Friday, 28 June 2013

Nostalgic for my childhood - Bullet comic

A couple of days ago, I was browsing on eBay (as it my wont) and I came across a listing for Bullet comic (a real blast from my childhood).  The front cover image (shown here) was so well done and so attention grabbing that I posted it on Facebook and it got a good reaction and led to some nice reminiscences about the kinds of thing we read as kids.

It also got me to thinking about Bullet and what it meant to me and so here we have the first (and maybe the last, who knows?) “Nostalgic for my childhood” blog-post (and I realise it could be argued that a lot of posts here could be safely collected under that title).

Launched on 7th February 1976 by D.C. Thomson, Bullet was their attempt to produce a tougher, more hard hitting comic to appeal to older boys.   Priced at 7p, it focused on action and adventure, revenge and sci-fi and - those old staples - war and sport and apparently remained a popular title throughout its publication life.  It’s worth noting that IPC launched Action the same weekend and against the standard set by that comic (the ‘seven penny nightmare’, as it was dubbed), Bullet was relatively tame.

The figurehead of the comic was Fireball, a multi-talented secret agent with a great moustache (he was apparently based on Peter Wyngarde), whose parents died in a mysterious car crash when he was a young child.  Becoming the ward of Lord Peter Flint (his father’s friend and the eponymous hero of Warlord comic), Fireball was trained in the arts of shooting, sports, survival and martial arts and the story of how this happened became the basis of the Fireball story (for the fan club - more on that later).  This obviously served him well since, as an adult, he was working for the government and constantly being sent on dangerous missions by his boss Preece - avoiding death-defying situations with a witty quip whilst kicking the arse of the baddies and saving the world.  His recurring arch enemy was The Cat (aka Catriona Klansberg) though he clearly had a soft spot for her, always letting her slip away once he’d thwarted her latest evil plan.  Initially represented as a drawing (and often shown driving either a Jensen or a Lotus Eclat), he was later photographed with the model - clearly uncomfortable and wearing a fake moustache (obvious even to an 8 year old) - thought to be the comics editor Garry Fraser.

There were plenty of other strips, obviously and some of the main ones included:
Twisty, which featured Twisty Lunnon, a footballer with an attitude and the ability to bend the ball with incredible accuracy (he had a crooked left foot, caused by a car crash).

Smasher concerned a virtually indestructible 50-foot robot that destroyed cities, controlled by Dr Doom (not the one from The Fantastic Four), an evil genius who planned world domination.

Midge (my favourite, after Fireball) was about sixteen-year-old ‘Midge’ Miller, who worked for Callaghan’s the builders.  A 7-stone weakling, he was bullied by his macho workmates but took a bodybuilding course at the S.W.I.S.H. (the Shipyard Workers Indoor Sports Hall) and by the end of the story had became a force to be reckoned with.

A Tale of Terror from Solomon Knight featured a different scary story every week.  Knight introduced them and sometimes explained the tale at the end, but sometimes left disturbing aspects open to the readers imagination.

Hitman, featuring our anti-hero after some prime targets.  This was the first strip that introduced me to the wonderful artwork of Denis McLoughlin (who also produced some of the covers).

Three Men In A Jeep was set in Northern France during 1944.  Our three heroes had escaped from a military prison (pre-dating “The A Team” somewhat), stolen a Jeep and started fighting their own war, killing ‘Huns’, blowing stuff up and generally causing mayhem.
Werewolf was ex-detective Dave Barry who, upon inheriting a house, gained the power of lycanthropy and used it to fight an endless war against crime.

The Mice Of Tobruk featured a bunch of kids stuck behind German lines in Tobruk during World War 2.

Ginger featured Tim Brady, a fugitive on the run from his bullying stepfather who had attempted to drown Ginger, his greyhound.
Wonder Mann, featuring H.E. Mann who was raised by computers to become a world-beating superman, helped out by a TV eye that linked back to Professor Wilkie and his assistant Tom Brace.

Vic's Vengeance, wherein Vic Mason cut a swathe through London’s ganglands as he sought revenge against his father's murderers.

The strip art was generally very good (as was often the case for 70s Brit comics) with Barrie Mitchell working on Twisty, Tony Harding on Wonder Mann and Horacio Altuna on Fireball, whilst the excellent Ian Kennedy produced Smasher.
In addition there was Fireball Calling - a two page spread containing readers letters (those printed winning a Fireball t-shirt!), trivia, encrypted messages and competitions.  The writer of the weeks best letter received an electronic pocket calculator, a big-deal back in 1976/77!

Profiles and fact-files on footballers and other sportsmen and cars were also scattered throughout (Malcolm MacDonald featured heavily in the only Summer Special Bullet published, in 1977).

As often happened with comics back in the day, Bullet was absorbed into Warlord in December 1978 and although I carried on with it for a while, I lost interest fairly quickly.  Warlord, which began life on 28th September 1974, was itself absorbed into Victor on 27th September 1986, though ‘summer specials’ appeared until 1990.

A key aspect of the comic was the Fireball Club and I was a keen and eager member of this.  For the princely sum of 25p (postal orders only, please), you got the Fireball story (as mentioned above) enclosed in a red plastic wallet, an ID card and the Fireball ‘Flaming F’ pendant (which was very, very cool).  Fireball was never seen without his and it saved his life on one occasion, shielding him from a long range sniper’s bullet.  The Fireball story also served as a key for decoding Top Secret messages in the comic.

I loved Bullet at the time and treasured my pendant, though it has long since been lost to the sands of time.  I did pick up a few copies of the comic through eBay (where they are sold for considerably more than their 7p cover price) and it was a really nice, nostalgic blast reading through them (and I was amazed at how much of the artwork I could remember).  I have noticed that certain comics lines are having old strips re-published in large format editions and I’d love to see something similar happen for Bullet.

Me and my sister Tracy, pictured in 1977.  I'm proudly wearing my pendant!

