Archive for December, 2010

Second Spectral Press review in…

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

The following review was written by Mark West, and can be found on Goodreads:

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The first chapbook from Spectral Press, Gary McMahon’s short story continues the writer’s ongoing fascination with the darkness of the human soul and the depths to which people are capable of falling. As with his superb “Different Skins” collection, he mines areas that we will willingly look in with him as our guide but where I doubt any of us would like to be left alone. This short is like a hammer blow, dealing with the family dynamic between bereaved parents – Rob and Becky – grieving the loss of their son Eddie. It becomes apparent that he didn’t die of natural causes (and when you find out what happened, it’s a sickening moment that McMahon pulls off with aplomb) and sets the tale up for its dreadful climax.

Emotionally devastating, told with your McMahon’s usual brisk style without an ounce of fat or excess, this is gripping and painful and beautiful and honest and bleak as all hell.

Highly recommended (and a terrific launch title for Spectral too)

A Public Service Rant… er, I mean, Announcement…

Posted in News with tags , , , on December 19, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

So, we were caught by surprise yesterday with the weather, or at least I was. The BBC forecast clearly said that there would be a light snow shower around 3pm and that it would stop within three hours. So what did we did get? A very light snow shower that started at around 11am and which went on for about five minutes, then stopped. Only to start again very shortly after and not stop until 8pm. Yup, nine hours of snow falling from the sky – haven’t seen anything like it since my 70s childhood in Wales. And, judging by what a few meteorologists have intimated, this winter is going to be harsher than the 1962-63 one, which my dad was always fond of telling me about – I was born in ’63 in the middle of a snowstorm, apparently – which, according to my own twisted sense of logic, is why I prefer winter to summer. And yes, I’m sticking to that.

Anyway, I digress. Why am I writing this particular blog (apart from the therapeutic value of a rant, however mild) and wittering on about the weather? What does it have to do with Spectral Press? Well, it means, given the backlog that The Royal Mail currently seems to have amassed, that the signature sheets that have been/will be sent by Gary McMahon for the first chapbook will be delayed. Which inevitably means that the book won’t be collated this week as planned – and said printers will be closed until the 3rd January. Rest assured, however, that the chapbook will be available in the first month of 2011 (come what may) and that all subscriber copies will be sent out practically the minute they arrive here at Marshall-Jones Mansions. I even have the envelopes all written out ready. These really are circumstances frustratingly out of my control and yes, it’s bloody annoying.

But, I’ll end on a lighter note (this is where the light-hearted, human interest stories would go in a broadcast news bulletin – see? I do pay attention…). I popped into the printers a few days ago to check to see whether the covers had been printed – and yes, they had been, and to further erode a worn-out phrase, they blew me away. The quality is something that exceeds even my expectations and really enhance the graphics work of Neil Williams, who designed them. Combined with Gary’s superb story, it really IS a thing of beauty, even if I say so myself – I have high hopes for Spectral, but only time will tell. Roll on the New Year!!

PRESS RELEASE: MORRIGAN BOOKS signs Martyn Taylor’s Whitechapel for its e-book series

Posted in News with tags , , , , , on December 18, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Morrigan Books yesterday signed a contract with author Martyn Taylor with regards to publishing his novel Whitechapel, as part of its new e-book series. Martyn has already been published by Morrigan Books in the anthology The Phantom Queen Awakes, with his short story The Good and Faithful Servant, and is also due to be published with Gilgamesh Press and their début anthology In the Footsteps of Gilgamesh with The No Man.

Morrigan Books is extremely excited about Whitechapel and believe it is a book that will whet the appetite of anyone who appreciates clever and imaginative fiction.

During the Indian summer of 1888 London is the capital of an empire that colours half the map of the earth red. Yet even the rulers of such an empire are taken aback when envoys arrive from a very distant location, wishing to come under the protective wing of the Great Queen. While the government entertains the visitors (the ‘Men from Mars’) they also have them kept under close observation by their chief secret policeman, Inspector Fred Abberline. These mysterious visitors also attract the attentions of a penniless radical teacher and journalist, George Wells, and his equally eccentric lady friend, Miss Cara Benn. As the negotiations proceed in Whitehall, in Whitechapel Abberline and Wells become involved in ghastly slaughters that will leave the inspector’s place secure in history, as well as opening up the future to Wells.

Whitechapel will be edited by one of Morrigan Books‘ newest editors, Amanda Rutter.

