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Books

New Covers: Spectre of Springwell Forest, Phantom Audition, The Irresistible Summons

Three of my gothic mystery horror/thriller novels have recently been unavailable, for tedious legal reasons not worth wringing my hands over in this blog post. However, the good news is they are back, having received a make-over with new covers, courtesy of the brilliant Yasmine Nuoraho.

Here are each of the new covers, with an introduction to each novel, to whet your appetite.

Spectre of Springwell Forest

Exeter, 2010. Lily Parker learns that her daughter Olivia is to move to the village of Springwell, near Plymouth. To the surprise of her husband Andy, this sends Lily into terrified despair. She tells him that Olivia must not move to Springwell, under any circumstances. Andy wants to know why, and Lily tells him what happened to her many decades previously, in 1979, warning him that she has a horrifying secret that she had previously hoped to take with her to the grave.

In 1979, Lily and her then six-year-old daughter Olivia, along with her first husband Tom Henderson, move to the sleepy village of Springwell. Here they meet a tight- lipped community of secretive villagers who seem to have something to hide. Lily discovers a painting of an abandoned railway tunnel in her attic, by a local artist, Alison Merrifield. Lily is strangely drawn to the painting, particularly the dark maw of the tunnel, and ends up hanging the picture in her hallway.

After meeting her neighbour and other mothers dropping their children at the local primary school, Lily is surprised to learn they all have similar paintings in their homes, all of them painted by Alison Merrifield, all of them showing the same abandoned railway tunnel. The other mothers dismiss this as something of a village in-joke, and when Lily visits Alison in her local craft shop, Alison herself insists she cannot understand why the paintings of the abandoned tunnel are so popular. But Lily senses she is being lied to.

Shortly afterwards, when Lily and Olivia go for a walk in the local forest, they come across a fenced off area in the heart of the woods where the barbed wire has been mysteriously torn apart. Investigating further inside the fenced off section, they discover the very same abandoned railway tunnel of the painting and enter the tunnel. A disturbing incident follows (which I won’t spoil).

After this incident, back home, Lily starts to make out a mysterious figure emerging from the railway tunnel in the painting. As time passes, the eerie figure becomes more clearly defined, but Lily is disturbed to discover no-one can see it but her. Worse still, as the sinister figure is revealed, Olivia starts to behave in an increasingly alarming manner.

To pick up your copy of Spectre of Springwell Forest in paperback or ebook click here (in the UK), and here (in the US). Or you can click here, to download the book from Smashwords.

Phantom Audition

Small-time actress Mia Yardley, recently widowed wife of renowned actor Steven Yardley, grieves in his ancestral family home, Elm House, near Plymouth. Her husband’s inexplicable suicide left her in possession of a considerable fortune, but she is unsettled. Her sister-in-law Jemima is openly hostile, and Mia also senses disapproval from hired staff, especially de facto housekeeper Liza. Only Verity, a part-time maid, is friendly to Mia, seeming genuinely sorry about the death of Steven.

Mia discovers Steven’s secret acting diary. It details appointments made with a psychic medium, Etta, who advised Steven on which roles to take. Mia visits Etta to question her over mysterious diary entries that hint at a more supernatural reason for Steven’s demise. Etta rejects such claims, but Mia senses she is hiding something, and explains as much to her best friend Bronwyn, when they go out horse riding. Mia also begins to see manifestations of what she believes to be Steven’s ghost in and around Elm House, and also at a nightclub.

Mia’s therapist tells her the visions of Steven are psychological, not spiritual. But Mia isn’t convinced, and begins an investigation into her husband’s death that gradually becomes an obsession. She uncovers the alarming story behind the last role her husband took, but every answer leads to more questions, opening dangerous doors to a labyrinthine world of terrible secrets. The deeper Mia digs into they mystery, the deeper she disappears inside her own inner darkness, crossing thresholds from which there can be no return.

