Sunday, 26 October 2014

Some chills and a thrill

Halloween is nearly here. Tell my next-door neighbours - they've had plaster pumpkins and a big witch's-hat display on their porch for weeks. If you get yourself all worked up that early, I think the actual day loses its spooky shine. Premature horripilation, Dr Freud would've called it. But if you're not sick of ghosts and goblins yet, here are some suggestions for an enjoyable shudder:

The image above is from "Wrong Turning", a comic strip in the Creepy style that I wrote for Martin McKenna after a fog-shrouded week at Shute Gatehouse. You can read the story here for free, but if you want to see the works of real genius that inspired it, Steve Ditko's collected Creepy and Eerie strips are here.

If that lights your turnip lantern, the comics connection gives me a segue to "A Dying Trade", a story I originally cooked up for a ghost-written Clive Barker book that didn't happen. I tried turning it into a comic with the help of Russ Nicholson, but that didn't get off the ground either. But eventually Dermot Bolton produced it as a short movie directed by Dan Turner, and you can watch that here.

Talking of movies, The Book of Life is out now and has to be worth a watch, because if two Mexican maestros like Guillermo del Toro and Jorge Gutierrez don't know their Day of the Dead, who does? As del Toro says:
“[What is it with Mexicans and death?] Ultimately you walk life side-by-side with death, and the Day of the Dead, curiously enough, is about life. It’s an impulse that’s intrinsic to the Mexican character. And when people ask me, what is so Mexican about your films, I say me. Because I’m not a guy that hides the monster: I show it to you with the absolute conviction that it exists. And that’s the way I think we view death. We don’t view it as the end of end all. You say 'carpe diem' in Dead Poets Society; we have that in a much more tequila-infused, mariachi-soundtrack kind of way.”
That whole vibe of wild partying and the flowering of life in death resonates with me, maybe because I got married in Mexico (just after the Day of the Dead, in fact). I like the fabulist notion of death teeming with all these passions and possibilities, which probably accounts for me being such a big fan of Tim Schafer's adventure game Grim Fandango. Boy, I wish somebody would turn that into a movie. Or a kids' TV show. Or a comic or a series of novels. (Well, maybe somebody did the last of those, kind of, only without Manny Calavera's decent-little-guy charm.)

The thing about Halloween is the fairground fun side of it. It's the ghost train version of scariness, a chill to enjoy by the fireside on a dark and stormy night. That's why I love John Whitbourn's classic series Binscombe Tales - not exclusively horror stories as such, but all of them open a window on an unsettling world of weird. They've been anthologized more widely, and won more awards, than any eerie English yarns this side of Algernon Blackwood, and the main reason for that is the storytelling warmth that accompanies the grave-deep chill and feverish fizz of Mr Whitbourn's imagination.

A more serious take on a tale of dread is to be found in Frankenstein, which (I'm sure you know) I turned into an interactive novel a couple of years back. There's no comfort to be found there, no cosy shiver before bedtime. This isn't the Universal horror movie version to be taken with popcorn and a pinch of salt, it's Mary Shelley's bleakly brilliant work of SF - only with more humour and characterization and fewer descriptions of mountain walks and river journeys. Oh, and I added a solution to the knotty problem of how the monster got the corpse of Frankenstein's murdered friend to Ireland, which otherwise makes no plot sense whatsoever. (Sorry, Mrs Shelley.) Read Dr Dale Townshend discussing the story with me here, or go and grab a copy (for iOS or Android) here.

More exploration of nightmarish unease was supposed to happen in Wrong, the online magazine I launched with Peter Richardson. Unfortunately the creators involved were all too busy trying to make a crust to throw in their time for free - myself included. But I still stand by our manifesto:
The most unsettling fears are the ones you can’t quite put your finger on. It needn't be anything as cosy as werewolves or vampires; nothing so comfortingly concrete as a madman with a knife. The supernatural, when it appears, can be a catalyst evoking the real horror that comes from within. ...Dreams are also a kind of truth, and bad things are more sinister when they happen to the blameless. Not everything is always explained and neatly tied up. There are often loose ends that will leave you uneasy. Rod Serling would be at home here. 

To round off, let's go back to Mexico. As well as getting hitched, I was there researching Maya mythology for my gamebook Necklace of Skulls. Eldritch encounters abound with skeletal noblemen who invite you to join them for a chat, threshold guardians on the way into Xibalba, disembodied heads, and the like. You can buy that in its new Fabled Lands Publishing edition, and if you get the paperback then the Kindle version is free, but I recommend waiting a week or two for Cubus Games's all-new app version. The full gleeful ghoulishness of the Day of the Dead has rarely been so vibrantly evoked as by Xavier Mula's artwork.

