Archive for December, 2010

A new Spectral review…

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on December 31, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

This new review, courtesy of Walt Hicks and posted on David T Wilbanks’ Page Horrific review blog, is an absolute belter, and confirms both Gary’s standing as a writer destined for great things and also that I am definitely on the right track with Spectral Press:

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What They Hear in the Dark by Gary McMahon is the inaugural release from Spectral Press, and they could not have gotten off to a better start.

The novella is a carefully crafted, slow burn of dread and suspense, told from the POV of Rob, half of a heart-broken couple mourning the untimely loss of their son. McMahon adeptly paints his characters quickly and with beautiful economy, and the reader feels almost like a voyeur observing their tormented bereavement so intimately. The wife and mother Becky is revealed in quietly morose layers that are particularly poignant. Overwhelming grief and pain, along with a number of atmospherically concise metaphorical devices are wonderfully melded, his spot-on dialogue contributes to the dark tone. McMahon’s deft eloquence is ideal for this type of ‘quiet’ horror tale, and his pitch perfect pacing to a heart-rending denouement is breath-taking.

Spectral Press’ mission statement of nodding to “classic ghost/horror stories written by some of the great”(s) is well-realized here, and I was reminded somewhat of the late, great Charles L. Grant with this offering.

The cover art for the chapbook is also appropriately understated, and the interior layout is easy on the eyes and comfortable to read. There were a couple of misused semicolons and a double tab in one paragraph, in the version I read, but otherwise the novella was extremely well-edited.

Much of the material I have read lately is of the “in your face” variety of horror, descriptive, violent and gruesome–and there’s nothing wrong with that at all, particularly if well done. However, if you have a passion for literate, darkly atmospheric tales told without the necessity for gore and violence, then Spectral Press’ What They Hear in the Dark is precisely your cup of hemlock.

–WALT HICKS

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What a brilliant harbinger perhaps for Spectral in 2011!!

Hellooooo 2011!!

Posted in General Musings with tags , , , , on December 30, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

And so, to that other staple of year end musings and ruminations: new year’s resolutions and plans for the next twelve months. 2010 has been something of a mixed year, especially in the first eight or nine months of it, but then it picked up mightily for the last three. And I can pinpoint exactly WHY that happened…

It was called FantasyCon 2010. That was my first full con experience ever (although I’d attended the alt.fiction event earlier in the year, as well as the smaller Terror Scribes gathering), and I couldn’t have wished for a better introduction to the genre scene. And, as with any such quality event, you should come away feeling somewhat inspired, and I was no exception. Within a week of returning home I had started playing about with the idea of launching myself into the publishing arena, by establishing a chapbook imprint. The more I thought about it, the better it all sounded.

And so, here we are on the brink of 2011, and the imprint idea hasn’t just been given more shape and form, but it’s an actuality. The first chapbook is due to be properly launched on January 1st, which, from the time in which I am writing these words, is only two days away. Already, more than a third of them have been sold and I am getting enquiries from all over. The reviews are all starting to come in, and so far they’ve all been great.

So, resolution number 1 is to promote Spectral Press and to develop its presence within the scene. I want it to reach its full potential, of which I think it has a great deal. The recipe is certainly there, and there are some quality ingredients: great writers, high-quality presentation and the chapbooks are reasonably priced. Plus there’s a certain exclusivity as well, with the limited numbers and the author’s signature in every one. It definitely has the potential to succeed – and even though it hasn’t officially been launched yet, it nevertheless has better prospects for it than the record label ever did.

Resolution number 2: I will do more reading for pleasure in 2011, and less reviewing. The latter would have been forced on me anyway, I think, what with the prospect of me getting busier throughout the year. However, the books I have for review here already, that have been kindly sent to me, I will honour my commitment and review them. But after that, whilst I will still keep my hand in, it’ll be an irregular thing.

Resolution number 3: Go to more cons. I need to do this anyway, if my publishing ambitions are to succeed. Even more important, though, is the fact that I have met some great people and that I greatly enjoy the (woefully) irregular social contact I have with them. It would be nice to meet up with them more than just the once or twice a year. Social networking sites like Facebook are all well and good, but fail spectacularly when it comes to sharing a pint with them. So, more cons it is then.

Resolution number 4: Secure a source of regular income, preferably in the editorial/proofreading areas. Liz, my wonderful wife, is the main bread-winner in the Marshall-Jones household, and I simply want to ease the pressure on her. Plus I’m a dour Welshman with a strong sense of pride, as Liz keeps telling me – she may be right on that one.

