Thursday, 30 January 2014

First sale of the year

I've just had an email from Ross Warren, who is editing "Darkest Minds" (from Dark Minds Press) along with Anthony Watson, to say that my story "Time Waits..." will appear in the anthology.

As you can imagine, I'm really chuffed about it.

photograph by Dineshraj Goomany, used under CCL - digital manipulation by me
The story concerns a man who finds himself obsessing about time and how to cheat it, mainly on his morning commute (something that I find myself doing a lot too).  In taking a short cut - and encountering a peculiar cyclist - he realises that he might just have achieved it.

It’s a bizarre little tale, I think, filled with some odd images but taking place almost exclusively on a quiet country road.  I put it through as one of my critique spots from The Northampton SF Writers Group and whilst I didn’t take on board all of the comments I received, it was a helpful process.

I hope you like it and the anthology as a whole - this is the second Dark Minds collection I’ve appeared in and I was very pleased with the company I kept last time!

Monday, 27 January 2014

More tales of fatherhood

Dude & I enjoy going to Leicester (it has Forbidden Planet, some decent 2nd hand bookshops, a decent toyshop, our friend Joe's great retro toyshop and a wonderful food place - a hole in the wall called Toast, which is lovely) but Alison isn't so keen so we tend to go on our own.

My favourite music critic, photographed
in London last year (he wasn't listening
to my singing at the time this was taken)
We went on Saturday morning and, between us, chose the first Queen greatest hits CD to accompany us.

He was singing along to the bits he knew and then we got to "Bicycle Race", which contains this couplet -

"You say shark I say hey man/Jaws was never my scene/And I don't like Star Wars" 

Dude looked at me and said "Surely he can't mean that..."

Later on, as we drove past the Ibis on the way to Highcross, he turned the CD off altogether. I asked what was up.

"It was just getting to me," he said.

"What, the song or my singing?"

He looked at me gravely. "I don't want to hurt your feelings," he said, "but both."

That's me told then.

Friday, 24 January 2014

The Mystery Of The Green Ghost, by Robert Arthur

Since 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published, I thought it’d be enjoyable to re-read and compile my Top 10 (which might be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here), but this time I will concentrate on my favourite books and try to whittle the best ten from that.

So here we go.
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed between 1968 and 1971), cover art by Roger Hall 
Eerie screams from an old house - and a dangerous mystery awaits The Three Investigators.

When they discover the coveted Ghost Pearls, with their weird, unearthly powers, Pete and Bob are kidnapped and fear for their own lives.  Their fate depends entirely on their partner, Jupiter…

Armada format A paperback (1970),
cover art by Peter Archer
Bob Andrews and Pete Crenshaw decide to investigate Green House, an old mansion in Rocky Beach that is being torn down.  Hearing a ghastly scream, they bump into a group of men from the neighbourhood, who are also there to look at the house.  Together, they investigate and see a green ghost moving through the old, dusty hallways.  After they leave, the ghost is spotted around Rocky Beach by several eye-witnesses, one of whom happens to be Chief of Police Reynolds.  When the house is investigated by the police the next day, with the Three Investigators and Bob’s father in tow, a hidden room is discovered, which contains a skeleton - the remains of Matthias Green’s wife - and a string of ghost pearls.  Bob & Pete are then invited to the Verdant Valley winery, near San Francisco, which is run by Matthias Green’s only living relative where, very soon, they encounter a mysterious aged Chinaman called Mr Won, people who aren’t who they appear to be, scary caves and the re-appearance of the green ghost.

This has one of the better opening sequences on the series and manages to maintain the pace and intrigue well, with a good supporting cast and excellent use of location (the ‘haunted house’, the desolate canyons, Chinatown).  Splitting the team is a masterstroke, giving each character a chance to shine and show their strengths, right up to the climax and the interplay between the three lads is well handled.

