Monthly Archives: February 2011

Unsung Genre Heroes – Horror: Graham Masterton

In horror, or ‘Dark Fantasy’ as some bookshops are starting to call it these days (with justification, perhaps – that’s for another post, though), there’s a bit of a fetish for transcending the genre; writing a book that appeals to the lit-fic crowd. If you’re lucky enough to be translated from another language – John Ajvide Lindqvist, Koji Suzuki – or sell an absolute buttload of copies – Stephen King, Clive Barker – then it happens almost automatically. If you have a knack for spare, almost McCarthyesque, prose then you might escape the genre doldrums and be, somewhat sniffishly, accepted as a ‘real’ writer. Peter Straub and Christopher Fowler have and it looks like Joe Hill is well on his way towards that too. If you just want to give people a ripping yarn with a few scares and shocks in there, though, you might end up unjustly ignored by anyone except horror buffs. Along with a few of his contemporaries – F. Paul Wilson, Ramsey Campbell, James Herbert – Graham Masterton has ended up in just that situation.

A cut down biography of Masterton’s writing reads something like this. He started out as a journalist and jobbing writer, before becoming the editor of Mayfair and UK Penthouse. He wrote a couple of sex instruction manuals before his first novel, The Manitou, was released in 1976. Since then, he’s written primarily, although by no means exclusively, in the horror genre as well as continuing to release sex instruction manuals.

Now that we’ve established who he is, it’s time to get to the crux of this post; why I’m writing about him. I’m writing about him because he deserves it. For more than thirty years, he’s been writing effective, efficient, occasionally brilliant horror novels, as well as a selection of solid crime, historicals, thrillers and the occasional foray into ‘true’ fantasy. So far, he’s published more than eighty novels and almost as many short stories and is still going strong. The man must be doing something right, so what exactly is it?

The first part of it, is his mastery of formula; knowing exactly how a given type of story should progress, where the beats need to be, how to hook a reader and then drip feed them shocks, twists, revelations and action at exactly the right pace to carry them all the way to the end. In case you think that’s faint or grudging praise, try finding a writer or critic who isn’t filled with respect and admiration for Elmore Leonard or Donald E. Westlake; believe me, you’ll need to travel a long way to find one, and those guys are fellow masters of formula.

The second part of it, is his prose style. It’s unfussy, uncomplicated and gets the point across effectively in the minimum number of words. When you’re reading a Graham Masterton, you rarely pick out a turn of phrase or sentence and say “That’s a typically Masterton way of putting that”, in fact you don’t even notice him at all, merely the story he happens to be telling. By no means every critic, and certainly not every writer, will tell you that’s something to aim for, but Masterton is masterful at putting the story first. So far as he’s concerned, the reader is to be entertained first and foremost. If you have to scurry for a dictionary to look up a word, he’s not doing it right; if you lift your eyes from the page and say “what a beautifully constructed sentence”, then you’ve noticed him and it’s distracted you from the story. Because of that, he takes the “murder your darlings” approach to its extreme. The only idiosyncrasies in a Masterton story are those of the character, most notably in his Manitou novels, where the voice of Harry Erskine has remained consistently recognisable for thirty five years. The same thing applies in his Jim Rook series of horror novels for young adults. Rook is recognisable and it’s immediately apparent you’re reading a novel about him, but, once again, Masterton himself is almost invisible. To quote Elmore Leonard, he “leaves out the bits that people skip” and does it consistently and superbly well. The man is a pro.

The final part, is his meticulous attention to detail. He quite obviously goes out of his way to learn about the subject his story deals with and that always shows on the page. In most cases, that research is channelled into making an element of mythology or folklore scary, but he weaves sometimes quite sizeable infodumps into his stories with skill and flair, almost always phrasing them as stories within the story and the infodump itself becomes entertaining in its own right; something a lot of far bigger selling authors have still to learn. Now, I’m not saying that all of the mythology in his stories is strictly true to the source, Trotting Coyote wouldn’t necessarily make the greatest villain (Charnel House) without some serious tweaking to fit the tale in question, but they make an excellent jumping off point for learning more about the myths in question.

So, if you’ve read this far then you obviously haven’t encountered his writing before, and might be wondering where to start. Maybe try a few from the selection below and see what you think.

