Genre blending

Blending genres can be a fiendishly tricky exercise yet sometimes it can work brilliantly, against the odds, even if conventional wisdom says these genres would mix like oil and water.

The film Colossal is a good recent example of this. It blends indie drama elements with that of the monster movie tin a surprisingly effective way. TV series Twin Peaks is another genre blender, and one that is very difficult to define in conventional terms. The programme contains elements of soap opera, offbeat dark comedy, whodunit detective drama and supernatural horror with an avant-garde surrealism that is continually pulls the rug out from under the viewer in ways that both delight and infuriate.

I have a personal passion for films that start out in one genre, but then evolve into full blown horror. Kill List begins as social realist hitman thriller but becomes Grand Guignol occult horror. Bone Tomahawk is essentially a western that gets gatecrashed by cannibal horror. Most effectively of all, the massively underrated Angel Heart begins as private detective noir but ends in Faustian horror.

My recent novel, The Thistlewood Curse, attempts to emulate this genre evolution, from detective whodunit, to supernatural thriller and then full-on horror, hopefully in a fairly gradual build-up. There are risks of course. It can be difficult to categorise and promote. But ultimately the story is what it is. I hope readers take a risk and give it a go regardless. So far the feedback I have heard has been very positive.

THE THISTLEWOOD CURSE Cover (JPG Print version)

You can download or buy print copies of The Thistlewood Curse from Amazon here.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Thistlewood Curse: What’s it really about?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve talked at length about my latest novel The Thistlewood Curse; what inspired it, the history behind it, short excerpts, discussion on the cover, and so forth.

THE THISTLEWOOD CURSE Cover (JPG Print version)

This article will focus on the themes of the story. What was I trying to explore, or to say, in The Thistlewood Curse?

The most honest answer would be nothing at all. I don’t believe any story should be written with an intentional message. Such endeavours tend to come off as tedious, condescending sermons. Instead, the primary motive for writing the novel was to create a suspenseful, gripping tale of supernatural mystery and horror.

That said, what is important to any writer will be inherent in the stories they tell. I had initially thought The Thistlewood Curse to be a tale of terror, but as the writing progressed it became less deliberately frightening and bloody (although there is still plenty of that), and more reflective, more melancholic, more sombre and ultimately more a tale of faith and coming to terms with grief in the face of the inexplicable.

The novel also flirts with contemporary concerns such as human trafficking, although more as a springboard exploring how the sins of past generations can be revisited upon the present in classic Greek tragedy style, rather than a deep expose of a very serious current problem. Themes of witchcraft also crop up, though again more as a plot device rather than a serious look at what goes on in covens. I doubt very much that astral projection could be used in real life the way it is used in The Thistlewood Curse, but who knows?

In subsequent drafts, the story evolved further, adding an element of religious oppression into the mix in a backstory I had originally intended to keep a mystery. However, my amazing and brilliantly honest wife persuaded me that these elements were needed to provide stronger emotional context for what was otherwise a clever but somewhat cold supernatural whodunit. I was happy to add these chapters into a now extended act one, because religious oppression is a key recurrent theme in my work in any case, and I can now see that keeping that part out for the sake of getting to the main plot quicker would have been a mistake. In fact, the reverse is true. I believe with this element now in the novel it makes the mystery all the more compelling, because the reader now cares far more about the two main characters.

Here is the blurb from the back of The Thistlewood Curse:

Can a ghost murder the living?

Lawrence Crane’s powers of astral projection are put to the ultimate test when he and his lifelong friend Detective Laura Buchan investigate a mysterious death on Lundy Island.

Sensing a dark power at work, they attempt to identify a human assassin under the control of supernatural evil.

But can they escape a terrifying, centuries-old curse?

You can download or buy print copies of The Thistlewood Curse from Amazon here.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Film Review – My Cousin Rachel

rachel

Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel has been adapted before, but not as effectively as in Roger Michell’s new version starring Rachel Weisz in the lead role. A proper did-she, didn’t-she 19th Century gothic mystery, My Cousin Rachel will certainly scratch where Du Maurier fans are itching.

Weisz is very effective as the mysterious Rachel, who comes to stay with young and rather naïve English landowner Phillip (Sam Claflin) when her husband, Phillip’s older cousin and guardian, dies in Italy. Initially Phillip suspects Rachel of murder, but soon begins to fall for her beguiling charms. However the question remains: did she secretly murder her husband? Is she now attempting to manipulate Phillip to obtain the inheritance which was inexplicably denied to her in her late husband’s will?

