Archive for the General Musings Category

Rewriting the classics: good idea/bad idea?

Posted in General Musings with tags , , , , , , on March 10, 2011 by simonmarshalljones

Johnny Mains posed a question to me yesterday – whether it was a good idea or otherwise to take an old, classic story and rewrite it to suit modern sensibilities. Johnny has himself rewritten a few horror classics in his time, bringing them into the harsh light of the 21st century. However, most people’s immediate reaction would be, I suspect, a resoundingly loud “NO!” and, perhaps a few years ago I, too, would have fallen into that camp. Now, I find myself myself wondering if it IS such a bad thing, after all. I would venture to say that such acts of ‘updating’ stories have been done ever since the very first story was set down on bark/papyrus/paper.

Hollywood does it all the time – taking a universally acknowledged classic and bringing it up to date, without taking away the essential core of the tale. It clearly does this to make it fit in with the way the world is now, to make it relevant to today’s people so they’ll actually want to see it. After all, it costs money to make a film and, naturally, the producers want to see their investment returned. The important thing is that the heart of the story itself is retained – in other words, whatever trappings it’s clothed in, the story is still recognisable.

Some people complain about ‘messing with the source material’, so to speak, but most seem to accept the idea of reimagining a story in visual terms to suit present times. A good director/screenwriter will pick up on the essential ingredients that made the story so well regarded in the first place, and develop its themes and subtexts in such a way that modern-day audiences will immediately recognise what’s going on beneath the surface. Society, and the people in it, despite changes in mores, fashions and lifestyles, remains fairly constant, although the mindset of a member of a previous society may present something of a problem to delineate properly. However, people are generally the same, regardless of era. By transplanting it to now, the story is made more accessible and ‘readable’. Some would even argue that by updating it filmgoers are encouraged to go and read the original story. So, in that sense, one can fully justifiably say that it’s a good thing.

Conversely, others would say that it’s taking the story out of its correct context, and that perhaps the strength of the original narrative comes from its being placed within the milieu in which the writer placed it, ie his/her own times. That may be true to a certain extent, but, like I pointed out above, humans were more or less the same then as they are now – the only advantage I can see is that we have more sophisticated technology, sophisticated in this context meaning more complex and able to do things faster. Add in the fact that  I am not that interested in, for instance, period dramas (although my wife enjoys them), and it might be that modern reinterpretations will allow me to enjoy the classic story without all the trappings of bygone times (although I am immensely interested in history).

Literature, however, is a different matter. I would wager that people are much less forgiving if an author rewrites a classic story. For some people, I guess, literature is much more precious in terms of cultural value. But is this really so? None of the writers whose work eventually attained the status of classic ever had that in mind when they sat down to write their books. Most, if not all, of them wrote because they had a burning desire to do just that: write. And the stories they wrote then, certainly in terms of themes and plotlines, are the same in some respects as those that are written now.

But, and let’s be honest here, the way some of the classics have been written present obstacles to some people. I am one of those who loves how the English language has evolved over the centuries, and I find immense enjoyment from reading old stories – how the language flows, the use of broader vocabularies or words that are no longer extant, or the use of classical references or words in Latin or ancient Greek. Writing is much more streamlined and concise these days, frippery and wordiness being frowned upon. It’s no wonder, then, that there are those who think reading the classics is either ‘difficult’ or ‘boring’. The richness of the English language escapes a lot of people these days.

And I guess this is where rewriting the classics comes in to a certain extent. I am neither for nor against them per se, nor do I see them as inherently pointless. Language DOES evolve, as do societies, and there will always be people who see the past as being irrelevant to them in particular and to everything else in general (and that attitude, I think, speaks of a failure of the teachers of history in our schools to engage their students with the subject properly). In that case, I suppose that rewriting the classics serves a distinct purpose, ie bringing the ‘classics’ to the attention of modern audiences and perhaps getting them interested in researching further. I tend to go for the originals anyway, but that’s me – not everyone is motivated by language and writing in the way I am. In a broader context, however, I can’t say for certain whether this amounts to a good thing or not – that’s for each individual to decide.