To pick up your copy of Phantom Audition in paperback or ebook click here (in the UK), and here (in the US). Or you can click here, to download the book from Smashwords.

The Irresistible Summons

Teenager Naomi Levinson laments the death of her boyfriend, Toby Lane. Toby and his entire family perished in a mysterious house fire, which Naomi comes to believe may have been started deliberately.

Several years later, Naomi is now an accomplished television producer making documentaries debunking the supernatural. When a shoot interviewing a possibly possessed killer in prison goes terribly wrong, the production company Naomi works for faces a lawsuit and possible closure.

Offered what could be her last job, Naomi is initially reluctant to take on filming a promotional video for computer game company Persephone. She considers the task beneath her talents. However, after production gets underway at the Persephone office block on London’s Canary Wharf, strange things begin to happen.

One member of staff inexplicably disappears. Ghosts are sighted, one of whom appears to be Toby. This re-opens old emotional wounds for Naomi, bringing back bittersweet memories of her strictly religious messianic Jewish parents, who disapproved of her teenage lover.

A horrifying conspiracy is gradually revealed. Cutting edge technology and ancient evil meet, leading to the discovery of a shocking and terrifying secret – one that could change the nature of life and death as we know it.

To pick up your copy of The Irresistible Summons in paperback or ebook click here (in the UK), and here (in the US). Or you can click here, to download the book from Smashwords.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – The Dissident

The Dissident is a compelling documentary directed by Bryan Fogel examining the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist in exile who wrote for The Washington Post. It is worth looking at all the more, in view of concerns it might be suppressed by interested parties wanting to kowtow to Saudi authorities and those who do business with them, who do not come out of this smelling of roses, to say the very least.

On the 2nd of October 2018, Khashoggi went to the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to procure a document pertaining to his marital status, in order to marry his fiancée, Turkish journalist Hatice Cengiz. He never came out again. The media laid siege to the embassy, demanding to see him, but eventually, the Saudis confirmed he had died on the premises. The brutal details of what turned out to be assassination were later revealed in grisly transcripts by Turkish intelligence, thus in the process revealing the open secret that they routinely bug foreign embassies.

An outspoken critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Khashoggi had left his home country and made contacts with other fellow countrymen in exile; activists and dissidents who were concerned about the concentration of power in the Crown Prince’s hands, regardless of his reforms (including the allowing of concerts and cinema). The documentary examines Khashoggi’s links with these people, especially Omar Abdulaziz, whose social media presence greatly riled Saudi authorities.

Whilst living as an exile in Canada, in conjunction with Khashoggi, Abdulaziz organised a counterattack on Saudi government-sanctioned Twitter trolls (“the flies”), with his own social media movement (“the bees”). It is here that The Dissident is at its most fascinating, showing the extraordinary online battlegrounds where post-Arab Spring public opinion is shaped, and how revolutionary movements arise and can be quashed accordingly.

Ultimately, Abdulaziz was threatened by Saudi government figures, who imprisoned friends and family members as a result of his actions. The aftermath of Khashoggi’s death left him in fear for his life, but he is still determined to speak out. So is Hatice Cengiz, whose quiet dignity and refusal to be silenced regarding what happened to her fiancée is powerful and moving. The relationship between Khashoggi and Cengiz appears to have been respectful and sincere.

As for Khashoggi himself, he comes across as an amiable, humble, good-humoured man, who believed in the integrity of good, objective journalism. If the documentary has a fault, it is that Trump is too easy as a target for anger in his refusal to condemn or sanction the Saudis. After all, Biden has done no such thing either and it is difficult to imagine any other US President taking a stand when about fifty percent of the world’s oil is involved. I also couldn’t quite swallow the portrayal of Jeff Bezos as one of the good guys, even in a case as cut and dried as this (as with Khashoggi and Abdulaziz, Bezo’s phone was hacked by the notorious Pegasus technology, apparently sold to the Saudis by Israel).