The entire cast, which includes support from the likes of Holliday Grainger and Iain Glen, are good. Michell directs with atmospheric flair, his visual influences including David Lean’s classic 1946 version of Great Expectations, and John Schlesinger’s massively underrated 1967 take on Far from the Madding Crowd. His adaptation cleverly builds an atmosphere of unease, with fine use of moody Cornish landscapes, pleasing layers of ambiguity and Freudian undertones (“Now go to bed like a good boy…” Rachel tells Phillip at one point).

However, most of the credit must go to Weisz and Claflin, who have a tremendously creepy chemistry. Weisz in particular convinces, her nuanced performance teasingly asking the endless questions: What does she really want? Is she playing Phillip for a fool? Is she a murderess? Or is she a misjudged victim of circumstance? Du Maurier was reportedly disappointed with the 1952 Olivia de Havilland version, but I think she would have approved of Rachel Weisz.

Posted in Film Reviews, Films | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Some facts behind The Thistlewood Curse

Following on from my recent post about what inspired my latest novel The Thistlewood Curse, here are some points of interest on the history, geography and other facts that are either directly or peripherally relevant to the novel. Obviously to avoid spoilers I won’t explain exactly how these tie into the supernatural narrative, but as with Uncle Flynn and various other (as yet unpublished) novels, local history and geography provided a fertile ground for my imagination.

THE THISTLEWOOD CURSE Cover (JPG Print version)

Lundy Island is a real place in the Bristol Channel, about twelve miles off the north coast of Devon. The island is small – about 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles at its widest point. It has a population of about thirty, and many visitors who go to see the wildlife, especially puffins and other birds. The Oldenburg is a real vessel that ferries passengers to and from the island on a regular basis.

Lundy-island

As per the novel, the island is bereft of trees, and most of the settlements lie in the south, including the Marisco Tavern and Lundy (or Marisco) Castle, both of which are real places. However, in the novel Lundy Castle is substantially larger and privately owned, whereas in real life the castle has been broken down into self-catering accommodation. The history of the castle as described in the novel (involving Henry III and so forth) is also mostly true. Surrounding the island are spectacular cliffs, which can be better appreciated on boat trips. The only place to land a boat safely is in the south.

devon - Marisco Castle

Both lighthouses mentioned in the novel are real, along with Quarter wall, Halfway wall and Three-Quarter wall. It is true that supplies of electricity are only in use during certain hours, and that mobile phone signal is all but non-existent. Also, there really is a Tibbet’s Hill on the island, possibly a location where people were indeed hanged, which brings me neatly onto my next point.

As per the novel, the history of Lundy includes tales of pirates and slave traders, and it proved a very difficult place to govern. For example, Barbary Pirates from the Republic of Sale occupied Lundy from 1627 to 1632. These North African invaders, under the command of renegade Dutchman Jan Janszoon, flew an Ottoman Empire flag over the island. They captured Europeans and held them on Lundy before sending them to Algiers as slaves.

Finally, on a more arcane note, the Lundy cabbage is a genuine vegetable (see yellow flowered plant below), though I am fairly certain it has not been used as an ingredient for deadly poison. That however is sailing very close to spoiler territory, so I’ll just leave it there for now…

166660362

Here is the blurb from the back of The Thistlewood Curse:

Can a ghost murder the living?

Lawrence Crane’s powers of astral projection are put to the ultimate test when he and his lifelong friend Detective Laura Buchan investigate a mysterious death on Lundy Island.

Sensing a dark power at work, they attempt to identify a human assassin under the control of supernatural evil.

But can they escape a terrifying, centuries-old curse?

You can download or buy print copies of The Thistlewood Curse from Amazon here.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What inspired The Thistlewood Curse?

What inspired my latest novel, The Thistlewood Curse?

THE THISTLEWOOD CURSE Cover (JPG Print version)

A colleague of mine told me of a paranormal experience she once had. This experience gave me an intriguing story idea which would combine a conventional mystery whodunit with supernatural themes, including astral projection. I wrote a brief outline of the plot (the big twist ending was foreseen from the outset), but wondered about where to set it.

Subsequently, when my mother-in-law visited Lundy Island, she returned to show me her extensive photographic survey, along with the various guidebooks and maps she had picked up. I then realised I had the ideal setting for my novel, which would evolve from detective story to supernatural mystery thriller, culminating in an under siege horror finale, as the characters are trapped on the island in the midst of a fierce night storm.

As I set about writing the novel, there were various influences in the back of my mind, including Sherlock Holmes short stories like The Speckled Band and Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, as well as films like Angel Heart, The Exorcist and television series Twin Peaks. However, I do hope the novel is distinctive and original in its own right too.

Here is the blurb from the back of The Thistlewood Curse:

Can a ghost murder the living?

Lawrence Crane’s powers of astral projection are put to the ultimate test when he and his lifelong friend Detective Laura Buchan investigate a mysterious death on Lundy Island.

