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What My Villains Reveal About Me

In storytelling, a great antagonist is as important as a great protagonist. The most satisfying narratives feature determined, active characters facing off against equally determined opposing forces.

A recent article on this blog listed ten of my favourite literary villains. Here are three antagonists from my own novels that I suspect, in retrospect, personify what I take a dim view of, drawn from personal experience, as well as political and spiritual outlook. Whilst some villains in my stories must remain anonymous, for fear of spoilers (particularly those in my gothic mystery horror/thriller novels), these three I can talk about upfront, without ruining the plot.

Graham Brooks (The Birds Began to Sing) – Although he isn’t the main villain, and only appears in one chapter during the first act, Graham Brooks is small-minded, petty, power-crazed, two-faced, and vindictive. He represents everything I despise about modern business management, with his meaningless targets, character assassination performance reviews, ghastly corporate lingo, and utterly phoney belief in so-called “teamwork”. I also took the opportunity to depict how much I loathe people who insist “problems” are “opportunities” (see what I did there?). As my protagonist Alice observes, alcoholics don’t have drinking opportunities.

Imalik (Echo and the White Howl) – Imalik is an ambitious and extremely dangerous wolf, who enters into a Faustian deal with a mysterious and malevolent supernatural force. He murders the pack Alpha, and forces other packs in the surrounding land into a union by systematically slaughtering the elk, moose, and other prey in their terrain, thus making them dependant on him for food. Imalik’s totalitarian dictatorship can be read as an allegory of any fascist state you care to name, especially those that have deliberately created food scarcity as a means of control. I didn’t intend Echo and the White Howl as anything more than an adventure story about wolves in Alaska, but in retrospect, some of my despair at short sighted political stupidity and greed over issues like overfishing may have crept in.

Benjamin Smiley (Children of the Folded Valley) – Of the many villainous faces of religious oppression in my stories, none are more diabolical than Benjamin Smiley. Exactly how he came to lead the mysterious Folded Valley Fellowship can’t be revealed here, suffice to say he is a master manipulator who preys on the weak and emotionally vulnerable, as per all cult leaders. His apparently miraculous powers of healing hold his congregation rapt, ensuring his more dubious activities (including assertion of sexual rights over whomever he chooses) go unquestioned. Benjamin Smiley is based on a number of real people I encountered during childhood, adolescence, teenage years, and even adulthood. Abuse of religious power remains the number one theme I return to in my novels, time and time again.

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Best read in the run-up to Christmas: The Birds Began to Sing

Let’s face it: gripping gothic mysteries are best read at this time of year, when leaves are falling and nights are drawing in. As it gets colder in the approach to Christmas, nothing beats snuggling up in front of the fireplace with a mug of tea, and a sinister, spooky thriller.

In the first of a two-part series, I pick two of my published novels that are best read in the run-up to Christmas, beginning with The Birds Began to Sing. It concerns Alice Darnell, a struggling, not-yet published author, who has suffered the usual setbacks faced by wannabe authors, namely rejection from agents and publishers. Yes, I know this already sounds self-indulgent, but bear with me.

Alice is ambitious, but she isn’t an insufferable narcissist. Significant past trauma, including drug addiction, has left her with psychological scars, an occasional tendency to slip into delusion, as well as a peculiar bird phobia. A couple of incidents in the opening act – one involving an apparent stalking on the London underground, and a misunderstanding during a work performance review – underline her potentially fragile psyche.

When Alice finally acquires a literary agent, he enters her into a mysterious writing competition at Blackwood House on Dartmoor. Alice has been chosen, along with other candidates, to write the final act of an unfinished manuscript, penned by the late, great Sasha Hawkins; a bestselling author of popular thrillers, who died at a tragically young age, in a car crash. Blackwood House is the ancestral family home of Sasha Hawkins, and her former publishers have persuaded her family to host the competition.

The winner of the competition will have their ending selected for publication, as well as their own novel. However, a number of peculiar rules must be strictly observed. Competitors have to stay at Blackwood House for two weeks, where they must write the ending cut off from all contact with the outside world. Intrigued and somewhat bemused, Alice agrees to join in, excited at the potential opportunity.

However, once she arrives at Blackwood House, and the competition gets underway, strange things starts to happen. Alice is unsure who to trust, as she is drawn into a labyrinth of deceit, revenge, and perhaps even murder. But the biggest secret of all is more shocking than Alice could have possibly imagined.

The Birds Began to Sing draws inspiration from mystery classics such as Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, to Agatha Christie whodunnits, specifically Sleeping Murder, and also the gothic literature of the Bronte sisters, particularly Jane Eyre. There’s even a bit of Michael Crichton or Dan Brown style conspiracy thriller in the mix, and a dash of Arthur Conan Doyle, most obviously The Hound of the Baskervilles. But The Birds Began to Sing is also a unique and nail-biting thriller in its own right.