Still, The Dissident correctly stirs up anger against a state that essentially calculated they could get away with murder, to silence someone whose opinions they found an irritation. At first, I was incredulous at their audacity, and couldn’t help comparing Mohammed bin Salman to Putin, who has been far more discreet at distancing himself from the ruthless extinguishing of political enemies. However, given that anger at the Saudis from the rest of the world appears to be impotent fury, in the face of an oil stranglehold, perhaps Mohammed bin Salman simply doesn’t need to exercise the same levels of Machiavellian deniability.

UK Certificate: 12A

US Certificate: PG-13

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Minari

The American Dream has been explored many times on film before, and from many angles. Oscar-nominated Minari, from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung, is partly informed by the filmmaker’s own experience as a Korean US immigrant, growing up in Reagan’s America. It is this layer of authenticity that raises the film well above-average into a quietly affecting drama that gradually gets under the skin in a subtle and immersive way.

The plot concerns a Korean family relocating from California to Arkansas. Jacob (Steven Yeun) dreams of having his own farm where he grows and sells Korean vegetables. His wife Monica (Yeri Han) is reluctant, and from the very start, the cracks in their marriage are visible. They are accompanied by two children, Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S Kim), the latter of whom has a weak heart. David is further irritated by the arrival of his grandmother on his mother’s side Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), whom he at first dislikes, claiming she isn’t a proper grandmother because she doesn’t bake cookies, swears, and “smells like Korea”.

However, Soonja gradually wins David over, and their evolving relationship proves one of the most touching parts of the narrative. The complications of the main plot involve Jacob struggling to juggle farming with a dead-end job separating male and female baby chicks. As Jacob tells David, the males are discarded for not being useful – an ominous metaphor. The family faces many setbacks, including lack of water, money, and in Jacob and Monica’s case, a crumbling marriage. One particularly poignant scene features Anne and David throwing paper planes with “Don’t Fight” written on them, into the midst of one of their parents’ particularly heated arguments.

That said, the film eschews melodrama and sentimentality, and develops at an admirably unhurried pace. Introduced into this mix are a number of key supporting characters, including Paul (Will Patton), a quirky but kindly evangelical Christian, whose peculiarities including impromptu exorcisms and carrying a wooden cross on Sundays. I should add that the performances are uniformly excellent.

Chung infuses his film with a dreamlike, magical-realist quality, aided by Emile Mosseri’s evocative score. I wish I’d been able to see this in the cinema, where it could have weaved its spell with greater power, but Minari is still a very fine piece of work, and one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. Incidentally, the title refers to an edible Korean plant, which Soonja encourages the family to plant near a creek. It acts as a metaphor for the family themselves, and whether they can flourish in a difficult environment.

UK Certificate: 12A

US Certificate: PG-13

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Books

New Short Story: Spinner

Photo by Claudia Soraya on Unsplash

Spinner is a new short story by yours truly, available for your reading pleasure in Illumination, a publication on Medium. It concerns a young woman trapped in an abusive relationship during lockdown, who investigates a malevolent supernatural force in her basement. Yes, I’m back in horror mode here, so proceed at your own risk. Gripping, disturbing, spine-tingling terrors are most certainly involved.

Click here for Part One.

Click here for Part Two.

Click here for Part Three.

Click here for Part Four.

I hope you enjoy it.

Categories
Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Moxie

Moxie is a variation on the high school movie that tackles issues of sexism, sexual assault, double standards, and more. It’s a product of #MeToo times, with themes universally applicable to schools, workplaces, the film industry, and so on, but I couldn’t help wondering if some of the story was inspired by the notorious Brock Turner case. Whatever the genesis, director Amy Poehler’s film is engaging and satisfying for the most part.

The plot concerns Vivan (Hadley Robinson) and Claudia (Lauren Tsai), best friends who plan to sail through high school under-the-radar, avoiding the silly cliques with an eye on scientific college courses. They have become numb to the harassment of arrogant popular sports jock Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), and the sexist culture which turns a blind eye to everything from inappropriate sexualising social media posts that rank pupils, to the bullying of new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena). However, Lucy isn’t going to take this lying down and makes that much clear to Vivian.

