Tuesday, 7 February 2017

These Are a Few of My Favourite Scenes: The Red-Headed League

There's a brilliant bit in the Jeremy Brett adaptation of The Red-Headed League. Holmes (Brett), Watson, (David Burke), Athelney Jones (John Labanowski), and Mr Merryweather (John Woodnutt) have descended into the bank vault owned by Merryweather to ambush the criminals who are planning to rob it. As they wait Holmes deduces that Merryweather is withholding information as to what is actually locked away within his vault and that this information may be crucial. The supercilious Merryweather however refuses to share the information.

This scene doesn't occur in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original short story but it does build on character details from the original tale. When Holmes brings Scotland Yard in on the case Conan Doyle has Homes remark that although Inspector Jones (here named Peter) is "an absolute imbecile in his profession" he is also "brave as a bulldog." When Jones comments on Holmes' deductive abilities he reveals a similar sense of rivalry, commenting that Holmes has "the makings of a detective in him."

In the TV adaptation Labownski plays Jones with a jack the lad swagger along with just a hint of affable thuggery. He may not be Holmes' intellectual equal but he radiates street smarts while at the same time subtly suggesting that, should the need arise, he could beat the crap out of any man in the room. It's a nicely layered performance in a relatively small role.

Meanwhile, back in the bank vault ...

'The information I have is confidential,' sneers Merryweather. 'It is not to be divulged to members of the public. Not even amateur detectives.' 

Watson of course springs to Holmes' defence. I, and pretty much every Sherlock Holmes fan ever, would be disappointed if he didn't. As played by David Burke he is the embodiment of loyalty and decency, he needs to stick up for his friend.

But what really makes the scene is that Jones is equally offended. Cocking an eyebrow at Merryweather's use of the word "amateur" there is no trace of his wide boy grin as he advises Merryweather to trust Holmes. Behind his gruff professionalism there is an offended air that clearly says, "I know how brilliant Holmes is and have earned the right to engage in a bit of friendly piss-taking. You, sunshine, have not." 

It's a beautiful moment, far removed from the stereotype of Scotland Yard's flatfooted oafs blundering along after Holmes.

(For added entertainment value this episode can be used for "comedy actors in dramatic roles" bingo. First up, there's Richard Wilson sporting a ginger wig. Secondly, there's Tim McInnery as the criminal mastermind behind the entire scheme. McInnery also scores high on the Holmes trivia scale as he appeared as Selden in The Strange Case of Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle as well as Eustace Carmichael in the Sherlock episode The Abominable Bride. And for real nerds he co-starred in Blackadder II with Ronald Lacey who played Inspector Lestrade in the Ian Richardson TV movie of The Hound of the Baskervilles as well as Thaddeus and Bartholomew Sholto in the Jeremy Brett version of The Sign of Four. McInnery's Blackadder connection also ties him to Rik Mayall who appeared in Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes alongside Ian Richardson. When it comes to connecting up different actors Kevin Bacon has nothing on Holmes.)

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Writing About What I Was Reading When I Wasn't Writing

Because it's that time of year and everyone else is doing it here's what I read in 2016.

*= reread

The Talented Mr Ripley -- Patricia Highsmith
The Humans -- Matt Haig
The Intruders -- Michael Marshall
Walking Shadow -- Robert B Parker
A Time of Torment -- John Connolly
The Shining Girls -- Lauren Beukes
Broken Monsters -- Lauren Beukes
The Drowning Pool -- Ross Macdonald*
Dark Places -- Gillian Flynn
Only Forward -- Michael Marshall Smith*
Thin Air -- Robert B Parker
Joy in the Morning -- PG Wodehouse
The Drop -- Dennis Lehane
Dark Matter -- Michelle Paver
All Our Yesterdays -- Robert B Parker
The Warhound and the World's Pain -- Michael Morrcock
The Servants -- MM Smith
The Devil -- Ken Bruen
Persuader -- Lee Child
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- Douglas Adams*
Three Men in a Boat -- Jerome K Jerome
Mystic River -- Dennis Lehane*
Prayers for Rain -- Dennis Lehane
Moonlight Mile -- Dennis Lehane