And a little snippet of a whiff of a hint of news: we may have a new publisher for Mirabilis. It's no secret that our partnership with Print Media Publishing turned out a big disappointment for all involved. Book One got out to reviewers (and got some very gratifying write-ups; here and here and here, for instance) but only half a dozen copies got into bookshops, and those I had to deliver myself! Book Two simply never arrived in Britain - apparently the lorry carrying the stock went missing somewhere in Germany, and I may have one of only two copies in existence.

But now we're on the verge of signing with a big-name comics publisher (no, not Marvel) and I'm hoping that will be the catalyst for getting our story out to all the people who I'm sure would love to read Jack and Estelle's adventures if only they knew about them. 2015 is looking good!

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Pick a side. The future or the past?

Funny how things get dredged up. I recently got to thinking about a very old idea of mine. I’ll tell you a bit later what jogged my memory. A long while ago – must’ve been a couple of decades at least – I was watching an old Carol Reed movie called Odd Man Out, about an IRA man on the run in 1940s London. Thinking of spies having to lie low – soldiers, that is, but out of uniform – I got to imagining a society that waged war against its own future.

What kind of a war would that be? Well, one way to do it would be old Nazis plotting revenge against a modern, distinctly anti-fascist Germany, but that felt a bit tired. It hardly counts as a war when a bunch of OAPs set fire to a bus stop or daub a swastika on a wall.

I was striving for something more jolting to the audience’s expectations, which probably meant more science fictional. A war against the future suggested society having reached an impasse that only time could break. So should it be sleeper agents in a literal sense, floating underground in suspended animation tanks until the moment came to rekindle the conflict?

Trouble with that, it’s a little like the core premise of Pyramids of Mars, only with a very different skin (or at any rate bitumen-soaked bandages) over the top. Nobody would notice, but I still felt that treating it that way would be wasting the idea. Obviously the best approach would be to have outright time travel, so that armies could pour out of the past to mow down their own descendents. Firing back could be a knotty problem. But done that way it’s not special. You wouldn’t notice that the interesting thing was a society at war with what it had become. The time travel business would overshadow all that.

Sometimes you just can’t see the way to make an idea work. Hitchcock wanted Cary Grant pursued by a tornado across Indiana. “But how can the heavies manufacture a tornado?” asked Ernest Lehman, who actually had to write the damned thing. Hitch settled for a crop-duster, but he wasn’t happy about it. I know how he feels. The war against the future got slung onto that subconscious junk heap of unworkable gems – or unpolishable you-know-whats. And then I came across a couple of brilliant tweets by Paul Cornell that bought it all back.
So there you are. No need for a Tardis or a cryonic pod. No need even for superannuated reactionaries blowing up their hippy grandchildren to teach them a lesson. The war against the future is interesting when it happens (as it always does) between neighbours, within families, both sides lining up to decide whether civilization should point forwards or backwards. And I knew that. I’ve read about enough revolutions, hot and cold, throughout history. That’s how to write my story. The answer was staring me in the face all along. Maybe it was just too close for comfort.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Between Stops

I was heartened recently to come across an article by Nabokov in which he spoke up for short stories. Thank goodness, I thought. Now I can own up to my private passion, and if anyone pours scorn I have the author of Lolita in my corner. But when did the short story become such a guilty pleasure? While the novel may date back a thousand years (The Tale of Genji – discuss), the short story is as old as fire. Why should it need defending?

Perhaps because it’s so old and familiar a form. Short stories often have the smack of wood smoke, of a yarn told intimately at hearthside or from a bar stool – in contrast with the high, declamatory idiom of many novels. Somewhere along the way from cave to drawing room, people started to confuse questions of high and low art with the quite different matter of quality and worth. As the Victorian middle class began to aspire to genteel literary tastes, the short story got thrown in among the penny dreadfuls. People continued to enjoy short stories. They just didn’t want to admit it.

And yet look at the short story’s champions. Dickens, Kipling, Mansfield, James, Hemingway, Salinger, Borges. I could go on and on. Plenty of literary giants haven’t shared the popular lack of respect for the form.

Graham Greene, for example. He said that, while a novelist needed to feel his or her way through a story, the short story writer could perceive the whole shape of the work before they began. Which is true, as far as it goes, but not every short story is a polished epicule in fractal miniature. The most interesting ones defy all sense of morphe and give us something nearer to real life: an elusive twist of truth without a definite end. So Steinbeck can write of haunted chewing gum, Lawrence of a family’s dark secrets revealed down a drainpipe. People can wake up as cockroaches. Repressed feelings manifest as overcoats, pocket watches, cleaning products and pet ferrets in ways that would blow Freud’s bow tie clean off.