(thanks to The Yellowed Pages,, The Sevenpenny Nightmare, Comicvine and Downthetubes for their brilliantly nostalgic and well-researched sites - all are great resources for kids of the 60s/70s/80s)

2016 update - lovely 40th anniversary post over at Downthetubes from Colin Noble

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

An interview with Dave Jeffery and James Underhill Hart

Following on from my review of Ascension yesterday, I decided to push my luck and ask the creative team behind the film some questions.  And they responded!

Dave Jeffery is an affable bloke, friendly and supportive and it was his short story - which appeared in Alt-Zombie, from Hersham Horror Books - which kick-started this off.  Perhaps best known for his zombie novel Necropolis Rising, he has also written the YA Beatrice Beecham Series and the 2012 Edge Hill Prize Long-listed Campfire Chillers short story collection, whilst BBC: Headroom endorsed his Finding Jericho.  He has contributed to several anthologies and his work has featured alongside many zombie impresarios including John Russo (Night of the Living Dead), Tony Burgess (Pontypool) and Joe McKinney (Flesh Eaters).  Necromancer: Necropolis Rising II is slated for release through Dark Continents Publishing, Inc. in 2013.

James Underhill Hart is a self-proclaimed life-long movie fan who has now fulfilled his dream of directing a movie.  He has followed this up with the 666 short and there are plenty of projects on ‘his slate’.

So, bearing in mind that I’m not an interviewer, here’s how it went.

MW:  Dave, when you wrote the short, did you envision the screenplay at the same time?
DJ:   No. The short was written for Hersham Horror’s ALT-ZOMBIE and was only competed with this brief in mind. The concept of adapting its themes for a movie came after a discussion with James who enjoyed the story and thought it would make a good short film. I agreed to write the screenplay but we both decided that there needed to be changes to the storyline, especially the ending. Where the short story ends on a jolt, what we wanted an emotional rather than visceral conclusion for the film.

MW:   Interesting and I think the ending for the film had much more of an emotional resonance.  So was it fairly easy to write the screenplay or harder because the short already existed? 
DJ:   It was easy in some respects in that we’d already decided that changes needed to be made to reflect our aim of a film that made people think rather than just set out to shock them. The shocks are still there but are not of the kind that is cheap or disposable. We hope they have resonance on an emotional level and have people thinking about the film after they have left the theatre.
      Ascension is the first screenplay I have written and adapting what is in essence a written narrative into a visual piece was a challenge. Time place and person are presented somewhat differently and I found that once actors are involved they add their own dimensions to what you have put down on the page. It’s a fascinating process and requires an element of team working that perhaps in absent in writing a novel or short story.

MW:   So what were your producing duties?
DJ:   Too numerous to mention but I had a hand in pulling together the cast and organising promotion. Some people we need to mention are Christina Schulte and Sam Cater. Both these kind people worked above and beyond in the run up to the shoot (as well as on the day) in order to pull together and co-ordinate logistics. Great, great people.
JH:   This was our first film so I guess we had no idea what it actually meant to produce or be a producer(s). We did everything! Don’t get me wrong we had an unbelievable amount of help and support from cast, crew and friends but I think at any given point during the 6-7 months of planning, between us we were trying to cover all the bases. It was a steep learning curve but being involved in every aspect was a wonderful experience. We really couldn’t have managed though without Christina Schulte, Sam Cater and Helen O’Connor, they did so much to help us I’m almost positive Ascension would not be what it is without those three.

MW:   The acting in the film is strong across the board, so where did you draw the cast from?
JH:   All over the place really, the original plan was to get our friends and family to play the roles, then we thought we would up the ante and put out a casting call to local drama groups, then we got really brave and asked Derek Melling! Everything changed at that point. Derek introduced us to Mark, who thankfully was as excited as we were, then we approached the wonderful Fizzog’s. They knew Laurence, and then the last person to come on board was Sam Knight. Our cameraman had worked with Sam previously and spoke so highly of him we didn’t feel the need to do a screen test.
     It was a case of people knowing people or having worked with people before, it made casting one of the easier parts of the process for us.
DJ:   When James and I first started talking about making Ascension into a film we knew that it would not work without a cast with significant talent. The story is a character driven piece and we wanted to pull together an ensemble with which the audience could immediately connect. Having said that reality began to impinge and we realised that to have the kind of cast required to fulfil our vision for the film would cost way over our means. I think this was the only part of Ascension we got totally wrong. The cast we pulled together are not only gifted they are also incredibly giving and we found this out early on in the casting.
I came across Derek Melling (Joe) and Mark Rathbone (Eddie) in Alex Chandon’s INBRED movie. I approached Derek via Facebook and asked him if he’d be interested in being involved with our project. He asked for the script and within a few days – and a Skype video conversation -   agreed to come on board. This was pretty much the same with Mark Rathbone. James and I could not believe that we’d managed to get these two great guys on board and, if we’re honest, still can’t believe it. I knew the Fizzog Theatre company having worked with them before via the day job. We arranged to meet and Jacky Fellows (Annie), Deb Nicholls (Alex) and Sue Hawkins (Penny) kindly agreed to be involved. They put me in touch with Laurence Saunders (Tom) and when he read the script was so complimentary about it my confidence that we may have something special began to grow. We saw Sam Knight (Carl) in Bigger and Badder a werewolf short our cameraman (Gary Rogers) had worked. Luckily for us Sam agreed. Laura Childs (Sally) was involved in the original newsreel footage and we wanted to extend her role in the final film.

MW:    I liked the newsreel footage that was ‘leaked’ to YouTube but it works much better in the finished film and Laura does really well conveying the sense of disbelief and urgency.
    So to follow on, where did you draw the technical crew from?
JH:   We worked with a relatively small crew for the entire project, more people came on board as we got closer to filming but for the main, it was friends and friends of friends that formed the crew. Gaz (Gary Rogers) as the camera man was one of the first people to come on board and he was invaluable to the process. Not only did he bring commitment and enthusiasm to Ascension but he had access to some great equipment and his own mini crew. His daughter helped out with sound and as a runner, not only on set but when we were doing the test shoots. Jeremy P Stephens, who did the sound, is a very experienced technician and he was so generous with his time and experience on set, he was great to have around. We had a few difficulties with make-up and special effects during the project but on the main shoot Silent Studios provided the zombies and effects. Justin Becker and Ben North were responsible for the FX make-up and they did a great job in a very short space of time.
     After the shoot though, [there were] two guys who really made a massive difference! Richard O’Connor who was our main editor, as well as a producer, put countless hours into every aspect of the edit, I think he did an amazing job and really put his own stamp on it. The other was Carl Braid who also put more hours in than he is willing to admit. Carl put the opening sequence together, did all the digital effects, stabilised some of the shots and generally helped in technical ways that me and Dave don’t really understand.

