Vital Statistics: The Thistlewood Curse

Continuing my series on the “vital statistics” series of my each of my gothic mystery novels, this week, I’m delving into The Thistlewood Curse.

Title: The Thistlewood Curse

THE THISTLEWOOD CURSE Cover (JPG Print version)

Plot: 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?

Expect: A denouement that really ought to be obvious, yet somehow you fail to spot it (I’ve yet to come across anyone who predicts the ending).

Wordcount: 99,000.

Current Amazon reviews: 5 five-star reviews, 2 four-star reviews.

Current Goodreads reviews: 3 five-star reviews, 3 four-star reviews, 1 three-star review.

Scariness rating: 6/10. A halfway house between thriller and horror. It begins as a supernaturally tinged murder mystery (if indeed it is murder), develops into a ghost story, and gradually escalates from there.

Read if you enjoyed: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Agatha Christie), The Speckled Band (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), or if you enjoyed films such as Angel Heart or The Exorcist (or the books they are based on for that matter).

To pick up a copy click here (for the UK) and here (for the US).

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Vital Statistics: The Birds Began to Sing

For the next few weeks, I’m running a “vital statistics” series on my each of my gothic mystery novels, beginning with The Birds Began to Sing.

Title: The Birds Began to Sing

The Birds Began to Sing_1600x2400_Front Cover

Plot: 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.

Expect: A big twist ending.

Wordcount: 89,000.

Current Amazon reviews: 12 five star reviews, 1 four star review.

Current Goodreads reviews: 5 five star reviews, 8 four star reviews, 1 three star review.

Scariness rating: 4/10. More psychological thriller/mystery than horror, and if it were a film, probably wouldn’t be rated stronger than 12A (that’s PG-13 for our American cousins). Yes, there is plenty of page-turning suspense, with our imperilled heroine wandering spooky corridors at night, but let’s put it this way; my notoriously easy-to-scare mother braved it, and managed to reach the ending unscathed.

Read if you enjoyed: Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier), Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte), Sleeping Murder (Agatha Christie).

To pick up a copy click here (for the UK) and here (for the US).

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TV Reviews – The Mandalorian, Ozark, and Devs

Because cinemas are currently closed due to this blasted virus, I’ve not been writing film reviews. However, a few people have suggested I review the films I’ve been watching on television. I’m hesitant, as the whole point of my film reviews is to encourage cinema attendance (hence why I’ve avoided reviewing direct to streaming films). However, since going the cinema is impossible at present, here are three brief reviews of television series I recently watched.

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The Mandalorian (Disney+) – Let’s get the Star Wars one out of the way first. This won’t be news to anyone who lives in the US, but a couple of months ago Disney+ launched in the UK, which finally gave us Brits a chance to see what all the Baby Yoda fuss was about. Actually I’m quite irritated by all the memes, purely because the climax of episode 1 introducing Baby Yoda proved a deft reveal, that would have been best left unspoiled. Still, what’s done is done, and one could hardly expect a national act of spoiler restraint from our US cousins. Of course, cute though he is, Baby Yoda isn’t actually Yoda at all, as far as I can tell. Some claim he’s a reincarnation, but that wouldn’t fit with his ghost appearing to Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi. Unless Baby Yoda gets killed between now and The Last Jedi of course, but I doubt Disney would let things get that dark.

Anyway, to the matter at hand, The Mandalorian is little more than a spaghetti western in the Star Wars universe. It works well enough in a whizz-bang sort of way. I did enjoy some of the guest appearances from the likes of Nick Nolte and especially Werner Herzog. There’s a lot of a talent writing and directing the programme too, including Dave Filoni, Jon Favreau, Taika Waititi, and Bryce Dallas Howard. However, I must confess it doesn’t really spark with me the way the original films do. Not so far, at any rate. Those end credit production art stills are nice though.

ozark

Ozark (Netflix) – A family end up laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel in the Ozarks, in this compellingly nasty crime thriller, created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams. Featuring strong performances from Jason Bateman and Laura Linney as Marty and Wendy Byrde, with equally good performances from Sofia Hublitz and Skylar Gaertner as their teenage children (who have a life of crime foisted upon them), this is gripping, tense, compulsive viewing.