Well told and constructed, this is one of the better Arthur novels and follows the timeline nicely (it mentions Bob having his brace removed just before the story begins and this is the book where the Investigators get their ‘Volunteer Junior Assistant Deputy’ cards from Chief Reynolds).  My only niggle is the final chapter, which can’t seem to decide if it’s part of the story or just a simple catch-up of action, though it does end on a high in Hitchcock’s office.

Good fun, with a cracking pace, this is highly recommended.
Armada format B paperback (1980-1983), cover art by Peter Archer

The internal illustrations for the UK edition were drawn by Roger Hall.

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The Book That Made Me: Danse Macabre

Jim Mcleod, over at his wonderful Ginger Nuts Of Horror site, is running a thread of articles called "The Book That Made Me", where horror writers discuss the book that really dragged them into this wonderful genre.

He asked me to contribute and I was only too happy to oblige.

You can read my article at this link.

Monday, 20 January 2014

The Making of Return Of The Jedi, by J. W. Rinzler

In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m a big fan not only of the original "Star Wars" trilogy but also of behind-the-scenes books and so this was an absolute perfect fit for me.  The third in Rinzler’s series - but the first I’ve read - this is an exhaustive account of making the third "Star Wars" film from preparing the script right through to the release.

I thought I knew a lot about the production (last year I read Peecher’s “The Making If Return Of The Jedi” and although that is quoted frequently here, this book is markedly more in-depth) but Rinzler reveals several facts here I’m sure are appearing for the first time (I didn’t, for instance, realise Ralph McQuarrie left the film early, burned out from "Star Wars" and "Empire"), building the story from contemporary interviews (in 2011 and 2012), vintage ones (from Peecher and various magazines and journals) and also production reports in the Lucasfilm archives.

Marquand & Mark Hamill on set
What I liked most about it is that even though this is clearly sanctioned by Lucasfilm, it is remarkably candid.  Interviews are often frank - nobody liked the Ewoks apart from Lucas, Richard Marquand’s filming style annoyed several actors (Carrie Fisher accuses him of treating her badly, whilst fawning after Harrison Ford), the ILM supervisors often clashed heads over equipment and Fisher’s party-girl antics sometimes affected her performance - but all the better for that, as it shows how hard people worked in often trying circumstances.

I particularly found the transcripts of the story conferences fascinating, as Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan (who do most of the talking), Howard Kazanjian (the producer) and Marquand build the script up, piece by piece, often following paths that lead nowhere (an awful lot of design work went into the Imperial stronghold of Had Abaddon until they decided to put the Emperor on the Death Star), putting the story together.  There’s talk of death and sacrifice (even before Harrison Ford signed on), as pretty much every aspect of the film was open to discussion.

Harrison Ford on the "plank" at Yuma (Marquand is wearing the cap, talking to  him)
Moving beyond pre-production, the book charts the progress as sets go up in England (designed by Norman Reynolds), Buttercup Valley in Yuma (the barge sequences - which cost millions and yet appear in the film so briefly that Lucas now regrets not filming it all at Elstree) and Crescent City in Northern California, where the crew got to take over a portion of logging forest.  The actors add fresh angles to the story and, again, the frankness of some of them is refreshing, even if some of the behaviour (from the likes of Anthony Daniels and David Prowse) isn’t.
Shooting at the bunker, as Chewie arrives in the AT-ST
For me, the most interesting part was post-production, as ILM moves into gear and the deadline to release day counts down.  Taking on an unprecedented number of effects shots and with a writer/producer who kept adding shots (with Lucas shooting most of the live action inserts himself as Marquand had moved on to
his next project), the book captures well the frenzied atmosphere of a crew making ground-breaking discoveries whilst not really having the time to do so (especially since most of the crew
were coming off other films, such
as "E.T"., "Dragonslayer" and "Poltergeist").  It also does a good job catching everyone’s reaction on Black Friday, as Lucas threw out a load of shots as not being good enough.  Ken Ralston (space battles), Dennis Muren (speeder bikes and the rancor) and Richard Edlund (everything else) are quoted extensively and clearly convey the scope of work they were dealing with.  Phil Tippett, who designed the creatures with Stuart Freeborn, also lays claim to naming Salacious Crumb when, after a night on the sauce, he apparently said, “Wait a minute guys while I tie my soolacious.”