Resolution number 5: Get back into painting and drawing. This has already started – currently drawing some portraits for a client, and have a couple of painting commissions for book covers, as well as a portrait. Already looking good on that count, then.

Resolution number 6: a bit of a frivolous one this – try more varieties of rum. Rediscovered over Christmas just how much I love rum and coke (or Pepsi Max, in my case – can’t drink proper Coke). This is considerably less mad than the idea I entertained a few years ago of trying a bottle of every single variety of Belgian bier, if only because there are less brands and types of rum out there. This is, of course, offset by the fact that rum is more expensive. But where there’s a will there’s definitely a way.

That’s it so far, but there’s still one day left of the year, so I may yet think of some more. Whatever happens, I have a feeling that 2011 holds more promise for me on a personal level than it has for a long time. I intend to be cautiously optimistic with regard to certain aspects, but in general I can say that I have never looked forward so eagerly to a new year than I do to 2011.

HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE!!

Top Reads 2010 (part the second)

Posted in Books, Writing and words with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Finally, here we are, the second part of my top reads this year… and we have some real goodies.

First, what is probably one of my favourite novellas of the past couple of years, Tim Lebbon’s The Thief of Broken Toys (ChiZine Publications). Tim also featured in the first part of this little literary rundown, with his Last Exit for the Lost collection. His tale of loss and regret, of relationships irretrievably broken down, is powerful in its simplicity, needling its way into the emotional centres of the reader with the ease and accuracy of a laser beam. Beautifully written and observed, this is a fine example of Tim’s keenly crafted handling of words to maximum effect.

It’s quite hard to remain detached from something for which one has read nothing but raise, as is the case with the next book on my list – The Silent Land by Graham Joyce (Gollancz). However, the universality of recommendations from friends about the book is also an indication of just how good this book is. A tale of a couple on a skiing holiday being overtaken by an avalanche and then finding themselves in a eerie half-life after managing to dig themselves out, it’s a storyof finding the strength and determination to work out what’s going on.. Elements of quiet horror, suspense, sadness and small triumphs, closely observed and recounted, combine to make an incredible story of memory and its place in our lives, regrets for the past and inklings of future possibilities. This is one of the best and most moving novels I’ve read this year.

Next up is a delightful book that took me by surprise when I first read it – Anna Richardson’s Little Gods (Picador). The story of a much maligned girl, who just happens to be something of a statuesque giant, towering as she does above everyone she knows, this novel is a startling and inventive look at how, through the very teeth of adversity and misfortune, even those considered outside the norm (and shunned because of their difference) can grab a slice of life with both hands and live it to its fullest. It’s very different from the usual genre fare, the language is both poetic and acrobatic (which sometimes gets in the way), but underneath it’s a heartwarming story that many will identify with.

My final selections are all from the same publisher – Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press. I wanted to give them a special mention simply because they’re the direct inspiration for my own publishing imprint, Spectral Press. So far, they’ve produced six titles – What Happens When you Wake Up in the Night by Michael Marshall Smith, The Safe Children by Tom Fletcher, When the Door Closed, it was Dark by Alison Moore, The Black Country by Joel Lane, A Revelation of Cormorants by Mark Valentine and (probably my favourite so far of the ones I’ve read) The Beautiful Room by RB Russell. They’re all fine examples of compact storytelling, distillations of quiet, unsettling fear, that only emphasise why I like the short form so much. Great value for money, they’re only £3 each (except the first two, which have sold out), and for me point the way forward in one particular niche of the publishing market.

Well, that’s it for this year – so looking forward to what 2011 will bring in terms of bookish delights. If this year was anything to go by, then I think we’re all in for a treat!

New Spectral Press review…

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , on December 28, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Before I get onto the main blog of the day, here’s a short but sweet review of What They Hear in the Dark by Nick Cato, posted on his Antibacterial Pope blog:

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The first release from this new small press is an emotional look at a couple coping with the death of their son. During the renovation of their home, they discover a hidden room where there’s no sound…although Rob can sense a disturbing presence within, Becky seems to be a bit comforted by being in it, believing their son is close…

Being a short chapbook, that’s all I can reveal, but suffice it to say McMahon’s tale has a similar tone to some of Gary Braunbeck’s stories, i.e. simultaneously chilling and depressing. This is short and sweet “quiet horror” done right.