She complains to the apathetic school principal (Marcia Gay Harden), who essentially tells her to suck it up and kowtow to the internalised misogyny inherent within the school. Seeing this, and inspired by her mother’s feminist protest past, Vivian devises a mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore protest newsletter entitled Moxie, which she anonymously distributes among the school. Waves of controversy ensue, as the girls (and some of the boys) begin to take a stand. But the film also finds time for the usual romantic subplots, house parties, best-friend fallouts, parental rows, and so forth that tick the genre boxes.

Working from a screenplay by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer (adapting Jennifer Mathieu’s source novel), Poehler’s direction is unshowy, allowing the strong performances of the leads to dominate. Alycia Pascual-Pena is particularly good, and part of me wishes the film had centred on her. There are a few good supporting roles, including Poehler herself, as Vivan’s mother, and an underused Ike Barinholtz as an amusingly flustered but well-meaning English teacher.

Despite being enjoyable overall, a couple of moments veer into sanctimonious virtue-signalling of a kind that slightly irritates me (I eye-rolled at a couple of heavy-handed, irrelevant dairy-is-bad-for-you and is-this-culturally-sensitive clichés). The third act is also rather heavy-handed in this respect and lurches dangerously close to out-and-out preachy. This is a shame, as the film is highlighting issues of legitimate concern, and up to that point had done so in an entertaining way.

That said, Moxie is still worth a watch. If nothing else, it demonstrates emphatically and convincingly the difference between “annoying” and “dangerous” when it comes to sexist bullying behaviour in schools, and the importance of not letting it fester, but tackling it head-on.

UK Certificate: 12A

US Certificate: PG-13

Categories
Books

New Cover: Spectre of Springwell Forest

For complicated legal reasons I won’t bore you with, three of my gothic mystery novels, Spectre of Springwell Forest, The Irresistible Summons, and Phantom Audition, have been unavailable for the last three months. However, the good news is they are due for re-release this April, with new covers.

Here is one of the new covers, for Spectre of Springwell Forest.

All three of the new covers were designed by the excellent Yasmine Nuoraho. In this case, she prepared a splendidly unnerving image of the abandoned railway tunnel described in the novel. If you can make out something emerging from the tunnel, then… Well, read on and you’ll understand why you might want to be a little concerned.

The novel opens in Exeter, 2010. Lily Parker learns that her daughter Olivia is to move to the village of Springwell, near Plymouth. To the surprise of her husband Andy, this sends Lily into terrified despair. She tells him that Olivia must not move to Springwell, under any circumstances. Andy wants to know why, and Lily tells him what happened to her many decades previously, in 1979, warning him that she has a horrifying secret that she had previously hoped to take with her to the grave.

In 1979, Lily and her then six-year-old daughter Olivia, along with her first husband Tom Henderson, move to the sleepy village of Springwell. Here they meet a tight- lipped community of secretive villagers who seem to have something to hide. Lily discovers a painting of an abandoned railway tunnel in her attic, by a local artist, Alison Merrifield. Lily is strangely drawn to the painting, particularly the dark maw of the tunnel, and ends up hanging the picture in her hallway.

After meeting her neighbour and other mothers dropping their children at the local primary school, Lily is surprised to learn they all have similar paintings in their homes, all of them painted by Alison Merrifield, all of them showing the same abandoned railway tunnel. The other mothers dismiss this as something of a village in-joke, and when Lily visits Alison in her local craft shop, Alison herself insists she cannot understand why the paintings of the abandoned tunnel are so popular. But Lily senses she is being lied to.