At Yuma
George Lucas casts a long shadow, involved in the process from the beginning and his comments on hiring Marquand since he didn’t want to do all the work himself quickly come back to haunt him.  Although Marquand did direct the film - his wife and son are interviewed - and Lucas clearly had a great deal of respect for him, he had to be on set virtually every day as Marquand wasn’t experienced with special effects.

The toll on Lucas’ home-life was devastating, with him hiding his impending divorce from most of his crew (both Lucas and Spielberg were involved in divorce during the pre-production of "Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom" (concurrent to this), with both of them blaming their ruptured personal lives for the darkness of that film).  In a nice turn, for a modern book, Marcia Lucas’ role (though slimmed down with this film) is still acknowledged, even if she only makes a couple of appearances.

Frame from the film, with animated AT-ST in the background
The final part of the book deals with the release and reception of the film, as it gobbled up box office records and delighted the paying public, whilst drawing mixed notices from the critics.  There’s also an epilogue, charting what happened to most of the key players after the film wrapped and Lucasfilm went into a ‘two-year hibernation’ and as Lucas himself is quoted as saying, it’s good to see so many people going off and changing the way films are made and perceived.  (The ILM and Lucasfilm group from the early 80s, was probably the equivalent of the Corman outfit in the 60s and 70s).
At Jabba's Palace (Bib Fortuna was played by Mike Carter, the man who was killed at Tottenham Court Rd tube station in "An American Werewolf In London").  Salacious Crumb is next to Leia.
The book is filled with beautifully reproduced photographs - designs, on-set, pretty much every aspect of the production - and Rinzler has done a great job, identifying most of the personnel captured in them.

If you’re a fan of Star Wars and/or Making Of books, then this is a superb read - informative, amusing, frank - and I was sad to finish it.  Very highly recommended.

(previous posts by me on "Return of the Jedi" can be found here (on matte paintings), here (on vintage ads) and here (30th anniversary))

I also reviewed The Making Of The Empire Strikes Back, which you can find here

Friday, 17 January 2014

More love for "ill 2"

Really pleased to report that "ill at ease 2", the PenMan Press anthology that features my story "The Bureau Of Lost Children", has received another good review.

This one is from Paula Limbaugh over at Horror Novel Reviews, where she gives it 5/5 - thanks Paula.

Of my tale, she writes; "A parent’s worst nightmare, 'The Bureau of Lost Children' is horrific"

The full review can be found on this link 

Following on from the critical success of “ill at ease” comes volume 2, featuring seven original horror short stories, all of them guaranteed to give you the chills.

Joining the original trio of Stephen Bacon, Mark West and Neil Williams this time are Shaun Hamilton, Robert Mammone, Val Walmsley and Sheri White.

You will descend into an underground train station to uncover a dreadful secret and watch in horror as a paradise holiday turns sour.  You will see a bullied boy who’s helped by local history and share the anguish of a father, losing his child in a shopping centre.  You will take a trip with a cancer sufferer and share the pain of a couple, desperate for a child.  You will discover that history needs to be kept somewhere.

Seven stories, seven writers and you.

Prepare to feel “ill at ease” all over again.

cover designed and produced by Neil Williams
ebook built by Tim C. Taylor at Greyhart Press

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Strange Tales: Special Edition, now an ebook

The Tenth Anniversary special edition of "Strange Tales" is now available as an ebook from PenMan Press

Table of Contents

Having A Bad Day
Empty Souls, Drowning
Dead Skin
Up For Anything
Together Forever
The Darkest Hour
The City In The Rain
Dreaming Of A Black Christmas
plus - A Quiet Weekend Away

Story Notes
Publishing History

About the collection...

