Phantom Audition is out tomorrow

My new novel Phantom Audition is out tomorrow! Paperbacks are already available, but Kindle versions can be pre-ordered here.

PHANTOM AUDITIONA gripping, gothic nail-biter, Phantom Audition oozes with mystery and suspense, and has already had some terrific reviews.

If you enjoyed any of my previous supernatural/psychological thrillers, you’ll love this one. Conversely, if you were put off my previous novels Spectre of Springwell Forest or The Irresistible Summons because of the “horror” label, you’re on much safer ground here. This one has plenty of suspense, but it isn’t really scary. For more details on scariness levels in my “Spooky Quintet”, click here.

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Film Review – The Irishman

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Here’s a blast of pure hyperbole: Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Irishman is a triumphant return to the territory he made famous, and one of the best films he has ever made.

Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses (a euphemism for blood splattering on walls), this is the fact based tale of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a Teamster driver who was befriended mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) in the 1950s. Gradually Sheeran is drawn into organised crime, eventually becoming a contract killer. He is then seconded to look after union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and the two become close friends. However, when Hoffa ceases playing ball with the mob, Sheeran finds his loyalties challenged.

This is an epic film in every sense of the word, both in scope (it covers a time period of six decades) and running time (three and a half hours, but worth every minute). Scorsese has employed bleeding edge ILM technology to digitally de-age his cast, a trick which works wonders, and indeed caused me to do a double take when it is first employed. But mercifully it isn’t Uncanny Valley distracting. Instead, we are drawn into the rich narrative which mines familiar Scorsese turf. However, this is also unlike anything Scorsese has made in this genre before. It lacks the youthful verve of Mean Streets or the rollercoaster energy of Goodfellas, but instead, this is also a mature, melancholy, elegiac work, and all the better for it.

Performances are all excellent – especially from Pacino, who has never worked with Scorsese before. The supporting cast is great too, with the likes of Harvey Keitel, Jesse Plemons, Stephen Graham, and Anna Paquin turning up in key roles. Steve Zaillian’s screenplay is superb, and provides some hugely memorable dialogue, with one scene (involving an argument about timekeeping and turning up to a meeting incorrectly attired) in the same league as the “Funny how?” moment in Goodfellas.

However, as already stated, this is a very different film to the afore-mentioned gangster classics. On a spiritual level, this is quite a deep and profound work, ultimately concerning the wages of sin, and the appalling toll taken by a life of crime – on Sheeran’s alienated family (particularly his daughter, who fears and shuns him), and on his own conscience. In one sense it reminded me of the Shakespearean conclusion of The Godfather Part II, where Michael Corleone is ultimately isolated by his horrific acts. At any rate, if I’m comparing The Irishman with that stone cold classic, then there’s a good chance this will be regarded in the same way in years to come. My only disappointment is that few people will get to see this in the cinema due to the miniscule release granted by Netflix, when by rights it absolutely deserves a wide, mainstream release (it has a very limited cinema run at the beginning of November). Nonetheless, expect Oscar nominations.

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Phantom Audition is out this week

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My new novel Phantom Audition is officially released this Saturday! Needless to say, I am rather excited.

Also, this week, my publisher, Dragon Soul Press, have organised an online launch party for Phantom Audition on Facebook, on Saturday at 6:30pm UK time (1:30pm Eastern time). Click here at that time to catch me and other talented authors celebrating this new release with games, giveaways, a Q&A, and other fun stuff.

My other hosts include Zoey Xolton and Galina Trefil, both of whom are superb writers, and I highly recommend their work. Zoey opens the party at 6:30pm, and Galina is on at 7:30pm. My “headlining” slot is at 8pm (all UK times).

A gripping, gothic psychological/supernatural mystery, Phantom Audition has plenty of page-turning suspense, but I wish to re-emphasise that I don’t consider it a horror story in the same way as my previous novels Spectre of Springwell Forest or The Irresistible Summons. So if you were put off those because you thought they might be too scary, why not give this one a try?

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

Small-time actress Mia Yardley, recently widowed wife of renowned actor Steven Yardley, discovers her late husband’s secret acting diary.

The diary details appointments made with a psychic medium, who advised Steven on which roles to take. It also raises questions about his mysterious and inexplicable suicide.

Seeking answers, Mia speaks to the medium, but in doing so is drawn into an ever- deepening mystery about what happened to her husband during the final days of his life. Eventually, she is forced to ask the terrible question: was Steven Yardley murdered by a vengeful evil from beyond the grave?

