Film Review – The Babadook

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Terrifying and moving. Not necessarily a verdict you might expect from a film in a genre as disreputable as horror, but it is actually a more common verdict than you might imagine. Many horror classics – Dead Ringers, The Sixth Sense, Let the Right One In, Don’t Look Now and The Exorcist are five that leap to mind without me even thinking very hard – demonstrate what separates a great horror film from merely a competent one: that vitally important bit of emotional engagement. Said engagement will provide the true catharsis sought by the audience, rather than merely treat it to a few expertly engineered scares. In the case of The Babadook – an extraordinary debut from writer/director Jennifer Kent – I wasn’t merely scared witless. I was deeply moved as well.

The eponymous Babadook is a children’s story that turns up in the home of struggling and desperately lonely single mother Amelia (Essie Davis). Unfamiliar with the book or how it got there, she nevertheless begins to read it to her son Robbie (Daniel Henshall). In the process she discovers that whilst it begins like a dark, twisted Tim Burton-esque version of a Julia Donaldson story, it soon escalates into something genuinely horrifying. Subsequently, although she tries to hide it, tear it up, bin it, and burn it, the Babadook book keeps reappearing inside Amelia’s house. More alarmingly, the Babadook monster itself begins to manifest. As the book warns, you can’t get rid of the Babadook…

Complicating these apparently supernatural incidents is the fact that the Babadook was hardly a story Amelia wanting rattling round her son’s brain, as he exhibits a greater than usual fear of monsters. Because of this he has behavioural difficulties – for example, his insistence on bringing a homemade crossbow to school gets him in trouble with the teachers. What really lies at the core of both mother and son’s difficulties, however, is that Robbie’s father died in a car crash whilst Amelia was on her way to the hospital to give birth. This adds tremendous depth (and strain) to the mother/son relationship, and also provides a rare chance for a horror film to explore a matriarchal rather than patriarchal descent into (possible) madness. All of which proves particularly frightening as the possibility emerges that, under the influence of the Babadook, Amelia might end up murdering her own son.

The Babadook, in all its genuinely bone-chilling manifestations, is an ambiguous monster. For one thing, it cannot possibly be a delusion as both Robbie and later Amelia become aware of its presence. What is it then? A demon? A manifestation of the shame Amelia feels because of her subconscious wish that Robbie had died rather than her husband? A manifestation of guilt because of her own feelings of inadequacy as a single mother? Or – my own interpretation – does the Babadook simply represent overwhelming suppressed grief? The fact that the Babadook is utterly real to both the son and the mother underscores this theory, as no other characters in the plot are affected by the monster.

The Babadook owes a debt to many horror films. From German Expressionist influences, particularly the hugely effective pop-up book which recalls The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, through to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, the nightmarish imagery of David Lynch and paedophobia gems such as Village of the Damned or The Innocents, Jennifer Kent references the true greats in her chosen genre. Yet The Babadook is also a singular and brilliant work in its own right. Particular credit must be given for the extraordinary performances of both Davis and particularly Henshall, who treads the near-impossibly tricky line between believably bratty and heart-wrenchingly huggable with aplomb. Radek Ladczuk’s chilly, hugely atmospheric cinematography is equally impressive; filling every frame with menace whether they be dark interiors, skeletal black tree branches or bugs crawling out from holes in the wall (from behind wallpaper – an obvious but effective metaphor for Amelia’s repressive approach to dealing with loss). In addition, the special effects – almost entirely achieved through old-school in-camera trickery without a CG pixel in sight – are a joy (well, a terror), to behold. The hugely imaginative sound design, absolutely critical in horror films, is also worth a special mention.

