by revelations (through malicious letters sent to her by the noted poetess and love rival, Elizabeth Ellet) of his dalliance with another fêted poetess Frances Sargent Osgood. Then, after the breaking-off with Osgood and Virginia’s death, there came Sarah Helen Whitman, a writer and poet, who was described as being full of ‘eccentricities and sorrows’, much like her erstwhile suitor himself.  However, bad luck was to dog Poe yet again in this potential match, as Whitman’s mother disapproved of the engagement, even threatening her daughter with disinheritance should she get married to him.

All powerful stuff, which coalesced and was funnelled into a rare literary talent. Poe was, in many ways, caught between the word and his weakness for the bottle – desperate expressions of needing to seek relief from the pressures that life brought with it, in particular his life. The atmosphere of 19th century America is well evoked, and the sense of poverty and struggle, for Poe personally and by extension the greater society around him, is palpable. Writing has never been a secure profession, and it was even less so back then. Effectively, Poe was the first professional Victorian writer, the advent of magazines in the 1830s allowing people to see the possibilities of being authors and getting paid for it. Ironically, despite Poe’s popularity, tapping as he did into the primal fears of his readers, he died penniless and in bizarre circumstances.

Poe has influenced an enormous catalogue of writers since, like Agatha Christie, Walt Whitman, Jules Verne and Denise Mina herself. He was a genuine literary pioneer, mining the veins of rich source material to be found in the deepest, darkest and blackest corners of the human mind. He brought the Gothic to the masses and made it popular. Mina strongly brought out those qualities which elevated him above many others digging in the same seam, and, furthermore, emphasised just why his writing is so powerful, by tying his disatrous relationships into the themes evident in his stories. Death and loss were constant themes in his own life; naturally, he sought to exorcise their influence on the written page. People responded, and shot him to fame. But fame can destroy as well as enrich: additionally one has to be prepared for it, no matter how much one craves it. Poe definitely craved it, but equally I think he was totally unprepared for what it brought him.

My only criticism: the soundtrack, composed mostly of long excerpts from 80s goth bands like The Cure, Bauhaus, The Mission and Fields of the Nephilim. Okay, so I make no bones about being an ex-goth, even to admitting that I saw some of these bands myself – however, I felt that hearing the strains of the songs from my younger days jarred somewhat with the subject matter, in terms of the time period covered. It seemed like whoever edited it heard the word ‘Gothic’ and thought it would be clever idea (or perhaps ironic) to use them. Ultimately though, I guess it’s just a minor quibble, tied to personal taste.

After watching this I ended up wishing that the BBC would commission more of these type of programmes and not just for tHalloween. Horror is, for me and for many like me, a year-round interest, and I for one would love to indulge in watching documentaries about horror in general and horror-writers in particular. The quality of this programme just goes to show what can be done when producer’s and programme commissioner’s minds are put to it. Maybe we should give them a hint by showing our approval for these welcome efforts.

BOOK REVIEW: Last Exit for the Lost, by Tim Lebbon

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , on October 21, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Tim Lebbon is that rare writer, an author possessing a deceptively spare way with words yet painting images, themes and atmospheres of infinite detail, colour and nuance, stories that dig themselves beneath the skin and burrow into the bones. These are deeply-felt and envisioned stories, drawn out from the deepest of the pits of human experience. The horrors he assails us with are viscerally raw, the pain and fears screamingly primal, the regrets and losses his characters feel are empathised with completely, and the burden of sins perpetrated weigh heavily on our shoulders in concert.

Before anything else, however, mention should be made of the solidity and size of this volume – it’s a reassuringly massive tome indeed, 557 pages and 150,000 words, and wrapped in a gorgeously atmospheric cover by Les Edwards. That solidity, that substantiality, however, merely reflects the quality and depth of the sixteen stories and two novellas contained herein. Beyond that is the physical quality of the book itself, an aspect that is rarely noted in reviews – kudos to the folks at Cemetery Dance for the care they’ve taken over this, and especial mention should be made here of the attention to details, like the paper quality, the clean clear printing of the text and the general layout.