Ozark isn’t quite in the same league as Breaking Bad, but series 3 in particular comes very close. It delves deeply into the characters, wisely keeping Marty and Wendy front and centre, as their respective ambitions and deceptions put their already-on-thin-ice marriage at greater and greater risk. Themes of power, corruption, and the tragic hubris of over-reaching criminal ambition are duly explored and followed through to their inevitable and sometimes surprising conclusions. For instance, the final scene of series 3 is a real shocker.

Julia Garner also deserves a special mention mid the colourful cast of fascinating supporting characters. She’s definitely one of the more interesting up and coming actresses on my radar.

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Devs (BBC) – Alex Garland’s previous work includes Ex Machina and Annihilation, so he’s no stranger to big, brainy sci-fi. Although Devs is an 8 part TV drama rather than a film, it is still superbly directed, with great performances from the main cast.

The plot concerns Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), a slightly selfish and annoying protagonist investigating the mysterious, top secret development division in a San Francisco based technology company; following the strange disappearance of her boyfriend who worked in said division.

To say anything more is to get into spoilers, but on the whole this is intellectually rather than emotionally gripping, delving into big questions of playing God, predestination versus freewill, determinism, and the nature of reality. Yes, it’s also about grief, and some of that is explored with a degree of poignancy, but what works better is the mind-bending, what-just-happened nature of the finale.

It’s not perfect. Before said finale there are a few longeurs, but on the whole Devs is worth sticking with, if this is your kind of thing. Plus that massive statue of the little girl is really sinister. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.

I may review more TV dramas from time to time, whilst cinemas remain closed. Watch this space.

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Curate Don’t Censor

Following on from last week’s post about “Cancel Culture”, here’s my take on a similarly thorny issue. How should we approach historic works of art that are openly ideologically insidious?

How should we approach, for example, DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation or Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will? The former is may have laid down the grammar of narrative cinema, but it is also one of the most hideously racist films of all time. The latter was extraordinary documentary film-making, but it was Nazi propaganda. Should these films be banned, as many have urged?

My answer is absolutely not. History should not be censored or airbrushed. Instead, these films should be curated. They should be shown with accompanying contextual explanations. For example, I remember when Channel 4 broadcast The Birth of a Nation, it had a piece before it discussing the film’s place in cinema history, and legacy of appalling racism. Triumph of the Will can be approached in precisely the same manner. By burying the past, we cannot learn from it, and these films are vital documents.

The_Adventures_of_Tintin_-_02_-_Tintin_in_the_CongoIn the same way, I oppose censorship of problematic literature, whether it’s the replacing of racist or sexist words in Enid Blyton adventure stories, or the banning of Tintin in the Congo. The latter volume was eventually released in the UK, again with an introduction providing appropriate curation of the cultural context, and its inherent colonial racism.

Curation is the key here, and it’s something I wish Disney would get to grips with, rather than trying to constantly airbrush its history – or the history of other films on Disney+. Whether it’s the relatively trivial (but prudish) censorship of nudity in Splash or the slightly more disturbing removal of an episode of The Simpsons featuring Michael Jackson’s guest vocal (“cancel” culture again), I do believe in letting history be history. Of course, this is nothing new for Disney, who have retrospectively censored much of their work (those little cuts to Fantasia, for instance). Also, what is wrong with a little dark (and revealing) humour? Was that “casting couch” gag by Stinky Pete on the end credit bloopers of Toy Story 2 really so offensive that it had to be removed on Disney+?

I do accept that there are some additional considerations in all of the above arguments. For example, the influence on children. But these issues require good parenting, not censorship. When I recently showed my youngest Goldfinger, he enjoyed it, but during the infamous barn scene with Sean Connery and Honor Blackman, he piped up and declared “That’s sexual assault!” Times and attitudes have changed, but it is entirely possible for today’s children to enjoy escapist entertainment like James Bond, and have a healthy understanding of why his actions are not to be emulated, without the need for nanny censorship. Thankfully no-one is airbrushing James Bond at present, but I just make the comment to illustrate a point.