Arguably the highest goal of the literary art is to represent things that have multiple meanings at once. Frankenstein’s creature – is he Victor’s id? His child? A real monster? An imagined terror? A philosophical question? Answer: all of the above. This is hard for a novel to pull off, especially these days as the entire orbit of the novel is being tugged off course by the mass market’s assumption that a novel, like a movie, is supposed to be straightforwardly a recounting of events. But short stories are free to be surreal, shapeless, irrational. When a writer takes on a short story, they get to kick off their shoes and go wherever the material takes them.

Polti said there are only thirty-six dramatic situations. Hollywood has supposedly boiled that down to just seven plots. A horrible future of reductive storytelling would await us, if not for short stories. The short story writer, like the poet, doesn’t have to give a fig for plots and dramatic situations. Story arcs can twist like Möbius strips, splice into something different with no more sense than a dream. Redemption? Closure? Put a coin in the swear box, please. This is fiction in its purest form.

Still, we admire artifice in a work. We look for the connective structure. We like to perceive a shape. In a collection of short stories, though, it is the whole that has the shape. It’s only when we step back that we can see the common themes being explored. The individual stories are free to dart away from definite analysis. Hence Between Stops, which is not just the time we have to while away but the mental space between anchors of logic. What will you discover on these journeys? The answer for each reader is a different one – and there’s the beauty of the form.

Friday, 18 July 2014


O magistri sapienissimi,

In a fight between Hercules and Thor, who would win?

Yours, Piers Craddock and Will Rice,
St Paul’s School,

Dr Clattercut replies: Ah, doesn’t that take you back, Bromfield? In one’s schooldays the world seems so simple, every problem so black and white. Well, Masters Craddock and Rice, I have to tell you that even in the Year of Wonders, reality is a little bit more complicated than algebra books and rugger pitches may have led you to believe.

Prof Bromfield: Quite. In any case, Thor would obviously win, being a god.

Dr Clattercut: The matter is entirely hypothetical, but even so I don’t think it is as clear cut as you say, Bromfield. Hercules’s father is Zeus, king of the gods.

Prof Bromfield: He’s half-divine, then. But still only mortal. And wrestling a few boars and oxen and whatever — all those tedious labours—hardly puts him on a par with the god of thunder. Remember that Thor’s hammer is so heavy that only he can lift it…

Dr Clattercut: What about when Hercules took the entire weight of the heavens off Atlas’s shoulders? I daresay that’s a greater burden than any hammer.

Prof Bromfield: Well, there you have it. The hammer’s the key. Big biceps aren't going to matter a jot after a clonk with a weapon like that. You know the Norse myths, full of giants falling like skittles. Think what it sounds like when a thunderclap goes off right over your head. Rattles the furniture, eh? Well that’s Thor’s hammer heard at long distance.

Dr Clattercut: It’s hardly an even contest if Thor is going to use his hammer. I’m saying that without the hammer, a straight grappling match — then Hercules is bound to be the victor.

Prof Bromfield: Why would the god of thunder agree to fight and leave his hammer at home? Not that he needs the hammer to defeat a Greek strongman, seeing as he actually is the mightiest of all the Aesir.

Dr Clattercut: But that’s…

Prof Bromfield: And I haven’t even mentioned Thor’s magic belt yet that doubles his strength. Or his iron gloves that double it again.

Dr Clattercut: I give up.

Prof Bromfield: As would Hercules!

Saturday, 28 September 2013

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille

What I enjoy about writing comics is that it's like making a movie or TV show, only without having to spend years raising money first. You knock off some rough dialogue, then you position the characters in the scene, then you get to refine what they say. If it's not working you can move them around, try another angle, another turn of phrase. And they never wave a contract in your face and ask for overtime.

The only way that regular movie-making has the edge is in the editing. In comics, since every scene change should ideally come at the end of a page, or anyway at the end of a tier of panels, it's the very devil if you suddenly decide you need to slot something else in.

By the time Leo gets to doing the pencil art, we’ve already worked out 99% of the direction of each scene. Occasionally we find that a particular shot or line of dialogue isn't working. At most this involves changing one or two panels at the pencils stage. (Considering there are typically 170 panels per issue, that's not a bad batting average.) And we've never yet had to completely change a panel after it went to inking - though Nikos does work the occasional miracle at the colouring stage when Leo and I have overlooked something.

The process is versatile, but there are times when you have to kill a darling. This scene between Jack and the Kind Gentleman, for instance. I really liked the way Leo "positioned the camera" - it made for a great dramatic face-off. But we realized that the bestowing of the magic key wasn't getting enough prominence. That key is going to be important, not only in plot terms (it can open any lock) but because this is where the Kind Gentleman really starts to bind Jack to him, dispensing gifts for all the world like a traditional faerie king to his favoured mortal godson. There are troubled times ahead, oh yes.