Sensing a dark power at work, they attempt to identify a human assassin under the control of supernatural evil.

But can they escape a terrifying, centuries-old curse?

You can download or buy print copies of The Thistlewood Curse from Amazon here.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Film Review – Wonder Woman

IMG_0365

Since the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s superb Batman trilogy, the DC Universe has fared rather poorly on the big screen. Man of Steel, Suicide Squad and Batman vs Superman all had major issues, to say the least. But one patch of brightness amid the otherwise dreary slog of the latter was the appearance of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. At the time I was very irritated because I didn’t want her shoehorned into that idiotic film. Thank goodness then, for Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, which gives Gal Gadot the introduction she deserves. Here she is as iconic, inspiring and utterly definitive as Christopher Reeve was in Superman.

Ostensibly an origin story, Wonder Woman begins on a hidden island paradise where the mythological backstory of the Amazon women warriors and Diana (aka Wonder Woman) is explained. Fast forward to World War I, and Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy undercover in the German army, crash lands on their shores. Hot on his heels are the German army, which leads to the first battle in the film. After learning about war in the world outside, Diana joins Steve on his mission to prevent deadly gas being used on the Western Front, along the way hoping to defeat an ancient arch nemesis. Cue much fish-out-of-water comedy, a spot of romance, and plenty of action.

Wonder Woman is a joy. Like the Christopher Reeve Superman, the film has wit, heart and awe to spare. The chemistry between Gadot and Pine is terrific, and the supporting cast – including Robin Wright, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya David Thewlis, Ewen Bremner, Said Taghmaoui and Eugene Brave Rock – are all good too. A stand-out set piece with Diana going over the top of the trenches into No Man’s Land will undoubtedly go down as one of the all-time-great superhero sequences. In addition to such fine direction from Jenkins, the also film benefits from a rousing music score by Rupert Gregson-Williams.

To be fair, it’s not entirely flawless. One could argue the messages about war and peace are slightly confused, although the spiritual metaphors about whether or not the human race deserves to be saved are admirable. Diana is forced to conclude that what we deserve has nothing to do with it, and along the way surprisingly poignant themes of sacrifice and redemption are also touched upon. It’s perhaps a tad overlong, with the requisition CGI blow-out in the final act, but all of these are fairly minor nits.

In summary, Wonder Woman is a wonderful piece of work.

Posted in Film Reviews, Films | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Film Review – Lady Macbeth

lady-macbeth-film

Florence Pugh gives an outstanding lead performance in Lady Macbeth, which I finally caught up with this evening at my local arts centre.

Alice Birch’s screenplay, based on Nikolai Leskov’s novel, has relocated the narrative to the north of England in the 19th Century. Pugh plays Catherine, a young bride sold into a lifeless marriage with an unloving, boorish, sexually cruel middle-aged man who insists she remain indoors. However, Catherine is determined not to be a helpless victim. When her husband is away, Catherine defies him by walking on the moors, drinking all her (even more unpleasant) father-in-law’s favourite vintage and also begins a passionate, ill-advised affair with bit-of-rough farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). For a while things get all “Heathcliffe and Cathy”, before taking a turn into much darker territory, as the extent of Catherine’s Machiavellian plans become apparent.

Director William Oldroyd eschews the cosy trappings of the period drama, instead opting for a spare, stripped-down aesthetic that really has dirt under its fingernails. The sound design is as important as the visuals, with howling winds amid the bleak moors adding to the atmosphere. Influences obviously include Wuthering Heights, but oddly enough the films I was most reminded of were The Talented Mr Ripley and The Godfather Part II. Murder, more murder and the ravages of conscience come into play. Will Catherine demonstrate the nerves of steel required for her increasingly appalling actions, or will her sins find her out? I should add warnings for sex, strong violence and very strong language. A cosy Austen adaptation this ain’t…

In the end, it is Pugh’s superb turn that holds the drama together. With seemingly effortless subtlety she initially conveys a repressed yet wild, rebellious nature, before the narrative reveals much more destructive forces at work in her heart, even as she tries to keep up appearances of sullen obedience. The promise of her supporting role in The Falling is demonstrated even more by this central role, and she will continue to be a name to watch.

Posted in Film Reviews, Films | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Thistlewood Curse – cover design

The cover for my latest novel, The Thistlewood Curse, was designed by my wife Zara, derived from an image taken by her photographer mother, Frances Belsham. Frances’s original image showed a rugged Lundy cliff-face overlooking the Bristol Channel. Zara took this image, and made it appear as though the island itself were bleeding.

THE THISTLEWOOD CURSE Cover (JPG Print version)

I particularly liked this visual concept for multiple reasons. Firstly, it speaks of the initial death which puts the main plot in motion. Also, on a metaphorical level it hints at the dark, brutal, secret history gradually uncovered in the story, as well as the bloodbath that ensues in the finale.

