An Unpublished History

21 Mar

At some point in my life, I didn’t know when, probably when I was a teenager, I decided to be a writer. Not to write and try and get published, I was just going to be a writer. A famous one. A Booker prize winning novelist. This dream didn’t come true but it sort of did.

At the age of 27 I’d finished my degree in English, Drama and Sociology and began my first proper novel, hand written and typed out on a friend’s computer. It took five years to completer and was a long, dark crime thriller. This was the nineties and not everybody had laptops. After an aborted teacher training degree I decided that if I was going to be serious about being a writer then I needed to buy my own computer.

On this computer I was going to write my Booker prize winning exploration of mental health issues. I worked in a psychiatric unit and had half an idea for a book. However, the other idea I had about a guy who takes acid in a stone circle was not a Booker prize winning novel, it was a trashy horror. One Friday afternoon I decided to start writing this trashy horror novel to see how it went. I typed solidly for five hours and had enormous fun. I found, strangely, writing could be fun. The ideas were strong, the setting a place I wanted to spend time in, the characters I wanted to spend time with. And so Bad Acid began.

I spent a happy summer in the first year of the new millennium typing Bad Acid. I’d return from the night shift at the psychiatric unit, sleep all day until two pm then get up, make a coffee and write the next chapter of the novel, go to work, get home, read and edit the chapter, sleep, wake, write, go to work etc. My other book, this dark thriller, had taken five years to write. Bad Acid took nine months. All sorts of things around me in reality seemed to feed into the novel. That year was the only year I have ever been to Glastonbury and probably ever will, now that tickets cost three million pounds and you need a blood sample and reference from a trusted professional just to buy a ticket. The whole atmosphere of the place just fuelled the writing of the novel. The colours, sounds, people off their heads, staying up all night. That kind of thing

I finished the novel and after messing about editing it was finally ready in 2001.

So, with the novel written all I had to do was send it off to a literary agent. Back in the early zero’s you had to send a covering letter, a synopsis and the first three chapters of your novel plus a stamped addressed return envelope. (I sound like a granddad trying to explain to a teenager what a record player was). I duly did this, pouring thought the Artists and Writers Yearbook 2000 to find literary agents that dealt in horror. I found three. To my shock one of them wrote back using my stamped addressed envelope and asked

  1. For me to ring her for a chat
  2. To see the next five chapters.

I was on the point of handing in my notice from my job as my huge advance would no doubt be coming through the post in the form of a cheque. Our conversation on the phone was brief; she wanted to know if it was violent, a good thing in her view and asked me a bit about my job.  I sent her the next five chapters only for her to send them back with a few comments, some advice but she wasn’t going to take it any further.

Gutted.

I think that word sums up my feelings at the time. Sometime later another literary agent asked me to ring him after submitting the piece. He wasn’t going to represent Bad Acid as he handled romance but knew a literary agent that handled horror and gave me his details. He did this on a Friday and he rang me at work wishing me a good weekend.

I never heard back from his literary agent friend. I think I waited a year then went back to sending my A4’s off to London literary agents. Over a period of around ten years about three more wanted to see the rest of the novel before deciding that it wasn’t for them.

I briefly changed the title to more commercially friendly The Deities, thinking the original title might put the agencies off. When I came to self-publish it I kept its original title which I much preferred and it kind of rhymed, both ‘A’s in bad and acid corresponding with each other.

The last literary agent to contact me was an agent listed in the Artist and Writers Yearbook. This guy was American and left me a message on my answer phone. He sounded like John Barrowman, I remember. He said that he thought the book was great and he could definitely find me a publisher. However, to guarantee this, certain expenses would need to be covered such as postage and packaging. Basically, he wanted two hundred quid. Being in a writer’s group with published authors and publishers I knew this was a scam. You may have dealt with this individual yourself. I won’t give his name but you may recognise the description. Let’s just say that he didn’t get £200 quid from me. I moved on from that one pretty quickly.

So, for fifteen years Bad Acid sat there on my hard drive. A few people read it and really liked it, saying it was a page turner and good holiday reading. Two work mates read it, one a guy in his twenties covered in tattoos and the other a guy in his fifties. The both liked it and discussed with me how a sequel might work.

An artist friend of mine who thought everything I did was pretentious and ego boosting read Bad Acid having found it laying around in my house and liked the novel so much she did a painting of what the cover may look like, a stone circle with light snaking upwards of into the night sky.