MW:   The film has a great look and a good sense of location.  Where did you film it?
JH:   We mainly used two locations.  The Hill and fields were privately owned land just outside of Studley in Worcestershire and the compound that formed part of the village was in the Licky Hills area of Bromsgrove. The compound was previously a landfill and heavy machinery repair site.

MW:   So, Dave, what’s the Blakewell Spirit?
DJ:   The Blakewell Spirit is an ethos that the villagers have adopted in order to maintain their concept of humanity. At its heart the tenet creates a utilitarian infrastructure that gives hope to the community through the perpetuation of family and order. There are no formal relationships, no rights of ownership of person or property, the communal nature of the Blakewell Spirit has eradicated the need for feud and lawlessness prevalent in The Wilderness, the name that Blakewell has given to the savage world outside its borders.

MW:   And what gives you the biggest thrill - the story in a book or the film?
DJ:   Both. Cop out? Probably, but seeing what you have written come to life either on a page or on screen is a thrill of which I will never grow weary. I’m in a privileged position and I’ll never take that for granted.  Having said this, Ascension the short story and Ascension the film are separate entities both structurally and in terms of narrative. As the writer, recognising this makes it easier to appreciate both without feeling as though there is a betrayal of the source material.

MW:   One of the surprises of the film for me, on a technical level, were some great aerial shots which really opened the whole thing out in terms of scale.  It took me a while to get it but I did, so who came up with the idea of using a remote controlled plane?
JH:   It wasn’t originally going to be an r/c plane, at one point we were seriously looking at two man gliders and small light aircraft, I think our heads were in the clouds at that point. The shot itself was going to be very, very different. I really wanted it to be the view from a Bird of Prey, the bird would be soaring and would fly over the moving Land Rover, then it would see the infected eating and then return to the Land Rover. I was aiming for it to be a metaphor for the main characters. The elements put a stop to that though so we recorded as much footage as we could before the wind pushed the plane into a tree. My brother, Mark Beacham built us a custom plane from scratch and put a GoPro in it to record the footage.

MW:  On the zombie front, how easy was it covering actors in blood then letting them run around in the cold?
JH:   The guys from Silent Studios were very obliging…they were often waiting around for hours in the freezing cold with very little on in the way of clothing. We did the best we could to look after them but they were visibly freezing for much of the time. I think they enjoyed it though, a few of them have asked to work with us again! The filming on the Hill was a lot less comfortable than at the compound.
Filming the kill scenes was great fun and all the actors really enjoyed it, we were a little taken back by how much they enjoyed being killed on screen. Again though they were really cold and tired at this point, I think we were filming till around 3am on that day, I left set at 4am so it was a late finish for many of the actors.

MW:   So finally, how close is the finished product to your vision?
DJ:   In terms of script, some elements had to be adapted due to the weather and logistical issues at the time. Other than that the story I was trying to tell is there on the screen. And then some.
JH:   Pretty close I think. We had a lot against us on the actual shoot, many of the shots we had planned were impossible because of the snow and we had to change some of the scenes, including dialogue because we couldn’t get all the vehicles on the field. Some of the flying footage was lost because of the crash and a few other little things cropped up along the way but Richard and Carl worked really hard to get everything I wanted on screen. I’m really happy with what we created but, given half a chance I’m sure we could make some improvements.

Thanks gents, I appreciate your time.

You can find out more information about Dave, James and Ascension at the Venomous Little Man website

Monday, 24 June 2013

Ascension, a short film

As I mentioned in a previous post (linked from here), my friend Dave Jeffery (a very good horror writer) is part of a production company called Venomous Little Man.

Their first short film, Ascension, is now completed and having seen a copy, I can say that it’s well worth a watch.  It’s going to be entered into various festivals over the summer and if you get a chance to see it, you really should.


In a world savaged by an apocalypse, a small group of survivors make the ultimate sacrifice to keep their family together while the rest of the world rots. Hard choices need to be made for the good of the few.

Starring Derek Melling, Jacky Fellows, Laurence Saunders, Mark Rathbone, Debbie Nicholls, Sam Knight, Susan Hawkins, Laura Childs
Studio - Venomous Little Man Ltd
Running Time - 32m

Directed by James Hart
Produced by James Hart, Dave Jeffery and Richard O’Connor
Screenplay by Dave Jeffery
Cinematography by Gary Rogers
Edited by Richard O’Connor
Music by Liz Comley with Richard O’Connor
VFX by Carl Braid

The film opens in an industrial compound, where Joe (Derek Melling), Annie (Jacky Fellows) and Tom (Laurence Saunders) are about to go out on patrol in an effort to bring together a community - the Blakewell Spirit, as they call it).  A plague has gripped the world (effectively conveyed via news reports from Laura Childs), turning everyone it touches into a zombie and there are only a few pockets of survivors left.  On this particular mission, they find themselves cornered by some angry people, a small family who are unpredictable and violent - Eddie (Mark Rathbone), his daughter Alex (Debbie Nicholls)  and his teenaged son Carl (Sam Knight).  After a tense stand-off, where Annie shows how willing they are to join up and Tom helps Carl dispose of a zombie threat, they head back to the compound, which Joe calls ‘Ascension’.