Would I publish such a story within the pages of Spectral? Doubtful, although a story based on/inspired by a classic might receive consideration. For the most part, however, although I don’t see any harm in re-envisioning the classics and hauling them into the present century, it’s just not my thing in general (although, to be fair, I have read such stories and some of them have been highly entertaining and clever).

What do you think – what is YOUR stance on such literary endeavours? Do you think they’re a good thing, or a bad thing? Let’s get some debate going…

Blasts from the Past…

Posted in General Musings, Nostalgia with tags , , , , , on March 9, 2011 by simonmarshalljones

During my enforced rest over the last few months (see previous blog entry for details), to keep myself from total boredom and the creeping onset of ennui, I indulged in watching something that I have been fascinated with since childhood – animated films and serials. Back then I went through the stages of watching series such as Scooby-Doo, Hong Kong Phooey, The Pink Panther, all the Warner Bros cartoon shorts, the slightly obscure DePatie-Freleng version of Dr. Doolittle (does anyone actually remember that?), the various Charlie Brown shows and the full-length ‘classic’ Disney movies. Then I progressed onto longer films like Watership Down, Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings (which, perhaps oddly, I absolutely love, despite its very obvious flaws), the same director’s Fritz the Cat and Fire and Ice, the strange and surreal Fantastic Planet (original title: Le Planete Sauvage) and an obcure little porn cartoon called Jungleburger (classic dialogue: the villainess says at the end “So what if I have six tits?”). Add into the mix other obscure gems which I’ve completely forgotten plus, later in my twenties, my discovery of anime, and I must have seen thousands of ‘cartoons’ and suchlike.

However, during that brief restful sojourn, I revisited a couple of series for which I have a particularly fond attachment – The Mysterious Cities of Gold and Ulysses 31. Both of these were French/Japanese co-productions, and both were screened over here in the eighties. Okay, I admit, I was in my early twenties when I watched these shows, programmes that were resolutely aimed at younger teens, but, to be quite frank, I didn’t care. The two shows exhibited a modicum of imagination severely lacking in mainstream British and American productions of the time, a fact which  inspired me to watch them in the first place. I would avidly sit down every week and be glued to the TV set to follow the respective character’s adventures.

The Mysterious Cities of Gold was a 39 episode adventure series set against an historical background: the Spanish conquest of South America and the avaricious search for gold (and it didn’t stint on the cruelty exhibited by the conquistadores towards the natives in the greedy search for the yellow metal). The plot mainly centres around three children, Esteban, Zia and Tau, and their search for the fabled seven cities of gold, located somewhere in the impenetrable jungle. The show contrasts rather sharply the reasons for the search – the children want to find family or solve the mystery of who they are and their place in the world, while the adults accompanying or chasing them only want the wealth that will inevitably follow on from finding a city completely made from gold. It paints Western culture as avaricious, superficial and greedy – not as inaccurate a picture as all that, judging from the history of the actual conquest.

Ulysses 31, on the other hand, mixes Greek legend with sci-fi action and adventure. It updates the legend of Oddysseus (Ulysses is the Latin variant of the name) but sets the action in space. Ulysses has angered the gods by destroying Cyclops whilst in the act of saving his son Telemachus – and his punishment is to wander through an unknown part of the Cosmos in his spaceship in order to find the Kingdom of Hades, so that he can eventually return to earth. Simultaneously, Zeus, who hands down the sentence, also puts Ulysses’ crew into suspended animation and they will only be returned to life when the Kingdom of Hades is found. Accompanying our hero and his son is Yumi, a tiny blue-skinned girl from the planet Zotria (her brother Numinor is also there, but he’s  in suspended animation along with the rest of the crew) and Nono, a small and very nervous robot. Twenty-six episodes were made, a fairly short number for a Japanese production, but boy did they pack in a lot of action. It’s very typically Japanese fare and, stylistically, is also typical of eighties anime. And of course, there’s that stirring opening theme song… (there are also the tantalising rumours that there will be sequels to the series due in the near future, but who knows…?)

