Archive for the Guest-blog Category

Guest-blog: THANA NIVEAU

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

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

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

Here, she tells us what started her off writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest-blog: JOHNNY MAINS on the PAN BOOK OF HORROR STORIES reissue

Posted in Guest-blog on September 9, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Johnny Mains has edited the acclaimed anthology Back from the Dead: the Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories (2010) and is project editor for the October re-issue of the 1959 edition of The Pan Book of Horror Stories

Johnny has had short stories published in the Black Books series, has written for SFX and The Paperback Fanatic and his debut collection With Deepest Sympathy is being published by Obverse Books.

Here, Johnny talks about the genesis of the project to bring The Pan Book of Horror Stories to a new generation of horror-story lovers.

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Around the time of trying to get the Pan Horrors back into the public consciousness I was knee-deep with my Pan Horror tribute anthology, Back From The Dead. I had received all of the stories and interview excerpts from the authors concerned and was trying to make sense of Herbert van Thal, the editor of the original series and whose biography I was writing.

After not getting very far with Pan Macmillan the first time I phoned up, I think I got through to someone who just didn’t know what I was talking about – I tried again and got through to the wonderful Julie Crisp who put me in touch with Jeremy Trevathan, Fiction Editor at Pan Books. I talked to him and he sounded very enthusiastic about the Pan Horrors and that it was something he had been thinking about doing for a while. I told him about Back from the Dead and he asked for a wee presentation. I sent him a couple of stories, some of the interview excerpts and some testimonials I had found on the web from authors such as Philip Pullman, Sara Waters and Muriel Gray all talking about their experiences with the Pan Horrors. In the course of our phone calls Jeremy asked if he could publish Back From The Dead in late 2010 or early 2011. I politely declined, saying that I wanted the book to come out in time for the World Horror Con in March 2010. Jeremy then brought up the subject of reprinting the very first Pan Horror book and could I help track down the copyright holders to the stories? I said I would try my damndest and after a lot of research and some blind luck – I started phoning (as the newly appointed project editor on behalf of Pan Macmillan) the majority of the estates/copyright holders to see if we could reprint them).

I then asked Jeremy if I could write an introduction to the book, as it being a re-issue, wouldn’t people want to know why it was being published again? He agreed and I spent a few weeks writing it – and once it was done, sent it to Richard Dalby and Hugh Lamb to get them to pick up on any factual errors I may have made. Thankfully there were none, and the essay, A Brief History of the Horrors, gives a solid look at the series and the many writers who wrote for it.
So there you have it – I have the finished manuscript next to me as I type and in a few days the first copies will be coming from the printers for me to salivate over.

One of the many questions I’ve been asked is why Pan are only bringing out the original book and not re-booting the series? I think a major part of it is the uncertainty of the market, the only mainstream publisher doing anthologies with any real success at the moment is Robinson, with PS, the independent publishers, pushing at the outer fringes of the mainstream. I feel that Pan have been brilliant in dipping their toe in the market, and it has a certain sense of ‘coming home’ for them – and I’m extremely humbled that they chose me to spearhead the project.

I believe that if the Pan Horrors are fully re-booted, the series will be met with considerable success. There is a wealth of incredibly talented male and female authors out there who write predominantly within the small presses – and if you were to open up ‘slush piles’, I’m sure that there may be one or two new discoveries to be made. Also, looking at current mainstream authors, and people who used to write for the Pan Horrors in the past, I’m sure that many of these people would love to give a stab at writing for the series.

I can’t wait to hold the new edition in my hands, and I’ll sit down and delight myself with Oscar Cooks’ His Beautiful Hands, George Fielding Eliot’s The Copper Bowl, and many other stories which have been ingrained in me for years, but which have taken on a deeper meaning over this past year.

My dreams have definitely become more twisted…

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Many thanks to Johnny for providing this brief insight into a very worthwhile project. It certainly deserves to be wildly successful and, if it pans out that way (see what I did there?), then I sincerely hope that a relaunch of the series will be forthcoming very soon. So, go grab yourself a copy when it’s released!

Guest-blog: MARK DENIZ on BEYOND FICTION

Posted in Guest-blog on September 3, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

I have already posted a short piece on the new Beyond Fiction media review website some time ago (which you can find here), but I asked BF’s head honcho and review-wrangler Mark Deniz to write a short piece about what led him to set it up, and his aims and ambitions for it.

Take it away, Mark!

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As an indie press publisher there are certain obstacles to getting the books out for review. Costs are paramount and when you are based in Europe and an Australian review site want to review your book (and you respect their views), you really have to think about the worth, as you’re going to have to send the book, at quite a cost, aware that it’s probably not going to jump to the top of the queue, so you may even be waiting a good couple of months after release date for the review, if you indeed get a review…

I recently spoke to an indie publisher, who had sent fifty copies of a book out for review and received…four reviews in total. That’s fifty books at cost price (plus shipping) to get four reviews. This sounds productive doesn’t it?

Basically most of the people I have been in touch with in the reviewing side of the books are doing this for the love, in their free time and sometimes the eyes get a bit greedier than the belly. They see all these shiny books and decide that they want to read them all, review them all and so they request them all. Before they know it they have a pile of forty books to go through, and have no idea when they are going to get around to them all.

So, loving reviewing as I do, and seeing the reviewing from the publishers’ side I decided I wanted to get a review site out there that could attempt to keep on top of the things we request for review. Note I said attempt, as not only have I seen the reviewing from the publishers’ side but I’ve also been involved in a few review websites and have been guilty of the sins that I am trying to eradicate from our site. It’s a hard task and a fine line between success and failure (not sure failure is the word but they’re a pair…)

So, creating a site was the easy bit, it was the populating it with other reviewers feeling the same way as I, which was the problem. First person I talked to was master reviewer herself: Sharon Ring of Dark Fiction Review, who was keen to come on board. I then had a chat with Michaela Staton (The Cola Factory), who was also interested and things began to shape themselves. There were discussions back and forth on names, ideas, and mission statements and all looked rosy.

And then it stopped, suprisingly stuff got in the way, you know, that real life thing that keeps distracting us and nothing was done/mentioned/discussed until Peter G. Bell and I ran our rather successful little Vampire Awareness Month and we began discussing a host site for the Ghost Appreciation Month, as we wanted a more solid platform than my own blog.

And along came Louise Morgan and Simon Marshall-Jones and KV Taylor and Bertena Varney and suddenly the team was looking extremely solid and there was nothing we couldn’t do!

Not only were we talking about reviews but we wanted articles, news releases, interviews, etc. We wanted things that would promote artists, authors, publishers, musicians, anyone in the creative world who had something to say.