Lebbon ranges widely here, dipping into and mixing genres with practised ease. The title story, Last Exit for the Lost (and yes, before you ask, Tim IS a big fan of Fields of the Nephilim), is a story which reminds us that not all ghosts are those of the dead. A mysterious set of related of paintings, ultimately creating a triptych, arrives at the door of a man who has let both himself and his family go. The ghosts of relationships, regrets and of what might have been, all conspire to provide the catalyst for transformation. Another ghost of the living, emerging from out of the past, also features in the next tale, The Cutting, when a young boy’s grandfather, a war veteran, is visited by someone from decades before to whom he made a promise and he’s here to collect. Even the passage of time is incapable of denuding honour and dignity.

There is also fantasy here, too, in the form of Forever, the tale of Nox, a Krote warrior, part of an island army that is always preparing for war (a war that never actually comes), who is seeking a means of escape from his perpetually frozen home. Steampunk of a kind makes itself known here in Old Light: a mysterious old man bequeathes an ancient torch to an ascendant of a character from a Jules Verne novel. The item holds the power to show people how they are going to die if the beam is played upon them. Then there’s a wonderfulhomage to the creation of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle in the form of The Horror of the Many Faces (originally published in 2003’s Shadows over Baker Street), wherein Holmes’ intrepid assistant Watson is faced with the ultimate dilemma: is the great detective a murderer, or is there something deeper going on here? Lebbon artfully combines the classic detective story with elements of horror, to very satisfying ends.

However, it is the unalloyed horror story where Lebbon excels. From the Lovecraftian The Stuff of the Stars, Leaking, where a widower finds the rotting corpse of an unknown deep-sea creature on the beach near his home, the discovery of which is bound up with disturbing dreams of his drowning wife: to Black, the tale of a murderous soldier, whose encounter with a woman obsessed with witnessing a murder perpetrated during enigmatic blackouts leads her right to him. From Skins, where sometimes it is better that the deep, secret horrors of the world, lying just beneath its thin crust, remain where they are, out of the purview of mankind and the light; to the novella In Perpetuity, a powerful meditation on the strength of familial bonds and the lengths we will go to just to secure the safety and future of our offspring. Any parent will empathise with the father in this tale, the despair, the frustration and the desperation he experiences as he tries to find a way to save his son.

The best, and most powerful, tale in the book by far, in my estimation, is the last one, the novella Nothing Heavenly. It’s a deceptively complex story, on one level simply about a woman being kidnapped by an unseen agent and on another being confronted by truths about both herself and the greater forces that weave about the world, forces that have been forgotten by the human species. Her journey of self-discovery is set against the End of Times, and the great battles that ensue. Who or, more accurately, what is she? It’s a treatise, told in fiction, on the nature of belief and fate, and one woman’s struggle to rediscover herself, her legacy and ultimately, her role in shaping outcomes of the many. It’s a harrowing and emotional story, expertly told. The excruciating pain and cruelty, the atrocities and bloodshed, linger in the mind long after the last word has been read and the cover closed. Nothing Heavenly possesses an extraordinary cinematic quality, the imagery readily springing, fully formed, to the imagination and pitching us in the midst of unearthly battle.

As was pointed out in the opening paragraph, Lebbon writes in a very lean, spare style. For all that, however, along with the sparse description, the reader still comes away with vividly-realised tableaux playing in technicolour on the screen of the mind. There’s also an ease with which Lebbon’s writing worms its way into our emotional centres, pulling and teasing them at will. Above all, his stories manage to convey the essential bleakness of existence, that the hopes that we carry with us in life are, in the end, hollow, and that even when a resolution has been brought about there is still a trace of malignancy besmirching it. There are very few writers out there, I feel, who can achieve the same with such facility and power. For that reason, I very much look forward to reading more of this man’s work.

This review originally appeared at Bookgeeks.


Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Cemetery Dance

Publication date: May 2010

ISBN: 978-1-58767-170-8

Book and some news

Posted in Books, News with tags , , , , , , , on October 21, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Okay, a book plopped on my doorstep this morning that I’d actually forgotten about, but was immensely pleased as it reminded me that Joseph D’Lacey had promised to get it sent to me when I met him at FantasyCon2010 just over a month ago:

When the Night Comes Down, by Joseph D’Lacey, Bev Vincent, Robert E. Weinberg and Nate Kenyon (Dark Arts Books)

In other news, as broadcasters are wont to say, this blog will be featuring more exclusive reviews in the future, reviews which won’t be posted anywhere else. This is simply because I would like to build that side up on this space – I enjoy writing reviews and I just thought it was time to expand the blog to include them rather than ‘reprint’ ones that have already been posted elsewhere. Plus I have a fair amount of books to get through, so another venue will certainly help me in getting them out there.