Nocturnes -- John Connolly*

Reasons to Stay Alive -- Matt Haig
Conflict Communication -- Rory Miller
Why God Won't Go Away -- Alister McGrath
Letter to a Christian Nation -- Sam Harris
Doctor Who (BFI TV Classics)-- Kim Newman
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BFI TV Classics) -- Anne Billson
You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) -- Felicia Day
Belief -- Joan Bakewell (Editor)

For You: The Libretto for Michael Berkley's Opera -- Ian McEwan

Greybeards at Play and Oher Comic verse -- GK Chesterton

Biggles: Pioneer Air Fighter -- Captain WE Johns (Read by Michael York)
Talking Heads -- Alan Bennett (Various readers)
Nocturnes -- John Connolly (Read by Jeff Harding)
The Straw Men (Abridged) -- Michael Marshall (Read by Kerry Shale)
The Confidential Agent -- Graham Greene (Full BBC cast adaptation)
The Willows -- Algernon Blackwood (Didn't get the reader's name)
Someone Like You -- Roald Dahl (Various readers)
The Black Cat -- Edgar Allan Poe (Read by Richard Griffiths)
Of Mice and Men -- John Steinbeck (Read by Clarke Peters)
The Code of the Woosters -- PG Wodehouse (Full BBC cast adaptation)
The Blue Geranium and Other Stories -- Agatha Christie (Read by Joan Hickson)

Short Stories

I didn't really keep track of the short stories I read last year. I know there were a few collections and anthologies that I put a dent in but never actually finished. Plus a bunch of random stories read here and there. Authors included John Connolly, Dennis Lehane, PG Wodehouse, Lauren Beukes, Clive Barker, Stephen King, John Cheever, Kate Mosse, Michael Marshall Smith, Zoe Sharp, Lee Child, Joseph Finder, Michael Connelly, LGraham Greene, Thana Niveau, John Llewellyn Probert, Daniel Mills, Kristine Ong Muslim, Reggie Oliver, Mark Samuels, Kim Newman, Lord Dunsany, HG Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, JS Le Fanu, Loren D Estleman and Ross Macdonald. 


I tried to keep track of all the comics I read but lost track somewhere along the way. I know there were over 100 graphic novels and various individual issues. Writers included Garth Ennis, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Frank Miller, Warren Ellis, Mark Waid, Chris Claremont, Ales Kot, Jamie Delano, Jason Aaron, Ed Brubaker, Neil Gaiman, Brian Michael Bendis, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Gail Simone, G Willow Wilson, and Rick Remender.

So that's what I read in 2016. Not including novels, collections, anthologies and non-fiction that I started but haven't finished. The spread of genres could be better (I really need to catch up on SF and Fantasy) and I didn't read as many female authors as I'd hoped. While the amount of ethnic authors is pitiful. And offhand there's only one author on the list who isn't heterosexual. Didn't manage as many classics as I'd hoped either. Still, it's a better balance of old favourites and new writers (or at least new to me) than I often manage. Hopefully this year will see a continuation of this and I will both broaden and deepen my reading.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Making My Mark

Due to my computer dying at an inopportune moment I never got to write the mini-essay that all the other contributors to Marked to Die: A Tribute to Mark Samuels wrote about their stories in the anthology. But you don’t get off that easy; I’ve written one here:

Sometimes I hate Mark Samuels.

Not because of his raffish air and cheeky grin which make him look like he should be starring in a Boulting Brothers comedy alongside Ian Carmichael and Terry-thomas. Not because of his vast intellect which allows him to casually drop references to Jorge Luis Borges, Arthur Machen, and Robert Anton Wilson into the conversation. And not because of his ability to down alcohol in quantities that would prove fatal to most mortals.

No, I hate him because he keeps stealing my story ideas. And, to add insult to injury, he keeps doing it before I even think of them.

Many’s the time I would turn up at a London pub to meet Mark and mutual friends, my head full of excitement at a new story idea, only to discover that Mark had just finished writing a story based around a  similar concept. He’s beaten me to the punch so many times now that I’ve lost count. Admittedly that’s partly due to my poor mathematical skills, but even so it happened with frustrating regularity.

So how to deal with the fact that ‘The Carnivore of Monsters’ felt like something that Mark might have come up with while suffering from a hangover?