One thing that still bothered me was that we weren’t covering all locations, as we had reviewers for the UK, US and the rest of Europe but were still struggling with Australia. I wanted a reviewer in every location, so that when publishers sent books to us, we could help them with shipping costs by not wanting it sent across the globe. Coincidentally Scott Wilson asked on an Australian forum if anybody was looking for reviewers and we grabbed him by the scruff of the neck!

Next was a case of posting an advert for new reviewers on the net and this lead us to Sam Kelly and the team grows, and grows with people who really know their craft and are more than happy to let you know what’s going on in this world of ours!

I started a series of interviews with the budding stars of the speculative fiction genre (a term I don’t actually like) in 2008 and called this: Stars of Speculative Fiction. I interviewed twenty-one people, ranging from newcomers, such as T. A. Moore and Joel A. Sutherland to veterans: Ellen Datlow and Elaine Cunningham.

I thoroughly enjoyed these interviews and decided that they should be continued on the Beyond Fiction site. My 22nd interview was with Cate Gardner and I am currently interviewing three more stars, soon to appear on the site.

We are still looking for reviewers and we are still looking for titles but are eager to keep within our mission of having a healthy turnaround and so will not just accept anything. We would rather that we declined taking a book, due to a backlog than we ask you to send it, just so it can gather dust with us.

We’ve started well, with reviews ahead of book releases and interviews to complement those reviews. We are still finding our feet here at the site but those of us here are no newcomers to this world and we are pooling our wealth of experience to give you the best in fiction, film, games and music.

Check us out, I’m pretty sure you’ll stick around!

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Many thanks to Mark for this – so why don’t don’t you play the site a visit today – http://beyondfiction.wordpress.com/

Guest-blog: CARL FORD

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

Way back in the day, when the internet was nothing but a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, we had things called ‘zines to keep us going. One of the very best that came out in the late 80s was Dagon, run and edited by Carl Ford. The ‘zine was a mix of game scenarios, articles and fiction, all based around the vision of one man – HP Lovecraft. For me, it was a regular fix of info and stories – I wasn’t so bothered with the gaming sections for Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, as there weren’t any others where I lived who were interested in role-playing games. It was, however, where I read some of my favourite authors for the very first time. Here, Carl talks about the genesis of Dagon, and of his love of weird fiction in general.

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Confessions of a Geeky Goth

There’s an element of synchronicity floating around in my life right now. So when Simon asked me whether I’d like to write a guest blog about my reminiscences of publishing Dagon, despite the fact that it’s been some 23 years since I last published an issue, it wasn’t a total shock when, coincidentally, another website asked me for the same, that very day. Having agreed to write for Simon, and a perennial sufferer of writer’s block, I politely declined the second offer.

For the record, Dagon was a small press ‘zine that I first published whilst at college at the start of the 80s. Knocked out as single-sided photocopies, I think the initial print run, intended for friends and a couple of the guys in the original Dalling Road branch of Games Workshop, amounted to 10 copies! The original format combined my love of the recently-published role-playing game by Chaosium entitled Call of Cthulhu and my enthusiasm for the writings of HP Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. At the time, Lovecraft’s writings were all out of print, but I’d been steadily collecting horror novels and shorts as a pre-teen. My introduction to the Mythos came via battered copies of a 1963 Panther paperback of Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (editor’s note: which, in another example of synchronicity, I just happen to reading at the moment) and a Consul edition of The Mask of Cthulhu, given to me by my grandfather who helped out on a second-hand book stall in the Shepherd’s Bush Market. The stall disappeared by the mid-70s, but I still have the two hoary books, which I will always cherish.

The 80s were a great time for those who liked the dark side: punk was morphing into the gloomy shadows of goth and the girls looked great. Alas, being a wimpy-looking geek with the sexual allure of squashed roadkill meant that the only thing I ever pulled was a muscle delivering copies of the local Informer door-to-door. In fact, I’d been doing that only a couple of days when I went down with pains in my stomach. Following numerous tests at the hospital, it was revealed I had cirrhosis of the liver resulting in my spleen being twelve times normal. Apparently, the spleen had been taking up all the good things in my diet (including hormones) and converting them to waste. Upon admittance to the hospital my height was 5′ 3″: shorter that the average girl and slimmer than the average lamp-post. I decided to immerse myself into geekdom, hang out with other guys who couldn’t pull, and put sex on the backburner.

The early issues of Dagon were knocked out on an old Corona typewriter as stick and paste jobs with editing courtesy of Tippex. I’d write most of the material, mainly gaming scenarios and filler that included articles on the Mythos and Lovecraft’s circle. By issue 11 I had started to attract a small cult following and word got around. At the time, Dagon was the only British ‘zine devoted to the subject, and contributors from the Lovecraftian stable soon agreed to supply me with material. Authors such as Ramsey Campbell, Neil Gaiman, TED Klein, Thomas Ligotti, and Brian Lumley began to contribute fiction,and prominent Lovecraftian scholars that included Peter Cannon, Robert M. Price and ST Joshi, followed suit. I was also fortunate to acquire the illustrative services of Dave Carson, Allen Koszowski, and Gahan Wilson for the despicable artwork. This collective of big names helped Dagon to garner several British Fantasy Society awards for Best Small Press, and I was fortunate to pick up an award for Most Promising Newcomer (formerly the Icarus Award) for editing/publishing.

Alas, fame was not to be. I’ve never been the most confident of people, and my hellraising is almost legendary. Following the publication of 27 issues, a couple of projects involving a portfolio of Dave Carson’s Lovecraftian artwork, a chapbook by Brian Lumley, entitled (here it comes again) Synchronicity, or Something, and a string of illnesses including life chronic pneumonia, meningitis, and the side-effects associated with cystic fibrosis, and not forgetting numerous nights on the London tiles and a short dalliance as vocalist for a forgettable two-chord punk band (we had one song concerning the Cthulhu Mythos entitled Madness of Madness) meant that life was too short to sit behind a typewriter long into the early hours with just the ghouls for company. Lovecraft was now becoming big business and I’d done my little bit for fandom. I soon discovered girls, goth and clubland, and didn’t miss typing the address labels for a 500-strong subscriber base and packing several hundred issues for shop sales.