Doubtless some will read this and mutter about my status as a “white privileged male” somehow invalidating my views. Not that I think it gives my argument any greater or lesser weight, but I’d just like to point to my Jewish heritage, and my above comment about curating Nazi propaganda. I’d make the same argument for all the films made under Goebbel’s eye during Nazi Germany. They are important historic artefacts, and need to be preserved and shown, with appropriate curation.

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My Take on “Cancel Culture”

I find myself increasingly alarmed at the mentality of those who sanctimoniously demand we censor or “cancel” certain music, books, films, and so forth, based on the attitudes, opinions, behaviour, or crimes of the artists responsible (whether said crimes are proved or not). Leaving aside the obviously sinister Orwellian overtones in “cancelling” anyone or anything, I believe in the old-fashioned, un-trendy importance of separating art from artist.

img01For example, I think it is entirely possible to praise and enjoy the considerable artistic merits of a film like Chinatown, whilst not condoning actions in the director’s personal life. Besides, to attribute that entire film to Roman Polanksi is itself misguided, as it ignores the remarkable acting talents of Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, and so on, not to mention the stunning screenplay by Robert Towne (often cited as the greatest screenplay of all time, alongside that of Casablanca). Then there are the contributions of the rest of the cast and crew, and their involvement in a classic film that they should definitely be proud of.

michael-jackson-thriller-1984-billboard-650x650-compressed The same argument applies to music. For example, I refuse to stop listening to Michael Jackson just because it is alleged he was involved in child abuse. Those allegations are not proved, but even if they were, would it make the music any less great? I refuse to accept the premise that listening to Michael Jackson’s songs somehow amounts to condoning child abuse.

Finding it difficult to be dispassionate about separating art from artist can come from a place of good intentions. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and this boycott argument is nothing new. For instance, I’ve met people who refuse to listen to Wagner because of his notorious anti-Semitism. Obviously if they don’t wish to do so, then that is their decision (as Woody Allen – himself a target of “cancel” culture these days – once said, “I can’t listen to Wagner without getting the urge to invade Poland”). But what I find particularly galling are those thought police that insist we all, for our own good, kowtow to such views. To make doctrines out of these kinds of personal convictions, and then inflict them on the population at large, goes against one of my most fundamental beliefs in freedom of choice.

A question I would put to those who advocate this position: How far do you take this argument? Should we not view any film with Harvey Weinstein’s name on the credits? Should we duly throw out and burn our copies of The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, The Artist, Paddington, Good Will Hunting, much of Quentin Tarantino’s back catalogue, and so on? What about if someone else involved in the film is revealed to have committed similar appalling acts? How “high up” in the credits would they need to be for it to be a problem? Director? Producer? Cinematographer? Music composer? Editor? Key grip? Production Assistant?

EYCTXDHDJAI6TMFGHUBXEG4F54Countless novelists, poets, playwrights, directors, painters, sculptors, and so on (from past and present) would fall foul under such a vehement “cancel” culture. I do accept that in some cases, where artists are still living, people may want to vote with their wallet and make sure their money doesn’t go to supporting their work. But even then there is all too often a knee-jerk reaction. For example, last year’s film Joker featured a track from convicted paedophile Gary Glitter. Some were outraged, claiming he would receive royalties. In fact, the track had since been bought out by a different company, and licenced directly from them. The music was a perfect artistic choice for that moment in the film, and worked brilliantly.

In conclusion, great artists sometimes do horrible things. Enjoying their art doesn’t equate to condoning their actions. With that thought, I’m going to go forth and give Chinatown another watch.

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Stories within Stories

51QinGyEU8L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I’m currently reading A Book of Bones by John Connolly (part of the Charlie Parker series). One element that struck me as quite effective was the use of stories within the main story. My favourite section so far involved rival apprentice archaeologists in the 1920s under the supervision of a more seasoned archaeologist; with the latter narrating a horrifying incident on the Hexham Moors. The tone and style of this section is radically different to other parts of the novel, sounding more like an MR James short story. I really liked this little digression.