It’s funny how you remember, or not remember, things. I distinctly remember not catching the first episode of either, but coming coming into them with episode two with Cities and three with Ulysses. But, having watched all 39 episodes of the former, I remembered surprisingly little of it, apart from the characters and the Solaris ship and the Golden Condor. I also didn’t remember the short factual films at the end of each show, filling out the historical details of that particular episode. I am only a third through Ulysses and I remember more of that one, but I’ll report back when I’ve seen them all.

Be that as it may, however, what utterly delightful (and thrilling) blasts from the past. Whilst it would be true to say that technically I am more in tune with the anime of today, it was still a hoot watching these shows and reacquainting myself with them after something like thirty years. Back then, of course, I never thought that there’d be any means by which I could see them again, other than the terrestrial channels deigning to rebroadcast them. Which did happen with Cities I think – once. So, I for one say ‘Huzzah for the internet!’…

Now, to make my life complete, I need to find a source for Battle of the Planets or, better still, the original Science Team Gatchaman, which will be miles better than the bastardised Sandy Frank bowdlerisation screened on British TV (7 Zark 7, the robot who ‘starred’ in the linking sequences, was never in the original Japanese version…). Having said that, I’d still watch, if only for the sake of nostalgia…

A simple update

Posted in General Musings with tags , , , , , on February 13, 2011 by simonmarshalljones

So, what have I been up to lately that has meant that I have seemingly neglected to post something on here nearly every day, as I used to? Well, there have been a few things that have kept me busy work-wise, plus there have been some health issues affecting both my wife and I. On top of that, January is never a particularly brilliant time for me (along with what appears to be at least half the population of Britain…) for one reason or another. Some of those issues I’ll discuss below.

As some of you may know, I suffered a stroke some years back, whose legacy is a very close acquaintance with the Black Dog. The dark days of this time of year appear to exacerbate it, and so I often find myself fighting to tame that particular beast around this time. It’s a right pain in the arse, as I have too much other stuff to be getting on with to be spending the amounts of energy I do combating depression. I am not one to complain mostly, nevertheless there are moments when I just want to go out there and hit a few things out of sheer frustration. Mostly, though, the dour Welsh side of my character comes out then, where I find myself just gritting my teeth and working my own way through it rather than beating a path to the doctor’s surgery and seeking the aid of medication – they may indeed be the answer but I’m just stubborn like that.

We did, however, visit our GP in relation to Liz’s osteo-arthritis, which is affecting her left knee. There were times earlier this year when she could hardly move, the pain was so great. This necessarily meant that I was concentrating on making things a great deal easier for her around the house and taking on a greater role in the running of the household. Indeed, there was talk some weeks ago of a knee replacement operation, but thankfully she’s been put on medication that seems to be easing everything enough so that at least she is able to carry on doing the daily stuff without anything like the discomfort she was experiencing previously. What the long-term prognosis is on the condition of that knee we don’t know right now, but for the present at least life has returned to something resembling normality – which has to be a good thing. And so, very slowly, as thoughts turn to the return of spring, the pair of us are coming out of turpitude and starting to gear up for the rest of the year in a much more positive frame of mind.

We have also been experiencing a few financial woes, but we have now taken positive steps to redress the situation and already it’s easing up. Whilst we are most certainly not out of the woods completely, we can at least see a bright sliver of light, meaning that we are almost out of it.

But it hasn’t all been doom and gloom – I have also been busy with a project or two, one of which I finally completed yesterday. Some of you may be aware that Johnny Mains, of Pan Books of Horror and Noose & Gibbet Publishing fame, has been busy compiling a volume of the stories of Mary Danby, a stalwart of the Armada and Fontana ghost and horror compilations for many years. Well, yours truly has been responsible for scanning and inputting all those stories in preparation for the production of said book. Nearly 30 stories all told – and working with an extremely temperamental OCR program, that sometimes recognised the images I uploaded as text and sometimes saying there was nothing there. So… there were times when I simply had to type everything in by hand (fingers?) – but, at least one great thing came out of it… my typing speed and accuracy has increased immeasurably as a result. (And, of course, I got to read a sizeable chunk of Mary’s ouevre at the same time….)