Originally published by Rainfall Books in December 2003, the collection was well received and picked up some nice reviews and, more importantly, sold out - which I was really pleased about.  

It hasn't been available since 2004, though second hand copies do occasionally surface and often for much more than the original cost (I assume the higher priced ones command such a fee because they’re among the few that are unsigned).

This Tenth Anniversary edition, from PenMan Press, is a facsimile of the original Rainfall Books version, with the addition of an introduction and a bonus short story “A Quiet Weekend Away” (which originally appeared in Terror Tales 4).  I have resisted the urge to update the stories - so Internet use isn’t widespread, mobile phones are basic and not at all smart and there aren’t many digital cameras - and I’ve also carried over the original artwork (if it ain’t broke…).

What others had to say at the time...

Mark West’s crisp economic style reels you straight in, and the horror hits you hard and quickly and refuses to lay off.  He writes from the dark underside of our everyday human existence, calling on the sort of personal demons one could easily imagine lying in wait for any one of us.  Tread here at your peril…”
- Paul Finch, author of “Stalkers” and “Sacrifice”

Mark West is an excellent, young writer.  His compelling stories have a well-crafted, slowly-increasing sense of tension and dread, sometimes with a hint of creepy paranoia reminiscent of Phillip K. Dick mixed in, the endings always abrupt and chilling, like an unexpected splash in the face with ice water.
- Gene O’Neill, author of “The Burden Of Indigo” and “The Taste Of Tenderloin”

Mark West is a powerful and unique voice in horror literature.  ‘Strange Tales’ is a chilling masterpiece of spine-tingling stories!
- T.M. Gray, author of “Feast Of Faust”

Mark West's Strange Tales are stronger, more gristly meat. His simple, unembellished style belies the often visceral subjects, imparting compassion and logic to a series of abnormal psychopaths and deranged souls. If you're at all squeamish, look away now...
- Simon Morden, author of “The Samuil Petrovitch Trilogy”

ebook built by Tim C. Taylor at Greyhart Press

Pick up the paperback version of the book from here

Friday, 10 January 2014

Two good reads this week

I finished two good books this week (which I can talk about, there's also a novel that I critiqued for my friend Sue Moorcroft, which I can't talk about yet), so I thought I'd let you know about them.

The first was "Fortunately, The Milk", by Neil Gaiman - it's designated as a children's book and I read it with Dude over a couple of nights but it works a treat for adults too.

Dad (looking remarkably like Gaiman himself) is left to look after the house and kids when Mum goes to a business conference, though he’s given a long list of things to do.  His priority is not to forget the milk - which he does - and so the next morning he has to go and get some from the corner shop.  The story is his explanation, to the kids, about why it took him so long.

I had a lot of fun with this book, which I read to Dude (who’s 8) over two nights and his response, when we’d finished, was “That was awesome!”  And he’s absolutely right, it’s a terrifically funny and inventive tale, of a Dad making up an ever more unlikely story that his kids - even though they don’t really believe him - thoroughly enjoy (and that struck a chord with me too).  From green globby aliens (lots of snot) to Priscilla, Queen of the Pirates, Professor Steg and his wonderful Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier to Splod (a god), brightly coloured ponies and wumpires (vampires who talk with a pronounced accent that is amusing to try and read aloud) and police dinosaurs on space bikes, the pace never lets up.  Taking in time-travel (and peculiar breaks in the time space continuum), two pints of milk that can’t touch and the perils of eating dry cereal, this is great fun from start to finish.

Lavishly illustrated by Chris Riddell (whose style Dude recognised, as he’d drawn the characters for the Creepy House Reading challenge last summer), this is a great read that both of us really enjoyed and I highly recommend it.