When electronic publishing arrived I became very excited at the prospect of Bad Acid becoming available to the public. I love that story and it brings back memories of that easy summer writing it in my shared house in Northampton. I still don’t think it’s going to win the Booker prize anytime soon.

bad acid - cover 1http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bad-Acid-Paul-Melhuish-ebook/dp/B00T2E83OU/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1426935109&sr=1-2&keywords=paul+melhuish

Musings on the passing of Sir Terry

14 Mar

I’m Saddened by the death of Sir Terry Pratchett at the young age of 66. Probably one of the few people who actually deserve a knighthood in my opinion. Okay, I’ll be honest. I only ever read half of one of his books. I didn’t finish The Colour of Magic. I gave up on it not because it was a bad book but because I wasn’t in the mood for it. I was young, pretentious and wanted to read something dark and moody. Now I’m older and less cynical I’d probably love it. I’m really tempted by Wintersmith after having heard the fantastic concept album by Steeleye Span based on his work with a narration by the man himself.

Okay, so I haven’t read any of his books but Sir Terry has indirectly been responsible for some great conversations between myself and his fans. I feel I know the plots to his books better than any reader as Terry’s fans eulogise about the walk that Death takes across the desert. Conversations usually go like this.

Me: ‘Oh, you like terry Pratchett. You’d love Neil Gaiman and what about Michael Moorcock?’

Pratchett Fan: ‘No, but have you read Geroge RR Martin/Tolkien/CS Lewis etc’

These conversations usually take place in the dull reality of the work place and many an afternoon has been lightened by such conversations. For those moments alone, Sir Terry I thank you and I will get round to reading Wintersmith soon. Honest.

wintersmith

Fear and Loathing in Great Rollright

10 Feb

bad acid - cover 1

Hunter S. Thompson’s 1972 novel Fear and Loathing is Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream documents a narcotic-fueled trip to Las Vegas where, under the influence of LSD among other drugs, the protagonist Rauol Duke experiences hallucinations such as people are turning into lizards in the neon-lit bars of the casinos and insane, violent behavior is displayed by the protagonist and his ‘attorney’ Dr Gonzo. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a treatise on the failure of the 1960’s counterculture. The characters undergo a sort of self-prescribed insanity where the boundaries of morality and common sense become obsolete.

Fear and loathing

My own literary wandering into the narcotic seems to follow the same path. In my short story The Acid Lounge, and my recently released novel Bad Acid, the protagonists drop LSD and the madness begins. This is where any similarities between Thompson’s world famous work and my own obscure indie novel end.

Unlike Thompson I didn’t take a load of hallucinogens and go into Las Vegas. I did once spend a weekend at Stow-on-the Wold horse fair with a group of new age travelers who thought that the horse fair was a rave so bought a hundred acid tabs with them to sell to the thousands expected to turn up to this illegal weekend of music. Instead they found a groups of gypsy families in old horse-drawn wagons sedately sitting round camp fires brewing tea in copper kettles in scenes are reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s work rather than anything written by Hunter S. Thompson. They were a bit miffed them they couldn’t off load these drugs to the gypsy families that set up camp in the field just outside the town.

My novel, Bad Acid, tells the story of a guy called Lloyd Weller who parks his caravan by a stone circle called the Whichford Stones. Threatened by local thugs, he decides to throw in his lot with a group of new age travelers based a few miles away. The group gather in the stones, take acid to commune with beings from ‘The other side’. Soon Lloyd joins them and finds the acid having a detrimental effect on his already fragile mental health.

Caravan

The form for this story had been knocking round my head for years. When I was 24 I left home and went to university. Whilst there my parents moved to the village of Great Rollright where the famous Rollright stones are located. (note, this move was not to get away from me) It’s an eerie place; the stones are made from granite not found locally as in that part of the country soft limestone is common and the nearest source of hard granite is to be found a few hundred miles west in Wales. The granite stones are laid out in a circle on a hill and cannot be counted twice. I’ve tried many times and come up with a different number each time but maths was never my strong point. To the south there are three stones that lean against each other as if whispering conspiratorially. These are the ‘whispering knights’. To the north a large stone overlooks the village of Long Compton. This is the `king stone’ which stands alone. Legend has it that the circle is actually a circle of knights turned to stone by a witch along with three whispering knights and the king overlooking the village.