Dagon had proved an amazing experience and introduced me to a new circle of friends from the worlds of fantasy and horror, some of whom remain dear friends to this day. The publication itself has something of a cult following, and copies (especially the earlier ones) have changed hands for silly prices. Oddly, the day after Simon asked whether I’d contribute this piece, happened to be the 120th anniversary of Lovecraft’s birth – synchronicity again, or something far more sinister. Perhaps the stars have finally come right.. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn, or maybe he’s awakening once more…

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Thanks to Carl for this really enjoyable article, and also for bringing back great memories of sending off a postal order every two months and then waiting patiently for the new issue to arrive by return of post. In fact, I recently contacted my brother in Wales to see if those old issues are still packed away somewhere – would be absolutely brilliant if they were still there. It’s like waiting for the new issue all over again….. =)


Guest-blog: RHYS HUGHES

Posted in Guest-blog on August 20, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

My guest blogger today is Rhys Hughes, who is one of the most successful Welsh authors. His first short story was published in 1992 and since then he has embarked on a project that involves writing exactly one thousand linked ‘items’ of fiction, including novels, to form a gigantic story cycle that will eventually be called PANDORA’S BLUFF. His latest book, Twisthorn Bellow, is also part of the cycle and concerns the adventures of a self-exploding golem.

Some time ago, Simon Kurt Unsworth wrote about how positively membership of a creative writing group benefitted his work and that he recommended aspiring writers to do the same – Rhys, on the other hand, begs to differ about their worth. Here, he explains his reasons.

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Creative Writing Classes – a Bad Idea

I’ve been saying the same thing ever since I started getting published back in 1992. Don’t go to creative writing classes! I have never joined one, so how do I know they aren’t a good idea? Well, I could (unfairly) point out that I have taught a few, but I was against them long before I reached that stage. They always seemed wrong.

Nothing I have seen or learned since has changed my mind about that. In fact I keep meeting successful writers who share my opinion on this issue and they substantially outnumber the writers who praise creative writing classes. By itself, this proves nothing, but the assumption that writing can be taught needs to be challenged.

I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who once said something like, “If you want to find a decent writer in a university, look in the Physics Department, not among the Creative Writing students.” I don’t go that far, but I do accept he was making a valid point about imagination.

There’s a plethora of imagination in physics and in the other sciences. The students of such subjects are forced to make massive imaginative leaps all the time, far bigger leaps on a routine basis than the students of a creative writing class. And imagination is vital.

If you already possess true imagination, you already have everything you need to be a real writer; and if you don’t have any, no amount of creative writing classes will ever give it to you.

Without imagination you can’t be a writer, it’s impossible; and there is no way of teaching imagination. You can develop your imagination, yes, but that’s something you must do yourself, alone. And certainly the best way of doing it is just to think about things. It’s as simple as that. If you drink too much alcohol you will get roaring drunk, right? Well, if you think too deeply you’ll get roaring thunk.

And that’s actually a very good thing…

The problem with creative writing classes is that they gradually smother the imagination and the process of thinking. They do this in several ways, primarily by exposing the students to influences that lower the standard they should be aiming for; and the manner in which the classes operate also undermines the principle of self-discipline that’s essential for success in the writing world. Self-discipline by its very nature is something that has to develop outside a social context.

This is going to sound bombastic, but it’s not bombastic really, it’s just a fact; unfortunately it’s an unpalatable fact for many new writers. The truth is that all writers are always strongly influenced by the material they read and if they read substandard stuff it does have a negative effect on their own work, and the majority of work paraded at creative writing classes isn’t very good at all. If you are a member of a creative writing class you are regularly exposing your style to near-lethal doses of amateurishness without any protection. Yes you are.

I’m not saying that the instant you read a piece of fiction that is poor, your own style will be irredeemably infected; that if you read hackwork you’ll abruptly transform into a hack. It takes more than a few drops of poison to bring you down. But quality does rub off, slowly, relentlessly, and that applies to low quality too. Over a period of time, mixing with amateurs and absorbing an amateur aesthetic will have a detrimental effect on the level of your prose, and far more damagingly on the depth, flexibility and uniqueness of your imagination.

Nor am I saying that there have never been any good writers who went to creative writing classes. Thomas Pynchon is the living refutation of that idea; he felt that classes helped him significantly with the technical side of writing, but not with developing his imagination. Sure, creative writing classes can help you learn the rules of grammar, or even just the ordinary conventions of orthodox writing: crisp prose, clear expression, etc; but that’s nothing you can’t pick up from reading. And in fact, reading is the only essential step a writer ever needs to take. Reading will help develop your technique; and your imagination too, by giving you plenty to think about. Read, read and read some more; but read great writers at least as much as mediocre ones.

That doesn’t mean you should exclusively read Tolstoy, Balzac, Kafka, Proust, Nabokov, Marquez, Beckett, etc; and even if you do that, you almost certainly won’t end up writing texts as fine or significant as they did; but the point is that you must always aim higher instead of lower. There’s an analogy here with crossing a fast-moving river in a boat: an experienced sailor will point his vessel to a part of the riverbank further upstream on the other side than he knows he will arrive at. Aim very high in order to maximise your chances of arriving high enough. Tolstoy used this analogy himself when viewing one of the early paintings of Nicholas Roerich, a picture that plainly demonstrated the truism in colourful terms. Shun amateurs as much as you can…

That sounds harsh but it’s practical advice. Creative writing classes will expose you to an overwhelming amount of amateurishness. But they can expose you to something even more insidious: the overbearing individual. When it comes to something as subjective as literature, there’s always the danger of an extroverted, controlling or narcissistic personality intruding on what is supposed to be a healthy learning process.

In the university near where I live, there’s a creative writing class that is taught by a local writer who believes himself to be an important literary personality. He is indeed well known in one obscure corner of the Welsh cultural scene. If I tell you his name, it’s probable you’ll have never heard of him, let alone have read any of his books. His method of teaching the secret of good writing is to show his students a film of himself in the bath and then to get them to read his books and try to write short stories in his own style, which he can then judge.

There is really no place for such dominating, attention-seeking behaviour in any authentic class. Almost twenty years ago I was briefly involved with a postal writers’ group; the idea was that each member would send a story to the next member, who would comment on it, before sending their own story to the next name on the list, and so on, until the package came back to you. It was supposed to be an endless cyclic process. Despite the inherently democratic nature of this scheme, one of the writers decided he wanted to be the ‘leader’ of the group and proceeded to attempt to assert his personality over the other members. The truth is that he had almost no talent; yet he succeeded in intimidating a few others who did have talent but who were too unconfident or shy to react against his schemes. I have never seen any of the writers in that postal group go on to achieve success in the writing world, although at least two of them had the skills to do so. I still wonder if his domineering personality managed to discourage them out of the running? A shame if true.

The writing market is small and growing smaller all the time. It’s a world where supply hugely exceeds demand. To succeed, a writer needs many qualities; and one of the most important is unflinching self-belief. If you don’t already have this quality, then attending a creative writing class may put you at the mercy of those who do, or who think they do, and who will attempt to control and dominate you. Personality clashes are common and bullying, usually subtle, is not unknown.