I will be starting to take Spectral Press subs/pre-orders very soon, within the month in fact. I’ll be setting up the promised bank account the weekend after this one coming, as I had to make an appointment to open one – but there you go and it’ll be getting sorted out very soon.

Right, main dish of the day coming up once I’ve worked out what I am going to write about. =)

REVIEW-ESSAY: Pretty Little Dead Things, by Gary McMahon

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Below is the first in what I hope will be some reviews I have written that will appear exclusively in this blog, either because they’ve already been reviewed on either of the other websites I write for or they could be seen as inappropriate for whatever reason. Hope you enjoy this first one – let me know what you think!


I often spend my time wondering just what makes one author (or artist or musician) better than another. Perhaps quirkily, being a book reviewer, I happen to consider this an important part of the whole process. Also, being a proto-publisher, I am interested in what ‘makes’ a good story, those ungraspable aspects of the literary pursuit that marks something out as ‘good’ and something else as ‘rubbish’; it’s an essential pre-requisite for someone just about to embark on launching a new publishing imprint, I would think. Just what makes that particular tale or painting or piece of music lock into the intangible quality we call personal taste, that esoteric conglomeration of synaptic connections and sparking neurons in our brains that persuades us to say either yea or nay, when assessing something creative?

It’s a tricky business, you know. By its very nature, trying to pin down something so utterly elusive and unwilling to be concretely formulated is like searching for hen’s teeth or looking for pots of gold at the end of those rainbows. So, I thought I would attempt to explore the slippery little concepts involved in a definition of taste and what is to be considered either good or bad by writing a sideways review of Gary McMahon’s first novel for Angry Robot, due to published on November 4th 2010 – Pretty Little Dead Things.

I love this author’s work: let’s get that straight from the off. To stave off accusations of conflicts of interest that will inevitably be snapping at the heels of a review on somewhere like Beyond Fiction (considering that I’ll be publishing one of his stories next year in the very first Spectral Press chapbook), I’ll tackle this from the angle of why I like Gary’s work, using his latest novel as a way of looking at things – what it is about his storytelling that grabs me in particular, and why it gets my brain sparking so affirmatively.

Pretty Little Dead Things (or PLDT for short) introduces us to Thomas Usher, a man who sees the dead, a singular skill gained after he’s involved in an accident which takes the lives of his wife and daughter. More to the point, the dead are drawn to him, those that are lost and lonely, deliberately seeking him out, to help them to move on to wherever it is they’re meant to go. The thing is, he’s just as lost as the silent ghosts who appear to him and he is also unable to find a strong enough anchoring point in the world to tether himself to. He’s pathologically wracked by guilt: for being responsible for the deaths of Rebecca and Ally (his wife and daughter, respectively), for his amorous transgression with Ellen, and also for the ghosts he was unable to help. And now there’s a missing girl and he’s being drawn into something that could result in him heaping an even heavier weight of guilt upon his own shoulders, more than even he is capable of bearing.

One word I come across often in other reviews of Gary’s work is ‘dark’. There’s no doubting that this novel does plumb the depths of the deepest abyss and goes to cancerous places that few writers dare to venture, but readers should note that other word I used there – depth (singular). It’s not just about the darkness that dwells within the rotten core of the world, but also how those of us who live within this reality cope with that darkness. Most glide through life without ever really encountering it, and so they’re never really aware of its existence. If they are, it’s only because they see it in the newspapers or on the nightly television news broadcasts. Others quite simply lose themselves in one of the multifarious shades of that metaphorical darkness: alcohol, sex, drugs, or violence, or any combination thereof. Here, however, Gary paints a picture of a man, a very human man, who still struggles after fifteen years to get a handle on his unique ability (is it a gift or a curse?), and who also struggles to find ways of peeling away the layers of guilt that lie over his physical self. Gary pulls us into Usher’s unlit gulf with practised ease, as he also does with all the supporting cast of characters: Baz Singh, the businessman/gangster who hires Usher to keep tabs on his wayward daughter, Kareena; Detective Inspector Tebbit, a grouchy, put-upon man who is unknowingly suffering from a terminal brain tumour, who regularly calls upon Usher to bring clues to light that cannot be found by any other means; Ellen, the woman with whom Usher had the illicit liaison and who re-enters his life, and comes to symbolise his most realistic shot at redemption; and, most chillingly, the mysterious figure of Mr. Shiloh, a someone or something who appears to share the same inner darkness as Usher – and the latter is both intrigued and repelled by the man.