Well, first of all there’s the difference in our writing styles. My stuff is much more character-driven than Mark’s, along with more emphasis on jokes and fast pacing. (This difference in our styles is probably the main reason Mark hasn’t sued me for plagiarism.) Then there's the fact that by this point I was a little more familiar with weird fiction and horror fiction in general so I could filter the idea through enough different influences to disguise the fact that the core concept felt like one of Mark’s ideas. This assuaged any guilt I felt about the story being seen as a cheap knockoff of Mark’s work. Most important of all however was the fact that Mark is far more successful than I am, with such a wealth of literary plaudits that he wouldn’t even notice if some of them came my way instead.

In short: fuck him.

So it was with a clear conscience that I developed ‘The Carnivore of Monsters.’

The concept popped into my head while I wandered down Euston Road. As I passed St Pancras New Church, admiring its architecture, a silly pun occurred to me which became the starting point for the story.

I knew instantly it would be a Mark-ish story but also that it would contain a large dollop of both Michael Marshall Smith and Grant Morrison. There would also be at least a modicum of my own literary stylings in there as well but these things can’t be helped. Hopefully the influence of the other authors would carry me through. Cosmic horror! Spooky relationship drama! Surreal action scenes! Excited by the possibilities suggested by the story I rushed home to start work on an outline.

I had to hurry as Mark was in all likelihood already halfway through writing a similar tale.

As it turned out Jung’s collective unconscious, Plato’s forms, or Alan Moore’s Idea Space (or whatever other name you might give to the hypothetical reality from which people get their ideas) had, on this occasion, an altogether more pleasant surprise in store for me.

Shortly after starting work on the story I received an email from Justin Isis asking me to contribute a story to Marked to Die. The remit was to write something that occupied the same literary territory as Mark’s brand of weird fiction and cosmic horror but then spin it off in strange new directions. This was exactly what I was already doing with my story! And reading the guidelines triggered an idea for a great new set-piece!! I was so happy I started to overuse exclamation marks!!!!

So I carried on with a song in my heart, a Baroque chamber piece in my brain, and a horror movie soundtrack in my large intestine.

Swiftly the story began to cohere: research pointed me towards themes and plot points; a throwaway comment turned into a major character arc which I ad-libbed alongside the arcs I had already mapped out in my outline; late in the day a silly pun gave me the story’s title.

Finally, it was done. Exhausted but happy I laid down my pen and switched off my computer. I had done it, had written a story that no one could accuse me of having ripped off from Mark. It was utterly, unmistakably, unique to me.

And then I found out John Llewellyn Probert’s story for the book featured a hospital scene that was a little too close to comfort to the one in my story …

Still, that little hiccup aside my story pretty much all I’d hoped for. Dark, emotional, funny, fast-moving, and filled with nutty SF concepts. Most importantly of all the story healed wounds in my confidence and self-esteem to the extent that I no longer hate Mark Samuels.

Although I now absolutely detest John Llewellyn Probert.

[My solicitor has advised me that as irony is never recognised when used on the internet I should point out that I don’t really hate John Llewellyn Probert.]

[Even though the bastard did steal the idea for my hospital scene before I thought if it.]

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Everybody Hurts

It seems that nearly everyone I know (including me) is suffering from stress, depression or anxiety. And some of those people don't want to admit it. 

I get it. I didn't want to either. No one wants to be thought of as "whiny" or "weak". So we brush the symptoms under the carpet, refusing to admit them to other people, or even to ourselves. It's easy to say, "Oh, I'm just having a bad day" and not realise that you've been having a bad day every single day for the past six months. After a while the stress becomes normal and you just assume that it's perfectly natural to spend most of the day trying not to break down in tears.

The fact that I know so many people suffering from stress and similar ailments may have something to do with my knowing so many writers. I'm told writers are prone to this sort of thing, presumably because we have such vivid imaginations and so can picture doom-laden situations with frightening intensity. Also, as storytelling thrives on conflict writers are experts on figuring out how even the most promising of scenarios will end in disaster. If you don't believe me try reading the Facebook page of any given writer. Not the public page where they paste on their best fake smile as they try selling you their books, I'm talking about the private page where they talk about how bestselling authors are all hacks, that true storytelling is all about the craft, and why the hell haven't any of their books been made into Hollywood blockbusters?  By the twelfth status update you'll be reaching for the Prozac. Obviously my Facebook page isn't like that. I make my self-pitying whining sound fun...