Horror Fans
The Manitou series (Manitou, Revenge of the Manitou, Burial, Manitou Blood, Blind Panic)
Flesh & Blood
The House That Jack Built
Prey
Any of his short story anthologies (Scare Care, Fortnight of Fear, Flights of Fear etc.)

Never read horror, but willing to give it a go
The Jim Rook series (Rook, Tooth & Claw, The Terror, Snowman, Swimmer, Darkroom, Demon’s Door, Ultimate Evil)
Black Angel (A mixture of horror & detective fiction)
The 5th Witch (A mixture of horror elements and urban fantasy)
The Devils of D Day (Mixes horror and action thriller quite nicely)

I read fantasy, but don’t mind the odd scare mixed in
The Night Warriors series (Night Warriors, Death Dream, Night Plague, Night Wars, The Ninth Nightmare)
The Hidden World
Walkers
Edgewise (One of many Masterton tales which are based on Native American mythology)
Descendant (Volume one of proposed Vampire Hunter series)

I read mostly crime, but don’t mind it being creepy in places
The Sissy Sawyer series (Touchy & Feely, The Painted Man)
Trauma
Holy Terror

There you go. The man’s a true pro and an unsung hero of the horror genre. I hope you’ll try at least one of the books I’ve recommended above and also hope you’ll get as much pleasure from them as I have over the years. Happy (if somewhat nervous) reading!

Visit Graham’s home page to learn more: http://www.grahammasterton.co.uk/

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Work in Progress: Short extract

In lieu of that Northumberland Folklore post, which I’m too busy to write properly today, have a snifter of what I’m currently writing instead. A bit of a departure in terms of my writing, since it’s pulp adventure which owes equal parts to Dumas, Lieber and Westlake. The working title is The Harlequins (subject to change, just as soon as I think up a better one).

Harlequins extract: Chapter one – Part one – An Unexpected Creditor

Eight feet, by eight feet. That was what Remy’s world had shrunk to. Sixty four square feet of cold stone, a tiny grille for a window, a wooden sleeping platform and bucket that made the whole dismal room smell of a sewer. Oh, there was a sort of courtyard he could go into but he tried to avoid it. Only two kinds of people were out there, deluded minor nobles who were convinced that a relative would pay their debts and have them released, or else the lowest kind of commoner not reduced to thievery, bemoaning their accursed luck at ending up in gaol. Remy didn’t like mixing with either of them. The nobles looked down on him, the commoners treat him with suspicion and both sections kept away from each other, leaving Remy to wander alone through the open space in the middle. Besides, some of the nobles had relations who couldn’t afford to pay the debts, but could afford to bring them various luxuries and treats. Remy hated seeing all that luxury, in relation to what a flat broke prisoner like himself could have, going to waste on simpering halfwits. If he only had a stake, he could live like a king in here. The problem was, he was so far down on his luck that he couldn’t even raise a cake or a decent shirt to gamble with. If you could call playing against these idiots gambling.

A harsh laugh from the walkway outside his cell brought Remy out of himself. There was another reason he didn’t go out into the courtyard. Gaston. A swaggering, one-eyed bully who enjoyed taking what he could from those lacking a group of friends to protect them from it or the outside influence to prevent it. Remy closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the cold stone wall behind his pallet. With luck, Gaston and his two snivelling cronies would pass by to annoy some other fool.

“Good morning, Remy. Have you got something for me? Half of your morning bread perhaps? I hate to see people who can’t honour a promise, especially when such mistakes are what landed them in this pleasant guest house in the first place.” A couple of sniggers accompanied that sparkling witticism. Remy sighed heavily. Why was Gaston so obsessed with the bread? It was as hard a priest’s heart by the time the prisoners as poor as Remy got it.

“Gaston. Always a pleasure. No, I don’t have bread for you. I’m stashing it under my mattress. I’m hoping to sharpen it up on the walls, so I can cut through the bars.” He opened his eyes, to see three people staring blankly at him. The hulking Gaston, greasy hair slicked back into a ponytail and gravy still on his chin from his breakfast, fingering the patch over his missing eye as he always did when he was trying to appear urbane and charming. On either side of him were his two lapdogs. Remy could never remember their names.