Another problem with creative writing classes is that they almost always teach only the most orthodox approach to writing. I wonder how many talented writers with an unusual approach have been discouraged from following their own path by attending a creative writing class? Earlier I mentioned the fact that I have myself taught creative writing classes. Does it seem that I must be a hypocrite by now condemning such classes? Well, I only ever teach one type of creative writing class: the techniques of a ‘workshop’ known as OuLiPo, which is actually a system for helping to generate unique ideas by using certain logical constraints. OuLiPo isn’t well known in Britain and I see my mission as spreading the message that there are alternatives to the orthodox approach.

The work produced by following OuLiPo techniques is often playful, odd and very original; and yet creating it is partly an objective logical process and doesn’t conform to the standards of the typical creative writing class. In OuLiPo there’s no emphasis on psychological interaction or character motivation; the process starts with pure form. One of the best OuLiPo novels is A Void by Georges Perec. It’s a lipogram, in other words a text written without using a specified letter, in this case ‘e’. Phenomenally difficult to construct, the novel is not just an exercise in formal style and technical ingenuity but also poignantly reflects real world situations and concerns to no less a degree than the best orthodox fiction; and it does this partly because our society itself is a sort of lipogram. This can be demonstrated simply enough by substituting the conceit of writing a story without using the letter ‘e’ with the equally random conceit of living a life without (for example) money or love. OuLiPo works take as their genesis an arbitrary constraint, just as real life does, hence the fact that Perec and other OuLiPo writers produce vibrant work that is emotionally engaged rather than exclusively intellectual.

But you can’t get to learn anything at all about OuLiPo in creative writing classes in Britain (apart from in mine, of course, which is why I decided to teach it in the first place!)… So we can see that another disadvantage of such classes is the narrowness of their range. It’s a sad fact that many teachers of creative writing classes are ignorant of the wider possibilities of fiction writing. In a literary magazine many years ago, I recall reading a series of articles designed to teach the skills of writing to hopeful new authors. These articles declared a set of inviolable commandments. One of the first was to always focus on characterisation, for without proper characterisation it was impossible to create worthwhile prose! Another was to develop only believable plots and never take inspiration from the implausible! A third was to concentrate just on personal issues, to write what you know, etc! Instantly I thought of Jorge Luis Borges, one of the finest writers in any language in any age, whose brilliant stories have no characterisation, no plots and are always utterly impersonal. Needless to say, those magazine articles were worthless.

I have expressed my contempt for creative writing classes in one of my most recent novels. Mister Gum is a satire that follows the misadventures of a creative writing tutor who is partly based on the aforementioned tutor at my local university; he is manipulative, opportunistic and egotistical in the extreme. He also lacks any vestige of talent. In the first section of my novel, he sequentially declares the orthodox rules of writing (for instance “show, don’t tell” or “write only what you know”) and then proceeds to tell a story proving the truth of that rule; but the form of this story always directly contradicts the rule. This novel is emblematic of my distrust of creative writing classes. I’m pleased with it for the way it puts content and form into opposition for satirical purposes. Plus it’s filthy.

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Many thanks to Rhys for writing this!

I want to generate some debate here, so please comment on what you think about creative writing classes. Have you ever attended one, and if so, was it a positive experience? Or did you come away feeling it had all been a waste of time? Feel free to add your thoughts…. =)

Guest-blog: CATE GARDNER

Posted in Guest-blog on August 18, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Cate Gardner writes delightfully surreal modern fairy-tales, her stories having appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Postscripts, Triangulation: End of the Rainbow and Shock Totem, amongst others.

A collection of her short stories, Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits, is forthcoming from Strange Publications this October; and her novella, Theatre of Curious Acts, is forthcoming from Hadley Rille Books in 2011.

Here, Cate talks about the one thing that writers get anxious about – those pesky old reviews and reviewers.

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Reviews are frightening – capital F.

They’re also hard to get so when head honcho Mark Deniz over at Beyond Fiction offered to have someone read my book for his new site, I was both stoked and nervous.

A few days after receiving the book, Mark emailed to say the person reviewing Strange Men loved it. My immediate reactions were wow and thank god, followed swiftly by, do I know this person. Because my greatest fear (yep, more than I fear a bad review) is that someone will say they like my stories because they like me. When I realised I didn’t know the reviewer and they liked my book, I revisited wow and thank god, and this time followed it with, is this person living in a mental institution.

So review number one was in (assuming there’s more to follow – as I said, reviews are hard to get), it was fantastic and my immediate reaction was… The universe is not going to let this lie; the next review is going to kick my ass.

And that’s okay.

Sort of. I’m not insane, I would like a collection of shiny reviews, but despite the fantasist rhythm of my fiction, I’m a realist. No book in the world is or can be loved equally by everyone. Yes, I might be lucky and then again, I might not.

Reviews are frightening – but I’ll take them, good or bad.

Since the review went live, I’ve gotten to know Simon a little better. Hence, this guest blog post. However, I can honestly say that even if his review had torn my book apart, I’d still have thanked him for taking the time to read my book and would have meant it. I hate it when I see people belittling reviewers who didn’t like their books/stories, or getting angry with them or arguing with the review. We put our stories out there, we want people to review them, and we can’t expect praise 24/7. Or at all.

Reviews are frightening – reviewers aren’t.

Moreover, I do believe if you’re willing to listen to the good ones (I was trapped in my office for several hours until my head-swell subsided), then you have to consider the bad ones too (I have chocolate prepared). I am thankful for every reviewer willing to take time to read my stories and comment on them.

And thanks to a review by the owner of this blog, I now own the most delightful book – Shane Jones’ Light Boxes.

Reviews and reviewers are awesome – that is all.

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Many thanks to Cate for the guest blog!! Her website is here and you can pre-order Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits and Other Curious Things from Strange Publications.

Guest-blog: BARBARA RODEN

Posted in Guest-blog on August 11, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Below is the second part of Barbara Roden’s wonderful and absolutely essential blog on the art of editing, the first part of which was originally published here last month. Here she talks about what comes after an editor has chosen the stories from the multitudes of submissions consequent on the original invitation to submit. As she rightly points out, an editor’s work has only just begun at that point – what follows is the detail work, the necessary work which makes everything flow together nicely and is, perhaps, the hardest part of being an editor. Like the first part, this gives us writers a welcome insight into what happens after we have done our part (although, we haven’t quite finished yet…)

Barbara is a World Fantasy Award-winning horror writer, editor and publisher, helping to run the Ash-Tree Press imprint with Christopher Roden. Her current collection of stories, Northwest Passages, is available from Prime Books. Barbara still lives in Canada, as far as I know, which is far nicer than where I live.