RollrightsThe Rollright Stones

The Rollright Stones are also famous for being the chosen filming location for the 1978 Doctor Who story The Stones of Blood.  Now that is cool.

When I was younger my friends and I would sometimes drive up there at night. A couple of times we’d meet some new age travelers and share a joint with them, conversation turning to conspiracy theories, spirituality or drug taking experiences. On one of these nocturnal sojourns we met a group whose number included this slim girl with long blonde dreadlocks who walked the inside of the circle juggling fire brands. That was quite freaky but visually quite stunning. Another traveler who lived in the little hut located in the wood by the stones says that he regularly heard horses galloping through the stones at night. Umm…really? What had he been smoking?

Stonehenge        At this time, throughout the 1990’s, it seemed that you couldn’t move for new age travelers. This was the age of illegal raves but travelers made their presence known around town or up at the stones. The group I’d mentioned earlier, the ones I’d spent a weekend with when I was 22 in Stow-on-the-wold, had come up from London. My friend, Penny, had met them bunking up on the train that she was on. She’d got off on the stop before them, rang me and we’d driven over to meet them. We spent the weekend in this field around the fire dossing with them. I’d like to say that it was pleasant and mind-freeing like a Levellers song. It wasn’t. These people were bloody scary.

There was a large Scottish guy who introduced himself by staring at me and saying nothing. There was another guy who came across as defensive, aggressive and just totally insane. He preached in a self-righteous manner that exuded hostility. He also reckoned that, when tripping, he could actually fly and feel his ‘brothers and sisters’ in a flock beside him. I was with them when we went into the sleepy touristy town of Stow-on-the-Wold as they intimidated shop keepers and were openly rude to tourists. This was the experience that cemented my view of travelers as a collective that are a bit unhinged.

Aside from this one experience I also met other travelers up at the stones on our visits. One midsummer evening we said hello to a group of them sitting around a fire at the king stone and they just stared at up at us, their eyes and facial expressions communicating a hostility that verged on the psychotic. We left very quickly.

A also heard a story about a local woman who lived in an isolated house. One day a traveler knocked on her door to ask if he could fill his water can. She obliged him and he left the house. However, when she looked out of the window there were a large group of them sitting silently in a semi-circle on the lawn staring up at the house.

These experiences were useful when portraying the gang of new age travelers that Lloyd meets in Bad Acid, led by albinoesque nut-job, Monster. The gang have all dropped out of the society and come from colorful, sometimes criminal, backgrounds. They are portrayed as scary and defensive, something I picked up from my real experiences and twisted into fictions and, I admit, exaggerated. Let me just clarify; I also met a lot of nice, friendly new age travelers as well.

So, this book is called Bad Acid. It’s about taking LSD and the taking of that drug is used to trigger the character’s journey to the psychedelic universe I’ve named ‘the other side’. As I’ve twisted real experiences into this story you might be wondering if I’ve ever dabbled in taking drugs myself. Well, yes. I’ve taken LSD twice in my life. The first time was when I spent the weekend with the travelers at Stow-on-the-wold.

In my early twenties a lot of my peer group had taken LSD and I felt left out. They made it out to be some essential mind-expanding experience that all creative people or left-field thinkers should explore when they were young. Taking it was something of a disappointment. I actually expected to leave my body and talk to God is some multi-coloured, multi-dimensional parallel universe. Instead my fine motor feedback was compromised; hard objects felt floppy and everyone seemed to be talking in a Scottish accent. Hardly talking to God face to face. The second time I took it much the same thing happened but I spent  paranoid afternoon believing that I was going to hell when I die, possibly a contributing factor in my conversion to Christianity the same year.

The experiences described by Monster and the others are preconceptions of what I thought LSD might be like, not how it actually was. Unlike the characters in the book I took a tiny drop of the stuff on dried litmus paper, I didn’t take 5 to 10 ml from a pipette straight into my eyeballs as the characters in the book do.

Taking LSD is dangerous. Fact. My mental health wasn’t permanently damaged by my experience but a few years later I worked as a carer in a psychiatric unit and saw first-hand the damage drugs can do to the fragile human mind. I met guys my age and younger who had dabbled in drugs and were now permanently damaged, plagued by voices and delusions, their condition barely controlled by the prescribed medication they were taking. These unfortunates were locked into a chronic pattern of mental illness that never seemed to resolve. They never told you that in the just say no adverts in the eighties when I was a kid. Let’s be clear, I do not advocate the taking of drugs. Bad Acid is a morality tale of sorts. The clue is in the title, Bad Acid.