Intrigued? Here’s what a few Amazon reviewers had to say:

“I loved this! Absolutely awesome read clever plot and ruddy brilliant twist! If you love a good mystery and a bit of a thriller this is for you!”

“An excellent psychological thriller… kept me turning pages right to the end.”

“A maze of spooky encounters… Full of exciting twists and turns.”

“A memorable lead character, mystery, suspense, eerie settings, a couple of genuine surprises, all sprinkled in with a healthy dose of wit.”

“A terrific read for lovers of suspense and mystery.”

“A great read and I loved the twist. Did not expect it at all.”

I should add that the bulk of the narrative (from act two onward) is set during the run-up to Christmas.

The Birds Began to Sing is available in paperback or on Kindle from Amazon here (in the UK) and here (in the US).

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I’ve got a trope and I’m not afraid to use it

PHANTOM AUDITIONGenre fiction writers are often accused of writing “formulaic” stories. It may surprise you to know I plead guilty as charged. My children’s adventure novels contain many well-worn tropes. My gothic mystery/horror thrillers likewise. Why? Because the reader expects them, and would be disappointed if I didn’t deliver.

As I’ve said on this blog in the past, following a formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Agatha Christie did it, Arthur Conan Doyle did it, JK Rowling did it (until the final Harry Potter book broke with convention). People often confuse “formulaic” with “predictable”. Predictability is bad, but genre expectations are entirely reasonable for a reader of genre fiction. In an Agatha Christie murder mystery, one expects a murder with a fiendishly clever solution. However, if you can predict the murderer before the dénouement, much of the fun is lost. The formula isn’t what’s wrong with the story, predictability is the problem.

simon-dillon-irresistible-summons-full-resIt is vital, especially in genre fiction, to give the reader what they want but not the way they expect it. Genre writers understand this. Agatha Christie’s novels and crime fiction in general is hugely formulaic, but also fiendishly difficult to write well. Like most genre fiction, they are an easy target for literary snobs.

In short, I have a trope (several in fact), and I’m not afraid to use them. However, I aim to use them in interesting and original ways. Here are ten tropes used in my quintet of gothic mystery horror/thrillers.

tumblr_p8fwjgL6LI1sxnnxgo1_400Imperilled heroine – All these books feature a tenacious, insatiably curious, likeable but flawed heroine, who is dealing with some kind of trauma either in the recent or distant past.

Big central mystery – Spooky paintings, sinister writing competitions, inexplicable sudden deaths, apparent messages from ghosts, and murderous cover-ups all feature in these narratives.

Haunted locations – Creepy forests, castles, mansions, or office blocks, are key locations in these stories.

5Supernatural elements – Ghosts, demons, witchcraft, astral projection… These are often (but not always) explored.

Hidden labyrinths – Again, these novels frequently include mysterious and sinister secret passages, caves, mazes, closed off wings in mansions, and – in one case – abandoned tube train tunnels.

Cults and/or secret societies – I seem to come back to this trope time and time again. Obscure religious movements and/or clandestine organisations pulling strings behind the scenes are an important part in many of my narratives. Often said organisations are revealed in secret rooms at the heart of the afore-mentioned labyrinths.

TheAshTreeIllustrationByGeorgeChastain565Villain/antagonist with similar goals to the protagonist – I am fascinated by stories where protagonist and antagonist essentially want the same thing. Of my gothic mysteries, The Irresistible Summons explores this with particular potency.

Melodramatic overdrive – With gothic horror, I have no shame in dialling up the melodrama when called for, with all the blood, thunder, and passion evident in the greats of the genre.

Religious Oppression – My protagonists sometimes have a religiously abusive past, or else the issue is relevant in the present. This isn’t so much a trope, as a theme I find myself exploring again and again, along with abuse of power. I expect this is a result of my background, upbringing, and personal experience of such things. I suppose this is no bad thing, as many famous authors wrote their greatest works around the same theme. For instance, Charles Dickens, whose father was imprisoned for debt, wrote again and again about lost families and fathers. In my case, I seem to write again and again about oppressive religious environments. This is true of The Irresistible Summons and The Thistlewood Curse, but outside of my gothic mysteries, I explore these themes in novels including Love vs Honour, and particularly Children of the Folded Valley (by far my most “personal” novel to date).

CultBig twist ending – This needs no explanation. I love a good twist ending, but only when it comes off as both inevitable and unexpected. It’s no good pulling out the rug from under the reader without laying the necessary groundwork, or it won’t feel satisfying. I don’t always do this (I’ve always maintained there’s a big difference between a twist ending, and an unexpected plot turn) but twist endings can be great fun to write, when they are appropriate.

Check out my published works here. If you want to try before you buy, to see if you care for my writing style, by all means take a look at a couple of short stories I’ve made FREE to download here.