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The Unspeakable Horrors of the Literary Life (Part Two)

When we last saw editor Ellen Hartwell-Jones, the deadline for submissions to her anthology The Colossal Book of Fantastic Vampire Cat Stories had passed, and she had made her final selection of stories to be included. Ellen’s name will be on the cover of the book, preceded by “Edited by”; it’s her vision that has shaped the anthology, and the stories she’s chosen are the ones that best fit what she sees the finished work being as a whole. However, the fact that she’s accepted these stories doesn’t mean that her work is now done; far from it. The real work—the actual nuts and bolts of editing—is about to start.

There are three different types of editing: substantive, copy, and line. To make matters more difficult, there is considerable overlap between copy editing and line editing, and between line editing and proofreading. Ellen, as editor of the anthology, will do the substantive editing; depending on the publisher, she might do the copy and line editing as well, or these jobs could be performed by one or two other people. For the purposes of this article, I’ll assume that Ellen is doing all three.

First comes the substantive editing, which is where the editor works most closely with the author. As the phrase implies, substantive editing is the process whereby an editor goes through a submitted/accepted work and suggests potentially substantial changes, which might affect the structure, plot, characters, or tone of the story. This is where things can—possibly—get fraught, depending on how protective the author feels about her deathless prose. The writer has, at this point, completed her story; it is, she thinks, the best it can possibly be, and now someone is asking questions, or suggesting that something needs to be added or taken away or changed, or that this character’s actions need a bit more explaining, or that such-and-such an event needs to be moved backward or forward in the story.

It can be frustrating and/or annoying at this stage of the game: after all, if you’d thought that anything needed changing you’d have done it yourself, right? Well, not necessarily. As the writer, you’re sometimes too close to the story you’ve laboured over to see it clearly and objectively. There’s also the fact that you’re privy to all your own thought processes, so you know why you wrote this scene in this way, why a certain character acts the way he does, why a particular event occurs at that point in the story. You have all the connections in your head, and it all makes perfect sense. The trouble is that sometimes these connections don’t make it from your head onto the printed page. It’s perfectly obvious to you, because you know what you were thinking when you wrote the story. The reader doesn’t; he can only go by what’s down there on the page. He’s not privy to all the thoughts in your head, which is why substantive editing can be a real boon to a writer. The editor, as an objective third party standing in for the story’s eventual readers, can ask for clarification, suggest changes, deepen the characterisation. This isn’t to say that every suggestion an editor makes will be correct and needs to be immediately adapted, but a receptive writer will listen, and consider.

What happens if you don’t want to listen or consider; what if you think that your story is perfect as it stands? Good luck! No one’s saying you shouldn’t argue your corner; if you disagree with a proposed change, then by all means mount a defence. If the editor feels strongly that you don’t have a case, however, or if she’s presented a compelling argument for change and you won’t listen, then you might very well find your story being rejected rather than accepted, and could well end up on the editor’s private mental list of authors she doesn’t want to work with again.

Do editors have such lists? Not all of them, probably, and not formally; there’s no official blacklist of names which editors circulate amongst themselves. Still, the world of genre fiction is a relatively small one, and there’s ample opportunity for people to discuss these things. If an editor has worked with a writer who proved particularly difficult, to the point where the sight of another e-mail from the author makes the editor reach for the Advil even before she reads the message, then odds are the editor won’t want to repeat the experience. And the old adage is true: your reputation does precede you. Remember what I said in the first part of this article, about getting your story accepted being like a race, and not putting more hurdles in front of yourself than is necessary? If you, as a writer, have established a pattern of being abusive, difficult, or insulting, then up goes another hurdle which might well decrease your chances of being invited to submit to projects. Editors are only human, and like most humans they prefer to keep their contact with people who might cause unpleasantness in their lives to a minimum.

Now that the substantive edits have been discussed, and made where appropriate, Ellen Hartwell-Jones moves on to the copy and/or line editing. This is where your story is read through again, this time with an eye to correcting mistakes, inconsistencies, and anachronisms (JFK is referred to as having been assassinated in 1964; a character’s eyes are blue on page three and brown on page eleven; someone in a story set in 1974 mentions seeing the movie Star Wars); terminology (ensuring you’ve used the correct terms in referring to a specific field or activity); and timelines (making sure the dates mentioned in the course of the story add up, something not done in the Sherlock Holmes novel The Sign of the Four, in which Mary Morstan visits Baker Street on a September afternoon and produces a letter dated 7 July, which she says she has received that day).

The next stage—although it’s often part and parcel of copy editing—is line editing. This is where our editor will be looking to ensure that the text flows properly, so she’ll be looking at sentence structure, proper use of grammar and punctuation, and such things as words or phrases or other stylistic tics of the author that are used too often (three paragraphs in a row beginning “And so he . . .”, a word repeated two or three times in the space of a single sentence, overuse of a piece of punctuation such as a semi-colon). This is also where she corrects any typos or spelling errors, and makes the whole thing conform to house style; that is, the style adopted by a publisher as regards grammar, typography, spelling, and other items.

House style isn’t always something authors can anticipate. A British or Canadian writer will write colour or neighbour, and a publisher whose house style uses American spelling will change these to color and neighbor; similarly, an American writer who describes a car’s tires will find a British publisher changing that to tyres. If you use a serial, or Oxford, comma, when you write (“We went dining, dancing, and then to the beach to listen to the surf”) and the publisher doesn’t, then expect the line to read “We went dining, dancing and then to the beach to listen to the surf” when your story comes out. Some publishers use em dashes—like so—while others use them — thusly — with a space either side. Some use single quotes around dialogue, others use double quotes. House style is a fact of life, and there’s nothing you as a writer can do except go along with it (unless altering something in your text to conform to house style will ruin a vital plot point: if the solution of your mystery story hinges on the word “kerb” being spelled in the British style, then you’ll have to explain why it can’t be spelled “curb”, even though that’s the American publisher’s house spelling).