The gift that Gary has is to make his characters entirely believable – even those who share nothing of the reality of this world. Usher himself is a likeable and multilayered individual, complete with doubts, neuroses and the normal little worries of the everyday. The only difference between him and someone we might know is that he possesses that ‘talent’ of his – and yet, despite that, it’s easy to identify with him. Even Mr. Shiloh, an obviously supernatural creation, carries with him echoes of what we have come to think of as the epitome of the ‘evil’ man; hollow, empty, incapable of feeling any connection to the world and full of darkness. The same can also be said of the ‘hoodies’ (members of a notorious street gang, the MT), who are themselves not of this world – their mindless violence and their chosen attire is a commentary on the social disconnection of those we label ‘chavs’ and thugs, the disenfranchised and dispossessed of society. These particular characters are all-too-representative of that so-called ‘underclass’.

The social commentary doesn’t end there, however. One of my favourite segments of the novel involves a fake ‘spiritualist’ called Trevor Dove and Usher’s confrontation with him. Gary exposes the hypocrisy, the sham altruism and all the shamelessly cynical exploitation and preying on of the vulnerable. The observation is incisive, and the cutting open of the rotten pus-filled heart of this leech is performed with a lethally-honed precision. You’re left in no doubt as to where Usher stands on this one. Also, there’s a subtle comment on the sex trade: in the foyer of the hotel where Ellen is staying Usher notices a gang of Eastern European girls constantly sitting on the sofas. In one scene, one of them goes off with a hotel guest, implying they’re prostitutes. If you take that thought even further, perhaps these girls had been lured by the promise of a better life in the UK – instead they were sold into sexual slavery.

This is what appeals most here: the intricate nature of the novel (but it’s ‘only’ a horror novel you can just hear the detractors saying). Gary weaves complex webs with all the plot threads, with Mr. Shiloh right at the very centre, patiently waiting for Usher to get himself irreparably entangled. Everything leads back to that one man. This story itself may appear nihilistic, but that’s merely a superficial reading of it; look closely and you’ll discern that there is both humanity and hope in there as well. It’s about the search for personal redemption, a very human act, and Usher’s is the most human one of all. However, one gets the impression that, somehow, Usher has to learn the true meaning of that word redemption; it is isn’t just about seeing the ghosts of his loved ones and asking for their forgiveness – it’s also about forgiving himself before everything else will fall into place. The concept of redemption extends to all his characters, as none of them are ever completely lost; it’s just a question of when the revelation hits and, having done so, whether to act upon it or not.

The above is why I like this man’s writing; it has depth and complexity, as well as a solid heart, and it speaks resonantly to something deep within. It explores the deeper truths in life in just the same was as any of the ‘litfic’ books do; the only difference is that it looks at those aspects from a very primal and infinitely more human level. It continually questions our assumptions about the world around us and our reaction to, and our place, in it. Added to that is a broad imagination that embodies the trials and tribulations of Usher (and by extension those of people in real-life) in devastatingly appropriate metaphors. Plus Gary isn’t afraid of tempering the darkness with light or with the darkly humorous; in fact, his stories, even with the fantastic elements, reflect much of life as it really is. It’s a dangerous, unwelcoming world he delineates, but completely realistically depicted.

It would be fair to say then that my taste in horror leans toward the complex, the superficially horrific but when looked at more closely reveals nuances and subtexts that relate very near to the actualities of life outside the written page. Things are never as black and white as some would like to make out; there are grey no-man’s lands, areas that most of us fear to acknowledge, because to do so would be to remind us of our own human frailties and failings. Additionally, his characters have palpable dimension and are clothed in flesh, and they breathe the very same air we do and possess the very same blood, too. They may not strictly be like us – their acts are strangers to our way of thinking and being, but we have definitely heard of people like these or we may even know some. There is the element of fantasy, in terms of unreal things and situations, but those are there merely to heighten the story’s reality. While I, of necessity, cannot relate those to anything in my life, I can take the rest of it and fully empathise with what’s going on. On a purely superficial level, this was one of those rare books that engrossed me so completely that, on several occasions, I actually let my coffee get cold.