I also released the very first Spectral Press chapbook (Gary McMahon’s What They Hear in the Dark, for those of you who haven’t been paying attention) at the very beginning of January and its success has genuinely caught me by surprise. As of this writing, there are just 27 copies left out of the 100 and it’s only been out less than two months. The reviews of the book have been universally positive and I have received some great feedback from customers – plus I now have 60 subscriptions, which is very near my initial target of 70 (which I actually thought was overly-optimistic at the beginning of this year but is now more than within reach). I am already working on the second volume which is due out in three months’ time – for more details visit spectralpress.wordpress.com.

The future for the imprint appears to be more than healthy – the bar for the first one has been set very high, a fact that will encourage me to strive to maintain the high standards I’ve set myself. I also look forward to working with each and every writer who has been asked to contribute, and also to work with those who I have yet to ask onboard.

Now, I can look forward to the rest of this year with gusto, getting back into doing some drawing, painting and reviewing, as well as the editing and publishing, plus some convention appearances. It also means that I will be endeavouring to blog a bit more often with original material as well as posting reviews of the chapbooks. 2011 promises to be a good year for me on so many levels, and it’s to be hoped that you out there will join me for the duration.

Metamorphosis

Posted in General Musings, Personal with tags , , , , on January 19, 2011 by simonmarshalljones

Throughout the short life of this blog, there’s been a distinct series of metamorphoses in emphasis in my ‘professional’ life, for want of a better phrase. The initial idea of maintaining this blog was to chart my career as a writer of genre fiction. For a short while I did indeed write almost constantly, churning out short story after short story – I even managed to get a couple of acceptances. I imagined that my course was set.

Then, after five months maybe, came the first metamorphosis – still writing, but this time with my reviewer’s hat on. I still do a bit of reviewing now and then, but currently I am not accepting or taking any more books until I have cleared what I already have and promised to review. And since I now run Spectral Press I have found that constraints on my time are even tighter. The latter has taken me by surprise a little, although to be fair I did expect to busy and, indeed, wanted to be so.

Which leads me on to the second metamorphosis – into that of editor. Out of all the projects I’ve been involved with, I think that the editing will be the most useful, not just in terms of my own imprint, but in the broader context of soliciting editing jobs for others. There’s a deep-seated part of me that loves what editing represents – English was always a subject I loved at school and if I’d had my wits about me back then I would have opted to go to university to study that instead of art. Let’s just say that events between my art school days and my recent past haven’t stood me in good stead. Don’t get me wrong, I still love painting and drawing, but it’s tempered with a sad realisation that it’s never going to be anything other than an occasional hobby.

Words are much more to my liking – and ever since I had a go at editing SL Schmitz’s Let it Bleed novel at the end of last year I have been bitten by the bug. I’ve applied (unsuccessfully) for one editing job – of course, experience counts for a great deal and editing one or two books does not make me an editor, let alone a good one. I still look out for editing jobs here and there – I want to add to my portfolio so to speak, so that when I DO apply to a publishers I at least stand a chance. Plus, of course, any outside editing experience will ultimately feed back into what I do for Spectral (and vice versa, naturally).

I suppose this is all part of how life plays out. Just like the cells in our bodies, nothing is ever the same from moment to moment. And that’s what makes it all so exciting for me – who know where I’ll be in six months?

Something a tad different…

Posted in General Musings with tags , , , on January 12, 2011 by simonmarshalljones

In today’s blog, I thought I’d write about something a little different – music, or, more specifically, one particular singer: Liz Fraser.

I remember when I discovered this unique singer’s voice: 1983-84. I was in the last year of art college (or, more precisely, the last year before I would have been kicked out had I not left of my own accord), and I was madly in love with a certain young lady (we never actually got it together -typically I liked her more than she liked me). She it was who introduced me to the wonders of the Cocteau Twins, a trio featuring Robin Guthrie on guitar, Will Heggie on bass (eventually replaced by Simon Raymonde) and Fraser on vocals. It was honestly like nothing I’d ever heard before – a richly-layered cornucopia of instrumentation, utterly phantasmagorical and dreamy at the same time, and all topped off with Fraser’s vocal stylings, which ultimately led to the music being categorised as dream pop.