As I said, house style can’t always be anticipated; but what about all the other things turned up in copy and line editing? The fact that you wrote “just desserts” instead of “just deserts”; that your story, set in the future, mentions the American presidential election of 2014, even though the fixed four-year election cycle in the States means there’ll be presidential elections in 2012 and 2016, not 2014; that the hero walks across the room and opens the widow, not the window; that you write of a river being “dissected” by a bridge, rather than “bisected”; that you’ve established your vampire villain can’t tolerate silver, yet at the end of the book the hero is given a silver ring taken off the vampire’s hand, as a souvenir of the case; that you have the sun rising in the west? Yes, the editor spotted all these (well, no, she didn’t; the first four are all examples I can recall offhand that weren’t picked up in editing, and made it through to the published version; the last two were picked up prior to seeing print), and yes, that’s one of the reasons she’s there. It’s one of the most compelling arguments against publishing houses getting rid of editors, and against “editors” who do little more than compile an anthology, with no real skill or ability to edit in any meaningful sense (if an editor makes no edits whatsoever to your story, merely bangs it into a text file and sends it back to you to proof, ask yourself if your story was really that good that no changes needed to be made to it. If you’re honest with yourself, the answer will be “No”). But—and this is a big “but”—it’s really up to the writer to go through his story and clear this up before it gets to an editor. You’ve had your story idea, you’ve written the tale, gone through it again to make sure it hangs together, and then wham, off it goes to an editor. But it’s to be hoped that you, as the author, did more than that before you printed it and put it in an envelope, or (more likely these days) attached it to an e-mail and sent it off. Few things make an editor’s heart sink faster than reading a submission chock-full of misspelled words, poor grammar, and erratic punctuation. If you didn’t care enough to fix all this before you sent it, then why should the editor? As an author, part of your job is to make sure that your finished story is as good as it can possibly be. Go through it as many times as it takes, getting rid of repeated words, fixing the grammar and punctuation, brushing it up and smoothing it off. While spellcheckers are fine after a fashion, they won’t tell you if it should be “complement” when you’ve typed “compliment”, or that you’ve used “there” instead of “their”. If you know that your grammar is a bit shaky or your spelling not up to par, or don’t know where to use a colon instead of a semi-colon, then get someone else who knows what they’re doing to read it through before you send your story off. And tell them to be honest, and critical. Nice as it is to pass your story off to someone to read and get a short but sweet “Great story, loved it!” back as a reply, that isn’t terribly helpful when it comes to polishing your work and making sure you’ve got as many of the kinks and errors out of it as possible.

Last, but certainly not least, comes the proofreading. This can, as I said, sometimes be combined by the editor with the job of line editing, although whereas line editors are also looking to change word order, syntax, grammar, and punctuation where necessary, the proofreader is looking almost strictly for misspellings, typographical errors, and missing words. By the time the proofreader gets to the text it has been set into the format in which it will ultimately appear, so correcting obvious mistakes are about the only alterations anyone wants at this stage, as extensive changes might throw out formatting or pagination. It’s for this reason that when Ellen Hartwell-Jones sends you the final page proofs of your story to read through, she does not want to see them come back with rewrites, additions, or deletions. The time for rewriting or editing your story has come and gone; she wants to know if you spotted any mistakes.

By this stage you will probably have been asked for a biographical note, a story note, or something combining the two. If you’re not sure what’s wanted, then ask. If the word count isn’t specified (your definition of “short” or “brief” may not agree with the editor’s), then make sure you establish an upper limit before you write your 2,000 word essay detailing the story’s background, genesis, development, and dénouement. This should go without saying, but make sure that if you comment on the story, you don’t put any spoilers in the note (prefacing such comments with a big bold SPOILER ALERT is generally frowned upon). These notes often precede the story, and no one will thank you for giving away a huge plot twist or key point in advance. Even if you know the note will be going after the story, or in a separate section at the back, spoilers are best avoided.

Which brings us—almost—to the end of the process, at least as far as writers are concerned; now it’s a question of sitting back and waiting until the finished book is available. One point of basic etiquette to remember, throughout the process, is to try to reply to editor’s e-mails as quickly and accurately as possible. Remember that she’s dealing with two-dozen or more other writers too, plus juggling the demands and queries of the publisher, any other editors and/or proofreaders, and possibly dealing with the cover art as well. The less chasing around and follow-up she has to do, the easier the entire process is for everyone.

When The Colossal Book of Fantastic Vampire Cat Stories is at last published, you might be asked to take part in some publicity for it, if circumstances allow. Some writers like to take a hands-off approach to publicizing their work, preferring to let others do the job or marketing and promoting, but if you’re able to take part in a launch or signing or reading somewhere it’s very much appreciated, and usually a lot of fun. If nothing else, you get to meet with a group of other writers, and complain, like Edward Gorey’s Mr. Earbrass, about the unspeakable horrors of the literary life.

And so we take our leave of Ellen Hartwell-Jones, admiring the latest edition to her bookshelf, and wondering what her next project is going to be. Perhaps she already knows, and is drawing up a list of names of writers she’d like to invite to submit to it. If you’re fortunate enough to be on it, I hope my little guide helps you to clear away some of the hurdles. Good luck!

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Many many thanks to Barbara for writing this fantastic two-parter on a process that, for the most part, is hidden from us writers. And, if you’ve enjoyed what she’s written, then hopefully Barbara will make another appearance on these pages very soon!!

Guest-blog: THE TRAVELLING TALESMAN

Posted in Guest-blog on August 10, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

The following is something of a departure for this blog, but nevertheless I thought I’d go for something slightly different today. Cliff Eastabrook is a professional storyteller, as well as being the bassist in one of my favourite live bands, Press Gang (check them out – they’re DEFINITELY worth going to see!). In this piece, he tells of his relationship with the stories, and with the language of those stories. Enjoy!

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Inside A Storyteller

English is a cruel mistress, a temptress dressed in rich robes, with ruffles and rubies, elegant in smooth silks and satins. I love her lines of Anglo-Saxon alliteration, as she dances forward in double stresses, stepping and stamping with pride and passion. I love her softer side, scented prose, seducing with the smooth susurration of sweet assonance. Her slyly smiling similes and magical metaphors beguile and entrance. I love the very bones of her, words made of a calcium recycled long ago from some far off land, rugged enough for rigorous use yet still flexible enough to take on a new meaning in the mouths of our successive generations.

Yet her most sinuous moves seem always saved for the caress of another’s pen, her most delicate curves reserved for the brush of other lips. With me her favourite game is hide and seek. Here, at the computer I can draw and redraw her elusive beauty, tame her with tools, trap her with a thesaurus. She teases me as I do so: “Too clumsy” she admonishes, “Too clever” she sighs, “Too much altogether!” she giggles and then hides. Again.

But I am a spoken word artist. I stand before you and invite language to dance on my tongue. It’s live, real time action adventure, no tea breaks to ponder the next paragraph. The matter in hand (or in mouth) is folk tale and, thankfully, the choreography rarely requires the complexity of its more literary cousins: vernacular steps for vernacular material. I release my love from the demands of convoluted contortions and ask only that she keeps going, a continuous forward motion. Now, in peasant’s clothes and dirty, bare feet she kicks up her heels and she’s away, leaping and twirling, occasionally rewarding my generosity with a back flip and triple salco. She still teases, hiding a word I need behind her back until the very last second or spinning, heart-stoppingly, down a blind alley only to leap lightly on to the fire escape that wasn’t there a moment ago.

Obviously keeping her in motion takes up a great deal of my attention but I am busy with other things too. My internal director is barking orders: “Remember to make eye contact with the children in the front row. There’s a princess coming up, find a woman to flatter with the description of her beauty. Good work! Now back off – her husbands looking antsy. Take it down, slowly now, almost a whisper, lets make this surprise really work, pause… and GO! Now the king’s on in a moment, can you give him a bit more of an accent this time?”