Of course, this literary device is as old as the hills, with Shakespeare’s “Conscience of the King” play within a play in Hamlet as a good example. Hamlet seconds the services of a travelling theatre company to stage a play that re-creates the circumstances of his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle Claudius. He intends to watch his uncle’s reactions closely, to see whether they corroborate his father’s ghost’s account of his own murder.

3328067507_2a44ee6993_cMore recent examples include the astonishing Tales of the Black Freighter within Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen (revered as the Citizen Kane of graphic novels by comic book enthusiasts). In this context, the Black Freighter story is a metaphor for the journey into madness taken by the antagonist.

Nocturnal Animals also has a similar device which I won’t expound on here, except to say that I defy any serious writer of fiction to come away from that film unmoved or unchanged.

The Birds Began to Sing_1600x2400_Front CoverIn my own novels, I have occasionally employed this narrative tool. Most notably, my gothic mystery thriller The Birds Began to Sing concerns an aspiring author who finds herself enrolled in a mysterious competition at a sinister mansion, to write the ending for an unpublished manuscript penned by a famous, now deceased thriller novelist. This unfinished novel has a horrifying secret from the real world buried within it, which eventually comes to light as the story progresses. (You can check out The Birds Began to Sing here).

All things considered, when done well, I think the story-within-a-story approach can work wonders to add depth to a tale. One caveat though: it cannot merely co-exist with the main story. It has to overlap or provide commentary and insight in a relevant, meaningful way. Otherwise, it’s not a story within a story. Just two separate stories.

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My short story Once in a Lifetime now available to read FREE

After making my romantic fantasy short story Papercut available FREE on this blog last week, I decided to bring a little further cheer into these strange and uncertain times by making another of my short stories FREE.

Well, cheer is perhaps the wrong word. Once in a Lifetime, previously published as part of Dragon Soul Press’s All Dark Places horror anthology, is a bone-chilling tale of existential dread and sanity questioning psychological terror. Some will probably want to avoid it for that reason, but those who enjoy having their heads messed with in agreeable ways I hope will find much to relish.

Once in a Lifetime involves a man who wakes up in a strange London flat in bed with a woman he doesn’t know, who insists he is someone else in an entirely different life. More disturbingly, memories of his former life – including his wife and children – start to fade from his mind.

The above images give a little tease of what to expect. The right image shows the wonderfully sinister, mystical, and ancient Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, which is near where I live, and features in a number of my novels as well.

What are you waiting for? Gather your nerves and click here to read Once in a Lifetime absolutely FREE.

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My short story Papercut now available to read FREE

In these uncertain and difficult times, I thought I’d expand this blog a little to include a couple of my previously published short stories to read absolutely free of charge.

First up is Papercut – a title originally published in the Dragon Soul Press romantic fantasy anthology First Love. The story concerns a lonely teenage boy living with his ultra-strict Jehovah’s Witness mother. In his dreams, he is visited by a mysterious girl made entirely of paper, leading to a fantastical journey into… Well, simply click here to read more.

The image below, from the legendary music video to A-ha’s classic 1985 hit Take on Me, was a visual and tonal influence on Papercut.

a-ha-take-on-me-video

Also, check out the blog next Thursday for another free short story from yours truly.

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Writing Update: “The White Nest”

To say 2020 hasn’t gone the way I expected so far would be an understatement. However, in one respect it has gone to plan: I have just finished the first draft of my latest novel.

I won’t announce the title just yet, so let’s call it The White Nest for now. That won’t be the final title, but the White Nest is an element of the narrative. What is the White Nest? Is it something sinister? Obviously. This is a gripping gothic mystery akin to all my previous endeavours in that genre, including The Birds Began to Sing, The Irresistible Summons, Spectre of Springwell Forest, The Thistlewood Curse, and Phantom Audition.