So Leo did a new version of the panel to put the emphasis on the key. The preceding panel is a wide establishing shot, so we didn’t actually need to show their relative position or setting again. But the earlier version did look nice. The beauty of a blog, of course, is that you don’t have to kill your darlings outright – you can lay them sleeping in their glass coffin and invite people in for a look.

This scene, incidentally, is from the end of Chapter Five, "The Darkest Hour", which is almost exactly halfway through the Winter book.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Justice from on high

With news today of a Gigeresque alien gargoyle on Paisley Abbey, this seems like a good excuse to feature another letter to the Royal Mythological Society...

*  *  *

My esteemed friends

If you were to visit our most charming town, you would delight in the beautiful and historic church, much of the exterior structure of which dates from the 11th century. One of the features added in the 12th century were the many decorative gargoyles, each with its own personality stamped very clearly on faces of jocular menace.

Of late, the gargoyles have taken their traditional duty perhaps too much to heart. Charged with scaring away the ungodly from our church precincts, they first took to hounding out the bats that were accustomed to roost in the tower. My bell ringers were glad of this, as they often complained of the bats’ droppings, but I felt the departure of the bats robbed the town of some of its character at dusk.

More extreme measures were to come. When a young couple began stepping out in secret against their parents’ wishes, the gargoyles first chased them from the church and later began to swoop on them whenever they went courting, flinging pebbles and even bits of bone from the churchyard down on their heads. The poor suitor has entirely given up his love and now spends his evenings at cider and skittles.

And then—and this most intolerable—the gargoyles began to persecute poor Madame Cloville, who at eighty-two is the town’s oldest resident. I will break the seal of the confessional to tell you, good sirs, that this honest woman has committed no wrong save only when she was a schoolgirl, no more than nine years of age, and having broken a neighbour’s window she allowed another child to take the blame. Yet for that peccadillo over seven decades past, the gargoyles break her windows, steal her vegetables, and pelt her with dung. So unfortunate!

I would be loath to banish the gargoyles, as they are a venerable part of the church’s history, but pray tell me, sirs: whatever can be done to rein in the excesses of these zealous creatures?

The Reverend Père Blanchard,
St Julien de Brioude,

Prof Bromfield replies: A firm hand is what’s needed. Climb up there and biff them on the nose with a mallet. And while you’re about it, give them that sermon from the gospel of St John about casting the first stone.

Dr Clattercut: Perhaps it would better to avoid any mention of throwing stones, as the gargoyles haven’t shown any reluctance in that regard up till now. I suggest having masonry pins applied to fix them to the church walls. Then, like a fierce dog on a stout chain, they can make as much noise as they please but no-one need fear the bite.

Friday, 21 June 2013

The moon in June

Esteemed scientific gentlemen

I flatter myself that you may have seen some of my cinematographic presentations such as Un Homme de Têtes and Visite Sous-Marine. This year, I am resolved to bring to the screen a long-cherished project, a magnificent spectacle entitled Le Voyage dans la Lune. I envisage this as a drama almost fifteen minutes in duration — a true epic of the cinematic medium, I am sure you will agree.

In previous years I have achieved my astonishing visual effects with a combination of painted glass mattes, mirrors and double exposure of the film. It has occurred to me that, by reason of the green comet that currently looms so large in our sky, marvels have become easier to accomplish “in the field”, so to speak. In short, I am considering whether to shoot on location.

Could I ask your learned advice on any difficulties that might present themselves in the course of a trip to the Moon?

In anticipation of your help, Monsieurs, I ask you to accept the expression of my heartfelt regard.

Georges Méliès,

Dr Clattercut replies: I must confess that—although this year I have had to contend with kleptomaniac spriggans, some very rude spirit writing in the Gents, and a sphinx running amuck in the Babylonian Gallery—I have yet to visit one of these newfangled “moving picture” shows.

Prof Bromfield: Much the same thing as watching a stage play, only it’s all in black and white and you can’t hear what they’re saying—though, in the case of Monsieur Méliès’s films, I take it that what you can’t hear is in French anyway.

Dr Clattercut: Monsieur Méliès, I’m afraid I don’t know a great deal about astronomy. I advise you to write to Mr Selwyn Cavor at the Royal Institution, as he may be able to offer some practical tips about food, oxygen, anti-gravity and Selenite politics. Also, be aware that Mr Thomas Cook is now advertising weekly trips by ladder to the Moon, which may lessen the impact of your production to today’s audiences.

Prof Bromfield: If not the impact, I might add, on landing.