For all our years of working together though, we are not in charge. Above us all there is a higher power: the story itself. I have chewed it over but, like a virus or a bacteria, it is not broken down by my digestive juices. It has encysted inside me, living a life of its own. A strong story may even cannibalise some of its brothers, incorporating their best bits into itself. My internal team and I are only midwives assisting in the story’s re-entry to the world. Older than the trees, it is used to waiting but it wants to be told, to burst forth and plant its seed in fresh ears.

As the story opens up before me I feed the pictures to Dame English and she dances on, step-step-jump-turn, and the Director does his best to keep the performance on track as it accelerates towards its climax. This is the most dangerous moment, if we lose our footing now then all the work we have done is wasted. My leading lady carefully sets herself up for the last dash while the director nudges me to centre stage and makes me do a quick sweep around the whole audience, meeting eyes, gathering you in.

But the story is a big boy now, asserting its reality on top of mine. I can’t complain, I have encouraged it, but it is strange standing there in front of you, knowing you are listening while my eyes see another place and time entirely. Under dragon attack for instance, my team flees screaming into the distance. As dust whirls and huge claws crash to the ground this side and that, I look down at the parched desert floor, scrabble for words to chuck out to you and catch only gravel. It spills from my mouth skidding beneath the hooves of the hero’s horse. I duck and dive, weave this way and that as the scythe-like claws whistle through the air just inches from my face. Heart pounding, I babble a breathless commentary, my arms flailing wildly, hands reaching out for words half obscured amidst airborne sand and smoke, trying to pluck power and purpose from the hot unfocused air.

Deep, deep within, a small voice intones a constant prayer to the one-eyed god of poetry: “Don’t let me die. Don’t let me die”. I mean it both as the theatrical metaphor, and literally, as the dragon fixes me with its vast black eyes and raises his deadly claw to strike. The story is running the show now – and it has an agenda. Our stories tell us who we are, as individuals and as a nation. This story reminds us we are heroes, that we can face our fears and overcome our monsters: it has no intention of letting the claw come down. Through the fog of combat it suddenly presents me with the hero’s magic sword and gratefully grasping the leather wrapped hilt, I-he-you-we are carried forward by our steadfast steed, between the dragon’s very legs and swiftly strike upward delivering shining steely death to our ancient enemy.

My team have returned, the director exhorting cheers from the audience and Lady Language tap dancing lightly to “happily ever after”. The Manager takes over, smoothly handling the PR, “Thank you, thank you, I’ve been The Travelling Talesman, you’ve been a wonderful audience, see you next time!”. People come up to me asking “Where do you get your stories from?” and “How do you remember it all?”. The manager trots out professional platitudes, giving them something they can take away with them. I do not mention the deep, dark well of the unconscious mind or the chaos that goes on backstage. Oh, I can tell them all sorts of ways to learn a story but would they understand if I said that, in the white heat of telling, it’s often the story that remembers me? …And even I don’t know how my leading lady stays on that narrow, narrative tightrope… maybe she returns my love after all.

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Thanks to Cliff for an utterly fascinating glimpse into his world. This is something that people often don’t realise, I think: that it’s very often the story that governs us and not the other way around.

The Travelling Taleman’s website can found here.

Guest-blog: WILLIAM MEIKLE

Posted in Guest-blog on August 5, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Today’s guest-blogger is a Scottish writer with numerous novels published in the genre press and short story credits in thirteen countries. He is the author of the ongoing Midnight Eye series among others, and his work appears in a number of professional anthologies. He now lives in a remote corner of Newfoundland with icebergs, whales and bald eagles for company. His latest book, The Haunting of Esther Cox, is out now. Here, William talks about what prompted him to start writing.

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Why?

I’ve been asked many times why I write what I do. I choose to write mainly at the pulpy end of the market, populating my stories with monsters, myths, men who like a drink and a smoke, and more monsters. People who like this sort of thing like it.

I’ve also been criticised for it by people who don’t get it. Willie Meikle is…”the author of the most cliched, derivative drivel imaginable…the critical acclaim he receives from his peers is virtually non-existent.” is only one of the responses I’ve had.

Now, I don’t write for the critical acclaim of my peers. I couldn’t give a toss what other writers think of me. I’m writing for two reasons… myself and a readership. Posterity, if there is one, can decide on whether it’s any good or not. Besides, the harder I work at it making my writing accessible, the more readers I get, so I’m doing something right.

But that’s still not why I do it. My pat answer has always been the same. “I like monsters.”

But it goes deeper than that.

I write to escape.

I grew up on a West of Scotland council estate in a town where you were either unemployed or working in the steelworks, and sometimes both. Many of the townspeople led hard, miserable lifes of quiet, and sometimes not so quiet desperation. I was relatively lucky in that both my parents worked, but they were both on shifts that rarely coincided, and I spent a lot of time alone or at my grandparent’s house.

My Granddad was housebound, and a voracious reader of popular paperbacks of the time. I got the habit from him, and through him I discovered the Pan Books of Horror and Lovecraft, but I also discovered westerns, science fiction, war novels and the likes of Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, Alistair MacLean, Dennis Wheatley, Nigel Tranter, Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov. When you mix all that together with DC Comics, Tarzan, Gerry Anderson and Dr Who, then, later on, Hammer and Universal movies on the BBC, you can see how the pulp became embedded in my psyche.

When I was at school these books and my guitar were all that kept me sane in a town that was going downhill fast. The steelworks shut and employment got worse. I could have started writing about that, but why bother? All I had to do was walk outside and I’d get it slapped in my face. That horror was all too real.

When I first took up my pen and wrote it was song lyrics, designed (mostly unsuccessfully) to get me closer to girls. I tried my hand at a few short stories but had no confidence in them and hid them away.

And that was that for many years.

I didn’t get the urge again until I was past thirty and trapped in a very boring job. My home town had continued to stagnate and, unless I wanted to spend my whole life drinking (something I was actively considering at the time), returning there wasn’t an option.

As I said before, I write to escape.

My brain needed something, and writing gave it what was required. That point, back nearly twenty years ago, was like switching on an engine, one that has been running steadily ever since.

And most of the time, the things that engine chooses to give me to write are very pulpy.

I think you have to have grown up with pulp to get it. A lot of writers have been told that pulp=bad plotting and that you have to have deep psychological insight in your work for it to be valid. They’ve also been told that pulp=bad writing, and they believe it. Whereas I remember the joy I got from early Moorcock, from Mickey Spillane and further back, A E Merritt and H Rider Haggard. I’d love to have a chance to write a Tarzan, John Carter, Allan Quartermain, Mike Hammer or Conan novel, whereas a lot of writers I know would sniff and turn their noses up at the very thought of it.