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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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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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Fancy a gripping read?

Fancy a gripping, page-turning supernatural mystery? Why not check out any of the five novels below.

The Birds Began to Sing_1600x2400_Front Cover THE THISTLEWOOD CURSE Cover (JPG Print version) SSF cover

simon-dillon-irresistible-summons-full-res PHANTOM AUDITION

I refer to them collectively as the “Spooky Quintet” (a silly collective term, I know). Each one features a nail-biting central mystery, a tenacious imperilled heroine, sinister secret orders, shock twists, and plenty of wandering around gothic labyrinths of one kind or another.

To get your copy, simply click on the covers.

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Christmas Presents: The Spooky Quintet

Looking for the perfect Christmas present for that difficult relative? Why not give them a book this year? To be more specific, why not give them one of my books?

In the first of three articles, this post explores the gothic mystery horror/thriller offerings from yours truly. Incredibly, none of these five novels – which I refer to as my “Spooky Quintet” – have had a single bad review. Check out Amazon or Goodreads, and you will see they are all raves. Also, if you’re worried about how scary these might be, some are more at the thriller end of the gothic mystery spectrum, and some more at the horror end. However, they are all page-turningly gripping, and full of suspense. For more information about the scariness factor in each, click here.

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

The Birds Began to Sing_1600x2400_Front CoverThe Birds Began to Sing

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.

Click here to order The Birds Began to Sing.

THE THISTLEWOOD CURSE Cover (JPG Print version)The Thistlewood Curse

Can a ghost murder the living?

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

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

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

Click here to order The Thistlewood Curse.

SSF coverSpectre of Springwell Forest

Lily Henderson has a horrifying secret buried far in her past. She hoped it would never be revealed. Now she has no choice.

To save her family, Lily must keep them from returning to the village of Springwell, where she lived with her first husband and young daughter decades previously.

In the past, after moving to Springwell, Lily encounters secretive locals, government scientists, and rumours of a ghost haunting the forest.

Are they linked to the mysterious deaths of local children? Do paintings by a local artist predict when tragic events are getting closer? Will Lily’s daughter be next?

“Two were taken. More will follow.”

Click here to order Spectre of Springwell Forest.

Simon Dillon - Irresistible Summons full resThe Irresistible Summons

How far would you go to bring your loved one back from the dead?

Television producer Naomi Levinson makes documentaries debunking the supernatural.

When asked to film a promotional video for computer game company Persephone, she considers the task beneath her talents. But as production gets underway at the Persephone office block on London’s Canary Wharf, a mysterious disappearance, ghostly sightings, and lingering tragedy from Naomi’s past lead her to believe she might have stumbled into a genuine haunting.

As Naomi continues to investigate, past and present collide in a horrifying conspiracy. Cutting edge technology and ancient evil meet, leading to the discovery of a shocking and terrifying secret that could change the nature of life and death as we know it.

Click here to order The Irresistible Summons.

PHANTOM AUDITIONPhantom Audition

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?

Click here to order Phantom Audition

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How scary are my novels?

I’ve had a lot of people ask about the level of scariness in the novels from my “Spooky Quintet” (yes, it’s a rubbish umbrella name, but it’s temporary until I can think of a better one).

As I’ve said in the past, I’ve been reluctant to label these novels as horror, purely because that term conjures up gory images of axe murderers stalking foolish teenagers. My horror stories have a rather different sensibility, and some are more horror-ish than others. In fact, I would argue they are more modern-gothic ghost story mysteries, on the whole.

Still, since I’m asked this question all the time by nervous, I-don’t-do-horror-but-your-books-sound-interesting readers, here’s a non-spoiler overview of how scary you can expect these novels to be, and where they fit within my psychological mystery/supernatural thriller/horror spectrum. I’m calling this the “SSS” – Simon’s Scariness Scale. I’ve also include one or two “comparison texts” so you can get an idea of not only the scariness tone, but the kind of scariness.

The Birds Began to Sing

The Birds Began to Sing_1600x2400_Front CoverMore 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. It’s only a notch up from something like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

SSS rating: 4/10.

The Thistlewood Curse

THE THISTLEWOOD CURSE Cover (JPG Print version)This begins more like a whodunnit, develops into a supernatural thriller, and really only segues into horror during the finale, in quite a gradual slow-burn. Yes, the bodies do pile up a bit, but in scariness, only a notch or so up from The Birds Began to Sing.

SSS rating: 6/10.

Spectre of Springwell Forest

SSF coverA properly full-blown ghostly gothic horror mystery, most akin to something like an MR James short story, or The Woman in Black. It is a slow-burn, but it does build to a properly spine-chilling finale that will test the nerves, so I’m giving this one a higher scariness rating.

SSS rating: 9/10.