BOOK REVIEW: Knuckle Supper by Drew Stepek

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on December 18, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

The vampire has survived as a potent figure haunting both fiction and our imaginations, I venture to say, because of its singular adaptability. As a metaphor or as just a plain nasty piece of work, the bloodsucker has appealed in all its various incarnations and reimaginings ever since Bram Stoker popularised the Count in 1897 in his novel Dracula (the vampire had appeared in popular media before then, but it wasn’t until after Stoker’s novel that things really took off). His character and motivations were amoral, and he considered mortals to be mere mobile blood-filled vessels from which it was his right to feed. The vampire was taken up with gusto by succeeding generations of writers, each adding new elements to the creature’s mythology and in the process creating solid foundations upon which the writers coming after them could add their own ideas. Ever since then we’ve had all manner of types of blood-hungry iterations of the basic model: lesbian vampires, Nazi vampires, medical vampires, even vampires as virus and parasite, right up to the current fad for soul-searching, angst-ridden vampires unwilling to hurt humans and capable of feeling emotion, courtesy of the anodyne Twilight novels and films.

And then here comes Drew Stepek, author of Godless, with yet another re-envisioning of the vampire. He can claim some pedigree when it comes to dealing with these undead creatures, as he once worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But these vampires are as far away as you can imagine from either Joss Whedon or Stephenie Meyer’s creations – these guys are truly nasty.

The story takes place in the seedy underbelly of Hollywood, where RJ is the leader of the Knucklers, one of the many brutal vampire gangs currently parcelling up various parts of the city’s territory. While out hitting on one of the many pimps within his stomping ground, he and his accomplice Dez come across a 12-year-old prostitute called Bait who, in time, causes RJ to question things and injects some humanity into his life. Other members of the Knucklers think he’s gone soft and that Bait is not only a liability but also should have been disposed of a lot earlier. And when RJ comes into possession of a bag of heroin, then things just start to unravel, causing one of the biggest and most powerful gangs in the city to want to know where their drugs are. And don’t even mention The Cloth, a super-secret Catholic organisation dedicated to wiping out the vampires – they’re just trouble, on more than one level.

These vampires, however, aren’t the classic bite-the-neck-suck-the-blood-and-turn-‘em variety – these are vampires in name only, as they aren’t immortal, don’t bite their victims, can’t make those victims into vampires, and can walk about during the daytime; they are vicious sons of bitches, however. They’re drug-addicts, using the blood of ruptured, living victims as a means of getting their highs in a particularly nasty manner. This is gut-churning stuff, certainly not for the faint of heart or those possessed of delicate sensibilities. The violence here is sadistically raw, the drug use rampant and central to the whole thesis, plus if you like your sex at least partly romantic then you’re looking in the wrong place. It’s an uncompromising look at street life, at the endless cycle of the predator versus prey, of dog eat dog, and at the destruction and wasted lives left behind; it’s also an equally uncompromising look at unbridled drug-dependency, child abuse, the blatant hypocrisy lying at the heart of both people and religious organisations, and wanton brutality as a way of life and expression.

Stepek does two things here: first, he successfully updates the vampire genre, by bringing it into the sphere of a modern Babylon, a city given over to superficiality and excess in all things. Secondly, rather than honing in on the degradation and filth implicit in our notions of what inner city life is like (fostered by a lurid media in order to sell newspapers and garner ratings) and thereby damning all the lowlifes, it turns everything on its head by pointing a finger at the very institutions that we are told we should trust, ie., parents, adults, law-enforcement authorities and the church. No punches are pulled here, and nor should they be.

This is a genre book, certainly, but it also carries with it a high-level of uncomfortable realism. The language may be street and the urban ecosystem depicted in it an accurate description of the rotten, decaying concrete jungle prevalent in all modern metropolises, unintelligible to all but those who inhabit its environs, but the central themes in this book speak to us all. We may go out of our way to sweep the human detritus and malcontents under the carpet and out of sight, but those elements still thrive in the darkness and continue to fester. Knuckle Supper may not harbour any pretentions as to its value as a searing indictment of a failed social system, yet there is undeniably a conscience contained within its hip, bloody narrative, one that isn’t afraid to confront us with unpalatable truths. It may not be to everyone’s taste, certainly, but to those who do like their vampires nasty, violent and amoral, then this is definitely the book for you. And, unlike a great deal of similar books, this one has considerable meat on its bones.

(It also has a heart as well – 10% of the profits from this book will be donated to a charity called Children of the Night, an organisation whose aim is to rescue young teenage girls from ending up on the streets and falling into prostitution, and give them a home, an education and the best thing of all – hope.)

This review appeared at Bookgeeks.