Pretty Little Dead Things is Gary’s first mass-market novel and it’s also the first in a couple of Thomas Usher novels (and yes, there are hints of a continuation at the end). Usher has many battles to fight, not just with the forces surrounding him but also all his inner demons too. It would be a mild understatement to say I am looking forward to the next instalment. On top of that, I am also excitedly anticipating his Concrete Grove series of novels for Solaris Books, the first of which I believe is due next year. And for you, dear readers and McMahon fans, there’s the additional prospect of the publication of What They Hear in the Dark, the first Spectral Press chapbook, which is also due out next year too.

(As an aside: there’s an incident alluded to in the main body of the book, about a screening of a film that Usher was invited to and its aftermath, that made me think ‘that would make a great story…’ – lo and behold, there’s a bonus short story about that very incident included at the end. Bargain!)


Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Angry Robot

Publication date: 4th November 2010

ISBN: 978 0 85766 069 5

TV REVIEW: “A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss: ep #2”, BBC4, Mondays @9pm

Posted in Reviews, TV on October 19, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Ask any horror fan (and many non-horror fans, too, if it comes to that) to sum up the English conception of the genre and it’s a certainty that the name Hammer will feature heavily in any answer. In fact, if truth be told, the very name has become soaked in the Kensington Gore so beloved of the studio; Hammer and horror have achieved a species of verbal symbiosis, each word seemingly being dependent on the other. You can’t think of horror without thinking Hammer, and you most certainly can’t think of Hammer without thinking horror. Hammer is, in fact, synonymous with horror.

After last week’s first episode of Mark Gatiss’s very personal, but never less than fascinating, take on the History of Horror(currently being broadcast on BBC4), the pendulum now swings from Hollywood back to the very birthplace of the horror genre itself: Britain. If Hollywood was about lavish sets and big drama, British horror was on a much smaller and, dare I say it, more intimate scale. As Gatiss pointed out, money was always tight at Hammer – but rather than that being a weakness, the producers, scriptwriters, directors and technicians turned it to their advantage. As a consequence, Hammer produced some memorable films.

Mark Gatiss did an excellent job of parlaying the essential ‘Englishness’ of these productions, starting with the very title of the episode itself – Home Counties Horror. Despite the copiously liberal amounts of Kensington Gore used in their films, there is still a certain charm and gentility evident in them – epitomised best, perhaps, by the two icons of British horror cinema, Peter Cushing OBE and Sir Christopher Lee. In much the same way that the early Universal (therefore American) horror genre film came to be associated with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (ironically both non-Americans), Cushing and Lee came to represent not only horror but Hammer itself. If nothing else, Cushing was the quintessential Englishman, with Lee not very far behind.

However, one aspect of the programme that Gatiss is most definitely to be congratulated upon is the fact that he gave a serious analysis of the output of Hammer – the studio’s productions (and the studio by association) are often seen as being camp and therefore lowbrow. It’s easy to forget in these less conservative and censorious times that many of the things we take for granted in our genre films, like gore and nudity, held a real shock value back then. In this regard, Hammer was a pioneer, pushing the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable and thereby chipping away at what would be seen as ludicrous taboos now. Likewise, it’s too easy for us, as members of the sophisticated present-day audience, to deride those early films, thinking of them as more like comedies than serious movies intent on scaring people, simply because we have no context in which to frame them. Gatiss’s analysis did much to do just that and restore them to their rightful place, to set them against the standards of the day and also to emphasise their essentially transgressive nature.

(This can especially be applied to Piers Haggard’s 1971 film Blood on Satan’s Claw, a film that I have yet to see. This was termed ‘folk’ horror – using the word folk almost as a pejorative, decrying the pagan and immoral superstitions of the rural and pastoral past, thereby painting our ‘ignorant’ forebears in an even darker and more primitive light. The world was moving forward at the beginning of the 70s, in terms of both society and technology, and the message seemed to be that the past was unenlightened and brutal, and should rightfully be left behind where it can’t harm us.)

Once more, Gatiss brought on some fascinating guests, including producer Anthony Hinds, scriptwriter and sometime director Jimmy Sangster, and the late director, Roy Ward Baker. Honours for the best guest of the night would have to go to Barbara Steele, however, the Scream Queen herself, star of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and still quite the looker even now. I would have liked to have heard a few words from Christopher Lee himself, considering he’s the only one left of the Cushing/Lee double act, but I suspect he was off filming somewhere and was unavailable to be interviewed. What we did get however (and which more than made up for it), was some delightful archive footage of Cushing being interviewed, including one alongside that other icon, Vincent Price.