Certainly in the early years of the Cocteau Twins (a name apparently culled from a song of the same name penned by Johnny and the Self-Abusers, better known today as Simple Minds), Fraser eschewed traditional lyrics in favour of the sounds and textures created by the words themselves. There has been considerable debate amongst fans as to the meaning of her ‘lyrics’, but Fraser herself has shown great reluctance in discussing them – and this, in part, is why I particularly like their music, and Fraser’s approach. There’s a distinct sense of otherness about their oeuvre, and to invest specific meaning other than my own interpretation would somehow spoil it for me. Her atmospheric vocals, often combining a ‘pop’ sensibility and approach to melody (along with operatic swoops and non-traditional vocalisations) are what make the songs, not what the lyrics mean. In other words, it was nothing less than the invention of a new musical and lyrical vocabulary and syntax – and this is why, even today, her work stands out, head and shoulders above many others.

I’ve been listening a lot lately to 80s music, and realising that, despite the general awfulness of that decade (on both the personal and social scale), there was still a great deal of invention and just simply great music around. I have a new appreciation of what went on back then musically, but I realised that, above all else, Liz Fraser’s voice still has the power to move me like no other voice ever has before or since, almost three decades since I first heard her on Pearly Dewdrop Drops (the first record of theirs I bought).

The Twins broke up in 1998, but Fraser has been involved in all manner of collaborations (including the seminal Massive Attack song Teardrop), although her output is considerably less these days (and more’s the pity). One of her early collaborations was with This Mortal Coil (the 4AD ‘house band’), which produced the haunting Song to the Siren, a cover of the Tim Buckley song. (In a side note, Fraser also had a personal relationship with Tim’s son, Jeff  Buckley.) That version is one of the most beautiful cover versions I have ever heard – and we played it at Liz and mine’s wedding. It’s also the song I want played at my funeral.

I’ve been discovering songs that I never knew she’d recorded, and rediscovering ones I already knew well, ranging liberally from all eras of her career. One thing they share in common, however: the power to send shivers running up and down my spine. I honestly don’t think there’s any other singer out there who can do that to me, at least not on a consistent basis.  And I truly hope that the ‘new’ album of material that was meant to be released by Blanco y Negro does finally see the light of day – one can only anticipate the delights that one has yet to hear from this unique singer.

A Tattooed Head muses…

Posted in General Musings with tags , , , on January 7, 2011 by simonmarshalljones

As many of you are aware, I set up Spectral Press about three months ago, one of the primary reasons being that I wanted to get more involved in the ‘horror’ scene and also to give something back to it. Plus, of course, I love great storytelling and it would also further cement my appreciation of books as beautiful objects in themselves.  Therefore, setting up the imprint fulfils all the above criteria nicely.

The first chapbook was published a week ago – and it has already sold half of its print run. Which, when you get right down to it, is pretty amazing on any level – but what makes it even more amazing is the fact that I am still a relative unknown within the little corner of the literary world I inhabit. I asked people to subscribe, to give money to me; and people did. I thank them for their trust – they trusted me to go ahead and produce what I said I would. And so, in the last days of 2010, I went ahead and got that first issue printed – and so far Spectral has been the most fulfilling thing I have ever done.

As many of you also know, in 2008 I set up a record-label. I was excited then about my prospects, just as I’m excited about my prospects now. The difference between then and now is that back then no-one bought anything until about six months after the first CD was released. The first publication has only been out a week and nearly fifty copies have been sold. With FracturedSpaces, people would write to me saying what fantastic bands I had on my roster and that the product looked great – but when it came to actually buying they weren’t interested. People have said the same thing about Spectral – but they’ve actually put their money where their mouths are and bought. And if they promise they’ll buy one at some point, they actually have.

But, it’s also prompted me to think about when I can consider Spectral a success – when I have sold out of the first chapbook? Or when the reviews are mostly positive ones? Or when, after the first three issues have been published and sold, people willingly renew their subscriptions?