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Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Alphar Publishing

Publication date: November 2010

ISBN: 978-0-9786024-5-1



First Spectral Press review…

Posted in Book Reviews, News with tags , , , , on December 17, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

This came in last night courtesy of Neil Leckman and posted on his Virtual Cubicle blog – short and sweet, and most definitely very sharp!

“I just read Gary McMahon’s What They Hear in the Dark, a signed and numbered chapbook from Spectral Press, coming out January 2011. Gary has proven that not all silence is golden, and not all rooms are equal. He has a grip on the range of emotion that comes with loss, and how sometimes what you don’t say hurts more than what you can. Be prepared to have him take hold of you, by the throat, and not let go until your vision blurs, and your knees become weak.”

spectralpress.wordpress.com

PRESS RELEASE: MORRIGAN BOOKS announces new editors

Posted in News with tags , , , on December 16, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Morrigan Books can today reveal the names of several editors who have been taken on by the company in readiness for its new e-book series. Some are established, whereas others are new to the field, further strengthening the vision of Morrigan Books that it wishes to promote new talent at the company, as well as maintaining its level of excellence in the field of dark fiction.

We are very pleased to welcome the following to Morrigan Books:

RJ Barker

Karen Newman

Richard Palmer

Amanda Rutter

KV Taylor

All our editors can be found at the Morrigan Books site.

SPECTRAL PRESS I: What They Hear in the Dark by Gary McMahon

Posted in Books, News with tags , , , , , on December 15, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

An absence is more terrifying than a presence…

Rob and Becky bought the old place after the death of their son, to repair and renovate – to patch things up and make the building habitable.

They both knew that they were trying to fix more than the house, but the cracks in their marriage could not be papered over.

Then they found the Quiet Room.”

“Gary McMahon’s horror is heartfelt…” –Tim Lebbon

22pg A5 print booklet with card covers, signed and numbered, 100 only – published January 2011.

Available from the publishers – Spectral Press, 5 Serjeants Green, Neath Hill, Milton Keynes, Bucks, MK14 6HA, UK for £3 (plus 50p P+P) either through Paypal (spectralpress@gmail.com) or cheque (made payable to ‘Simon Marshall-Jones’) to the address above. Subscriptions for 2011 issues (3) available for £10 – payment details as above. US/RoW please email for prices to your countries…

Web: spectralpress.wordpress.com

Email: spectralpress@gmail.com

Subscribers, please note: this issue will be sent out in early January due to it being THAT time of year and the possible inclement weather that’s been forecast…. Spectral Volume I is currently at the printers and the signature sheets are in Gary’s hands… return expected any day now… =D

Press Release: WHITBY, by Scott V. Harrison & Johnny Mains

Posted in Books, News with tags , , , , , , , on December 15, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Some news about an exciting new project from Johnny Mains and Scott V. Harrison:

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Whitby, North Yorkshire. 1936.

It has been nearly 40 years since journalist Raymond Peakes wrote his original piece on the great storm and the arrival of the Russian schooner ‘Demeter’ to the small fishing village in the dead of night. And now, all Peakes wants to do is forget the past and move on. But the dead just won’t stay buried.

Once more, Raymond Peakes is forced to face the past; to recount his tale of strange happenings and blackest deeds

A tale that began with the arrival of the Demeter.

Believing the ship to be cursed, the superstitious locals want it burned, before it can be sailed back to Varna. But a mysterious group calling themselves the Low Hall Brethren have other plans, staking claim to several items found on board.

As illness and death stalk the sleepy little town, Peakes begins to investigate claims of the dead walking the streets at night, unaware of the monster that has been preying upon the community, in order to slake his thirst for blood.

Count Dracula.

Halted in his seduction of Lucy Westenra by her friend Mina Harker, Dracula has turned his attention upon the inhabitants of Whitby, infecting the town with the ancient curse of the undead.

As the community descends into hysteria, the church wants Whitby destroyed, purifying the evil with fire. The town’s only hope is for Peake to join forces with the shadowy Clerec Robueter, leader of the Low Hall Brethren, the only person who seems to know exactly what is going on and, more importantly, how this nightmare can be stopped.

Set amongst the action of the infamous Dracula, but only containing its eponymous character, Whitby is the story of a man who is willing to destroy himself in his quest to stop Dracula and his harbingers of un-death…

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WHITBY is an exciting project to be involved in; it exploits a plot hole in the original novel and offers up a unique chance to tell the story of a town already blighted by superstition and what happens when a real supernatural force rips through the community. I’m really thrilled to be writing this with Scott Harrison, our writing styles match extremely well and it’s quite rather mental to be writing the secret history of Dracula without involving Van Helsing et al. A challenge indeed! – JOHNNY MAINS.