Gatiss also touched upon a few other aspects of the story of British horror cinema, most notably the output of Amicus Films, a late rival of Hammer’s. This particular studio specialised in portmanteau films – shorter films connected by bridging segments. They were never wholly as successful as Hammer, and appear to be more the domain of the dedicated fan these days. Having said that, they did contribute in their way to the rich, gore-spattered tapestry that constitutes the history of horror on this side of the Atlantic. Gatiss also alluded to the influence Hammer had on other directors, including Roger Corman and his fantastic Poe cycle of films (and who was also one of the delightful guests) plus the aforementioned Italian Mario Bava.

Once again, what seeped through most of all from this programme was Gatiss’s deep love of, and appreciation for, horror. No better illustration of this was provided by the segment where Mark recounted an incident in his childhood of being banned from watching or reading anything to do with horror – simultaneously reverentially holding a vintage copy of The House of Hammer magazine (issue #3, I believe it was). His eyes lit up at the very sight of the mag and at the reminiscence itself. This is a man who isn’t afraid to acknowledge his roots, or his debt to the genre,  and his delight in being able to share that enthusiasm with an audience is completely unalloyed. That one segment probably sums up the tenor of the whole series for me.

I’m enjoying this short history immensely and that is also my one biggest complaint about it – three programmes isn’t enough to explore the whole panoply that the horror genre offers to people who take the trouble to delve into it. To paraphrase the words of that other quintessential British character, Oliver (Oliver Twist):

“Please sir, can I have some more?”

BOOK REVIEW: The Beautiful Room by RB Russell

Posted in Book Reviews on October 18, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

As in my previous review (of Mark Valentine’s A Revelation of Cormorants, also from Nightjar Press), this eight-page story is a masterpiece of understated and compact tale-weaving. Superficially, it’s about a dream becoming a nightmare, but there are layers and subtexts here that add up to a dissertation on the complex interactions implicit in any relationship – and being able to negotiate those complexities fluently (or otherwise) can either make or break that relationship.

It all starts innocently enough. A couple, John and Maria, are out property-hunting, and have found a beautiful room suffused with light filtered through muslin curtains. Maria wants to take the room, situated in a house in the country; John prefers the flat in the city. Naturally, in as fraught a pursuit as looking for somewhere to live, nerves get frayed and an argument bubbles up. Soon, however, the pair are distracted by scufflings and scrabblings coming from within the walls. Maria wants to rescue the birds she feels are trapped within the walls; John just wants to get out and get back to the city. It is at this point that the tensions, and the noise, are ramped up in volume.

A simple premise, but nothing more than a mask disguising some complex emotions and relationship dynamics. The tensions were already there to start with, of course: tiny hints are dropped that this is a way of life for the couple, that unresolved and simmering conflicts lie just below the surface. Here, at this intersection of time, the room and the events act as both a focal point and as a pivotal moment: choices need to be made, either through accident or by design.

The moment the birds start flapping about inside the walls is the moment when the fuse has been lit. Maria desperately wants to rescue the birds she thinks are there (and which can be seen as being symbolic of the relationship itself) but John is reluctant; in other words, John just wants things left to work themselves out whilst Maria wants to actively tackle the problems. In fact, one gets the feeling that John’s instinct is to run away and ignore the underlying problems. However, the noise multiplies as soon as John does try to help and the static between the two increases (in the form of an increase in noise and activity from the birds), in effect blocking (or at least garbling) communication between the two. The noise of the flapping increases to such a level that neither can hear the other and a point of no return has been reached, signalling that neither is prepared to listen to the other. Additionally, even when the pair separately yell out the window for help when their only exit gets stuck, there’s no-one out there to respond. The issues have to be faced and resolved by them, and them alone.

Revealing any more would spoil this beautiful story for any potential reader, but suffice to say that the ending is somehow inevitable. Russell has a deft, airy touch and the tale starts lightly and brightly; this is a young couple, forging ahead career-wise and grabbing every opportunity presented. It comes as something of a surprise, then, when we learn that a subtle darkness exists between them, a darkness that doesn’t need much to overwhelm and drive the pair apart. John is an angry and somewhat selfish man, pointing out that he expects Maria to support him in his new job and all that the move to the new country entails, and to put aside her needs and wants in the process. There is also the hint that the city represents order and security to his mind. Conversely, Maria is much more in tune with the freedom and spaciousness that the rural life symbolises – once more we are reminded that divisions, apparently irreparable ones, eat away at the heart of the relationship. Those divisions are only emphasised by the pandemonium created by the birds, both when trapped within the walls and when John eventually releases them. And, like I said, that situation only has only one ending.