So, to conclude, unlike Thompson’s work, Bad Acid isn’t an examination of the failure of the counter culture. Yes, there seemed to be lot less travelers around at the end of the nineties when the story is set but Bad Acid is a psychedelic horror story with lots of violence, scary scenes and a supernatural element. Obviously the book means a lot to me and I sometimes revisit the stones if I’m in the area. There are no new age travelers there now and the feel is more National Trust then new age traveler. I still can’t count the stones. Or maybe I just can’t count.

‘Were my Parents Satanists?’ Childhood Paranoia exposed.

27 Jan

When I was eight years old I thought that my parents were part of a satanic cult, or they might have been demons in human form, I wasn’t quite sure.  Anyway, I got it into my head that they couldn’t be trusted because they were up to something. My dad would stop at the top of the stairs after he’d put me to bed for some reason and I imagined that he was talking to the devil, or a demon, or an alien, or an alien demon. In reality I think we was just fiddling with the thermostat. Childhood paranoia was nothing new; I was also convinced that the house where we lived was haunted. In my bedroom the cupboard door never closed and I was sure there was someone in there looking out at me.

Hail Borgnine   Is this what my parents were up to on a Friday night? And they told me they were line dancing down the British Legion.

We lived in an isolated part of Oxfordshire in a hamlet of around 15 houses located halfway down a hill. Directly north of the hamlet was a massive dark wood which was definitely haunted and that’s where they were going to take me when they sacrificed me, or took me to be possessed by the alien demon or whatever. My parents weren’t the only ones involved in this cult, everyone else who lived in this hamlet were also part of it. Mr Griggs opposite, Mrs Vernon next door. Even Mr and Mrs Howlett who walked their dog past my house every day.  However, I couldn’t be absolutely sure that any of this was true, I just had unfounded suspicions. A psychoanalyst would have a have a field day if they’d used the eight year old me as a case study.

downloadRural Oxfordshire. Pretty creepy, eh?

There were other terrors to face, real terrors, such as the school bully and authoritarian teachers at the village primary school I attended. (step forward Kingham Primary School and particularly Mrs Anderson) so I couldn’t fully concentrate on my imagined terrors. As I said, I also doubted their validity.

By the time I was ten I eventually worked out that my parents weren’t Satanists and the tiny hamlet of Kingham Hill wasn’t populated by weird sect members. The school bully got moved to another class but Mrs Anderson was still a twat.

So, this is a pretty weird thing for a kid to imagine but I was a pretty weird kid and, some would say, I’m a pretty weird adult. I’ve always had an overactive imagination and I believe, as a child, you begin to identify what is real and what is not. This was one of those learning curves, I guess. My doubts about the validity of these hypotheses kept my behaviour in check; I never acted on these fears and tried to run away for home. I never of actively distrusted my parents to the point that affected our relationship abnormally. As far as I know they knew nothing about my paranoid fantasies. As an adult I’m not ‘coming to terms’ with it or ‘seeking closure’ because the experience wasn’t real.

These days I channel the same ‘what if’s’ into my writing and it gets pretty close to the knuckle sometimes using current realities I’ve twisted into fictions. The spark of the idea has to come from somewhere, so where the hell did this paranoid fantasy come from? How did I know of the existence of Satanist cults at the age of eight? Where did I get the idea of immediate family and a whole community being part of something that wished to harm or forcibly subsume me?

I dimly remember seeing the film The Devils Rain as a child. The plot runs like this: a man returns to his family to find out that they are all part of satanic cult. I don’t think my parents would have let me watch such a film at that age or let me stay up that late so as an explanation this doesn’t fit. There must have been some other stimuli to trigger this.

I think I’ve found it.

Children of the StonesAh, there’s the culprit.

I got the DVD Children of the Stones for Christmas. I watched it the other day and was quite surprised at what I saw. Children of the Stones is a TV series filmed in Avebury, the village built within the famous stone circle. Everyone in the village, apart from the protagonist and his father, are part of this cult The Happy Ones. There is one chilling scene where the protagonist stumbles upon the whole village standing on the village green holding hands singing at night.

Gotcha! So this is the guilty party. Children of the Stones was shown in 1977 and I remember watching it. I think that scene was the trigger. One year later I thought that my parents and the rest of the community were all in on something weird. Ironically, the TV series was shown at tea time, being a children’s television programme. The DVD has a 12 certificate.