The White Nest has a full checklist of my favourite gothic tropes, including a sleepy south-west England village, haunted forest, eerie mansion, secret tunnels, dubious secret experimental facilities, occult secret societies, ghosts, demons, curses, mysterious disappearances, childhood memories buried by trauma, rug-pulling twist ending… you name it. You could even call this novel Now That’s What I Call A Simon Dillon Gothic Mystery if you really wanted to, as it is something of a compilation of my preoccupations, genre wise.

Like some of my earlier novels, this one also straddles the borders between mystery thriller and supernatural horror. However, one key trope has changed. Instead of a tenacious imperilled heroine at the centre of the drama, this story features a male protagonist. In fact, this novel is different in a number of ways, because it is a highly personal work. Yes, I know, all writing is personal to some degree, but this one really does jab some of my raw nerves in the themes it explores – including the challenges in sibling relationships, parental fears, false guilt, coming of age, and more. In that respect, it is my most “personal” work since Children of the Folded Valley.

The actual plot? Sorry, that remains top secret for now. It’s likely to remain top secret for some time too, as I need the dust to settle on this one, before I return to it with a fresh eye. Although presently a hefty 105,000 words or so, I hope to shave about 10,000 words from that length, deleting a few less essential subplots and/or characters, much like what happened with The Irresistible Summons.

As for what I’ll be writing next, I do have a nifty idea for a fantasy novel, based on a rather strange dream I had last year. When I shared this dream with a colleague, she said that if I didn’t turn it into a book, she would! At any rate, I hope to begin at least outlining this one soon.

In between planning, I’ll probably pen the odd short spooky story, including one (or possibly two) set during the present pandemic. Watch this space.

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What Makes A Great Fantasy Story?

Here’s a confession: there’s a lot of fantasy fiction I’m not interested in. I simply do not care about elaborate world-building for the sake of it, no matter how imaginative, intricate, or clever. Nor do I care about the history of orcs, elves, dwarfs, werewolves, vampires, their various groups, subgroups, histories, culture, pets, favourite recipes, viewing habits, and so on. I’m not interested in Dungeons and Dragons games, and I couldn’t care less about mana points, or other absurdly complex witch and wizard minutiae.

However, I absolutely love The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, Harry Potter, and certain other key entries in the fantasy canon. What is it that makes these tales stand out where others fail to grab my interest?

A common mistake made by aspiring fantasy writers is they think including elaborate fantasy iconography is enough. It isn’t. Enchanted forests, magical artefacts, dragons, and so on do not by themselves a great story make. I believe the key to a great fantasy story is the same as the key to any great story: an original, incisive, and resonant treatment of a universally relatable theme.

513NXQYJ1VL._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_To take Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as an example, that novel isn’t really about orcs, elves, magic, and so on. It has – among other themes – profound and deep things to say about friendship, growing up, and the melancholia of the end of an era. These themes are universally relatable, which is why people who normally wouldn’t look twice at a fantasy story make an exception for The Lord of the Rings. These themes are explored memorably in many other genres too.

91zAe4EXmjLHis Dark Materials is likewise less concerned with armoured bears, angels, and parallel universes, and more concerned about abuse of power, corruption, and the effect of religious oppression on innocent children. Again, these themes have been explored in other genres, but Philip Pullman’s masterstroke is the creation of the daemon – a kind of spirit animal that represents our innermost being. At its most fundamental level, His Dark Materials is concerned with spirit, soul, and body, ie what makes us human in the first place.

41AF6KHRGML._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In the case of Harry Potter, despite JK Rowling’s masterful and elaborate world-building, the saga isn’t really about magic, witches, and wizards at all. The school story – with its familiar gang of the brainy, the bullying, the brave, and so on – tap into universally relatable themes that remind us of our own school days. Then there’s the coming of age story – again universally relatable. These themes have presented themselves in many genres, not just fantasy.

All of which leads me to conclude that the best fantasy stories – indeed, the best stories in any genre – will contain unique and memorable treatments of familiar themes that everyone can identify with. It really isn’t about how much magic power your particular breed of troll has, and whether it can beat your opponent’s storm demon in a fight.

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