Annie (Jacky Fellows) and Tom (Laurence Saunders) in the Range Rover

Having dabbled myself, in the late 80s, with zero budget VHS horror, I’m a big fan of low-budget films and often bemoan the fact that the market for them is very tiny.  Now I’m not talking about the shark-dinosaur-crappy-cover films you find cluttering the shelves in Blockbuster and HMV (they are low-budget, compared to most certainly, but their catering bill is bigger than what I’m discussing), I’m talking about a group of like-minded people, gathering together to tell a story with limited resources but as much talent and skill as they can muster.  Unfortunately, the stars don’t align too often and there’s always a sense of dread - for me - with watching indie films because a lot of them fall into common traps and betray their shortcomings.  That isn’t the case with Ascension.

James Hart obviously has a clear vision of how he wants the film to run and it feels as though he got it.  All dialogue is key and to the point, the relationships between the characters are fleshed-out and feel natural and the pace is maintained all the way through.  From the use of some interesting angles, good casting choices and a keen eye on how to make a zombie attack work, Hart knows his stuff and the film is all the stronger for it.
Man of action Joe (Derek Melling)

Acting is generally an issue with low-budget films but that’s not the case here with the leads - Derek Melling, Jacky Fellows and Laurence Saunders - acquitting themselves well.  There’s a lot of dialogue and it’s delivered (and received) naturally.  Of them all, Jacky probably has the most difficult pieces to work with and her scene at the end - which I shan’t go into detail over because of spoilers - is agonisingly beautiful.

The film is well shot by Gary Rogers, with an incredibly clear (digital) image that rarely strays from focus.  His static takes are composed and wonderfully rendered, taking full advantage of the widescreen and the empty locations and juxtaposed with hand-held work for the zombie attacks (which works for the sense of the film but I wasn’t overly keen on).  Brilliantly, however, there’s a clever use of a remote-controlled plane for a handful of shots that really open this up, giving a greater sense of scale to the whole enterprise.  Helping this out considerably is the editing of Richard O’Connor, with no scenes that I can recall overstaying their welcome (another common mistake) - the scenes are tight, cutting quickly between medium and two-shots and constantly keep your attention.

The music, by Liz Comley with Richard O’Connor, is measured and stately though on the copy I watched, it sometimes seemed to overpower the dialogue in the mix.

Of course, it’s a zombie film so at some point we’re going to need to see the gut-munchers in operation and Hart doesn’t skimp (though they’re used sparingly, another nice touch) with good work from Carl Braid.  From a quick attack in the field to some of our undead friends in a portakabin, the make-up is gruesome and professional (and inventive too, especially in the faces), the blood is rich and red and the intestines shine in a way I haven’t seen in a long time.

The film works well, making everything feel real and ‘lived in’.  The Range Rover the Ascension team use  is a mess of mud, the characters look at the end of their tethers and none of them are kitted out in combat gear but dressed as if out for a winter walk.  Alt-Zombie, the anthology which contains the short Dave Jeffery adapted into the screenplay, gets a nice nod on screen, which pleased me (I have a story in it too and designed the cover!).

There’s a lot to like in this film - from the writing and directing, right through the ranks - which is made by a clearly talented bunch of people and I loved it.  This is what we should think of, when people mention low-budget horror and I hope it does really well on the festival circuit (and acting as a calling card for Venomous Little Man).

If you get a chance to see this, jump at it - 32m of invention, drive, talent and good old fashioned zombie fun.

And just in case you're interested, here's the trailer.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Conjure (redux)

Coming soon from Tim C Taylors Greyhart Press in print and digital editions.

More details to follow.

Really, really chuffed about this!

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Joyland, by Stephen King

Another of my top-tip reads (though, since this is by Stephen King, most of the readers of this blog will probably have either decided they're going to read it or will already be in the process of doing so).

However, on the off-chance that you haven't, here's my review of a book that is currently my top read of the year.

 paperback cover by Glen Orbik

All I can say is what you already know: some days are treasure.

It’s 1973 and Devin Jones is a 21-year-old college student, recently dumped by his long-term girlfriend (though still a virgin) and looking forward to working his summer vacation at the Joyland amusement park in North Carolina.  Over the summer and into the Autumn, he’ll meet new friends, a boy with a psychic gift and encounter the ghost of a murdered girl.

Told as a reminiscence by Devin in 2013 (“I’m in my sixties now, I’m a prostate cancer survivor, but I still want to know why I wasn’t good enough for Wendy Keegan”), this is what I would consider as prime King (and it’s the first book of his I’ve read in almost ten years).  It does take its time to get going (and the structure isn’t immediately clear) but as you read you quickly realise the pace works perfectly - we get to know his friends, the park and its people and history, the owner of the guesthouse, the area and the times (music plays a key part in that, but there’re plenty of pop culture references and there’s a lovely in-joke in the name of a travelling circus).  The characterisation is spot on and so deftly done you feel you know these people almost immediately.  From Devin, who we desperately want to see succeed (and shake off the thoughts of Wendy), to Erin Cook (Hollywood Girl) and Tom Kennedy, fellow summer workers who become a couple and life-long friends of Jones (though we later find out sad news about Tom), there’s never a false moment for any of them.  The secondary characters are just as well-drawn, springing to life with verve, like Emmalina Shoplaw who runs the guesthouse, Mr Easterbrook, the owner of Joyland, who dresses like a mortician and insists that the workers of Joyland are “here to sell fun” and Devin’s Dad, a quiet, widowed, purposeful man.  The park team - from Fred Dean, whose transformation from manager to worker is as much a surprise to us as it is for Devin to Lane Hardy, all tight-jeans and jaunty hat and rhyming couplets; from Eddie Parks a mean man who Devin saves and who maybe returns the favour, to Madame Fortuna, a Brooklyn native who channels Bela Lugosi to deliver her psychic readings.  It is she who tells Devin that he will meet a boy with a dog.

That leads us to Annie Ross and her son Michael, who has the gift of second-sight but is stricken with muscular dystrophy.  They live in a big house off the beach and whilst she doesn’t acknowledge Devin as he walks by on the way to work, the boy does.  When Devin helps him to fly his kite one day, they become friends and the gradual thawing of Annie to him is what gives this novel its heart - we come to understand why she is the way she is, we understand and empathise with the pain she feels watching her son die and we want to hold and comfort her as much as Devin does.  Their relationship, from that first meeting to the final page, is beautifully observed and as heart-warming as it is amusing.