Phantom Audition is published by Dragon Soul Press, and is out on the 19th of October. Paperbacks are already available, but Kindle versions can be pre-ordered here.

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First Love: Papercut continues to get rave reviews

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Last February, I had a short story published as part of Dragon Soul Press’s First Love romantic fantasy anthology. This was my second published short story, as I usually stick to novels. What’s more I don’t usually write romance (here’s a rare exception).

My contribution, Papercut, is a poignant, heartfelt love story about 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 which I won’t spoil.

There have been several rave reviews for this story (and for the collection in general). Papercut also ended up in a top-three short story poll conducted by Dragon Soul Press. Here is the most recent of the unanimous five star reviews on Amazon:

“There are so many fantastic stories in this anthology, all with their own take on the theme of ‘first loves’, that it’s hard to decide on a favourite! I certainly think every story earned its place here, but I was intrigued by, and thoroughly enjoyed Simon Dillon’s Papercut. The gritty, perspective on everyday life in a strict religious household was interesting, and provided a stark juxtaposition to the strange magic that brings the Paper Girl into Gabriel’s lonely life. I’d absolutely encourage anyone looking for a nice mix of genres, and voices, to give this anthology a chance!”

First Love also features stories by AM Cummins, Kathryn St John, AR Johnson, DS Durden, Sofi Laporte, Meg Boepple, Melinda Kucsera, Edeline Wrigh, AD Carter, Zoey Xolton, and Galina Trefil. Pick up your copy here.

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Film Review – Joker

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Todd Phillips’s Joker film arrives amid a flurry of mild controversy. At least, mild compared with the great cinematic controversies of yesteryear (this is hardly The Passion of the Christ or A Clockwork Orange). Yes, there has been some concern, largely in the US, over whether this film makes a hero out of a villain and glorifies violence, but the cynical part of me can’t help but wonder whether the studio marketing department is behind all the fuss. After all, what better way to get people to see a film than by telling them in finger-wagging terms that they “shouldn’t” because it is “dangerous”?

Well, no matter. The film itself is certainly well-acted and directed, featuring a very good central performance by Joaquin Phoenix. He’s been tipped for Oscar success, although quite honestly, I’d rather he’d won a few years back for his more subtle performance in The Master. Here the role is much more awards-bait – physically demonstrative, scenery chewing, and yes, it features extreme weight loss (weight loss or gain being a “committed acting” trope oft rewarded by the Academy).

The story traces a Joker origin story which has nothing to do with what appears in the Batman comics. Liberties are taken, some of which are quite interesting, and for the most part they work. In 1970s New York – sorry, Gotham – we’re introduced to Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a downtrodden man who lives with his mother in a shoddy apartment building at the edge of impoverishment. He has a slightly Norman Bates-ish relationship with his mother, and by day he works in paid clown gigs. However, an unfortunate neurological condition where he laughs at inappropriate moments without being able to help it has made him a social outcast. Following a period of incarceration in a mental hospital, he is seeing a social worker, and is already on a lot of medication, but nothing seems to be helping as, in his own words, “all I have are negative thoughts”.

Arthur Fleck’s ambition is to be a stand-up comedian, despite clearly lacking the talent. However, he pushes ahead in an alarmingly delusional and narcissistic manner that echoes Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. In fact, Scorsese is a key touchstone throughout, with Taxi Driver being another obvious inspiration (particularly in the way he stalks a single mother who lives a few doors away from him in his apartment block). Robert De Niro – the star of both afore-mentioned films – even has a role as a TV talk show host that Fleck idolises, again, echoing the obsession at the heart of The King of Comedy.

Those who have seen Taxi Driver will know what to expect. This is no comic book adventure, but a bleak journey into misery, madness, and violence, seasoned by very occasional moments of dark humour. It is compelling, but not as singular as Scorsese’s classics, nor as bitingly insightful, despite one interesting satirical moment in the finale. Said moment appears to swipe at current PC/woke culture’s sanctimonious, for-your-own-good obsession with legislating what is and isn’t funny. Perhaps this explains to a degree why Phillips (a former comedy director best known for The Hangover) was attracted to this subject, using the Joker to lash out at what he sees as censorship of what is, after all, subjective.

Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Regarding accusations that the film makes a hero of a villain, I think that is most emphatically not the case. Yes, we are given reasons for Arthur Fleck’s transformation into the Joker, and some of the social issues in the background do reflect modern concerns about society creating its own demons, but the violence when it arrives is absolutely horrific. In the same way that anyone who cheered Travis Bickle’s violent rampage at the end of Taxi Driver monumentally missed the point, those who think Joker somehow praises “angry white man” or “incel” culture have demonstrated the same inability to tell the difference between depicting something and endorsing something. Of course, I will concede it is possible for someone to grossly misread the film in that way, but I think you’d have to be mentally ill in the first place.

When it comes to portrayal of violence in films and the responsibility of filmmakers, these concerns are nothing new. We’ve had these arguments before, with much greater vigour, particularly with the great film controversies of the 1970s. No doubt we’ll have them again. In the meantime, for my money Joker is a good, rather than great piece of work; well-directed, with an agreeably retro feel (the old Warner Brothers logo is a nice touch), and featuring a fine central performance, but a lesser work compared with the Scorsese films it clearly idolises.

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All Dark Places: One Year On

Last October, I had a short story published as part of Dragon Soul Press’s All Dark Places horror anthology.

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My contribution, Once in a Lifetime, is a spine-tingling tale of existential dread. It concerns 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. More disturbingly, memories of his former life – including his wife and children – start to fade from his mind, and are replaced by memories of his the life he has awoken inside.

Here are some review snippets for my short story:

This one was WOW. I felt like I was LIVING the story – which is probably not always a good thing. I could feel his desperation, the desire, and then at the end…. Well you are going to have to read that for yourself.” – Rebecca Hill, Gothic Bite Magazine.

“With a combination of psychological and traditional horror… It had a unique spin to it that left me nearly sobbing at its horror and hopeless tragedy.” – Seraphia, Amazon.

“The mystery, the suspense, the strangeness of this story creates something unique… The author twists this story so well, and the ending, for me, is heartbreaking.” – Anna, Amazon.

All Dark Places also features scary and sinister stories by AM Cummins, Anna Sinjin, and Hui Lang. If you fancy picking up a copy, click here.

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Film Review – The Farewell

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The Farewell begins with the following amusing text: “Based on an actual lie.” This quietly insightful, bittersweet fact based drama from writer/director Lulu Wang has had a lot of awards buzz and good reviews. I liked it a great deal.

The plot principally concerns the relationship between Chinese grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), and her New York based granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina). When the rest of Nai Nai’s family learn that she has cancer, they conspire not to tell her, especially in view of the upcoming family gathering in China at the wedding of Billi’s brother. Billi is appalled by the deception, but other members of her family – including her parents – insist it is for the best, so as not to spoil Nai Nai’s enjoyment of the wedding and the rest of her final days.

Performances are terrific, and the screenplay is funny and touching. Wang offers well-observed thoughts on the differences between East and West, China and America, individualism versus the collective good, and the nature of family. But it’s the relationship between Billi and Nai Nai that forms the warm heart of the film. The melancholy but humane undertones will strike a chord with all audiences, regardless of cultural or racial background. Only those who prefer their films to be non-stop violence and car chases will have anything to complain about.

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Film Review – Ready or Not

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I’m giving blackly comic horror film Ready or Not full marks for this simple reason: it does exactly what it sets out to do with economy and efficiency, not outstaying it’s welcome, and pulling no punches. Is it a great film? No. Is it going to change the course of cinema? No. It is a hugely entertaining blast of pulp for those who love the genre? Yes. Should it be avoided by everyone else? Almost certainly, considering this is strong enough to warrant an 18 certificate for gnarly blood and gore, strong language, and so on.

The plot, which owes a debt to Society (see what I did there?), concerns a young woman Grace (Samara Weaving) who marries Alex (Mark O’Brien), the heir to a stupidly wealthy family dynasty. However, as one character in the film says, the rich really are different. On her wedding night, Grace is asked to participate in a midnight ritual for new family members, where a certain Mr Baal (a name even more transparent that Angel Heart’s Louis Cyphre), the “family benefactor” who helped secure their fortune several years previously, will select a game for them to play. The game is normally a harmless one, but in this case, the game chosen is “Hide and Seek”. The family mansion is consequently placed on lockdown, and Grace is told to hide. She will win if she remains hidden until dawn, but the rest of the family – including her new husband – have to seek her. Alex’s distraught demeanour is an immediate clue that the game selected is going to prove a lot more deadly that Grace initially realises.

Suffice to say, the mayhem that ensues builds to tremendous effect, with increasingly gruesome set pieces staged with aplomb by directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. Weaving is a tremendous imperilled lead, proving tenacious and deadly amid her brutalising battle for survival. The supporting cast are fun too, especially Andie MacDowell’s mother-in-law character. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s screenplay manages that neat, Sam Raimi style trick of skimping neither on the dark satirical comedy or the scares, and the clearly ridiculous premise is carried through in a properly committed way that will certainly satisfy horror fans.