The second was a graphic novel called "Cemetery Girl", by Charlaine Harris & Christopher Golden, illustrated by Don Kramer

The book opens in dramatic fashion, with a young girl being attacked, drugged and left for dead in Dunhill Cemetery.  Realising that someone has tried to kill her, but with no other memory of the past, she decides to hide out in the cemetery itself, living in a crypt and stealing food and items from local houses (and also from the caretaker).  She calls herself Calexa Rose Dunhill - names she finds around her - and watching a funeral, sees a spirit escape from a tarpaulin covered grave.  One night, she witnesses a group of teenagers carrying out an occult ritual, which doesn’t work.  Later, at another funeral, she recognises the fleeing spirit as part of that group (he was killed by a drunk driver) and when they come back for another go, she watches in horror as they murder Marla, the sister of their dead friend.  But Marla doesn’t ascend, instead transferring to Calexa, taking up the empty space and making her a “haunted house”.  As Marla settles in, her memories and visions overwhelm Calexa and she has a decision to make - to continue to hide to protect herslef or trying to bring justice to the sad spirit who needs her help.

I don’t often read comics or graphic novels but this has such a great pedigree - and JF Books produce a great product - that I decided to give it a go and I’m glad I did.  It’s well written, immediate and smart, violent and poignant and although there are some small areas of repetition, it has a quick pace.  The characters, especially Calexa, Marla and Lucinda Cameron, an old woman who spots her stealing and takes an interest in her (whilst bestowing her with the name ‘cemetery girl’) are clear and defined and the cemetery makes a great location.  The artwork, by Don Kramer who has worked with both Marvel and DC, is very detailed and captures the mood of the cemetery well (I like my art clear and defined so I thought his work complimented the words perfectly, though a graphic novel aficionado might disagree with me).

Firing on all cylinders, well presented and a beautiful object in itself (I read the hardback edition with glossy pages), I enjoyed the story and the artwork and would very much recommend it.

Monday, 6 January 2014

The Millennium Falcon (A New Hope version)

Following on from my post about “Star Wars” opening in England in late 1977 (which you can read here), I didn’t actually get to see the film until early 1978.  And when I did, one of the things I fell in love with was the Millennium Falcon (I really wanted to be Han Solo), since the ship was so cool.
Ralph McQuarrie’s original design was deemed too much like an Eagle Transporter (from “Space: 1999”), so that was re-worked into the Tantive 4 (the blockade runner at the start of the film) and a new design for the Falcon was created - Lucas later said that its appearance was inspired by a hamburger (some reports add ‘half eaten’ to that, or that the ‘cockpit was an olive on the side’).
The Eagle (left) and Ralph McQuarrie's original concept painting (right)

Most of the time you see it in the film, the Falcon is a model and several were made for the production - the smallest being the size of a silver dollar - with the key one over 5 feet long (which was detailed with parts ‘kit-bashed’ from existing commercial models).
Modelmaker Lorne Peterson builds the core of the 5ft model, prior to kit-bashing and detailing.

There was also a full-size version built except that, in reality, only the starboard half of the ship existed.  Reports vary as to why this was, though it seems likely that the partial construction was due to space limitations at Elstree Studios and also financial considerations (“A New Hope” went considerably over budget).
The exterior was built into the studio as part of the set for Docking Bay 94 (you never see a full view of the ship until the Special Edition in 1997, in which a digital model is shown lifting off).  This version of the Falcon doesn’t have the forward landing pads and instead has a weight-bearing support (disguised as a fuel hose) descending from the underside to the ground.  It was also missing the radar dish.
The original "Jabba" sequence, on Docking Bay 94 (a great behind-the-scenes shot showing the height of the partial mock-up.  Note Peter Mayhew with his mask off, as Harrison Ford and Declan Mulholland (the pre-CGI Jabba) rehearse)
Seeing the Falcon for the first time, on the Docking Bay 94 set

After filming finished on the Docking Bay 94 set, it was transformed into the Death Star Docking Bay 327, since the set of the Millennium Falcon did not fit out the stage doors.  Since this location was shown in wide shots, the Falcon was completed by a Harrison Ellenshaw matte painting.
 Docking Bay 327, as seen in the finished film

Harrison Ellenshaw with his matte painting of Docking Bay 327 (the masked out area will be filled with the live action shoot later).