I’m not saying that this should never have been shown. If I’d not seen this then something else would have triggered my paranoia. I watched Doctor Who every week, maybe I’d have believed my parents were Autons or something. I also believe these fantasies were by products of my real fears of school bullies and teachers.

RollrightsThe Rollright Stones. Definitely a portal to another dimention.

I grew up to be a normalish teenager and a normalish adult. My parents moved when I was 24 to Great Rollright, the village with the stone circle nearby. I think if they’d moved there when I was eight that really would have sent me over the edge. They’ve moved to a stone circle, they’re definitely going to sacrifice me/possess my soul/send me to the mother ship.

When I was in my twenties I asked my mother is she had ever been part of a Satanist cult when I was a child. She laughed.

‘Of course not,’ she said. ‘We were too busy working in the underground lab testing the subsonic paranoia machine for intended for use on children.’

Names have been changed for the purposes of anonymity.

Morris Man Madness

16 Nov

Apparently James Herbert was once told, ‘write about what you know’. So he wrote about rats. I subscribe to this idea so I largely write about places, people, groups or beliefs that I have had personal experience with. So far I’ve written fiction about or involving psychiatric hospitals, old folks homes, Occupational Therapists, Physiotherapists, painters and decorators, farms, rock festivals, homeless projects, stand-up comedy, hitch-hiking and Christianity. All of these things I have first-hand experience with, be it through jobs I’ve had or just because I’ve tried them or become involved with them.

In November this year I have ghost story called The Snap End Morris Men coming out with Boo books for a ghost stories anthology called Haunted which I’m very pleased about. I’ve always wanted a story included in a Christmas ghost stories anthology since seeing Lawrence Gordon Clark’s Ghost Stories for Christmas a few years ago.

So, this story is about Morris dancers, something else I can add to the above list as having first-hand experience with. For the last year and two months I’ve been a Morris dancer. To write about Morris dancing you have to know a bit about the tradition so being in a Morris side helps. I didn’t join a Morris side exclusively to write one ghost story but the story came from the experience of being part of a Morris side.

So why the heck did you decide to take up Morris dancing, I hear you ask. Well, I like folk music and actually like Morris music. I have a few CD’s of it at home wedged in between the doom mental section and the prog section of my collection. (I know, arranging your CD’s by sub-genre seems to be a male pastime) So when I met Northampton Morris Men at a festival one summer I got talking to them took and they my details. As this is an unpopular English pastime Morris sides are all quite low on numbers and keen for new people to take it up  By September I was turning up to dancing practice in a working man’s club every Monday in a village near to where I live.

Morris dancing is a lot harder than it looks. Apart from the stick-hitting and the hanky-waving there is also the stepping, the complicated foot movements to consider. I’ve been doing it for a year and a bit and I’m still learning to master the footwork. There are also other movements within various dances; the half jip (or gip), the whole gip, the left hand star, the right hand star, process up, process down. (You no doubt get the idea so I won’t go on)

Since joining and dancing out with the Morris men I’ve been to more village fetes than I’ve ever been to in my life and been to more pubs than I’ve nearly ever been to in my life. At one pub where we danced we were even given free beer by the landlord. Now, that alone is a reason for joining the Morris men.

There is also the aesthetic angle to consider when joining a Morris side. At Northampton we wear a baldric (a sort of double sash), short black trousers and long white socks, a tri-corn hat and, of course, bells. When twelve of us turn up to a pub wearing all the same thing it’s a bit like being in a gang. Sure, you might get a few shouts from spectators but it’s largely good humoured. I was never in a gang at school and I never managed to pull off any kind of fashionable look (I was too fat to be a Goth) so this is about as close as I get to being in a gang with a look. With our tri-corn hats, white shirts and socks I sometimes feel like a droog from Antony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, if A Clockwork Orange had been written by Thomas Hardy and not Burgess.

Of course, all this could be perceived as sinister and weird by the modern world. The Wicker Man would not have been half the film it was without the folk music and traditional dances and costumes and to some extent used the modern world’s distrust of rural traditions. Even back in 1971 Doctor Who depicted Morris dancers as mad, possessed men who take the Doctor captive to burn him on a pyre in the story, The Deamons.