I suppose I have to add the regulation warnings about swearing and some gruesome sequences, not to mention how downright scary it is, but obviously this isn’t a film for people who cannot see past such things. As someone who often defends the horror genre as misunderstood (particularly by Christians), I must say that if you have the temperament for it, there is a really positive undercurrent to this film. On a spiritual level, I believe it will really strike a chord with those who have experienced bereavement. If Don’t Look Now was about the dangers of being consumed by grief then The Babadook is about learning to come to terms with it. This emotionally gripping, ultimately empowering theme is what gives the film real punch.

Consequently, The Babadook is not just the horror film of the year, it might be the horror film of the decade.

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The Birds Began to Sing – OUT NOW

My new novel, The Birds Began to Sing, is now available for Kindle from Amazon. Check out the link below.

It is also available from Smashwords, in various downloadable formats:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/487865

Print copies will be available from the 2nd of November.

The Birds Began to Sing is my second novel for grown-ups. It is a mystery thriller that draws upon the rich history of the genre and its key writers (Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and so forth), whilst hopefully representing something interesting and original in its own right. Essentially I just wanted to write an unpretentious, page-turning mystery that grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.

Here again is the blurb from the back:

When aspiring novelist Alice Darnell enters a competition to write the ending for an unfinished manuscript by late, world famous author Sasha Hawkins, it appears she might have her big break at last.

However, upon arrival at Sasha’s former home – the sinister Blackwood House – Alice is unsettled by peculiar competition rules, mysterious dreams and inexplicable ghostly visions. She begins to question her sanity as she is drawn into a terrifying web of deceit, revenge and murder.

I hope you enjoy the book.

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Children of the Folded Valley – Kindle version FREE for five days only!

To celebrate the upcoming release on the 27th of October of my new novel The Birds Began to Sing, I have made the Kindle version of my previous novel Children of the Folded Valley FREE for five days only (beginning today). If you haven’t read it yet, check out the Amazon link below, read some of the rather good reviews, and enjoy!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00LYR3NWK/ref=s9_simh_gw_p351_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=0MRAKDMD54NHMX2JDF91&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=455344027&pf_rd_i=468294

The Kindle version of The Birds Began to Sing is also available for pre-order from Amazon:

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

When aspiring novelist Alice Darnell enters a competition to write the ending for an unfinished manuscript by late, world famous author Sasha Hawkins, it appears she might have her big break at last.

However, upon arrival at Sasha’s former home – the sinister Blackwood House – Alice is unsettled by peculiar competition rules, mysterious dreams and inexplicable ghostly visions. She begins to question her sanity as she is drawn into a terrifying web of deceit, revenge and murder.

Print copies will be available from the 2nd November from Lulu.com

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The Birds Began to Sing – Dedication

The Birds Began to Sing_1600x2400_Front Cover

Most of my books are dedicated to individuals, normally family members. My new novel The Birds Began to Sing is dedicated to my wife, Zara – mainly because of her love for mystery thrillers, and also because she puts up with all my artistic hissy fits, “George McFly” moments and generally because she is fantastic.

As I have explained previously, the novel draws inspiration from a number of genre writers, including Agatha Christie, Daphne Du Maurier and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as horror stories such as Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black and the gothic romances of the Bronte sisters. But I believe it is also a unique story in its own right, and obviously I hope you enjoy it. I know Zara did, so that in itself is a high recommendation.

Here’s the blurb from the back of the novel:

When aspiring novelist Alice Darnell enters a competition to write the ending for an unfinished manuscript by late, world famous author Sasha Hawkins, it appears she might have her big break at last.

However, upon arrival at Sasha’s former home – the sinister Blackwood House – Alice is unsettled by peculiar competition rules, mysterious dreams and inexplicable ghostly visions. She begins to question her sanity as she is drawn into a terrifying web of deceit, revenge and murder.

The Birds Began to Sing is released on the 27th of October in various downloadable formats. It can be pre-ordered from Amazon (see link below).

Print copies will be available from the 2nd of November.