Putting the Falcon in place on stage.

Preparing to shoot

For “The Empire Strikes Back”, a full size version of the ship was built by Marcon Fabrications (in the old Sunderland Bomber hangers) in the former Royal Navy shipyards at Pembroke Dock, on the Milford Haven waterway in West Wales.  It weighed over 25 tons and used compressed air hover pads for movement around the set and was shipped to the studio on 16 low-loaders.
No new models or sets were created for “Return Of The Jedi” and the only use of the full size version was in the sandstorm sequence (which was never used).  The shot where Han and Lando stand across from the ship was filmed using a matte painting.  The full-size version was scrapped after filming ended.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Dude, me & Star Wars...

Dude & I went into Kettering today and in W H Smiths he spotted the new Star Wars Fact File (complete in 200 parts, or whatever).

"It's only 50p," said Dude, "let's get it."

The lady on the counter smiled as I handed it over and nodded towards Dude, saying "Star Wars, eh?"

"Never too young to start," I said.

"It's not for me," said Dude and pointed at me, "he's my Star Wars guide."

How cool is that?

Friday, 3 January 2014

"Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movies", by Chris Nashawaty

Your enjoyment of this book - a detailed trawl through the output of Roger Corman from the early 50s (and including a quick bio) up to date - is going to depend entirely on your ability to enjoy films where you can sometimes see the zip on the back of the monster suit.  In fact, Chris Nashawaty sums this up perfectly in a caption to accompany a picture of the eponymous Creature From The Haunted Sea - “…one of the worst looking (or greatest, depending on your sweet tooth for schlock) monsters in movie history”.  I loved the book, which probably tells you just how big and strong my sweet tooth for schlock is.

The Creature From The Haunted Sea!
Thoroughly illustrated with beautifully reproduced film posters (and wow, they knew how to sell movies then!) and clear screen grabs, this is effectively an oral history of the Corman “factory”, told by the people involved.  From Corman himself, his wife Julie and brother Gene, through writers and directors and actors and crew personnel, this is frank and often amusing and never less than illuminating.  Working to tight budgets (and often tighter schedules), Corman pushed people to be creative and yes, whilst some of the output is stupid, it’s often very entertaining.  He also served as a kind of unofficial film school, giving the first chances to many people who are now Hollywood A-listers - from Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Dern, through Ron Howard, Joe Dante and Jim Cameron, Gayle Ann Hurd, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Bill Paxton, all of them have their say and none of them utter a bad word about their mentor (other than how cheap he was).

The book is broken down into 5 chapters, each dealing with a different decade and I have to confess that my favourites were the sixties and seventies and moving into the early eighties - that’s when the format seemed to hit its stride, when the talent being supported (Dante, Nicholson, Dern, Howard et al) was on the cusp of greatness and when they seemed incapable of doing a bad job, even when the material wasn’t always as good as it could be.  The later eighties is interesting (I was a happy supporter of the burgeoning home video market myself and loved scanning the shelves in our local video shop) but the nineties and to the present day is a bit more sobering, with the market drying up and a stream of films that seem to be directed by the same two blokes (contradicting everyone else’s mantra that once you got your start, you moved on).  From what I read, none of the SyFy films currently being made will stand up in 30+ years time, as something like Joe Dante’s “Piranha” has.  In fact, I was so impressed by the write-up in the book of that film, I bought it on DVD and watched it with my wife and we both loved it.

Roger Corman is a legend, finally recognised by the Oscars for his contribution to films and he’s shaped a lot of culture that we now readily accept today, believing in genre films even when others didn’t appear to.  This book does him perfect justice, a thorough, wonderfully written and researched slice of movie history that I think is essential reading for those who like their films (on occasion), to be on the cheap, cheerful, sleazy and gruesome side.  I loved it, I wish it was twice as long and I highly recommend it.