JOHNNY MAINS is the author of the collection With Deepest Sympathy (Obverse Books) and has edited Back from the Dead (Noose and Gibbet). He has written for SFX Magazine, contributes to The Paperback Fanatic and was project editor for The Pan Book of Horror Stories 2010 re-issue. His latest book Party Pieces: The Horor Fiction of Mary Danby will be published by Noose and Gibbet in February 2011.

Ever since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by both the town of Whitby and Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. It’s always been an ambition of mine to explore and expand upon the wonderfully chilling and erotic tapestry that Stoker created over a century ago – a world that’s as vibrantly real and relevant to today’s society as it was to those living in the late Victorian era. To be able to work on something like this with Johnny Mains, a man whose name is already synonymous with great horror fiction, is an absolute joy. Particularly as we share many of the same literary passions. It’s a pleasure to put pen to paper – SCOTT HARRISON.

SCOTT HARRISON is an author and playwright, whose stage plays have been performed both in the UK and the US. He has short stories appearing in forthcoming anthologies from Obverse Books and Dark Fiction, and has co-edited the collection Voices from the Past (H&H Books) with Lee Harris. He has written for HUB Magazine, contributes to Shiny Shelf, and held the post of writer-in-residence for The Dreaming Theatre Company for several years. He is also working on a solo Steampunk novel called Dark Engine.

Reading vs Reviewing

Posted in General Musings with tags , , , , on December 13, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

It never really struck me until Saturday, when I sat down to read a book simply for the hell of it, that the acts of reading and reviewing are distinctly different. It may be self-evident to some out there, but whenever I reviewed a book I always considered it just another form of reading, albeit a little more involved in the sense of paying more attention to moods, nuances and plots etc., etc. However, reading the book on Saturday, I realised, with a little shock perhaps, that rather than analysing it as I normally do, I just let the whole thing seep into me on an emotional level, enjoying the flow of words and images. After I’d finished it, it dawned on me that I had truly enjoyed reading it on a different level than when I review something.

I still have a lingering distaste for the kind of thing that I used to have to do when I was a sixth-former, studying texts for A-level English. Picking everything apart line-by-line and word-by-word does nothing for me except put me off the book/poem/play in question. I’ve come to realise that a great book (or even a good one) very often doesn’t depend on the particular use  of a particular word or phrase but on the storytelling, how immersed one gets into it and how it all lingers on in the memory after the final word has been read. It’s all about empathy and attachment, and how much the book enables us to invest in it. Merely picking it apart only renders the whole thing impotent in my eyes.

Although reviewing is a form of literary criticism and analysis, I tend to step back from breaking a book down into its constituent parts, instead hovering somewhere between serious textual analysis and just plain old reading. In the middle air I inhabit as a reviewer, I can see the general sweep of what the author’s trying to say while also being allowed to pick up use of language, strength of characterisation, integration of plotlines, use of mood, place and nuance to tell the story, without at the same time squeezing it dry of enjoyment.

Reading, however, is just another way appreciating a book but at a greater distance – one can certainly marvel at an author’s facility at invoking empathy and emotion but without necessarily having to witness the mechanisms by which the writer has achieved his effects. For me, at least, that’s the crucial difference between the two actions – reviewing entails inspecting the behind-the-scenes machinery, so to speak, to see how it’s all done without taking it all apart. The best analogy I can currently think of  is that it’s like looking at a Ferrari or Lamborghini: reading is looking at the flowing lines and inherent classiness and beauty of the car, and reviewing is actually looking under the bonnet to see what propels the thing along. Literary criticism is actually taking the engine out and taking it to pieces to see how all the elements relate to one another.

One can appreciate a book on all levels, even abstrusely critical – it’s just a simple matter of how much you want to know before it all loses its wonder. I’m sure that delving into the basic particles of a text does for some people what looking at the quantum level of reality does for a physicist, but for me it would destroy the finely woven tapestry of words the author has woven. It’s often occurred to me as well just how conscious is a writer’s use of certain words at certain junctures, for instance? The very fact that he/she is a writer means that, like a  circus acrobat, they’ve been at it so long that the art comes naturally to them. They may not even be aware that they wrote that sentence the way they did with any particular reason – it just sounded better that way, In any case, more often than not, it’s mere interpretation on the part of the critic/reader. It’s the spectator who invests a work with meaning, because, unobserved, it’s just a collection of words or pictures.