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An excerpt from The Birds Began to Sing

The Birds Began to Sing_1600x2400_Front Cover

Here is an excerpt from my upcoming novel The Birds Began to Sing. This scene takes place in chapter 5, after aspiring writer Alice Darnell is offered the chance to enter a mysterious writing competition by her new agent, Isaac King.

“Isaac sat at his desk and indicated for Alice to sit on the chair opposite.

‘Alice, thank you for coming in today. Before I proceed, I’m afraid I have to ask you to sign this non-disclosure agreement. Everything we discuss today must be considered confidential until it is officially announced to the press.’

‘I understand,’ said Alice.

Isaac handed Alice a piece of paper which she read hurriedly. It seemed to be a standard non-disclosure contract, explaining that the business they were about to discuss was not to be revealed to any journalists and so forth. Alice wondered what all the secrecy was about and why a simple competition would be considered newsworthy. This wasn’t going to be televised surely? She hoped she hadn’t got herself into some kind of reality television programme for wannabe writers.

After signing the paper, Isaac began to explain in more detail about the competition.

‘Alice, I take it you have heard of Sasha Hawkins?’

‘Of course.’

‘She was our most lucrative client. Her death was a tremendous blow both to this agency and to Ravenhead Publishing.’

‘I can imagine.’

Sasha Hawkins had died just over a year ago in a car accident somewhere in the West Country. Alice remembered when this tragedy had been splashed all over the news. It had come as a huge shock, as Sasha Hawkins had been the most popular bestselling author of recent years, but had died aged just 30. She had sold her first book at 22, and had published at least one book per year since, churning out some of the most widely read and enjoyed thrillers of the last two decades. Alice had read several of her novels, and had recently even re-read some, as research during the composition of Deceitful and Wicked.

‘When she died, Sasha had almost finished her latest book, but it needed a final act to resolve the story,’ Isaac explained.

‘And now there’s to be a competition for someone to write the ending,’ said Alice.

‘Precisely. Elliot Farnham, CEO of Ravenhead, has promised the winner will get their own book published, plus obviously the Sasha Hawkins book with their new ending attached.’

‘What’s the book about?’

‘I am not allowed to tell you that yet.’

‘Why not?’

‘There are some very clear rules that have been laid out for this competition. If you wish to enter, you are not allowed to question them, but you must obey them completely and to the letter.’

Alice listened, intrigued.

‘The first of these rules is that the unfinished Sasha Hawkins manuscript will only be given to competitors under very specific circumstances. Namely, all competitors must stay as guests in the Hawkins family estate – Blackwood House on the edge of Dartmoor. Here they will have two weeks to read the book and write the ending of their choice. The best ending will be picked, and the competition will be over.’

‘Can’t you even tell me the title?’

‘The manuscript is untitled at this point.’

‘So, we have to stay at Blackwood House for two weeks, read the story and write our ending. Wow. Sounds a bit odd.’

‘Odd or not, those are the rules. Throughout the two week period of the competition, you are not permitted to leave Blackwood House or its grounds, for any reason whatsoever. If you do, you will be disqualified.’

‘What if there’s an emergency, like a family member dies or something?’

‘If you leave the grounds, you will be disqualified.’

‘That hardly seems fair.’

‘Nevertheless, those are the rules.’

‘What if you finish the ending before the two weeks are up?’

‘Then you can explore the extensive grounds to your heart’s content, or partake in any of the indoor entertainments that will be laid on for guests, but you cannot leave until the deadline expires, or you will be disqualified.’

‘Any other rules I need to know?’

‘Yes. You are not permitted any contact with the outside world for the two week duration. That includes phones, internet access and anything of that nature.’

‘But if we are supposed to write an ending, we might need to do research.’

‘You will have access to a very extensive library within Blackwood House, which should fulfil any such needs. All research will have to be done the old-fashioned way, with real books.’

Isaac smiled.

‘That’s fine by me,’ said Alice. ‘I always prefer to do that anyway. The internet and portable reading devices are all very well, but I’d rather feel and turn physical pages. Anything else I need to know rule-wise?’