I write to escape.

I haven’t managed it yet, but I’m working on it.

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Many thanks to William for taking a moment to write this!! His website can be found here.

Guest-blog: PAUL BRADSHAW

Posted in Guest-blog on August 3, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Paul Bradshaw, today’s esteemed guest-blogger, was once editor of the small press magazine of bizarre fiction entitled The Dream Zone. He also has had around 80 short stories published in various independent magazines and anthologies. These days he squanders his time by sleeping and eating and reading stuff in between. Here, Paul writes about what constitutes true horror, in every sense of the word: in other words, the horror that is brought into our living rooms on a daily basis…

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When I was about nine or ten years old I remember watching a news programme on the television, it was during the time of the Vietnam war and the news item showed a South Vietnamese colonel standing next to a captured Vietcong man. The one thing that I recall vividly is the officer taking out his handgun and shooting the prisoner in the head. It is an image that has been in my memory for all that time. I think about it sometimes, perhaps more times than I ought to, as over the years it comes back into focus inside my head for no apparent reason, just when my mind is wandering I reckon. It’s surprising exactly how much I do remember about it. The event lasted less than ten seconds, yet I still recall the Vietcong man’s hands were tied behind his back, and although he was standing beside the officer he seemed to be ignoring him, staring off into the distance, as if in defiance of the situation. The officer takes out his gun and in one motion raises it to the prisoner’s head and presses the trigger. He does not do it slowly nor quickly, it is done at normal speed. As soon as the gun was fired the prisoner must have been killed instantly, he just collapses awkwardly to the ground in a heap, and with his arms not free it looks even more awkward. The clip then finishes. I am not glad that I saw this image, nor do I regret seeing it, it is just something that I have seen in my past and I accept it as that. However the most striking and memorable thing about it is the fact that it really happened… it was a slice of real life.

Over the years I have watched horror films and slasher films and all that stuff, and even though I am not a big fan of this kind of movie I find myself unmoved by them. I can’t recall a single image from any of these movies that has lingered in my brain like the scene from Vietnam has. Even classics such as The Omen and The Exorcist, all the Frankenstein and Dracula films, the Hammer movies, Dawn of the Dead and other zombie flicks, the cheesy 70s foreign remakes such as Flesh For Frankenstein and Blood For Dracula. I don’t remember anything from them at all… simply because I know in my mind that whatever happens in them is not real.

Real horror is the one thing that truly terrifies. No doubt the scene from Vietnam can now be viewed somewhere on the internet, probably in a place like Ogrish or Rotten, together with modern horrors like terrorist beheadings and horrible accidents and the like. Watching genuine horrors is so simple nowadays, too simple to be healthy I reckon. Before the days of camcorders and mobile phones and other handheld devices this kind of thing was quite rare and could only be seen up close and in the flesh, and only occasionally in the case of the Vietnam execution. Yet what I find equally as terrible as viewing these horrors is actually trying to place yourself into one of those horrific situations. This can really and truly do your head in if you’re not careful.

In the 70s there were a lot of planes being hijacked if one can remember, particularly in Middle Eastern countries, and I recall that one of the first things the terrorists would do is seek out an American passenger and shoot him before dumping his body out of the aeroplane. Not in mid flight, it was usually at the airport when the hijacking took place, or the plane would be hijacked in mid flight and the pilot ordered to land at an airport of the terrorists’ choice. It was there that they would ask the passengers for their passports and the first American one they found they would execute the owner of it on the spot. How horrible that must have been for the passengers. If you were an American on that plane what would you do? What could you do? Pretend you had borrowed your mate’s passport, and that your mate looked exactly like you did? Tell them you couldn’t find it anywhere? In your heart you knew that as soon as you handed over that passport your life would end. Try to imagine what that must have been like. It’s too horrible to even think about.

When I was about twelve years old there was a serious traffic accident at the top of our street that involved fatalities. The usual rumours spread about what took place, and one rumour that I recall more than any other was the fact that the impact had been so tremendous that one of the victims, a woman, had had her teeth knocked right up into her brain. This haunted me for weeks on end after I had heard it. What an absolutely terrible thing to happen to someone, I couldn’t think of anything more terrible than that. I have read fiction since then in which more horrid things happen to people, but at the end of the day I realise that this is only fiction… what happened to the woman in the accident had been real.

About ten years ago there was a small press publication called Nasty Piece of Work. This was one of the most popular and respected magazines of that time. The appearance and quality of the publication was excellent, A5 in size and printed on fine glossy paper, and inside you got what it said on the tin… short fiction of a nasty and horrific nature. Everyone wanted to be in this magazine, including myself. I got a heap of rejections before having a tale accepted for issue seven. My tale was entitled The Decapitation Party. The story fitted perfectly into the nuance of Nasty Piece of Work. It was ghastly, included lots of blood-letting, and involved decapitation and depraved sexual practises. However it did not horrify me one bit, as I wrote it, or as I re-read it, as I edited it, never did it horrify me… because it was fiction. It was not real. I have seen the clips of terrorist beheadings and I realise that the real thing is something that is genuinely appallingly terrible in both its premise and its execution (excuse the pun).

Recently I have finished reading With The Old Breed by Eugene Sledge, one of the books that inspired the HBO series The Pacific. It is Sledge’s true account of the World War Two assault on two Pacific islands by American marines against the Japanese forces that held them. Obviously Sledge survived, but many didn’t, and his story of what took place there is quite harrowing to read. As I was reading about the atrocities in the book I kept repeating to myself inside my head that this was real… this actually happened. It is not made-up fiction, these marines suffered alarmingly. Young men lost their lives, on both sides. Both the Americans and the Japanese did atrocious things to each other. Reading this kind of thing is definitely more horrific than reading some tale by Lovecraft or Ramsey Campbell, simply because it actually happened. Some things you just can’t get your head around. True horror is one of them.

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Many thanks to Paul for writing this thought-provoking piece. In these days of easy and instant access to just about anything courtesy of the internet, it is sometimes essential to remind ourselves that mankind is still a barbaric species, in spite of our supposed ‘civilised ways’ and ‘higher intelligence’. The fact is that, due to the ubiquity of the information superhighway and its contents, we have all become quickly inured to the violence and barbarity around us, and because the monitor on which we see it acts as a species of prophylactic, it enables us to distance ourselves from the action. Many fail to empathise with what they’re seeing. These people are REAL and they have families. THAT’S what we often forget.

Which brings me back to something I said in an earlier blog: there is nothing that a horror writer, sitting in front of a computer and typing words, could ever come up with that would surpass the raw hatred and brutality that humanity itself hasn’t already perpetrated on itself. THAT is a truly scary thought.