Anyway, this link offers lots of advice for dealing with different facets of stress, anxiety and depression as well as a quick self-assessment test for depression. Please take the test and if you score high enough please see your GP. Hopefully all you'll need is a few days off work or perhaps some low-level counselling. But without these early pre-emptive steps it could develop into something more serious. And all the time you're ignoring your symptoms you're making it harder for the people around you, leading to them developing their own problems with stress etc, and so we all become doomed to a never-ending cycle of depression and despair. (Sorry, this is starting to sound like a public information film from the '70s.) 

But you can break the cycle. Even if you never quite erase your symptoms you can learn to manage them better and you can talk to other people so they spot the symptoms earlier in themselves. Life is a fucked up scary mess but we can all try to help each other get through it as best we can. Even if we only manage to bring a few moments of comfort to ourselves or those around us then we're winning. All of us, we're winning. (Okay, now it's starting to sound like a Hallmark card.)

So please share the link. And no, I don't mean that in a smug, judgmental "if you don't post this link then you're scum" kind of way. It's just an honest attempt to get the information out to as many people as possible, people who may genuinely need it. It's not intended as emotional blackmail. (Although if you don't share the link I will drown a kitten.)

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Marked to Die

I've got a story in Marked to Die: A Tribute to Mark Samuels. Don't worry, Mark's not dead, it's just that editor Justin Isis got tired of waiting for Mark to die of natural causes and it turns out that murder is illegal so Justin just went ahead and did the book now.

Lots of topnotch authors in the anthology; award winners and bestselling novelists including Reggie Oliver, Thana Niveau, John Lllewellyn Probert, Adam Nevill, and Simon Clark.

My story, 'The Carnivore of Monsters' is a bonkers piece of cosmic horror. Here's a quick sample:

She takes a book from her satchel, an ancient tome with stiff covers of faded leather and an arthritic spine that cracks and groans as she opens the book and lays it on the pavement. I'm guessing she used her position at the British Library to procure this arcane volume. As she stands the book levitates, floating up level with her head. Brittle pages turn, crumbling in the chill evening air, fragments fluttering away on the breeze, curling up like autumn leaves before vanishing in the gloom. As each page disintegrates words form in the air, glowing white against the darkness, an illuminated manuscript.

The universe is information. Quarks pass signals to leptons, leptons pass signals to bosons. And so the universe takes shape. Liquids flow, gases drift, solids cohere. Patterns form, motifs recur; a structure is revealed, no matter how haphazard or obscure. Reality follows a narrative. information distorts, signal becomes noise meaning lost pattern ruinedruinedruined

More words appear.

The universe is gravity. It meshes with space and time, curving them, bending and shaping to its dictates. There is a density to gravity but also a hollowness, a swirling vortex of solid emptiness that tears at reality seeking to reclaim what is lost, and in doing so it creates a bright hell, a dark heaven.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Thou Shalt Not

While I was blogless I had a story in Thou Shalt Not, an anthology of stories about the Ten Commandments. My story, 'Confessions', is about the fourth commandment: 'Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.'

The book was due out in 2015 but for various reasons it didn't actually come out until April 2016. No doubt the publisher was so amazed by the wonderfulness of my story that it took him six months to stop weeping tears of joy and actually publish the thing. And then the pages of my story had to be laminated so as to prevent water damage from the tears of joy when everyone else read it. (Incidentally, for anyone who might be wondering, no, this isn't the story I alluded to in my previous post.)

My fellow contributors in the anthology are:

Jeff Gardiner

Amanda Bigler
Clare Littleford
Laura Mauro
Danuta Reah
Pat Kelleher
Mark West
Jasper Kent
Jacey Bedford

The book is available in both hardback and ebook editions.

And now, for your delight and delectation, here is a small sample of my story, which is so stupendous it will absolutely, definitely, positively, make you weep tears of joy. (Disclaimer: story may not actually make you weep tears of joy.)

For the first time since the man entered the confessional Father Dooley turned to get a clear look at him. Tall, slim, with neatly trimmed greying hair and beard. Eyes shining brightly from a lean face. A black shirt beneath a grey jacket. The lattice cast light and shadow upon him, crosshatching his sharp features with black and white squares, making it look as though he had a crossword puzzle tattooed on his face.