In short, if this is your cup of tea, you’re in for a blast.

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Phantom Audition: Seven Cryptic Images

Over the past seven days, I have posted seven cryptic images on Facebook, each of which are in some way relevant to the plot of my latest sinister gothic mystery novel, Phantom Audition. Here are all seven images:

For those of you who have followed these images on Facebook over the last seven days, here are a few minor crumbs of plot information to further whet the appetite:

Library – An important location in the novel, where a ghostly encounter takes place, and hidden secrets are revealed.

Paintbrushes – The backstory of the novel features a very famous (fictional) abstract painter.

Clapperboard – The protagonist Mia Yardley is an actress who, like her late husband Steven, starred in a number of feature films. Flashbacks in the novel feature important scenes that take place during film productions.

Trapdoor – There are a number of trapdoors in this story, some of them literal, and some of them metaphorical.

Journal – Steven had a secret acting diary, which he had strictly forbidden Mia to read. She uncovers this diary – a leather bound journal embossed with a mysterious occult rune – early in the story. Initially she dithers over whether she should defy her late husband’s wishes and read it.

Horses – Mia likes to go horse riding, and did so with Steven. Early in the novel, she goes riding with her close friend Bronwyn. One of her hired staff, Verity, is also a keen rider. Horses play a small but significant role in the finale, which obviously I will not spoil here.

Secret Tunnels – These tunnels, some of which are lit with electrical lights, are an important location in the latter half of the novel. What takes place in them? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

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

He buried himself in a part, but never returned. Now she wants to know why.

Small-time actress Mia Yardley, recently widowed wife of renowned actor Steven Yardley, discovers her late husband’s secret acting diary.

The diary details appointments made with a psychic medium, who advised Steven on which roles to take. It also raises questions about his mysterious and inexplicable suicide.

Seeking answers, Mia speaks to the medium, but in doing so is drawn into an ever- deepening mystery about what happened to her husband during the final days of his life. Eventually, she is forced to ask the terrible question: was Steven Yardley murdered by a vengeful evil from beyond the grave?

Phantom Audition is published by Dragon Soul Press, and is out on the 19th of October. Click here to pre-order your Kindle copy, or to buy a paperback (which are already available).

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Film Review – Bait

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Bait is a remarkable, lo-fi monochrome gem of a film. Director Mark Jenkin decided to use an old 16mm film camera from the 1970s, and insisted on hand processing and editing the film himself. This very old-school, hands-on approach generated genuine (ie not digitally added) scratches on the film, giving it a deliberately tactile, rough-around-the-edges physicality. The look and feel of Bait will tug the heartstrings of cineastes like myself, who believe that cinema has lost something in the digital revolution.

So yes, the film is a beautifully stripped-down artistic wonder, but what makes it universally accessible is the subject – essentially a feud between Cornish fishermen and tourists. Broiling animosity already exists between Martin (Edward Rowe) and his brother Steven (Giles King) over the latter re-purposing their fishing boat as a vehicle for coastal tours. In addition, Martin bitterly resents that financial need drove them to sell their childhood house, which is now a rented holiday home for a posh landlord, who Martin berates for failing to reinvest in the local economy. Events escalate over parking feuds, a romantic liaison between the landlord’s daughter and Steven’s son, petty theft, assault… and all the while, Martin struggles to scratch a living from his meagre shore-based fishing, so he can save enough to buy a boat and go fishing properly once more.

Performances are all splendid, with the affectionate and sympathetic characterisation also containing just the right amount of gentle send-up (Iiving in the South-West, I’ve come across several characters like this). Jenkin’s eye and ear for the sights and sounds of a Cornish fishing village are spot-on, and whilst I was reminded a little of Ken Loach, the decision to dub all dialogue and sound effects in post production removes the film from traditions of realist cinema. There are also shades of Bicycle Thieves in the depiction of a fragile economy ever teetering on the brink of desperation, not to mention echoes of the magical realism in Nic Roeg’s films (Walkabout and Don’t Look Now for instance) in some of the superbly deployed non-linear editing juxtapositions.

I should probably add warnings here for very strong language and brief strong violence, but all things considered, Bait is a masterful work. Beautiful, authentic, compelling, darkly funny, occasionally shocking, and quietly devastating, it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

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