TV REVIEW: Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, BBC2, 24th December 2010, 9pm

Posted in Reviews, TV with tags , , , , , on December 27, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Starring John Hurt, Gemma Jones, Lesley Jones and Sophie Thompson

Updating a classic of any kind is a somewhat hazardous undertaking – some adaptations work, others fall flat on their faces. Anthony de Emmony’s take on MR James’ Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, shown on BBC2 on Christmas Eve, falls somewhere between the two. In other words, it was neither a bad stab at it, nor was it a great one.

John Hurt plays James Parkin, an astronomy professor, who leaves his wife Alice in a nursing home while he visits one of their favourite rambling haunts – a seaside village in the off-season. While there he chances upon a ring on the beach, and from that point on his world is turned upside down as inexplicable events start happening, events which upset the foundations of his self-assurance and beliefs.

This is, indeed, the core of MR James’ story – a Cambridge professor (without a wife in this instance) going off on a golfing holiday to improve his game and, during a brisk walk on the coast, he finds the ruins of a Templar preceptory. Digging around he comes across a small cavity in which he finds a whistle. When he gets back to the hotel he scrutinises the object, including blowing it – the trigger for the events that follow.

Necessarily, with the updating come changes to the elements of the story to make it more contemporary to today’s audience. The cloistered world of Cambridge professors and dons, archaeologists and scholars is long gone and, whilst academia is still a mysterious world to some, the class divisions which ruled social hierarchies in James’ day no longer pertains to the same degree. In fact, James wrote about the threats, as he perceived them, to the world in which lived and whih gave such force to his tales: the ghosts in his stories can be seen to be emblematic of the social forces battening against the class system, and the slow crumbling of the Victorian and Edwardian order. In that respect, I think that some of the power derived from the tension between the social stratiufication has been slightly dissipated in the BBC version. In de Emmony’s adaptation, however, the missing element is replaced by the main character’s reluctance at having to put his wife in a nursing home – throughout the programme he frets at the decision, calling the home regularly to make sure she’s okay, indicating that at conscious level he’s dealing with his own ghosts.

Hurt’s character came across as a very confused, lonely and somewhat pedantic man, trying to find solace and perhaps reassurance and justification for his actions regarding his wife. By going back to the seaside resort, he hopes to find pleasant memories to assuage his fears with – naturally, what he actually found (it being a ghost story) was far more than he bargained for. His pedantic corrections of the hotel receptionist’s misconceptions of astronomy (mistaking him for an astrologer – again perhaps a reference harking back to the fin de siècle Victorian era – this was also the time of the Golden Dawn and the revival of the esoteric sciences in general) were inevitably intended to establish his credentials as a man of rationality – however, this rationality was subsumed by his confused emotions, thereby leaving me with an impression of fussiness and lack of connection. Compared to the same character as portrayed by Michael Hordern in Jonathan Miller’s 1968 Play for Today production, I felt that Hurt was a little flat in the role –I didn’t really empathise with James Parkin as strongly as I would have liked. For my money, Hordern’s slightly bumbling, somewhat comical and bookish, insular Parkins was much closer to the man in James’ story.

As the Freaky Trigger Hauntography blog pointed out, in a post dated 11thDecember 2009, there was a lot of comedy in the original story – which, in a tour de force of storytelling, makes the supernatural elements of the story that much more frightening. The comical figure of Parkins, with his absolute confidence in himself and rigid belief that ghosts just don’t exist, contrasts sharply with two other elements in the story: the other main player, The Colonel, and the ghostly apparition itself. The jolt at the end of the story, contrasted with the jocularity of Parkins, is what produces the shock – that a seismic shift in perspective has occurred in the professor’s outlook, and that there are things that not even science can explain. Remember also that during James’ lifetime interest in all things spiritualist was going on and that serious research was being conducted into psychical phenomena – there was the whole Victorian fin de siécle spiritualist movement, the Society for Psychical Research had been founded in 1882 and even in the early 2oth century the venerable magazine of scientific reporting, Scientific American, regularly devoted its pages to the results of experiments trying to determine the nature of these phenomena.  As the 20th century progressed, belief in these elusive will o’ the wisps faded, and the inherent power of science and empirical evidence asserted itself; even so, there’s a feeling in the stories that MR James believed that there were things, manifesting themselves as ghosts and spectres, that our scientific knowledge was unable to comprehend because we didn’t possess the requisite knowledge.