In the beginning was the Word.

Except the Word was not yet present, there was only an empty grid, the clues unsolved.

Father Dooley’s eyes narrowed. ‘Who are you?’

The man ignored the question. ‘Don’t look so surprised at the idea of God sinning. You’ve read the Bible, you know what He’s capable of: death, famine, plagues, floods. His sins are so vast and so many that they eclipse infinity. But His greatest sin was His betrayal of the Sabbath.’

Father Dooley’s brow creased in confusion. He could not follow the leap in logic that led from an understandable, if woefully misguided, anger with God at all the misery in the world to the idea that God had failed to keep the Sabbath holy. Clearly the clues to this particular crossword were of the cryptic variety.

The man continued, his deep voice imbued with a gravitas which Father Dooley could only dream of possessing. ‘You sit and listen to your flock pour out all their sins and indiscretions then you give them prayers to say in penance. Most if not all of these sinners offer up these prayers on the same day you issue them, the Sabbath. God listens to their prayers so God is working on the Sabbath.’

‘That’s not quite how it works. You see – ’

‘Are you saying that God doesn’t listen to their prayers?’

‘No, I – ’

‘So He is working. And He is breaking the Sabbath.’

The man finally paused long enough to allow Father Dooley to complete a sentence. Father Dooley said nothing. He sensed that the man was daring him to respond purely so he could steamroller Father Dooley’s words with his flawed logic. The bewildered priest decided to hold his tongue for a moment longer in order to marshal his thoughts.

The man obviously took Father Dooley’s silence as an admission of defeat. Smiling, he delivered the coup de grace. ‘When your flock sins you hear their confession. When you sin the bishop hears your confession. When God sins who hears His confession?’

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Warning! Contains irony!

I always have trouble promoting my work. I tend towards self-deprecation, which can often be viewed as a lack of confidence in my fiction -- "Well, if even the writer isn't bigging up this story then it can't be any good."

The whole saying-I'm-the-best-there-is thing doesn't come easily to me. (Even if a part of me genuinely does believe I am a literary genius.) So, to cover my discomfort, I add irony to the self-deprecation, spoofing the bombastic arrogance of so much marketing material -- "This story isn't as good as it could be. It's only the second greatest story of all time." This tends to be misinterpreted as genuine arrogance. I'm thinking I'm being all clever and multi-layered and sophisticated and all I'm doing is sending out mixed messages.

I know I'm not the only writer who feels uncomfortable about pimping their work. (Calling it pimping
probably doesn't help. I feel like I'm supposed to get people to fuck my stories. Actually, some editors I've worked with pretty much did that.) Some people just don't like being in the spotlight; it's the reason they became writers instead of actors or pop stars or some other creative endeavour where everyone looks right at you. And some people feel that self-promotion cheapens their literary creations. This despite the fact that writers such as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain quite happily gave public performances in order to promote their work.

In theory self-promotion is easier in the era of social media. I've got to admit that I went through a phase where I was actually half-decent at promoting my work. But that was on message boards, where there was some kind of etiquette. When Facebook came along and everything turned to endless hype, everyone shouting to make themselves heard over the egotistical outpourings of every wannabe hack with an internet connection, I found myself losing my taste for self-promotion.

So, in the interests of making my life easier could everyone just take it as read that everything I write is a work of staggering genius? No? Okay then, but next time you read a piece of my awkward promotional copy filled with feeble jokes to disguise my self-loathing just remember that you could have stopped it.

Seriously, I find this side of writing incredibly difficult. For example, I did a story this year that I'm really proud of and I wanted to plug it as effectively as possible. In a way that showed just how good I thought the story was, but in a warm funny manner that didn't sound like I was apologising for promoting my work.  The line I came up with was, "The best story you'll read this year. Unless you don't read it until next year."

I was pretty pleased with the line until I went to post it and realised that I couldn't bring myself to put it online. It still felt too cocky, too arrogant. The only way I felt comfortable about using it was by tricking myself into including it in a blog about the problems of self-promotion. A bit of a cack-handed way of going about it I admit, but it's a step in the right direction.

Maybe next time I'll actually work up the nerve to tell you which story I'm talking about.