I cannot say too much more, for fear of spoilers, but needless to say I am very pleased with the result. This is the first cover Zara has prepared for me, and I expect it will not be the last. Incidentally, she also designed my current blog header and I couldn’t be more pleased with the results.

Here is the blurb from the back of The Thistlewood Curse:

From the author of Children of the Folded Valley and The Birds Began to Sing

Can a ghost murder the living?

Lawrence Crane’s powers of astral projection are put to the ultimate test when he and his lifelong friend Detective Laura Buchan investigate a mysterious death on Lundy Island.

Sensing a dark power at work, they attempt to identify a human assassin under the control of supernatural evil.

But can they escape a terrifying, centuries-old curse?

You can download or buy print copies of The Thistlewood Curse from Amazon here.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Film Review – Colossal

new-poster-anne-hathaway-in-colossal

The biggest surprise of Colossal is that despite it’s bizarre premise, it actually works very well.

After being dumped by her boyfriend and kicked out of his New York apartment, alcoholic Gloria (Anne Hathaway) returns to her home town to try and rebuild her life. Here she meets up with old childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who runs a local bar and offers her a job to help her get back on her feet. In the meantime, a gigantic, kaiju-style monster appears in Seoul, and starts trashing the city. Gradually Gloria begins to realise that she and the monster are inexplicably connected.

Writer/director Nacho Vigalondo has crafted an offbeat, blackly comic and frequently surprising work that feels genuinely different. It’s initial setup seems like familiar indie romantic comedy territory, but it then confounds expectations with some very dark turns. There’s a great central performance from Anne Hathaway, the rest of the cast are good too, and visual effects are limited but well done.

Despite the surreal laughs, Colossal feels unusually serious. A monster is always a metaphor, and in this case the various monster movie metaphors represent not only the damage caused by alcoholism, but also controlling, abusive relationships and the role played by enablers who keep addicts trapped in their cycles of misery. It’s also worth adding the usual warnings for strong language, for those who appreciate them.

To be fair, there are a couple of minor, less convincing moments near the very end, but for the most part Colossal remains a vibrant and unique experience. It won’t be for everyone, but I liked it very much.

Posted in Film Reviews, Films | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another excerpt from The Thistlewood Curse

Here’s a second, slightly longer excerpt from my new supernatural thriller The Thistlewood Curse.

THE THISTLEWOOD CURSE Cover (JPG Print version)

Once on Lundy Island, Detective Sergeant Laura Buchan and her paranormal investigator friend Lawrence Crane are joined by Sally Thistlewood, another old friend, exploring the terrain, quietly looking for clues regarding the mysterious and sudden death of Sally’s husband Charles. They begin to sense an evil presence.

“As soon as they left the castle, Laura was glad she had wrapped up warm. Although the wind had dropped an icy chill lingered. Thick dark cloud covered the skies, and great rolling mists moved like ghosts through the cottages of Lundy village. They walked for a while in silence, trudging along the path past the Marisco Tavern and shop, past holiday homes and farm buildings, and out into open country.

Sally led Laura and Crane along a path that passed the Old Lighthouse, the airfield and Ackland’s Moor to the left. They reached the Quarter Wall shortly afterwards and passed through a gate into the fields beyond. Seagulls cawed amid the sounds of waves crashing against cliffs in the distance, and as they continued the mist gradually cleared, leaving only occasional patches of coastline gripped by thick fingers of fog.

Shivering, Laura once again sensed the same oppressive presence she had felt the previous day at the Old Lighthouse. As they continued their journey north along the paths and cliff tops, that presence seemed to get stronger. She glanced at Crane, who nodded silently, confirming that he felt the same.

To distract herself from the feeling of being watched by an invisible, malevolent entity, Laura made light conversation with Sally; mostly reminiscing about their past together, their time at school, University, old friends, places they had visited, parties they had been to… anything to distract from the present. There was a feeling of desperation in the exchanges, particularly on Sally’s part. No doubt she felt trapped both by her grief and her belief that the death of Charles was merely the start of something that was only going to get worse. Talking about the frivolous, care-free past wasn’t merely friends recalling good times. It was a dedicated, concerted effort at deflecting the oppression of the present.

But in spite of such efforts, the intangible feeling of malice inherent in the atmosphere only increased the further they walked… Lundy was a bleak but beautiful place, yet something had taken possession of it.

‘Can you feel it?’ Laura asked presently, giving up all pretence at light conversation.

Sally nodded. ‘It’s getting stronger all the time.’”

You can download or buy print copies of The Thistlewood Curse here.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment