BIG NEWS: The Spectre of Springwell Forest to be published by Dragon Soul Press

I am very pleased to announce my next novel, The Spectre of Springwell Forest, is to be published by Dragon Soul Press this December.

Spectre of Springwell Forest sinister wood - for blog headerNeedless to say, I am utterly thrilled at this news. Having a traditional publisher has been a wonderful, eye-opening experience, and I am very excited to see where things go from here. My previous novels have all been self-published with varying degrees of success, but it is wonderful to now have talented publishing professionals working alongside me.

The Spectre of Springwell Forest is a mysterious, ghostly, gothic nail-biter. The story involves a young mother who is strangely drawn to a sinister painting of an abandoned railway tunnel. If you enjoyed my previous novels The Birds Began to Sing or The Thistlewood Curse, you’ll definitely enjoy this one too.

In the meantime, don’t forget I also have my short story Once in a Lifetime coming soon, as part of the All Dark Places horror anthology, also published by Dragon Soul Press.

All Dark Places is released on the 30th of October.

The Spectre of Springwell Forest is released on the 20th of December.

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Film Review – A Star is Born

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There are now four versions of A Star is Born and all of them are good. That isn’t something you can say about many oft-remade films. The closest competitor would be Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the 1956, 1978 and 1993 versions are all good, with only the 2007 version letting the side down). However, this new A Star is Born rivals the 1954 classic, which I don’t say lightly. Bradley Cooper takes his cue from this version and the 1976 take, rather than the somewhat different 1937 not-entirely-original (that itself is a sort-of remake of a less successful 1932 film What Price Hollywood).

Familiarity with any previous version is not required. For Bradley Cooper, this take on A Star is Born is something of a labour of love, and it shows in every frame of his immersive direction. The film opens with rock/country star Jackson Maine (Cooper) popping pills and downing booze as he goes on stage, immediately indicating where his character is headed. However, when he later happens to see Ally (Lady Gaga) perform at a drag queen bar, he recognises her diamond-in-the-rough potential. He helps launch her career, they become lovers, but as she rises, he falls.

Both leads are brilliant. Bradley Cooper is completely convincing as a professional musician past his peak, whilst Lady Gaga is equally superb playing someone initially nervous and awkward, despite her obvious real-life talent as a consummate performer. Needless to say, when Lady Gaga lets rip musically, the film becomes absolutely electrifying. There are some great new songs here, as well as some mild but clever satire on the current pop scene (to Jackson’s chagrin, Ally’s producer tries to mould her into something more bland and marketable, even though it is clear she has so much more to offer).

It’s a nigh-on bulletproof story, and one which actually lends itself very well to a remake every so often. In this case, Cooper puts a fresh spin on the latter section, with Jackson’s downfall being less about bitterness and jealousy, and more about a lifetime of emotional trauma and addiction. The latter subject is treated compassionately and humanely, with Ally’s unconditional, sacrificial love in the face of Cooper’s drunken antics proving particularly moving.

Such brilliant lead performances are sure to end up Oscar nominated. In fact, I expect A Star is Born to have multiple nominations come awards season, as this is unquestionably one of the best films of the year. I suppose I should add a warning about swearing, sexual content and drug abuse for those who appreciate such things, but nonetheless this is a film that I highly recommend. Do go and see it.

Simon Dillon, October 2018.

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Doctor Who: Brief thoughts on the first episode featuring Jodie Whitaker

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In some quarters, the decision to make the latest incarnation of the Doctor female raised eyebrows (and I made my own plea for sane, objective evaluation here). For me, so far I think the gender switch works – at least, judging by episode 1 of the new series, The Woman who fell to Earth.

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

It’s a decent enough opener, featuring the usual reincarnation confusion, a clutch of new companions, a couple of nasty aliens, an eventual costume change, and a neat cliffhanger. The only thing we were cruelly denied was the iconic title sequence, presumably being saved for episode 2 onward, in the one break from tradition I really didn’t like. However, I will give kudos to new series producer Chris Chibnall for echoing the very first 1963 episode, An Unearthly Child, in the way the three companions end up accidentally stuck with the Doctor.

Let’s hope the rest of the series builds from this point and delivers a few classics to rival (relatively) recent stand-out episodes such as Blink, The Waters of Mars, The Empty Child, Silence in the Library, Human Nature, The Pandorica Opens, The Impossible Astronaut and The Day of the Doctor.

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New Stories from Old Worlds

Dragon Soul Press, who are publishing my short story Once in a Lifetime in their upcoming horror anthology All Dark Places, also have an anthology coming out soon (on the 20th of October to be precise) based around characters and places from Alice in Wonderland, entitled Chasing White Rabbits. This famous world Lewis Carroll created is now out of copyright, hence the collection.

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I considered submitting to this anthology, but declined, as I generally prefer to write my own characters. I’m sure those involved will do excellent work.

The tradition of exploring curious corners of classic literature has yielded a few classics in their own right. Examples include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s brilliantly absurd, existential tragicomic take on two minor characters from Hamlet, and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which puts a very different spin on Bertha Rochester, the mad-woman-in-the-attic from Jane Eyre.

 

Other writers have penned new James Bond or Sherlock Holmes stories, with greater or lesser degrees of success. Then there’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Is there any existing fictional world that could tempt me? Well, there is one exception. If you asked me to write an episode of Doctor Who, I would definitely say yes.

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Film Review – Venom

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Reviews for Venom have been quite poor, to say the least. Is it that bad? Well… yes, and no. As a film, Venom is a mess – unevenly paced, illogically plotted and tonally all over the place. However, I confess I found it quite entertaining nonetheless.

A spin-off from the Spider-man Universe, Venom concerns San Francisco reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), who loses his job, flat, and fiancée after investigating rich and influential scientist Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Drake’s rockets have brought dangerous alien symbiotes to Earth. Convinced these symbiotes provide the keys to mankind’s survival in the face of ecological disaster, Drake undertakes unethical experiments with said symbiotes, resulting in ill-advised human trials. Through a series of unnecessarily convoluted plot contrivances, Brock ends up exposed to one of the symbiotes, resulting in a sort-of wisecracking extra-terrestrial possession that gives him immense powers, transforming him into alter-ego Venom.

By the time the film gets to this point (and really that takes far too long), things get more enjoyable, and there are a number of funny and exciting set pieces. The script doesn’t make a lick of sense, but Tom Hardy gives it his all, as does Michelle Williams playing his ex-girlfriend. Riz Ahmed does his best too, but as a villain he isn’t particularly memorable. Some of the visual effects look rather dodgy too.

Still, in the end, Venom isn’t as bad as critics have claimed. I certainly don’t defend it as a good, coherent piece of filmmaking. Amongst other things, it is shot through with plot holes. That said, director Ruben Fleischer makes it something of a guilty pleasure, and as such I can’t bring myself to dislike it.

As a footnote, although rated PG-13 in the US, the film was considered violent and horrific enough to get a 15 certificate in the UK. Personally I think that’s an overreaction, so if you have superhero movie obsessed children above, say, the age of about 9 or 10, I recommend sneaking them in regardless.

Simon Dillon, October 2018.

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Film Review – The Little Stranger

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The Little Stranger, adapted by a novel from Sarah Waters, and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, is a moody gothic mystery, emphasising the psychological drama rather than horror aspects of the source material. In fact, mismarketing in the US caused many to think of this as a big, jump-scare filled ghost story, when in fact the haunting depicted here is far more low-key.

The plot concerns Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), who as a child was obsessed with Hundreds Hall, a mansion inhabited by the Ayres family for more than two centuries. However, post-World War II, Hundreds Hall is in decline, crumbling like the increasingly impoverished Ayres family. Faraday is summoned by Mrs Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) to visit her son Roderick (Will Poulter), who was disfigured in the war. Roderick tells Faraday he is convinced something malevolent lurks within the house. Faraday is initially sceptical, saying there are natural explanations. But as he becomes closer to Roderick’s sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson), Faraday begins to exhibit a darker, more obsessive side.

Performances are very good, especially from Domhnall Gleeson whose character subtly turns from awkward but essentially kindly bachelor doctor, to something darker. Ruth Wilson matches him, brilliantly portraying a lonely, depressed, slightly eccentric, sexually repressed character. Poulter and Rampling are also very good indeed.

Abrahamson creates a very deliberate, slow-burn atmosphere that oozes with unease. The deliberately ambiguous mystery is perhaps less ambiguous in the finale, and yet there is still plenty of wriggle room for different interpretations. The irony inherent in the finale can be appreciated on multiple levels, and there is a definite be-careful-what-you-wish-for undercurrent.

Despite being too slow and downbeat for some tastes, The Little Stranger lodges itself in the memory, and is well worth a watch for anyone who enjoys this kind of thing.

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The Lord of the Rings: book versus film

As a preface to this article, let me first make clear that I love Peter Jackson’s films of The Lord of the Rings. They are every bit as thrilling as the original Star Wars trilogy and are rightly considered cinema classics.

However…

I confess I get frustrated by those who have seen the films but refuse to read Tolkien’s novel. There is so much more depth to be appreciated in the book – depth that could only be hinted at in the films, and a depth that enables one to appreciate the films more. Many omissions and differences exist between book and film, almost all of them made with good reason. However, here then are just ten differences that illustrate why reading The Lord of the Rings is an essential exercise, preferably before seeing the films (SPOILERS AHEAD, obviously).

Fatty Bulger, Tom Bombadil, Goldberry, the Old Forest and the Barrow Wights – The hobbit Fredegar “Fatty” Bulger is omitted from Jackson’s films, for reasons of narrative redundancy. However, losing him and Frodo’s fake move to Buckland also leads to the loss of a more significant section of the book, namely the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, Goldberry and the Barrow Wights – an interval of several chapters between pursuits by Black Riders. Although the surreal nature of this section makes it an understandable cut for Jackson to make for film purposes, it is wonderful to read. The enigmatic Bombadil is the only character in the story entirely unaffected by the power of the Ring, and his mastery over the trees of the Old Forest (think bad Ents) and the evil spirits known as the Barrow Wights suggest an almost godlike origin. His wife Goldberry is equally mysterious. By the way, one of the daggers that Pippin and Merry get from the Barrow Wights are eventually partly responsible for the slaying of the Captain of the Ringwraiths, because of the spells cast on those blades when they were used in the fight against the Witch King of Angmar hundreds of years previously. Again, the film changes where Merry and Pippin get these daggers (from Galadriel) but it is great reading this background detail in the book.

Glorfindel – In the films, the Elves of Rivendell send Arwen to help bring Frodo safely across the Ford to evade the Black Riders. In the books, the character of Arwen is absent, although the mysterious and powerful Glorfindel appears instead at the last minute. Again, this is an understandable change, as it introduces Arwen in a more meaningful way appropriate to the film, considering Jackson opted to reintegrate her love story with Aragorn into the main narrative (in the novels it is relegated to the appendixes). However, the version of the story in the book works better for that medium, since Frodo’s collapse into the shadow world (due to Morgul blade poison) is isolating and genuinely frightening, especially the way the Black Riders communicate with him, urging him to give in.

The Hall of Fire – In Elrond’s house in Rivendell, the Hall of Fire is a magical place where stories are told in music and verse that seem to magically transport the listeners into the time and place of the narrative. It could have made for an extraordinary, hallucinatory sequence in the films, but the director would need to be someone like Terrence Malick rather than Peter Jackson.

Faramir – Boromir’s brother Faramir is handled very differently in the book. He doesn’t at first try and take Frodo and the Ring back to Gondor, but instead lets Frodo go on his way without a diversion to Osgiliath, once he is satisfied it is in his interests to do so. The version of Faramir in the films works equally well, but only in the extended cut which includes a key flashback that explains why his actions are different to those found in the novel.

Beregond, Bergil, Prince Imrahil, Ghan-Buri-Ghan and other allies omitted from the Battle of Minis-Tirith – Jackson rightly removed certain peripheral groups and characters from this sequence purely to streamline and avoid confusion. However, the book gives a much broader explanation of the provinces and dominions in and around Gondor that are affected by the invasions of Sauron. On a related note, whilst Jackson creates thrilling, eye-popping battle scenes, reading Tolkien’s prose is a more profound experience, as it is abundantly clear that the book has been written by someone who has seen the horrors of war first hand (Tolkien served in the British Army in the First World War).

The Palantir in Minis-Tirith – This is a major omission, and quite honestly one that Peter Jackson should have included. Denethor goes mad, but the reason he goes mad is because he has a Palantir. He unwisely uses it to try and see into Mordor, but the Dark Lord Sauron, being aware of him, manipulates Denethor by only allowing him to see things that will make him despair (such as his vast armies). This sends Denethor mad. The film only hints at this (“Do you think the eyes of the White Tower are blind?”) when really Jackson should have properly shown it.

The Structure – In the books, the novels are structured in an audacious way that allows the reader to really feel the despair before the battle at the Black Gate, because at that stage the last the reader heard of Frodo was his capture by the orcs following the horrifying encounter with Shelob. The Mouth of Sauron character (only present in the extended cut of the film) reveals to Gandalf, Aragorn, et al that he has Frodo’s mithril shirt, thus leading them to assume (falsely) that Frodo has been captured and killed, that Sauron has the Ring, and all is lost. However, in the film, we know this isn’t the case because the story cuts back and forth between the Frodo/Sam plot and the rest of the characters, making the scene dramatically redundant, hence why Jackson removed it from the version seen in cinemas.

Many Partings – Following the destruction of the Ring, the novel takes its time to wind down, saying goodbye to many characters that we have come to know and love, all of whom we will sorely miss. Jackson can’t do this properly, as film is the wrong medium for such indulgence (even what he did was considered overlong by some critics) but the page is the perfect place to do this. There are many melancholy sections of prose filled with vivid images, such as Aragon watching the hobbits depart, holding up the green gem, and the light of the sunset shining through it like a green fire. Or this moment, when Gimli laments their departure, which always brings a tear to my eye: “We will send word when we may, and some of us may yet meet at times; but I fear that we shall not all be gathered together ever again.”

The Scouring of the Shire – One of the main themes in the novel is that of growing up. When the hobbits return to the Shire, they are warned by Gandalf that they might not find things as they left them, but that they won’t need his help as they are now more than up to the task of dealing with the trouble they will find. Sure enough, Saruman has escaped from Isengard and wreaked havoc, and they end up having to confront his mischief, ending with the death of Saruman himself, right at the front door of Bag End. This is a significant difference from the films, as they placed Saruman’s demise (by the same hand) at the beginning of the third film, only in the extended cut. This change makes sense in the film, as having an addition confrontation and mini battle in the Shire following the destruction of the Ring and the crowning of Aragorn would have been episodic and anti-climactic. Nonetheless, in the novel this is one of my favourite moments – one that underlines the bitter cost of war and the pain of coming home to a world that has changed forever.

The Broken Power of the Three Rings – One thing the films fail to adequately convey is the tragic plight of the Elves. Either outcome of the War of the Ring is a loss for them. If Sauron wins, everyone is enslaved, and the world is covered in darkness. However, if the Ring is destroyed, the power of the three Elven rings is broken, thus undoing their magic, ending their power and leading to the departure of the Elves from Middle-Earth, paving the way for the dominion of men. It is equally clear in the books, but not in the films, that all Ring-bearers are doomed to this fate, which is why Frodo has to leave. Indeed, there are vivid moments in the final stages of the novel where Frodo is feverish, clinging to the white gem Arwen gave him as a kind of methadone to the Ring’s heroin. It is clear long before his departure at the Grey Havens that like the Elves, Frodo will not be able to stay in Middle-Earth, making his final departure all the more tear-jerking (much more so on the page than in film, in my view).

In conclusion, if you’ve only seen The Lord of the Rings but not read the books, I can only urge you in the strongest possible terms to do so.

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All Dark Places cover reveal

Here is the cover for All Dark Places – the upcoming horror anthology from Dragon Soul Press. It was designed by the fabulous Ruxandra Tudorica at Methyss Art.

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I have a short story entitled Once in a Lifetime in this collection. A psychological horror story dripping with existential dread, it is based on a particularly alarming (and surprisingly well-plotted) nightmare I had earlier this year. It is also partly inspired by some of the lyrics in Talking Heads classic 1981 single of the same name.

This is the first piece of writing I have not self-published, and it has been tremendous to see this whole project come together, under the brilliant editorial control of Jade Feldman.