‘You can receive written messages from outside, but you are not allowed to respond to them. Anything you suddenly and legitimately require, such as medication, will be sent for and delivered by courier. There will be an on site doctor, but if anyone gets seriously ill they will have to withdraw from the competition. Obviously all expenses will be covered, and food will be laid on.’

Alice sat silently for a moment, taking in what she had heard. It all sounded utterly baffling, but also fascinating. Why were the publishers going to such extraordinary lengths to set up this competition? Why not simply commission a writer to finish the unpublished Sasha Hawkins book? It would cost a lot less, and would still be a guaranteed bestseller.

‘I’ll have to book the time off work,’ Alice said presently. ‘Can you give me the exact dates?’

‘Not yet,’ said Isaac. ‘But it will almost certainly take place in the first two weeks of December.’

‘That shouldn’t be a problem. What is Blackwood House like?’

‘It’s a large mansion situated at the edges of Dartmoor around Okehampton. The family have maintained it for centuries, although the Blackwood family name disappeared around 1870, as Lord Sebastian Blackwood had no sons. However his daughter Catherine married into another substantial family fortune when she wed James Hawkins, the Earl of Somerset. He moved into Blackwood House, and since that time there has always been a Hawkins in residence.

‘Blackwood House was originally built in medieval times, before being knocked down and almost completely rebuilt in the seventeenth century. It has been meticulously restored over the centuries. The estate does look beautiful, but it also has a slightly sinister reputation. Some even claimed to have seen ghosts within its walls.’

‘A haunted house?’

‘I don’t believe in such things. But there have been alleged sightings of ghostly apparitions. Its spooky reputation probably appealed to Sasha Hawkins given her penchant for the macabre. No doubt that was why she chose to stay there with her parents rather than move out. Perhaps she thought she could contact the ghosts herself, or at the very least be inspired by her surroundings. The Hawkins family didn’t think they needed all that space for themselves though, and the estate is very expensive to maintain. That’s why they opened the house to the public and only live in one small wing.’”

Here’s the blurb from the back of the novel:

When aspiring novelist Alice Darnell enters a competition to write the ending for an unfinished manuscript by late, world famous author Sasha Hawkins, it appears she might have her big break at last.

However, upon arrival at Sasha’s former home – the sinister Blackwood House – Alice is unsettled by peculiar competition rules, mysterious dreams and inexplicable ghostly visions. She begins to question her sanity as she is drawn into a terrifying web of deceit, revenge and murder.

The Birds Began to Sing is released on the 27th of October in various downloadable formats. It can be pre-ordered from Amazon (click link below).

Print copies will be available from the 2nd of November.

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Film Review – ’71

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The spirit of John Carpenter is alive and well in director Yann Demange’s ’71. Echoing classic Carpenter pics such as Assault on Precinct 13, Demange’s film is a stripped down, tense, thrilling piece of work that puts him on the map as a director to look out for.

The story – set in Northern Ireland in 1971 (hence the title) – concerns in-over-his-head British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell). After his first posting lands him in a Belfast troubles hotspot, Hook finds himself separated from his unit inside a hostile Catholic area with IRA gunmen on his tail. Wounded and without weapons, can he make it back to his barracks alive? Will the Ulster Unionists he encounters be more of a help or a hindrance? Or will his own comrades manage to rescue him first?

It is important to make clear that ’71 is not a political film. It simply uses the volatile situation in 1970s Belfast as a backdrop for an invigorating, palm-sweating chase movie that has an admirably spare relentlessness to it. O’Connell and the rest of the cast are good, and Demange stages a number of riveting sequences. On moment in particular recalls the foot chase of Point Break and has the same intensity. Whilst this is clearly a genre piece, Gregory Burke’s screenplay does not duck the horrific trauma of what it means to actually kill somebody, and whilst the film does contain a number of plot contrivances, they do not occur at the expense of realism. Hence why I must now add the regulation warning for strong language and violence.