The selling point (but not the real point) of the story - “Who dares enter the funhouse of fear?” - revolves around the fact that a young woman called Linda Gray was murdered in the Horror House ride (which Eddie Parks runs).  Madame Fortuna won’t enter it and Tom sees something in there that scares him, but Devin is intrigued and with help from Erin, he solves the crime and finally flushes out the “Carny Killer”.  I liked that angle, I enjoyed the detective part of it (though you’d be hard pressed to call it a crime novel), but that’s not what the book was about.  To me, “Joyland” is about the power of love and friendship (as a lot of King fiction is), it’s about the amusement park and a way of life that no longer really exists (and carny-speak, The Talk, is used a lot, shorthand such as ‘ride-jockeys’ for the operators, ‘rubes’ for punters and ‘points’ for pretty girls).  It’s about joy (Devin dresses up as Howie the Happy Hound, a role that other ‘greenies’ hate but he loves because of how the kids react to him) and the fun and simplicity of childhood but it’s also about loss (Wendy, Devin’s mum) and the way life often doesn’t go the way we want it to.  Stephen King, for me, is often at his best when dealing with nostalgia (“The Body” being absolutely key to that theory), telling a story that on the surface might be horror or mystery or crime when in fact it’s actually about coming of age and charting a rites of passage that speaks to most of us.

“Joyland” is a beautiful book, a well paced and gripping read, full of humanity and light and darkness and topped with an ending that made me cry.  If you only know Stephen King as a horror writer then you would be doing yourself a favour to discover this loving nod to life, to growing up and falling in love and, yes, to getting older.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

a map of Joyland, created for the hardback edition by Susan Hunt Yule

The hardback cover.  I'm a big fan of Robert McGinnis and whilst this perfectly serves the pulpy tradition of crime novels, it does include a bit of a spoiler.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Recent love for Mr Stix

Went straight to Mark West's MR STIX to see what all the fuss was about. The fuss is warranted, it's a very good, creepy story. Maybe his best yet.
- Johnny Mains, author, editor and horror aficionado

Shows you can have a powerful, cringe-worthy death without any blood!
Daniel I. Russell, author of "Tricks, Mischief And Mayhem"

Thrilling, and edgy and downright bloody scary...  I love stories where the horror enters everyday life, ripping the folds of reality away to challenge readers with something that simply cannot be. This totally did it for me.
Lily Childs, author of "Cabaret Of Dread"

"Mr Stix" appears in For The Night Is Dark, an anthology edited by Ross Warren and published by Joe Mynhardt’s Crystal Lake Publishing.  The book is available in print from Amazon here, as an ebook from here and on Kobo from here.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Shoot Me Now (writing advice)

I’ve noticed recently that there’s been a lot of writing advice posted on a variety of blogs, Facebook pages and anywhere else people can make their voice heard.  Some of it, such as those gems from Gareth L. Powell and Chuck Wendig, are brilliant - useful, dynamic and real - but a lot of it isn’t.  So, in the Friday spirit and safe in the knowledge that nobody has asked me, here are my writing tips.

1: Write
It seems so obvious, doesn’t it but if you want to be a writer, you need to write.  Don’t spend your time setting up a blog and making it look pretty, don’t spend your time creating cover art, don’t spend your time creating a web presence, just get the words down on paper.  Write and write a lot.  Once you have a finished product (and see later points for what I consider to be ‘finished product’), then you can set up a blog, build your profile and design cover art.  Walk before you run, in other words.

2: Beware Writing Advice
You’re reading a list, by me, of tips on writing and yet my number two is a proclamation to ignore it?  I know what you’re thinking but bear with me.  Like anything else in the world - such as get-rich-quick schemes, diet pills or hair re-growth serum (advertised late at night by gone-to-seed cricketers) - there are a lot of charlatans around and you should take heed of the old Woody Allen quote - “those who can do, those who can’t teach…”  Before you take writing advice, check out the person behind it.  Have they had any success, have they got a body of work that proves they stick to their own rules and it works for them - have they been published, in short (and not in those anthologies where acceptance is contingent on the writer buying a copy).  If they haven’t, if they have no record of their advice being useful, read it by all means and take what you need from it but also keep that pinch of salt handy.  After all, you wouldn’t let a surgeon loose on you if his only experience came from playing Operation, would you?

3: Beware Writing Advice (part 2)
You've found a writer you respect, who has a track record and seems to make sense.  So read the points but only take what you need.  As with any kind of list, some bits you’ll agree with and some bits you won’t.  If an item doesn’t agree with you, adapt it to make your own.  For example, most advice states that you should write every day and it’s probably very wise.  I don’t, I never have done.

4: Write

5: Revise, Revise, Revise
Congratulations, you’ve got that first draft completed and you’re thrilled to bits.  It’s taken a lot of hard work, you’ve spent ages on it, you’re deeply and madly in love with it.  Very good.  Now put it away to breathe for a while, go off and do something else and come back to it in a week or so (at least a week, leave it longer if you can).

Sit down, take a deep breath and start reading.  Marvel at the clunky bits, thrill at the passages and scenes that don’t work anywhere near as well as you thought they did, delight that one character manages to change clothes and hair colour halfway through.  Marvel at it but don't despair.

First drafts are the reason that we have second drafts and beyond (most of my work has at least three drafts, the second is the one I get my pre-readers to look at), because that original one contains most of the raw ingredients which we will then refine as we revise, revise, revise.  I’m sure people have published first drafts and there are writers who are so good and so disciplined that their first draft is almost there (Ian Whates, for one) but that certainly isn’t me and, no offence intended, it’s probably not you either.

6: Keep The Faith
Writing a piece of work doesn’t (often) happen overnight - it can take days, weeks, months or even years to complete.  Over that time, the idea you once thought was the best thing ever will become tarnished - you’ll see a film or read another story with the same kind of idea, you’ll re-read something and think it’s not good enough, you’ll doubt your ability and talent.  This happens to everyone, from the first-timer to someone with a whole raft of novels under their belt.  Keeping the faith isn’t easy but you need to keep plodding on because somehow (and nobody quite knows how this works) you’ll get through to the other side.