Gaston flicked his head and the two lackeys rushed forward and grabbed Remy by the arms, hauling him to his feet. Gaston stepped through the doorway, pulling the door closed behind him. He strolled over to Remy and looked him up and down. Remy met his gaze evenly. He had no intention of fighting them, but he’d be damned if he was going to flinch from them.

“We have an agreement, Remy. You give me half your morning bread, and I protect you from the more unsavoury characters in here. Where’s my bread?” Remy held Gaston’s gaze.

“We have no such bargain. I signed nothing, told you quite plainly I wouldn’t give you anything of mine and the only unsavoury thing in this shithole of a gaol is the smell from your two flunkies. I owe you nothing. Now tell arse-kisser and ball-licker here to let go of me, then all three of you get out of my room.”

A dull pain erupted in Remy’s solar plexus and all his wind exited his chest as he coughed and wheezed. Gaston was pretty quick for a big man. Remy hadn’t even seen the blow coming, so couldn’t prepare himself for it. Tears streamed from his eyes as he tried vainly to get his breath back between retches and coughs. He thought briefly about fighting back, but they’d already got the first blow in and besides, he could be here for a long time. No sense in starting a feud that could end up with his getting killed.

“When Gaston tells someone they’re going to give him something, they give it to him, do you understand me Remy?” Remy spluttered a bit more, then managed to draw himself upright.

“I thought you were Gaston?” Gaston’s solitary eye clouded in confusion.

“I am Gaston.”

“So who’s the other Gaston you’re talking about? The one who everyone gives their stuff to.” Remy actually managed to see the next blow coming, but he couldn’t do anything about it. He just closed his eyes in preparation for the pain he knew was coming and ducked a little in the hope of avoiding a broken nose, as Gaston drew his shoulders back for the headbutt.

An explosion of white light, then the next few minutes passed in a haze of dizziness and pain. Blows landed all over Remy’s ribcage, then he felt himself fall to the floor as arse-kisser and ball-licker let go of him, in order to land a few blows of their own. He managed to curl himself into a ball with his arms tucked over his head to protect himself from any further strikes to his skull, but from there it was a matter of hoping they got bored quickly. Soon enough, it was over and he heard their boots retreating and the door opening and closing as they left.

After a few minutes to make sure they weren’t coming back for a second helping, Remy unrolled himself from his protective ball and tried to stretch out a bit, in order to test how badly they’d hurt him. A few pokes and prods told him they’d done no serious damage. Lots of bruises and a headache from the headbutt were all he had to show for it. This beating was obviously meant as a warning. No doubt the next one would be more severe.

Remy opened his left fist, which he’d kept clutched tightly shut throughout the beating. In his hand was a pewter toothpick he’d managed to lift from the one he thought of as “arse-licker”, as he’d slumped over after the blow to the guts. At least the beating had been profitable. Later on, he could try and use the pick to get in on a game of cards or dice with those idiotic minor nobles. First though, a nap to help him get over the beating. Perhaps his luck was changing after all.

There you go, hope you didn’t hate it. The folklore post I promised will be up either later on today or tomorrow, entirely dependent on how RL stuff pans out.

Pimping Ain’t Easy (links to the good stuff)

Actually, strike that. It’s supremely simple. Ahhhh yeah. Who loves you?

Read about fantasy here: http://fantasy-faction.com/
Talk about it here: http://fantasy-faction.com/forum/
All things cult and genre: http://www.pornokitsch.com/
Provide encouragement and support to another aspiring writer: http://thewritewaytotype.blogspot.com/
Buy things from same aspiring writer: http://www.etsy.com/shop/Autumn2May (which I shall be doing, just as soon as my credit card stops whimpering and crying from the beating it took at Christmas. I have my eye on the beehive pincushion.)
He keeps being more talented and prolific than me, but I’ll still link to him in the hope I can cling to his coattails when he makes it big ;): http://jaykayel.wordpress.com/ & http://themasterofhisdomain.wordpress.com/
Laugh your arse off: http://www.smbc-comics.com/
Snigger and be grateful you aren’t a baker: http://cakewrecks.blogspot.com/
Another aspiring writer (we tend to cluster together, like penguins): http://loquaciouscoyote.wordpress.com/
A very talented artist indeed, hopefully one with a big future: http://icanplaythetimewarponukulele.wordpress.com/

That’s right, Daddy loves you… Now go make Daddy some money!