All in all, a fine piece of work.

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George goes to Neptune – update

People continue to ask me when the next novel in the George Hughes series will be released. To reiterate, the third – and almost certainly final – instalment in the series will be released early next year. I will announce a precise date in January.

George goes to Neptune follows George goes to Mars and George goes to Titan, rounding off what has become an unexpected trilogy. The first book was originally planned as a standalone piece, but with each sequel I have found new ideas and ways of continuing George’s adventures that people seem to have enjoyed. I hope this third novel proves every bit as exciting.

I still have a few very minor tweaks to make to the manuscript, but the bulk of the work is done and I am looking forward to releasing the finished product.

George goes to Neptune features the return of George, as well as series regulars Meredith and Giles. Most of the supporting characters will also return, though some in larger roles than others. There are also some new characters, but I will remain tight lipped on that subject for now.

As for the plot, that is also very much under wraps at present. However, here’s a brief summary of what I said last time, plus a couple of new titbits. The plot will obviously involve a voyage to Neptune, but the reasons for George’s journey are very different this time. The plot will feature Martians and yes, there will be a new alien race that George and our heroes discover. The tone is perhaps a little darker, especially towards the end of the story. George is going to face his toughest adventure yet – one that involves him confronting not only a deadly enemy but his own darkest fears.

However, rest assured that the book contains just as much action as the previous two, and that if you enjoyed them, I believe you will enjoy this one just as much.

You can catch up with the previous two installments in this series at Amazon, with George goes to Mars available FREE at Amazon.co.uk.

George goes to Mars:

George goes to Titan:

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The Birds Began to Sing – About the cover

Here is the cover for my upcoming book, The Birds Began to Sing.

The Birds Began to Sing_1600x2400_Front Cover

For the design, Charles Bown – who I interviewed earlier in the year on this blog – presented me with a number of striking options, but I eventually settled on the image of a woman’s silhouette in a dark corridor as it immediately conveyed the mysterious and sinister mood of the novel. The story does feature a few sequences involving the protagonist creeping down an important sinister corridor, so that was obviously another reason for my choice.

The other options offered included stylised exteriors of Blackwood House on Dartmoor, where the bulk of the plot takes place. These images also struck the appropriate tone. However, one of my favourite designs – a stark graphic of black birds on a white background – I rejected because to me it said “highbrow, Booker Prize baiting endeavour” rather than “page-turning genre piece”. People quite understandably judge books by their cover, and it was not my intention to mislead anyone into thinking I had literary delusions of grandeur.

For the full interview with Charles Bown from earlier this year, check out the link below:

http://simondillonbooks.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/charles-bown-interview/

Also, you follow Charles on Twitter here:

@FederalCreative<https://twitter.com/FederalCreative&gt;

In addition to the cover, here is the blurb from the back to whet your appetite:

From the author of Children of the Folded Valley…

When aspiring novelist Alice Darnell enters a competition to write the ending for an unfinished manuscript by late, world famous author Sasha Hawkins, it appears she might have her big break at last.

However, upon arrival at Sasha’s former home – the sinister Blackwood House – Alice is unsettled by peculiar competition rules, mysterious dreams and inexplicable ghostly visions. She begins to question her sanity as she is drawn into a terrifying web of deceit, revenge and murder.

The Birds Began to Sing is released on the 27th of October in various downloadable formats. It is currently available to pre-order at Amazon.

Print copies will be available from the 2nd of November.

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Film Review – Gone Girl

gone-girl

David Fincher’s latest film Gone Girl, adapted by Gillian Flynn from her bestselling novel, is a deliciously dark, cynical portrayal of – in flashback – a marriage in meltdown. In between flashbacks, events in the present show beleaguered Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), working with an increasingly suspicious community and police investigation to help find his missing wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). The question is, did he kill her? Or is something far more twisted and sinister taking place?