With this in mind I knew I had to write fiction about Morris men but I’d had such a good time with them that I found it impossible to depict Morris Men as sinister. So I conceived a ghost story, partly inspired by the documentary The Way of the Morris. As it is the centenary of World War One I also wanted to write something about the devastating effect of that conflict.

Compared to the horrors of the trenches, Morris dancing seems like a gentle, positive activity. What would you rather be doing, drinking ale and dancing with your mates at a village fete or being shot at, up to your neck in mud in the trenches? So I wrote the Snap End Morris Men, a ghost story. I’m sure I’ll write other fiction about Morris dancing as time goes by.

I’m thinking of writing a fantasy set in an alternative England where Morris dancing takes place but I’d invent my own dances and names for Morris dances in this universe. However, some of the names of real dances and tunes are quite strange enough without any embellishment from me. Lads-a-bunchum being one, Bonny Green Garters, anyone?

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The Holocaust that Never Happened

5 Aug

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On Channel 4 the series The 100 has started. The premise being that 97 years ago life on Earth was wiped out by a nuclear holocaust but some humans sat it out in a space station orbiting the Earth. Now they’ve sent down a group of young criminals to investigate and see if the radiation count has dropped. What they find are mutant creatures and primitive tribes.

            Watching this brought me back to the sort of stories I enjoyed in my youth. In the Eighties the threat of nuclear war was real. My childhood seemed to be spent watching Protect and Survive adverts shown on the news but when What-if-the-bomb-dropped? drama Threads was aired on BBC1 in 1984 the reality of nuclear war became clearer. Yes, it was a scary prospect but it was also kind of exiting. I went with the belief that it wouldn’t happen anyway. Well, it didn’t, did it.

            The holocaust that never happened  played  huge role in the sci-fi literature, television programmes and films that I was watching at the time. Other apocalypses were possible such as mass blindness as seen in Day of the Triffids or a plague envisioned in Survivors but Nuclear War was the most probable and possible threat at the time.

            One of my most enduring memories of holocaust fiction, apart from Threads, is the TV adaptation of  the novel by Robert C. O’Brian,  Z for Zachariah. A young girl is left alone in a Welsh valley that is somehow immune to radiation then a man arrives with plans to seed a new society. The Girl, Ann, understandably isn’t too keen to make babies with some beardy stranger so leaves taking his radiation suit with her.

Threads 3

            The other holocaust story that I remember vividly is James Herbert’s Domain. The third instalment of his hugely popular Rats series. The bomb drops and the rats come out to have gnaw. The story follows a group of survivors as they make their way through a wrecked London. Also worth reading is Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon.  America is nuked and an immortal force of evil walks the wasteland causing trouble. Think Stephen King’s The Stand but with a higher rad count. These are examples of apocalyptic fiction that describes a world just after the bomb had dropped. Fuel for the imagination seemed to come from trying to visualise life decades, or even centuries, after the holocaust.

So prevalent was the bomb that most sci-fi didn’t even need to mention the holocaust by name. Think of the end scene in Planet of the Apes. Charlton Heston finds the statue of liberty on the shore and we all know what’s happened. Interestingly in the new Apes film it’s a global pandemic which nearly wipes us out, a possibly more relevant apocalypse for this day and age.

John Wyndham’s The Crysalids is set many years after the apocalypse. Humanity has reverted to theocracy and there are tribes of mutants out in the wastelands, banished by the religious ‘normal’ society. The religious society has the now nearly iconic phrase Thou Shall Watch for the Mutant.

            By 1989 the iron curtain had collapsed. The threat of nuclear war decreased. Science fiction moved on and with the emergence of the digital age other concepts occupied sci-fi’s storylines such as virtual reality. However, the possibility of nuclear war never really went away.

Threads 2

In 2007 whilst at unit I showed by flatmates Threads. These guys were all in their early twenties and are too young to remember Protect and Survive or Maggie Thatcher. I thought they might find it cheesy and retro. By the end they were watching through their fingers, horrified. Of course, the nuclear threat it no less real today. The tragic events in Ukraine over the past few weeks have set the US and Russia at loggerheads again. In 2002 India and Pakistan were at the point of war, both countries are nuclear capable.

            In The 100 it’s not made clear what caused the holocaust but as Margaret Thatcher once said, ‘You can’t dis-invent the bomb’. Perhaps it isn’t as forgotten as we think it is. 

The 100   

Prog’s Not Dead – a personal journey through the zones where rock music and sci-fi overlap.