In Praise of Sandwiches

Sandwiches are really lovely, aren’t they? I like bacon, mushroom and onion ones best of all; which is another way of saying “I’ve got nothing”. See you tomorrow with a Northumberland Folklore piece and a linky post, ‘cos it’s been far too long since I pimped* anyone.

In the meantime, here are some things I’ve learned:

Primus: Boohbah is the scariest program ever put on television.
b: Despite what popular conception tells you, string does not make an adequate makeshift belt. It will snap. Your trousers will fall down.
3: Activating a talking Puss in Boots from Shrek toy as the cat sniffs at it once, will elicit a hilarious backwards jumping and fluffing of the tail. Trying it a second time will result in that same cat attempting to amputate your face. (Probably deservedly so, I admit)
iiii: There appears to be no moral low to which I will not stoop in pursuit of cake. Assassination for cake hasn’t arisen yet, but if it does, I’m not responsible for my actions. Just so you know…
: Putting your mouth over the cold water tap and turning the lever all the way to full blast as fast as you can, results in a passable impersonation of a fountain cherub. There’s also a mild choking hazard, but the risk of appearing on the Darwin Awards shortlist is well worth it.
Finally: When life gives you lemons, the correct response is to squeeze the juice into life’s eyes, punch it in the throat while it’s temporarily blind, then stamp on its groin when it falls to the ground choking. If anyone tries telling you it’s “make lemonade”, squeeze lemon juice in their eyes, punch them in the throa- you know where I’m going with this.

More bloggage tomorrow. TTFN

* WARNING! If I pimp you out, I want my cut dammit! My pimp hand is strong

The Joy of Sects

It’s a bit of a literary fetish of mine, but I love stories that feature clubs and secret societies. I’ve never been able to figure out why, but I go all gooey when I read one. Whether it’s the ultra cheesy pulp adventure of Dennis Wheatley and his Duke de Richleau stories, the hints and references to occult societies in the work of H.P. Lovecraft, the bizarre secret society in Christopher Fowler’s Roofworld, the many different cults and societies in China Miéville’s Kraken as well as countless other stories and novels, which are far too many to list here.

I think what I enjoy most about stories with cults, clubs and secret societies in them is that, the other Dan Brown’s novels excepted, you almost feel like part of a secret society or club yourself when you find them. The stories are strange, esoteric, and often quaintly outdated – in modern examples, deliberately so. This appeals to me greatly, in this age of over sharing and putting more of yourself into the public domain than ever before.

Make sure to check out the below example of a secret society in action.

Northumberland Folklore: The Simonside Dwarfs

This is the first in an occasional series of posts I’ll be making about the myth and folklore of the region I love, the place I was born and still live today, Northumberland.

Not far from Rothbury lies one of the most starkly beautiful and fabled areas of Northumberland, the Simonside Hills. Rightly famed amongst walkers and photographers for their stunning vistas, the hills of Simonside hold another piece of, largely obscure, notoriety; one that any dice based fantasy gamers amongst you might be familiar with. Duergar!

Great Stell Crag, Simonside Hills

The dwarfs of Simonside are said to delight in leading travellers astray, particularly after nightfall. Lighting their torches, they would stay ahead of the confused walker, leading them deeper and deeper into the unlit Northumberland wilderness, until they fell into a bog or plunged from a precipice to their death. Legend doesn’t make clear exactly what the Duergar actually do with the corpses they acquire in this way, but it’s fair to speculate that their love of, and talent for, magic means that parts of a murder victim’s corpse are never going to go to waste. Of course, the moors can be a barren and forbidding place, where fresh meat is hard to come by…

Credit for the stunning photograph above goes to Andrew Curtis, along with my thanks for licensing that image for reuse under a creative Commons license. Please visit his geograph.org.uk profile, linked below in the CC attribution, to see some truly gorgeous shots of rural Northumberland in all its glory.

Great Stell Crag, Simonside Hills (Andrew Curtis) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Brian and Me: A memoir of Redwall

In memorial of Brian Jacques, 1939-2011

I shan’t enter a biography here, wikipedia has a far more comprehensive one than I can offer, simply a reflection on the effect the man’s work had on a young mind which had far too much on it, very little of it good.