Remember - a book is published because someone wrote it and submitted it.  The path to good intentions is littered with half finished manuscripts.

Of course, this is a moot point if you read your work back and realise you’ve just homaged an entire episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ or something.

7: Make Friends
The writing community, especially if you focus on a particular genre, is relatively small and in these days of social media, smaller still.  When I started publishing, back in 2000 or so, if you wanted to chat with other writers you sent letters or emails (if they were online) or went to conventions.  I have a lot of writer friends now and our relationships can be traced back to those early days, to standing at the bar and saying to the person next to you “Hey, are you Simon Bestwick?*.  Be yourself and speak to people, engage them (if on social media) as you would in real life - don’t ram your latest project down their throat, but instead ask them how they’re doing.  Take interest in what they say.  In short, be nice and treat people how you would like to be treated.

There are a whole load of reasons to do this - it makes life easier, friendships are nice - but the key one is that the writing genre, as mentioned, is a small community.  If you’re an arrogant shit, or someone whose blog, Facebook and Twitter feeds are nothing but ads for their latest tomes, then it's going to become obvious really quickly and people aren’t going to want to spend time with you.  And you could be closing a lot of doors (which leads me, after the note below, to point eight).
* nb, this only actually works with Simon Bestwick

8: Network
I’ve never really figured out the proper way to do this, though I think I’ve inadvertently managed to do it by adhering to point seven.  Produce a body of work and write good stories, go to conventions and be visible, say hello and introduce yourself.

9: Get Some Pre-Readers
People have different terms for this role - some call them beta-readers, some call them first readers, I started calling mine pre-readers (which I know doesn’t really make any sense) and it stuck.  This is a trusted band of folk (which may take some time to put together), people who are willing to read your stuff (not always as easy as it sounds, especially if you write horror) but (and this is the key part) are willing to tell you exactly what they think of it.

“Mark, it was genius.  You’re a genius.  The way you put the words together, it’s magic”
That, as lovely as it would be to hear, is not in the slightest bit of use.  Because, after you’ve thanked your Mum for being so kind, what have you learned?  That’s right, nothing apart from the fact that your Mum loves you.

“Mark, that wasn’t bad but I didn’t like Uncle Fred.  He came across as too wishy-washy, you know?  I think what you ought to do with him is this, this, this and this.  And then this, just to make sure.”
Not bad, this person has definitely read the story and they have strong feelings for it, but they’re too prescriptive.  If you do “this, this, this and this.  And then this”, it’s not your story any more.

Years ago, I wrote a contemporary drama novel and decided to set it in the town I then lived in.  One of my pre-readers (and I swear this is true) sent me some notes, the main one being that I didn’t need to describe Kettering anywhere near as much as I had because she knew the lay-out and where things were already.

“Mark, that wasn’t bad but I don’t think this works and that bit didn’t make any sense and it all feels a bit rushed but this bit, well, that was great.”
Perfect.  You get a sense of how they felt about the story, they’ve pointed out some bits that don’t work for them (remember, every reader is different), explained things that don’t flow (which you, as the writer, might not immediately see since you can picture the scene in your head) but also given you hope to keep the faith.

10: Support
As you write more and settle into the genre and friendships, you will start to get more involved with your peers and the community.  People might ask you to be a pre-reader of their work or some might become your pre-readers, people might be putting together an anthology and ask you for a story, or a friend might suggest a collaboration.

Other friends will get deals, have some success and maybe even become the next big thing.

If this happens, support them.  Enjoy their success with them, be chuffed that they’ve cracked it, be pleased that their hard work is being recognised.  Don’t begrudge them it, don’t moan about it, don’t belittle them.

As an example, a friend of mine called Paul Finch has just signed a major book deal with a respected publisher.  I have known Paul since 1999, when my wife & I went to our first convention - WiganCon, in that fair city - and we’ve kept in touch ever since, either by email or at conventions.  He’s a lovely bloke and his stock has been rising steadily based on his solid writing talent.  Books, collections, edited anthologies, the screenplay for “Devil’s Rock” and now this deal.  Why should I be anything other than thrilled for him - he does great work and he works bloody hard, more power to him.

Envy is a poison - if you begrudge everyone you know who sells a story, gets a deal or has a mainstream publisher take them on, then you’re going to have a bitter life and who needs that?  Nobody is taking a deal away from you and to think that is equally poison - they got the deal or the sale because they worked for it, they sat down and produced the story and sent it off and it got accepted.

Instead, use their success as a spur for you - if Paul gets the mainstream book deal, write that novel proposal.  If someone cracks a market you'd love to get into, write a short story.  Enjoy the success, use it to drive you.

11: Writing Groups
Opinion is divided on these but I have belonged to two writing groups and both have been of real benefit to me, in very different ways.  The first one I joined, in 1998 when I was getting back into writing, was in Kettering and the leader of it didn’t know much more than me (if I’m honest).  But through it, I got a bit of confidence and I also met Sue Moorcroft, a wonderful Chick-Lit writer with whom I set up a still-going support network and whose second drafts I critique (one novel a year, it’s brilliant!).

The second group I joined a few years ago, when I realised I needed a shot of confidence and missed the kind of atmosphere and camaraderie that you get at conventions.  I auditioned for - and was lucky to get into - the Northampton Speculative Fiction Writers Group, chaired by the venerable Ian Watson and run by the indefatigable Ian Whates.  It’s a great group, very supportive (some of the critiques are cutting but often that’s what you need) and I’ve had a lot of success directly from being involved with them.

Again, groups will vary.  What you want is a bunch of like-minded people, who tend to share your love of genre and are willing to tell you straight what they think (imagine it as a kind of in-your-face pre-reader).  What you don’t want is a group of people who don’t like or understand your genre and have absolutely nothing to contribute to you making your piece of work the best that it can be - worse, they tell you it’s brilliant just for something to say and don’t offer any reasons why.