It is impossible to review Gone Girl in any depth without revealing major spoilers, suffice to say it contains terrific central performances – especially from Pike who I have been a huge fan of for years. This is unquestionably her greatest role to date, and I would be surprised if she didn’t get an Oscar nomination. It is also worth noting a couple of the very good supporting performances. Firstly Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister Margo (with whom he amusingly plays the “Game of Life” board game in an early scene), and Tyler Perry’s turn as high flying lawyer Tanner Bolt.

I suspect Fincher’s assured direction and Flynn’s screenplay will also be Oscar nominated. I have not read the novel, but apparently the screenplay is more darkly comic, something which I particularly appreciated. That said, I doubt this film will be something everyone finds funny. All of which brings me to the usual warnings about very strong language, bloody violence and sex.

In one sense, Gone Girl is nothing particularly original. There are shades of Hitchcock (Vertigo, Marnie and Dial M for Murder in particular) and classic film noir throughout. One is reminded not only of Double Indemnity but also lesser known noir gems such as Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street. Other key texts this draws inspiration from include Jagged Edge, The Talented Mr Ripley, John Dahl’s The Last Seduction and even a classic Sherlock Holmes short story, The Problem of Thor Bridge. However, what makes Gone Girl feel interesting and contemporary is the way it raises issues of media voyeurism, marital stereotypes, class snobbery, misogyny, infidelity, hypocrisy and deception in an entertaining and thought provoking way. In particular, the dispiriting modern trend of managing and presenting our personalities – the best versions of ourselves, if you like – is dissected with an unrelenting scalpel of scrutiny.

Ultimately, I suspect the issues in the marriage between Nick and Amy will strike a chord with many viewers, even though the problems here are exaggerated to the nth degree. Admittedly this will be way too strong for some to stomach, but for those with the temperament for it, I highly recommend the film. Perhaps just not as a romantic date movie.

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When is a book finished?

Manuscript-Editing4

I’ve read a lot of posts on other writing blogs – some of them excellent – on how vitally important it is to keep polishing work prior to submission to agents and publishers, or prior to publication if you are self-publishing. The underlying message is that however ready you might think your work is, the chances are it isn’t ready yet.

All of which is well and good, but there does come a point when tinkering is only going to make the writing worse. The trick is to know when that point is.

I think the answer is somewhat complex, as there are so many levels on which writing needs to be polished – story, characters and dialogue for starters. That’s before getting into the really detailed edit of making sure it reads well, eliminating unnecessary words and repetition, making sure adjectives are used not too much or little, eliminating adverbs except where they serve an important purpose, grammar, punctuation, etc.

The only answer I can offer is that a novel can never be perfect. The trick is to get it as close to perfection as you possibly can without going insane. Then it has to be submitted or released, regardless of what overlooked warts remain. In some cases these can be corrected subsequently (for instance, one can upload revised text to online versions), but in the end you have to move on.

Before reaching this point however, there are two very obvious things to do when you can’t see the wood for the trees. One is to get feedback from trusted people. The other is to allow a period of time to pass before you pick up your work again. I find the latter method in particular to be very effective, as the distance of time provides perspective and you can redraft with a fresh eye. Of course, the downside to this is that you cannot expect to write a novel and release it within a short space of time. You have to be prepared for your novel to sit on the shelf, perhaps for years, waiting for the moment it is finally ready for release.

I have several novels – some of which were written over ten years ago – waiting for that moment when I will be happy to finally let go of them. Others I have turned around in a relatively short space of time, simply because experience has taught me not to make the mistakes I made ten years ago that necessitated holding back my work. But if a novel simply isn’t ready, it is always better to hang on to it until the right time – whether you’ve worked on it for six months or six years.

There does come a time though, when all rewriting must end and a book must either be released or abandoned, regardless of the inevitable imperfections that remain.

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