Shortly afterwards, when Lily and Olivia go for a walk in the local forest, they come across a fenced off area in the heart of the woods where the barbed wire has been mysteriously torn apart. Investigating further inside the fenced off section, they discover the very same abandoned railway tunnel of the painting and enter the tunnel. A disturbing incident follows (which I won’t spoil).

After this incident, back home, Lily starts to make out a mysterious figure emerging from the railway tunnel in the painting. As time passes, the eerie figure becomes more clearly defined, but Lily is disturbed to discover no-one can see it but her. Worse still, as the sinister figure is revealed, Olivia starts to behave in an increasingly alarming manner.

Intrigued? You’ll be able to pick up the new edition of Spectre of Springwell Forest from Amazon and Smashwords very soon. Watch this space.

Categories
Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Wolfwalkers

I recently caught up with Wolfwalkers, having managed to miss it at the cinema last year. Very foolishly, as it turns out, since Wolfwalkers is an achingly beautiful gem, shot through with mystery, magic, and wonder.

Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has had an extraordinary run, with The Book of Kells, Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner, and now this. However, their output is not typically found in the same breath as those who avidly praise the likes of Pixar or Studio Ghibli. Perhaps the recent Oscar nomination for Wolfwalkers will change this. At any rate, the film deserves a much bigger audience.

A mystical tale delving deep into Irish folklore, the plot takes place in the 1600s, during the Irish Civil War. Robyn is a spirited young girl, apprentice to her father; a hunter hired by the Lord Protector (ie Oliver Cromwell in all but name) to help wipe out the last wolves in Ireland. But when Robyn befriends a mysterious girl called Mebh with the ability to transform into a wolf by night, things get complicated.

Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart oversee the extraordinary animation, which echoes classic sumptuous storybook art. The evocative hand-drawn visuals are both phenomenally detailed and at times thrillingly spare, especially during charcoal rendered sequences from wolf point-of-view. Forests, cityscapes, and dreamscapes are superbly realised with eye-popping beauty.

Undercurrents of environmental concerns, colonial oppression, hypocritical Puritanism, and the clash of the Pagan and Christian all inform the storytelling. However, at its heart, Wolfwalkers is a simple, touching tale of friendship, fatherhood, and love. I’ve never cared for Oliver Cromwell, and having him as a villain here, in a slightly mythical digression from history, gets my full approval (although Cromwell did in fact lay siege to Kilkenny and oppress the people there). On top of that, there are some great vocal performances from Honor Kneafsey and Eva Whittaker as Robyn and Mebh respectively, as well as Sean Bean as Robyn’s father. Bean in particular tugs at the heartstrings, torn between duty and love for his daughter.

In short, Wolfwalkers is a highly recommended visual delight for young and old alike.

UK Certificate: PG

US Certificate: PG

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Books

Writing Update

With 2021 well underway, here’s an update on my various writing endeavours.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

Firstly, and most importantly, I’m now ten chapters (about 40,000 words) into writing my latest novel; a sequel to a still unreleased contemporary children’s horror/dark fairy tale I wrote in 2014, entitled The Faerie Gate. The new novel is yet to be titled, but it wasn’t originally conceived as a sequel. During the planning stages, I realised the narrative dovetailed perfectly in the universe of The Faerie Gate. It is set several decades later (in our future), and is a much bigger, more epic story. In fact, it could even end up being two or even three volumes, which means The Faerie Gate will be to the new story to what The Hobbit is to The Lord of the Rings. It’s a hugely ambitious undertaking, which I’ll keep chipping away at throughout this year, and probably beyond.

My most recent novel Peaceful Quiet Lives continues to bring in good reviews, and this post contains links to various articles exploring the novel from lots of perspectives.

This April, my currently unavailable gothic mystery horror/thrillers Spectre of Springwell Forest, The Irresistible Summons, and Phantom Audition are due for re-release with all new covers. More information on that next week.