Ultimately, it’s a combination of all of those factors, but also something else that’s less tangible – just the sheer satisfaction of creating something that people respond positively to. And, if people want more of it, then that’s even better. Even more gratifying is when an author writes to me and tells me what a great job I’ve done and that they’re proud to be a part of it. Or when a reader says that I have exceeded all their expectations and that they will definitely be renewing their subscription when the time comes – thusly are good reputations established.

I have heard some real-life horror stories concerning authors and the relationships they have with some publishers. These are object lessons in how NOT to succeed, however you measure it. I want to be known for working closely with writers and also to treat them right within my meagre means. I also want to be known for creating a quality product – to take ‘amateur’ small-press publications to a new level. A tall order, maybe, but I feel it’s an admirable goal nevertheless.

I reackon I am going quite a way towards achieving those ambitions…  =)

Those darn characters…

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words with tags , , , , , on January 2, 2011 by simonmarshalljones

So, there you are carefully and thoroughly plotting your literary masterpiece, including outlining all the main characters and their attributes, what they look like, their motivations, likes and dislikes, temperaments and dispositions, etc, etc. You also go about sketching some of the secondary characters as well, but in nowehere near as much detail. The incidental and supporting cast? You can just wing that one, inventing bystanders and their reactions to your minutely-planned scenarios on the fly.

After all that preparation work, you get down to do some actual writing. You get some way through it, feeling pleased with the way it’s all turning out when, quite unexpectedly, one of those secondary characters, or even an  ‘incidental and supporting cast member’, starts to take on more of a life than you’d anticipated. What was just a literary device to help move the action along has slowly insinuated him/herself into the main narrative and become practically central to the whole plot.

It’s an awkward dilemma at that point. Do you scrap weeks or months, pehaps, of hard work, and start the whole thing over again, this time being determined to stick closely to the plan and watching out for those pesky fictional story-wreckers? Or do you simply let the character run on, risking him/her taking the narrative in a completely unexpected direction? In other words, are you the kind of writer who sticks rigidly to a meticulously pre-planned vision, or are you the kind that likes to let the people and events in the story surprise you and take the story where it will? Do you like your narratives and characters to grow organically, letting things happen as they would in real-life, where small incidents can lead to major and unexpected turns of events? Conversely, do you find that kind of method too risky, fearing perhaps that by letting things take their own course it’ll mean that the point you were trying to make will be missed entirely?

It depends, of course, on your own outlook. In my case for example, my life has never been one of certainty and security until fairly recently, and generally-speaking life happened to me rather than the other way around. This is reflected in the way I write – I only ever have the vaguest of ideas of what any particular story is going to be about, and I just start writing. While keeping the basic plot ideas in my head, I just let the story write itself. One has to have a certain amount of confidence, I think, to use this method – confidence in being able to tell the story without going off on a tangent or six, or meandering so much you actually do lose the plot in a literal sense. Personally, and contradictorily, I don’t have that much faith in my writing abilities just yet (which is probably another reason why I set up Spectral Press, bizarrely), but it’s something which I am going to be working on in 2011. It’s also just the way I have always written, ever since I was a child.

I did try using the other ‘planning-everything-in-minute-detail’ method once and it just didn’t work for me. It restricted the characters’ development I felt, or if something interesting occurred to me during the writing process I had to think very carefully about whether I could afford to include it, whether it would be a mere distraction or whether it would add anything to the narrative, or whether there was any point to it at all. I can understand doing it this way if I had been commissioned to write a novelisation of some film or franchise, but for my own creative endeavours the method is anathema to my way of thinking.

In this life, people tell their own stories, and very rarely, if at all, is anyone’s life planned to any degree by outside forces. My own feeling is that a story’s characters should be allowed that same freedom; the freedom for events and situations to unfold naturally, and that the characters the events and situations are happening to should react in a wholly realistic way. To my way of thinking, stories written in this way appear less contrived and more in line with how life works (even in a genre offering). Of course, this is just a simple matter of perception; neither am I saying that planning everything minutely beforehand is wrong. It’s just methodological preference.

So, are you a character/event-driven writer or a plan-driven one?