12: Read
I debated including this point because, to me, it’s so obvious it’s almost insulting but since I thought eleven was a strange stopping point, here it is.  Read and read a lot.  Read across genres, read books that challenge you, that push your understanding of how to create something well and at the same time read trashy books that make you smile but still teach you how not to do something.

In my case, I read horror, mystery/crime novels, thrillers, chick lit, some sci-fi, biographies, behind-the-scenes non-fiction, comic books (Calvin & Hobbes and Snoopy mainly) and, occasionally, what’s classed as literary fiction.  Read when you can, but make time for it and enjoy the universes that those writers create for you.  Learn, absorb, understand and then take that back to your own fiction.

Above all, enjoy yourself!

I hope this has been useful and, to cover myself with point 2, my bibliography is listed here.  Your mileage may vary on all of this advice but hey, if one person reads this and gets something from it, I'm cool with that.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Six Feet Under (a short film)

My old friend Dave Jeffery (who wrote the brilliant ‘Necropolis Rising’, which I review on Goodreads here) has added another string to his bow recently, branching out into scriptwriting and co-forming a production company called Venomous Little Man.

Having dabbled in (ultra-low-budget) films myself, I’m a big fan of independent films and the first from VLM is “Ascension”, a 31 minute slice of horror that started life as a story in Alt-Zombie from Hersham Horror Books.  It’s starting a tour of the festivals now and the trailer looks brilliant.

But the latest project from the team is a short called “Six Feet Under”, which I’ve seen and really liked.  It starts innocuously enough - a well dressed man (Mark Rathbone) comes home and greets his young daughter (Jaycie Braid)  and wife (Carol Braid) - but then he climbs into the attic and things suddenly become a lot darker.  Three people (Graham Woodward, Sofia Noreen and Laura Smith) are bound to the joists and our well-dressed man stands over them with a power saw.

Shot as a competition entry, the film was restricted to three minutes running time and director James Hart uses it well.  We the viewer don’t know anything about the well-dressed man (except that he loves his wife and daughter and he’s called Footlocker in the very quick flash of credits) and there’s minimal dialogue (the victims say more than our protagonist), but the film builds a good atmosphere, with evocative, mostly hand-held camerawork from Gary Rogers, tight editing from Richard O’Connor and well done, minimally used effects work from Carl Braid (vfx) and Ben North (make-up).  All in all, it’s good stuff and very impressive.

It’s entered for the “666 - Shortcuts To Hell” competition, run by the Horror Channel, where the challenge was to submit a short film based on a series of key restraints (all revolving around the number 6, naturally).  The best 6 films, as selected by Frightfest, Movie Mogul and the Horror Channel, are to be broadcast on the channel in the run up to the Frightfest Festival (in August 2013), where they will be screened at Leicester Square before a discerning audience.  The winning film will receive £6,666 cash, publicity and the opportunity to develop a horror short or feature film idea under mentorship from Movie Mogul, for a possible 2014 production.

So why not watch the short film (posted below) and then follow the link to YouTube and give it a like?  Dave’s a good bloke, a great writer and Venomous Little Man Productions are putting out some good work.  I'm certainly very interested to see what they could do with that kind of budget so I’m supporting them!

You can get to the YouTube page for this by clicking the logo on the film or by clicking this link.

And just in case you're interested, here's the "Ascension" trailer too!

Monday, 3 June 2013

Marketing Return Of The Jedi

Following on from my last post, I made mention in that little essay about the marketing of the film and thought it might be an idea to show the kind of thing that was around.  Well thanks to the wonders of the Internet (and YouTube in particular), I can do just that (for American readers, replace Palitoy with Kenner).

So sit back, click the links and feel yourself transported back to 1983...

Some great clips from the film and I'm pleased to say that I finally have one of those Walkers for my collection.  It took the best part of 30 years to get it but there you go...

Ah, Speeder Bikes and more great clips from the film.  
As an aside however, watch the kids arms and the chair legs, the physics doesn't work at all, does it?

Sunday, 2 June 2013

30 years of Return Of The Jedi

In 1983 I was fourteen years old and an avid movie buff, topping up my knowledge with Starburst and Photoplay and numerous articles in Look-In and other comics I got with my pocket money.  That year, there were two films that I was keen to see - one was Octopussy, featuring Roger Moore as James Bond and filmed, in part, near to me at the Nene Valley railway and the other was Return Of The Jedi (and in a weird coincidence, both films were shot by Alan Hume BSC), the second sequel to what remains my favourite film of all time.

In these days of Internet access, when very few films arrive cloaked successfully in secrecy, it’s difficult to explain how much of an event blockbuster films were back then.  Certainly we had the opportunity to read the novelisations (and I did), the making-of books and poster magazines (I did) and we watched chat shows and programmes that featured clips, but we didn’t have a complete sense of what it was.  I knew, for instance, that the Stormtroopers had different helmets and outfits (they were actually Scout Troopers) and rode bikes but I had absolutely no idea - no concept whatsoever - just how startling that speeder bike chase would be.

So it was that on June 2nd 1983, a new Star Wars film came out in the UK and none of us really knew what we were in for.  Since I was, according to my diary, embroiled in exams at that time, I didn’t see the film until July 20th (in the company of my friend Claire Gibson, with whom I went to see Star Wars one foggy day in early 1978) and I loved it.

Visually, the film is a real treat from the monster mash of Jabba’s Palace (Lucas apparently wanted it to be everything the Cantina from Star Wars should have been), the Sail Barge and Sarlacc pit to the Speeder bikes and the space battle and it worked perfectly for the teenaged me.  Coming to it as an adult and following on from the dark and adult The Empire Strikes Back, it does seem a little like a backward step, as if Lucas was afraid to leave the trilogy with anything other than an upbeat ending.  You can’t blame the man - it’s his story, after all - but the grown-up me would have preferred something a little darker (an opinion shared by both Harrison Ford and Lawrence Kasdan who apparently lobbied to have Han killed off halfway through).