The best writing works on many levels simultaneously, as The Beautiful Room does. As brightly as the story starts, it doesn’t take long for the rot at the core of John and Maria’s relationship to make itself known, albeit unfolding subtly and very gradually. And even when the chaos starts we’re not entirely sure whether the tensions are just the result of the present situation. However, it isn’t long before the reader realises that here is something a lot deeper than just two lovers having a disagreement – it becomes obvious that there’s something fundamentally fractured (and fracturing) between them. And that perhaps the widening chasm that has steadily been growing in their relationship has got to the point of being too big to be bridged.

But the thing that strikes most of all is Russell’s writing. It isn’t direct, in the way some writers are, but is oblique, effectively masking (in the case of this particular story) the deeper undercurrents that bubble just underneath the illusorily calm surface, which are only revealed very gradually and piecemeal. With a few deft strokes of the pen, Russell opens up the festering wounds that exist between John and Maria but without ever losing that lightness. It’s that sharp contrast that helps to underscore the horror of the situation, both in the pandemonium instigated by the birds and the state of the relations between the couple. We ARE horrified, once we realise just what is going on, that they have let things get this far without attempting anything like a form of reconciliation. However, learning about John also, paradoxically, leaves us with hope that maybe Maria will find her own path, and be allowed to soar on her own terms.

What more can I say? Simply that, in my opinion, this is a stunning little story, simply and understatedly, as well as artfully, told. I find myself wishing that I’d heard about these little Nightjar Press chapbook gems a lot earlier – admittedly they haven’t been around for very long, so far only releasing four others (Michael Marshall-Smith’s What Happens When you Wake up in the Night (which won a BfS Award this last weekend), Tom Fletcher’s The Safe Children, Alison Moore’s When the Door Closed, it Was Dark and Joel Lane’s Black Country – watch out for reviews of the last two very soon) and all issued in the same format and in signed limited editions of just 200. More importantly, it bodes extremely well for the future of genre writing in the UK, as well as the health of the independent presses. At just £3.00 apiece, this represents a very high quality bargain – and I would venture to say that you should miss them (and future releases) at your peril. So what are you waiting for?

This review was originally published at the Beyond Fiction site.


Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Nightjar Press

Publication date: 17th September 2010

ISBN: 978-1-907341-04-5


Posted in Writing and words on October 17, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Yesterday, I was intrigued by one of the search terms somebody had used to get to my blog – ‘richard ridyard plagiarism’. I was curious enough to put the term into Google myself, just to see what it was all about. Consequently, I landed at Angel Zapata’s A Rage of Angels blog, where I got the full rundown on what this particular individual did. Angel was himself plagiarised, a fact he found out when he settled down to read a ‘zine and found himself faced with a couple of vaguely familiar lines – two lines from a story he’d written, in fact, but which had a different name in the byline. Angel went on to dig a little deeper and discovered something truly horrifying – I won’t bog you down with all the details here (just click on the link above to discover for youself the extent of this man’s [if that’s even his real name] theft – he even plagiarised STEPHEN KING himself, apparently), but suffice to say that when the full extent of the misdemeanours were revealed the writing community weren’t best pleased and the action taken was swift.

Now, my question is, how can anyone think they could possibly have got away with this? It seems utter madness to even attempt it. Furthermore, if you’re a new writer wanting to make it to the big-time, then it’s nothing more than literary suicide. It appears that in this age of the internet, however, with its quadrillions upon quadrillions of bytes of information floating around in the virtual environs of cyberspace, some people seem to harbour this notion that, just because you can hide behind a screen of anonymity, whatever you do you will remain unsussed and therefore you can’t be held accountable for it. The internet is capable of pulling in bits and pieces from all over the place, from the celebrated to the wilfully obscure. Years ago, when the ubiquity of computers and the WWW were still a twinkle in a proto-geek’s eye, plagiarism was infinitely harder to spot. Nowadays, however, type a suspicious line or two of text into a search engine and within milliseconds the answer will come back. Very often, if it is plagiarism, it’s an extremely open and shut case at that – the lines stolen are word-for-word identical.