The Irresistible Summons

simon-dillon-irresistible-summons-full-resFor the most part, I’d argue this is a supernatural conspiracy thriller. However, the final act is undoubtedly in clear horror territory, in a pretty full-on manner. Comparison texts would be something like Coma crossed with the more horrific elements of Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom.

SSS rating: Most of the book, 7/10, the last bit, 10/10.

Phantom Audition

PHANTOM AUDITIONDespite the sinister (and rather brilliant) cover, this is much more a psychological mystery/drama than a horror tale. In fact, I’d argue it isn’t really scary at all. Suspenseful and gripping yes, but not scary (despite a violent sequence near the end). With this book, I was more interested in messing with your head than making you afraid. It is more unsettling than The Birds Began to Sing, but no more scary, if that makes sense. I’d also add Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger as a scariness comparison text.

SSS rating: 4/10.

Phantom Audition is published by Dragon Soul Press, and is out on the 19th of October. Click here to pre-order your copy now.

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Why Spoiler Awareness is always important – even with older films, books, plays, and television programmes

Is it ever OK to spoil a book, play, TV series, or film? There has been a lot of discussion online about this lately, with the release of Avengers Endgame, and the final series of Game of Thrones.

Firstly and most obviously, people who deliberately troll those who want to remain unspoiled are, as far as I’m concerned, utterly reprehensible. Malicious spoiling – whether online or in person – is essentially a form of bullying, and I despise bullies with a passion. What I find particularly disgusting are people who do this that haven’t even seen or read the material themselves, but simply discovered spoilers for the purpose of angering those that passionately care about remaining unspoiled. Over the past few days I’ve read plenty of idiotic statements from these people, saying things to the effect of “No-one cares. People take this way too seriously” or “It’s just a film, it’s no big deal if it’s spoiled”. Perhaps not to these people, but it is to others. It astonishes me that these un-self-aware cretins have no concept of consideration. They are as bad as people who use mobile phones in cinemas.

Other people spoil things without being malicious, but do so accidentally. This is slightly more forgivable, but I do wish such people would learn to think before speaking (or posting), or to simply preface what they are saying or writing with an appropriate spoiler warning. I recently read an enthusiastic review for one of my novels (I won’t say which one) that without issuing appropriate warnings, spoiled a significant part of the plot. Needless to say, I felt rather enraged at this. I am probably one of the most spoiler-phobic people on the face of the earth, but again I do wish people would show proper consideration.

There seems to be a consensus of opinion that spoilers are more socially acceptable once a certain amount of time has elapsed – when a film has completed its run in cinemas, for example. However, there will still be people who haven’t seen it so caution should always be exercised. In fact, when it comes to classic films, books, and so on, new generations are discovering them all the time. I think such people deserve the chance to come to these stories cold, without them being spoiled. With my own children, I did everything I could to preserve the big surprises and twists of major works, and for the most part succeeded (despite the odd malicious playground nitwit wanting to ruin things to get attention).

Personally, I’ve taken to internet and social media blackouts when something is due for release that I really want to remain unspoiled on. Consequently I massively enjoyed the likes of recent Star Wars or Avengers films knowing nothing whatsoever about their plots beforehand (I didn’t even watch the trailers).

In conclusion, it seems we are doomed to walk with idiots who take pleasure in ruining things for others, but God help anyone who crosses my path that ruins any of my stories for someone else. If I ever heard someone maliciously spoil the twist ending of The Birds Began to Sing for another reader, things would get very “Old Testament” very quickly…

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Reflections on my earlier novels

Folded Valley coverSomeone recently asked me whether I still liked my earlier, pre-traditional publisher novels. Another individual noted that they could see an improvement in my prose style between Children of the Folded Valley (self-published) and Spectre of Springwell Forest (traditionally published). These interactions made me curious. Would I still like my earlier novels? Could I see a marked improvement in my writing style?

After re-reading Children of the Folded Valley and The Birds Began to Sing (and I’m still working my way through other earlier works), the answer to the second question is yes. I can see how I have improved as a writer. That ought to be the case. With every book, I get more experienced, so with every book, I hope I improve.

The Birds Began to Sing_1600x2400_Front CoverI also must be honest and admit certain things in those earlier stories made me slightly cringe: words I overuse, needlessly passive sentences, sections of “telling” that ought to be “showing”, and so on. These days, such things would be picked up on by my wife (who has since taken a much more active role in assessing my work) as well as my editor. Despite this, I still like both novels, and judging by reviews, readers do too. Both remain rock-solid stories, and The Birds Began to Sing in particular has a twist ending I am very proud of.

All that said, I did take the opportunity to make a few tweaks to their respective manuscripts, so new versions purchased from now on will reflect these changes. However, I think both still stand as examples of where I was then as opposed to where I am now. Hopefully over the next few years, my writing will continue to improve.