Reviewing has also fed into my appreciation of reading. Whilst deliberately shying away from investigating the deeper mechanics of a story, I can still be aware of the way in which the writer has crafted his story and the way in which he/she has told it. Both activities have also given me an insight into how I can improve my own writing – in other words, what works particularly well and what doesn’t, how stories are meant to flow, what makes a good story and what doesn’t. It’s an endlessly fascinating process – in some ways, there are no definite boundaries where one ends and the other begins, and they both feed into each other like a Moebius strip. Plus, like I said above, they also feed into writing, and can sometimes be a better teacher than any amount of tuition by a tutor.

So, maybe those English Literature A-level classes were useful after all…..  =)

The Write Stuff…

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words with tags , , , , on December 12, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Yesterday was the first time in goodness knows how long that I actually read a book for pleasure, that book being Tim Lebbon’s The Thief of Broken Toys (ChiZine Publications). Apart from the actual pleasure derived from just the simple act of reading and not having to review it, it also did what all good stories should do: resonated with me on some deep level. I am not a father (although I do have a twenty-year-old stepson) and yet the story spoke to me eloquently about the strength of a parent’s love, and the relationship between their child(ren) and them. It also described perfectly the depth of grief that the death of a child can bring, and how it can affect the equilibrium of even the most level-headed of people. But it also carried a warning: that sometimes that grief can become a destroyer, and that it can usurp reason if we allow it to. I won’t say anything beyond that about the book, as I have yet to write the second part of my Top Reads 2010 post, and this is definitely going in there – now I am just waiting on Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land to arrive so I can read that (as I have been recommended to by numerous people) to see whether that’ll make it into my list.

But Tim’s novella did more than just get me onto thinking about the stuff of primal human emotion and instincts – it also made me wonder about what actually makes a good story, or rather what elevates a story or writer above the ordinary. As many of you know, I have aspirations of becoming a writer myself, and when reading other people’s work, especially those that connect with me in some manner, I try to look a little beyond the surface to determine what it is about that particular story that works. Not all stories and authors possess the same ability, and consequently I am deeply fascinated by how and why some writers are better than others. Simply put, I am trying to figure out, through reading the stories of others, what I can do to create magical, timeless and enduring tales of my own.

It’s not just about the way an author writes, although that is necessarily a great part of it – Tim writes in a very lean unfussy style that manages to capture emotion, feeling, character and place precisely. It’s a very direct type of storytelling, one that drives straight into the heart and mind of the reader – it certainly doesn’t hang around, but it is simultaneously neither prosaic nor unpoetic. It’s also not just about the subject matter, either – for instance, tales dealing with the aftermath of the loss of a child, told through the perspective of a grieving parent, have been written before, and will be again. Of course, there’s strength to Tim’s narrative as he is himself a parent, and one can only imagine what must have been going through his own mind as he wrote this, even if it was only the briefest of passing thoughts.

No, there’s something ‘other’ going on here, something which is above and beyond attempting to tell a good story. There’s ‘truth’ here, a species of truth that speaks to everyone, regardless of whether they’re a parent or not. The emotions delineated here are the most primal that any human can experience, and in many ways form the bedrock of what it is to be human. Even beyond that, however, is the manner of storytelling. Yes, The Thief of Broken Toys has its fantastical elements, but they enhance the story, not detract from it, and they’re integrated so seamlessly into the narrative that its hardly noticeable. The fantastical elements don’t obscure the essential truth of the tale – even in the midst of wonders we accept them as real, never even bothering to question.

This is what makes great storytelling, in whatever guise it clothes itself. It speaks directly and without having to ask us to suspend disbelief – we just do the latter instinctively and without thinking. Sometimes yes, I do want to read something less cerebral and more in your face or superficial, but when I want something more I expect something that happens naturally and that I don’t have to work at in order to discern meaning or intent. The matter of the story seeps into the skin in a process of literary osmosis and does so in an unobtrusive manner – you don’t even realise it’s happened until you close the book and put it down. And then it hits you.

More than that, however, writing like this is inspirational. It would be easy to say to myself “I’m never going to be able to write anything like that” but can I actually be sure I won’t? It’s easy to forget that these writers have been at their craft for years and someone like me has only got into it relatively recently. So no, I can never be sure that one day I won’t sit down and write something that will not only astound others but me as well. Furthermore, I’ll never find out whether I have the ability or not if I don’t sit down and write. Even if I don’t achieve similar results, I can have fun trying to get there (an essential prerequisite.

And that, to me, is what makes a good story and a good writer.