I’ve also written a new short story, entitled Trial Period. It’s an unusual piece that takes a satirical look at being made redundant, and the peculiarities of the modern job market. It evolves into a tale of odd-couple mentorship and friendship between the protagonist – a white, middle-aged former publishing professional – and his co-worker, a young black woman with untapped literary talent. Whilst working for the marketing department of a herbal remedy company, they eventually discover a sinister conspiracy.

Trial Period might be published on Medium at some point in the future. Speaking of which, I’m now very active on that platform, contributing to publications including Frame Rated, Cinemania, The Writing Cooperative, Writer’s Blokke, and Illumination. I’ve also had an article published in the Guardian earlier this year, so all things considered, not a bad start to 2021.

Categories
Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Last night I finally caught up with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix. Adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, from the stage play by August Wilson, and directed by George C Wolfe, the film features hugely impressive central performances from Viola Davis and the Chadwick Boseman. I suspect the latter will win a posthumous Oscar for his role here, as an ambitious blues trumpeter, circa 1927.

Said trumpeter, Levee, joins a group of session musicians for a recording of songs by the famous Ma Rainey. Before Rainey arrives at the studio, the band members banter together, establishing an entertaining rapport between seasoned veterans Toledo (Glynn Turman), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), Cutler (Colman Domingo), and the younger Levee. Once Rainey turns up, tensions rise between her and her stressed-out white manager, who tries to talk her out of what he considers unreasonable demands. However, Rainey is far from a straightforward diva, and as the drama unfolds, we discover the reasoning behind her behaviour.

It must be said that the film does feel very stagey, which is perhaps inevitable. One or two asides are a bit forced (albeit powerful in and of themselves). However, on the whole, the film is an absorbing drama that is well worth watching.

Whilst the plot is largely fiction, Ma Rainey was one of the first African Americans blues singers to be professionally recorded. In addition, the film offers insight into the way black music has often been appropriated and rerecorded by white singers, not to mention sobering reminders of the racism faced by those concerned. An early scene features Ma Rainey in a dispute with a white police officer, ignorant of her professional status, who insists she prove she owns her car. The band members prefer to be paid in cash because getting cheques cashed again involves a rigmarole of proof that they aren’t committing fraud. Such scenes are uncomfortable to watch, knowing that in truth, things haven’t progressed as much as we would like to think.

But it is Boseman’s performance that lingers in the memory. Two pivotal monologues, in which he rails against God, may chew the scenery to within an inch of its life, but they are stunningly dramatic and powerfully moving. That it is Boseman’s final performance is desperately sad, as it is also his greatest.

UK Certificate: 15

US Certificate: R

Content warnings: Strong language.

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Books Films

Medium Update

Here are some articles from yours truly in various publications on Medium that you might have missed. Check them out by following the links below. Please “clap” generously by clicking your mouse on the “clap” icon, as that is a huge help to me, trying to get the Algorithmic Overlords to distribute my work further. (You can “clap” up to fifty times, according to how much you like the article. If you don’t like it, I’m afraid there isn’t a “boo” icon.)

In Frame Rated

Why the Book Isn’t Always Better than the Film

In adaptation, faithfulness to the source can be a good or bad thing… and so can radical reinvention.

In The Writing Cooperative

Writing Major Plot Twists

How to conceive and execute electrifying narrative reveals.

When to Write Ambiguous Endings

A story open to interpretation may enrage but it can also engage.

Being Formulaic Isn’t the Same as Being Predictable

Plus other tips on writing a successful fiction series.

In Illumination

Why the Best Tragedies Are Funny

Comedic counterpoint is a vital tool for crafting convincing tales of sorrow and loss

In Cinemania

Why Are Horror Films Scarier at Home?

The masochistic pleasure of movie terrors in your personal living space.

Ten Great Marriages in Film

A celebration of loving, supportive, movie marital partners.

My Favourite Films of 1991: 30 Years On

How do my choices, made when I was sixteen, hold up today?

DISCLAIMER: The Writing Cooperative insist I use “US English”. Fellow Brits, please don’t hold it against me.