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi was produced by Howard Kazanjian for Lucasfilm Ltd with George Lucas acting as executive producer - Lucasfilm funded the production, as they had with The Empire Strikes Back.  Lucas originally approached David Lynch (then riding high with his Oscar nomination for The Elephant Man) to direct but Lynch declined in order to make Dune.  David Cronenberg was then considered (and let’s just stop a moment and imagine the film made by either of those directors) but he declined to make Videodrome and The Dead Zone instead.  Richard Marquand, who had relatively few films to his credit (and none of those featured extensive special effects), was finally chosen to direct (he made several more films, including the excellent Jagged Edge, but died in 1987 aged 49).

The screenplay was written by George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan, from Lucas’ story and with uncredited work from David Peoples and Richard Marquand.  It was originally called Revenge Of The Jedi and that title stayed for long enough through the production process that it features in the original teaser trailer and on teaser posters (which now sell for a considerable sum).  In the end, since revenge wasn’t a Jedi trait, it was changed to “Return” (which Kasdan felt was weak) though Lucas alluded to the original in the 2005 prequel Revenge Of The Sith.

The scripting process was still on-going when pre-production started, so the budget and schedule was set by Kazanjian relying on Lucas’ original story, early rough drafts and Ralph McQuarrie’s production paintings.  His schedule started shooting as early as possible in order to give Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) as much time as possible to work on the then-record number of special effects shots the movie demanded (some 900, when the original Star Wars only had 360).

Shooting on a $32.5m budget, filming took place in England (Elstree studios), California (the Redwood National Park near Crescent City, which doubled for Endor) and Yuma, Arizona (where the desert at Buttercup valley doubled Tatooine for the Sarlacc pit sequence) from January 11th through to May 20th 1982.  Lucas himself handled the second unit work (a role he also performed on other films he produced, such as Raiders Of The Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back and More American Graffiti).  There was also the issue that Marquand was inexperienced with special effects work, though Lucas praised him as a “very nice person who worked well with actors.”  For his part, Marquand is quoted as saying it was “like trying to direct King Lear with Shakespeare in the next room.”

Heavy secrecy surrounded the production and the fake title Blue Harvest: Horror Beyond Imagination was used to disguise what was really being filmed from the press and fans and also to prevent price gouging from service companies.

The film occupied all nine stages at Elstree Studios and shot there for 78 days, before moving to Yuma in April for two weeks of Tatooine exteriors (mostly on the enormous Sail-barge set).  Location filming finished at Crescent City for two weeks and there was a final fortnight at the ILM studio in San Rafael, California, for blue-screen shots.  Whilst at Crescent City, Steadicam operator (and inventor) Garrett Brown shot the background plates for the speeder bike chase.  A route was marked out by Dennis Muren (who supervised the ‘ground’ special effects) and Brown walked it shooting at less than one frame a second.  As film cameras and projectors operate at 24 frames a second, once speeded up, Brown’s walking pace of 5mph appeared to be moving at around 120mph.

At ILM, the sheer magnitude of the Jabba Palace sequence meant that a creature shop was set up, which was headed by Phil Tippett (who also played the Rancor monster in its initial incarnation, when Lucas wanted it to be more like Godzilla) whilst Ken Ralston handled the space effects and Dennis Muren & Richard Edlund took care of the rest.  The company ended up running 20 hour days, on six-day weeks, to meet their 900 shot target by April 1st 1983 (some shots were subcontracted to outside effects houses).

The creature shop crew (left) - Phil Tippett (centre left) and Stuart Freeborn stand in front of their creations at Jabba's Palace (right)

* It took 3 men to operate Jabba The Hutt - two inside the body and one in the tail - in addition to various remote control functions
* The sail barge and skiff set at Yuma took 5 months to construct and used over 14,000lbs of nails
* The miniature set for the exploding sail barge used sand taken from the actual Yuma location
* 45 matte paintings were created for the film

Phil Tippett paints the Rancor puppet

Part of the ILM crew (including Paul Huston, without a shirt, who still works at the company) set up the 'toppling AT-ST' shot

George Lucas examines the partial Death Star model

Return Of The Jedi was released in the US on May 25th, 1983 (six years to the day after Star Wars) and in England on June 2nd.  At the time of writing (and according to Wikipedia), the film has grossed over $475m.

At the 56th Academy Awards in 1984, Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston, and Phil Tippett received a “Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects” whilst Norman Reynolds, Fred Hole, James L. Schoppe, and Michael Ford were nominated for “Best Art Direction/Set Decoration”, Ben Burtt for “Best Sound Effects Editing”, John Williams for “Best Music, Original Score” and Burtt, Gary Summer, Randy Thom and Tony Dawe were nominated for “Best Sound”.  At the 1984 BAFTA Awards, Edlund, Muren, Ralston, and Kit West won for “Best Special Visual Effects” whilst Phil Tippett and Stuart Freeborn were nominated for “Best Makeup”, Reynolds for “Best Production Design/Art Direction” and Burtt, Summer, Thom and Dawe were nominated for “Best Sound”.  The film also won “Best Dramatic Presentation” at the 1984 Hugo Awards and the Saturn Award for “Best Science Fiction Film”.

Ah, slave Leia...

Whilst generally well regarded, the film is seen as the third choice of the original trilogy (a position it holds with me too, still putting it streets ahead of the prequels) but it has to be said that it’s a lot of fun.  The space battles are exciting, the Endor stuff (minus the Ewoks) is great and there’s a real pace to the film and a sense of scale.  However, with the benefit of hindsight and time, it is clear to see that some of the choices were made for marketing (Ewoks!), rather than story, reasons.  For example, Princess Leia in her slave bikini is a strong image (that really appealed to the 14 year old me) and yet, on Star Wars, Lucas ordered Carrie Fisher’s breasts be taped down.  There was also a comment made by Gary Kurtz, who produced the first two films, that the original ending would show Luke walking off into the sunset, battered and tired but it was felt such a downbeat ending would affect sales.  I have no idea how true that is (Kurtz didn’t produce Jedi).

For me, this is a great film and I can’t believe it’s 30 years old, though to help mark the occasion I'm currently re-reading the novelisation by James Kahn.

So happy birthday, Return of The Jedi and long may you reign!

May The Force Be With You!