In 1990 I was more than a little mixed up; in fact, it’s fair to say I was a complete mess. I didn’t fit in very well at school, coming from an extremely poor family but living in the first generation of working class British children to whom appearances were the sole defining factor of social standing. An ill judged admission of something horrendous from my infancy to the wrong person led to being ostracised by my former friends away from school. The trouble at school, which of course led to chronic truancy, caused trouble at home. My parents were not only struggling financially, but my father was fighting to come to terms with being disabled at a very young age, so even the very slightest of transgressions from me resulted in terrifying rages and often disproportionate punishment. All of this, combined with a school who refused point blank to admit that any bullying could possibly be taking place there, added up to a depressed 11 year old who had nowhere, and no-one, to turn to.

Like so many children in that position before me, I turned to books. I quickly burned through the small collection of paperbacks we kept in the house, so turned to the school library; a room I’d been in several times before, but never truly noticed until I was at my lowest ebb. I read volume after volume of ponderous, well meaning, but ultimately patronising, crap about kids who were going through similar things to me. I read a lot of very cosy sci-fi about middle class, popular lads with names like “Chad” and “Nathaniel” who got wrapped up in some mystery or other which always ended up being about a crashed spacecraft or a time traveller. I read the books, but none of it really sunk in. I wanted neither “someone like me”, nor a “role model” to aspire to. What I wanted was something I only know in hindsight.

One fateful afternoon during that one day a fortnight when a teacher could be bothered to unlock the library and let whoever wanted one borrow a book, I saw something unusual, something with a cover like nothing I’d previously seen on the school shelves, although it must have been there all along as it was fearsomely battered and dog-eared; I saw a faintly washed out image of a cart full of rats, careening down a country lane with one rather scary looking rat at the front of the cart, wearing the skull of another animal and carrying an enormous spear, while flames tore at the very cart he rode on.

Captivating image, isn’t it? The blurb on the back intrigued me even further, so I took the book home. I don’t think I so much read the story, as inhaled it directly from the page. I remember reading it at least four times during the period I had it on loan, then borrowed it again so I could read it some more. It spoke to me on a level far deeper than all of those oh-so-condescending, touchy-feely, it’s-ok-to-have-issues, worthier-than-thou novels combined. Not because any of the characters were monochrome reflections of what the writer thought I must be going through and not because any of the situations mirrored the things going on in my life. The book gave me something far more important than that; it gave me an escape from all of that rubbish. It gave me a window on a world where good and evil were clearly delineated.

There’s no way to underestimate how vital that was to me at that point in my young life.

Over the next few years, as a troubled childhood became a disturbed adolescence and my grip on what constituted being happy gradually eroded due to the tremendous weight of pressure I was under, the tales of Redwall Abbey, Loamhedge, Salamandastron and the good creatures who lived there were my life preserver, the things that gave me release and something to cling to in times of trouble, which unfortunately were almost never ending during my teens. No matter how rough things got, the anger of my father, the disappointment of my mother, the bullying from the other children or the complete indifference of my teachers to my problems, no matter how much I tried to impress on them how seriously I was struggling to cope with what was happening, I could disappear into a Redwall novel and for that brief period, all was calm, all was well and I could drown out the welter of emotions I was too young and inexperienced to process.

In short, at a time when I could have either gone off the rails entirely, or else stark staring mad through the storm raging inside me, Brian Jacques gave that storm a calm and soothing eye.

Eventually, I grew out of the Redwall novels. There came a time when I didn’t need them any more, when that calm, soothing voice was no longer needed. I had become an adult, at last, and the books both read and felt childish to me, a relic of a time when I read only for comfort and escape. When that day came, I placed all of the books in a bag and bade them fond farewell. They didn’t go to a charity shop, or to a jumble sale. After all they’d done for me, they deserved far better than that. They went to my niece, a charming and intelligent girl who I hope can read the stories for their excitement, adventure, good humour and good nature. I only hope she enjoys them as much as I did, without needing to cling to them quite so hard or for the same reasons.

Rest in peace, Mr Jacques. The man I am held you in high regard and the boy I was owes you far more than I can adequately express.