Mr Ridyard evidently stole from both up-and-coming writers and those who see writing as more of a hobby for the moment. He also stole from the well-established too – you can’t get more famous, or more iconic, than Stephen King. Several of the commenters on Angel’s blog posed the idea that it might be an elaborate hoax or prank of some kind – even the identity and existence of the thief was questioned (for more information, click the link above). Ridyard was supposedly studying for an LLB Law Degree – just the very kind of person most likely to understand the full impact of intellectual property theft. So, the reasoning went, why would he be so stupid as to do something like plagiarise other people’s work and call it his own?

For my part, this case all seems a little weird – but the incident was over a year ago now and I assume it’s been dealt with, so I won’t dwell on it. What I WILL mull over is the idea of plagiarism itself – the verbatim lifting of lines or passages from someone else’s writing (or art) and then passing it off as your own. It’s happened many times before and will happen again, I’m sure. In case of point, one of my friends is a teacher and is also studying part-time for a PhD – as part of her studies she sometimes marks student’s papers, in the course of which she’s comes across at least one example of quite blatant plagiarism. It was quite easily spottable because of the area of study the essay topic was dealing in – it’s a particularly specialised aspect of the study of the classics. In other words, the literature devoted to this area isn’t as extensive as all that, and no doubt my friend had already read the primary texts. Needless to say said student was chewed out mightily about it.

Apparently, it’s becoming an ever-increasing problem in universities – simply because of the simple equation “lazy students+internet=plagiarism” that sometimes applies (and don’t think I am implying that all students are like this – my best friend studied for a degree and attained her 1st Class Honours the hard way, which is the way the majority of othersget their results too). The prevailing philosophy seems to be that “lecturers won’t cotton on because there’s just too much stuff out there and they’re far too busy to check…”. I guess that’s true to an extent, however, there are other clues that give it away, like noticeable differences in writing styles, plus the lecturers themselves have read the plagiarised text? Then there’s the internet – it’s a great tool for finding the obscure and wonderful, but then it means that if you found it, so can others – like those university lecturers for instance.

What it all boils down to a question of trust between an editor and the author submitting the work. He is trusting you that what you have sent him is entirely, and wholly, your own work and has not been pinched from somewhere else, or even that bits of it have. If someone is brazen enough to submit a piece of work to an editor, calling it their own, only for the editor to discover that wholesale passages have been lifted from another story, then it not only hurts the writer in question but the rest of us as well. In addition, the editor him/herself becomes distrustful of other people submitting stuff – he/she is only human and does NOT like being made a fool of. Nobody does, in fact.

Yes, sometimes a line from some other writer’s story you’ve read creeps in inadvertently, and this does happen occasionally. Such instances are not malicious in intent, obviously, but it does pay to be vigilant. The upshot, though, is that if you’re caught stealing blatantly from not just one writer but a whole publisher’s catalogue of them, then you can’t blame the community for unleashing a ferocious backlash against you and your work.

It isn’t the same as having a similar idea for a story as someone else has had before – that’s difficult to avoid (like they say, there’s nothing new under the sun), and it’s nowhere near the same thing as plagiarism. Yes, it’s irksome when you discover that the tale that you’ve just sweated over bears a remarkable resemblance to a published story you’d read after the fact. Rewriting your story, to make it entirely distinguishable from the published one, isn’t that hard to do, however. It’s infinitely better that you do that – the last thing you want is to be accused of stealing another author’s idea. However, if it’s a similar theme but a different treatment then it isn’t plagiarism.

Ninety-nine point nine percent of writers are honest,  legitimate, extremely hardworking, diligent and possess a great deal of integrity- it’s just that 0.1% who spoil it for everyone else. It behooves us to out plagiarists whenever we come across them and to give them the rough ride that they deserve. To keep the taint of intellectual dishonesty as far away from the scene as possible. It’ll never go away completely, of course – I would be naïve if I thought that. It pays to be vigilant and observant and, although we can’t possibly check every single line in our own work or those of others, if we do happen upon suspiciously familiar lines or paragraphs in someone’s story then, just like Angel Zapata did, we must act on those doubts and do some internet digging. That would be doing the writing community, and ultimately you, the aspiring writer, a great service by doing so.