I also felt that the sequences involving the mysterious figure weren’t particularly effective (unlike the 1968 version, which actually freaked me out slightly) – perhaps in this case, because the figure was revealed in broad daylight, it didn’t have quite the impact. Perhaps it should have been filmed at twilight, because the sheer terror of the figure, as exemplified in the dream sequence in James’ story, isn’t quite pulled off here in my view. In addition, the disturbances were fairly standard happenings, with even a nod to Robert Wise’s The Haunting with the frenzied door-rattling. I also thought that a much more solid connection between the ring and the storm that blew up during his first night’s stay could and should have been made. Plus, as was pointed out by Lee Thompson on a Facebook thread, the denouément was very reminiscent of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu film. Looking at it again, I would have to agree.

Before anyone thinks anything, it wasn’t all bad. For starters, the small cast of characters, just four people, served this production well – the very fact that not many people were around added immensely to the eeriness. The settings were well-used too – the hotel was deserted apart from James Parkin, the receptionist and the implied but never seen chef or other staff. The fabric of the hotel itself felt haunted, a feeling helped enormously by the way it was atmospherically photographed. The scenes in the nursing home, with all the residents sitting and vacantly staring at walls emphasised the soullessness of where his wife had ended up. The beach scenes were also well done – Parkin was the only human being for miles around and a sense of true isolation was telegraphed. In that sense, the intrusion of the ghostly figure was a small shock, but it still remains something that could have been done better, I think.

I think the major problem for me, however, having read the story, is that the connection to James’ tale is tenuous at best. There are elements of the source material in there, but they were so diluted that it made it an entirely different story. I would never pretend to be an expert in these matters, and I am all for people reinterpreting classics, but in this instance perhaps setting it in the Edwardian period might have actually produced a better adaptation, so in effect you would have a double seismic jolt – that of material separation between this world and the unseen one, and also a temporal distance. The Edwardian period is as alien to us as the moon is. Perhaps having someone else to play off against (à la The Colonel) would have been a good prop – while the implication that the receptionist’s implied belief in astrology was meant to highlight the dissonance between the two views, it didn’t quite get emphasised enough.

It was a brave attempt, but one couldn’t help feel that so much more could have been done with the material. I would still hope, however, that the BBC will continue to commission more of this kind of adaptation of classic ghost stories for the small screen, perhaps employing someone who understands the genre on a deeper level, both its dynamics and its motifs. Whatever one thinks of the end product, I for one think that this kind of programme should make an appearance on our TVs a lot more often.

And one last thing or two….

Posted in General Musings with tags , , , , , on December 24, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Just a word or two to say that, like everything else in this holiday season, Ramblings… will be on a short hiatus until next week (or maybe even the new year) so the Tattooed Head can join in the festive celebrations and also so he can think up some original posts for this ‘ere blog (Part Two of the Top Reads of 2010 will appear next week though for definite…). Apologies to those getting sick of the mass of Spectral Press posts of late – but it is a major venture for me, so I hope I can be forgiven…

Talking of *ahem* Spectral, all subscriber and individual copies will be sent first thing in the new year – I just want to send them out when Royal Mail have at least had a chance to reduce their backlog.

Anyway, one last thing: I would like to wish everybody who visits this blog, whether they’re regulars, irregulars or randoms, writers, readers or just the curious, A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR!! And thanks for dropping by and listening to my ramblings and mutterings, and for supporting me!

I’m off for a drink – see you all soon!

Yet another review for Spectral Volume I…

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , on December 24, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Here’s another great review from David Hebblethwaite, as posted on his Follow the Thread blog. Here’s what he had to say about What They Hear in the Dark and Spectral Press (this follows two short reviews of current Nightjar Press titles):

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Coincidentally, there’s a couple with a new house and a relationship under strain in Spectral Press’s first title,‘What They Hear in the Dark’ by Gary McMahon. Rob and Becky are renovating a house whilst still coming to terms with the death of their son Eddie, and find a strange room which, according to the plans, shouldn’t be there. They call it the Quiet Room, because it seems to absorb all sound.

There is, of course, something mysterious about the Quiet Room, but McMahon’s ultimate focus is less that than the characters of Rob  and Becky. What impresses me most about the story is what’s going on beneath the words and imagery, the way that the Quiet Room comes to embody the couple’s different responses to Eddie’s death — for Becky, the silence is comforting, as she feels it brings her closer to Eddie; for Rob, the Quiet Room is a place of fear, caused by his search for a deeper explanation for his son’s death than the one Becky has accepted. These conflicting views come to reflect the wider tensions in the couple’s relationship, making for a nice balance between character and atmosphere. McMahon’s story is a good start for Spectral Press; I’ll be keeping an eye on what they do in the future.

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I couldn’t have wished for a better start for the imprint – copies of this are going fast, so secure yours today!