I hope to interview the other hugely talented authors (A.M. Cummins, Anna Sinjin and Hui Lang) who contributed to this volume on this blog soon. Also there will be updates on launch events, in the run up to the official release.

All Dark Places is released on the 30th October.

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My take on The Book of Dust

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I’ve recently finished reading Philip Pullman’s latest novel The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage. Described as an “equel” to Pullman’s astonishing His Dark Materials trilogy, this novel is set before those events, with the next two volumes supposedly taking place afterwards.

The His Dark Materials trilogy is justly celebrated, including here on this blog. An extraordinary feat of fantasy storytelling, I consider it an imaginative triumph on a par with The Lord of the Rings. Yet this new novel… Well, I have to be honest and say I found it a lesser offering.

The plot concerns how Malcolm, a landlord’s eleven year old son, becomes involved in protecting the heroine of the original novels whilst she was a baby, inside the parallel universe where human souls (called daemons) manifest as animals outside their owner’s body. Certain characters from the original stories – including Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter – make an appearance along the way.

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Pullman’s writing is atmospheric and vivid, and since I was brought up in Oxford and the surrounding areas, I love reading about places I am very familiar with (even if they are counterparts in a parallel reality). However, the story itself lacks the immediate vicelike grip of the originals. It take a while to get going, and one never quite gets the same sense of outrage at the villains of the story, despite flashes of that old Pullman anger at corrupt organised religion (the horrible St Alexander group for instance). Things perk up in the second half, once the flood hits, and Malcolm and his rather belligerent co-worker Alice have to escape with baby Lyra in the eponymous La Belle Sauvage, the boat of the title. Here there are intermittently exciting vignettes as they are pursued by a murderous sexual predator called Bonneville. Strangely this brought to mind not previous His Dark Materials stories but Charles Laughton’s classic film The Night of the Hunter.

Perhaps this cannot be fully judged until the remaining two volumes are released, but I must confess, I didn’t find La Belle Sauvage to be anything like as essential as the His Dark Materials trilogy. Perhaps time will prove me wrong, but that was my initial reaction at least.

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Film Review – Crazy Rich Asians

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Crazy Rich Asians is little more than a Singapore based variation on Cinderella, replete with additional variations on romantic comedy tropes. However, although it is not the groundbreaking genre giant some have claimed, it is frothy, fun and diverting, and goes to one or two unexpected places.

Based on the novel by Kevin Kwan, the central couple in the story are Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Nick Young (Henry Golding). They’ve been living in New York in a relationship for a year, when Nick decides it is time to take Rachel to meet his mother. What Rachel doesn’t realise is that Nick is heir to a vast fortune and practically considered royalty in Singapore. Furthermore his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is a lot more than merely disapproving of the relationship.

This conflict between mother and potential daughter-in-law forms the central strand of the drama, but there are some good laughs along the way with side characters, including Rachel’s best friend Ah Ma (Lisa Liu) and the obligatory gay fashion expert Oliver T’sien (Nico Santos). Performances are winning and its well directed by Jon M Chu, who makes the film a colourful, vibrant experience with lavish houses, cars, wardrobes and some very tasty looking food on display too. However, this cleverly sidesteps the Sex and the City pitfall of revelling in what Mark Kermode notoriously called “consumerist pornography” by providing a sense of incredulity about the superficiality of the many crazy rich Asians on display here. For all its fantastical fairy tale gloss, the film definitely has its heart in the right place, occasionally dipping a refreshingly humane toe into more serious subjects like marital infidelity and single parents escaping an abusive partner. Best of all, the demonstration of true love as an act of sacrifice provides an almost Christian undertone at one point, which is fitting given that for all her sharp edges, Eleanor is portrayed as a Christian.

All of that makes the film sound terribly deep. It isn’t. Nor is it above criticism. For instance, I found the character of Nick a tad too-good-to-be-true, and there are a few clunky moments in the early stages. However, rest assured, all romantic comedy boxes are ticked, up to and including the inevitable but crowd-pleasing finale (which reminded me a little of Crocodile Dundee). I don’t think Crazy Rich Asians will ever make my list of greatest romantic comedies of all time, but it would certainly make a list of those that are above average.

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