12 May

As there are hundreds of books and thousands of websites dedicated to all the bands I’ve mentioned here, I wouldn’t bother reading any further if I were you. Go on, just Google Hawkwind or Pink Floyd or Yes or Bolt Thrower. They’ll tell you all you need to know about these bands perhaps more comprehensively than I can. So why am I writing this blog entry then? Being a member of Northampton Science fictions Writer’s Group my intention was to write a comprehensive guide to the role Sci-fi plays in rock music. I’m not gong to do that. Instead I’ll tell you what I know.

 

Shindig guide to spacerock. More informed than my wittering on the subject. .

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Twelve was quite an important age for me. My reading age caught up with my real age thanks to James and Frank Herbert, I got into music and became a fanatical enthusiast of the genre heavy metal. Another world of imagination opened up. I was as keen on listening to music as I was on reading horror and sci-fi. Sometimes they over lapped.

Iron Maiden’s 1983 album Piece of Mind concludes with a six minute track called To Tame a Land. Reading the lyric sheet I noticed that they were using phrases from the book I was reading at the time; Dune by Frank Herbert. Phrases such as Stillsuits and Gom-Jabbar. I even wrote to the Iron Maiden fan club to clarify this and received a note from their manager in hand-written scrawl.

Yes Paul,

                        You were right. To Tame a Land was inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune

                                                                        Regards

                                                                                    Keith.

Like it wasn’t obvious, but to the twelve year old me it wasn’t.

Quite how much a writer’s taste in Music affects their work is subjective and debatable. Alistair Reynolds entitled his short work Diamond Dogs, inspired or in reference, to David Bowie’s 1974 Album. The Klaxtons called their first Album Myths of the Near Future after a JG Ballard collection. Our very own NSFWG member Ian Whates is a keen fan of sci-fi prog-rockers Yes.

The history of science fiction in music consciously goes back a few years. In the Year 2525 was a kooky sixties record by Zager and Evans. Other artists dabbled with the themes of space including Pink Floyd. Floyd’s early work is laden with space references. Cirrus Minor, Interstellar Overdrive, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun all refer to space travel; pushing out into the boundaries of the unknown but obvious references to the use of hallucinogens serve a dual concept as the spacey elements become almost metaphors for the psychedelic elements. Notably on Cirrus Minor (from the soundtrack to the film ‘More’) where the lyrics tell of  a chap taking trip from a woodland glade to Cirrus Minor. He isn’t using a space shuttle to get there, guys.

Syd Barret, Pink Floyd.

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Moving into the Seventies and the progressive rock movement unashamedly ally’s itself to Sci-fi. The band most associated with Sci-fi, who operate under the banner of ‘space rock’ and wear their sci-fi credentials on their sleeves is Hawkwind. If being a rock band and associating with sci-fi were a criminal offence then Hawkwind would be sentenced to instant vaporization. Collaborations with Michael Moorcock on the 1975 Warrior on the Edge of Time LP and ten years later with their Chronicle of the Black Sword LP saw Hawkwind embrace the imaginative elements to the maximum with mind melting stage shows and brilliant conceptual pieces such as Sonic Attack and Space is Deep.

Sonic Attack and Space is Deep being monologues with sinister undertones. Sonic Attack is a mock public information soundbite on how to survive a sonic attack, chillingly reminiscent of the government’s Protect and Survive campaign a few years later advising the British public how to survive a nuclear attack.

As an adolescent I needed to be spoon fed songs and anything without immediate lyrical and musical cohesion lost my interest. Sadly I only really started to appreciate the above two bands much later on in life. For instance, my brother played me Hawkwind’s debut and I remember thinking on hearing Be Yourself ‘This is just eight minutes of weird sounds. What rubbish.’

Now I listen to it thinking: ‘Wow, this is eight minutes of weird sounds, great.’

Looking like a Mayflower paperback from the 70’s, Space Ritual. A Truly excellent live album from Hawkwind.

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In the seventies there were a host of sci-fi friendly bands under the progressive banner. The foremost of these being Yes. Musically more objective than Hawkwind and certainly less influenced by narcotics (although some might debate this point), Yes made songs with titles like Starship Trooper and The Gates of Delirium. Their covers were works of art by renowned fantasy artist Roger Dean. Although Yes’s aesthetics and music appealed to sci-fi fans Jon Anderson took the sci-fi aesthetic to boiling point with a concept about space travel, Olias of Sunhillow, a good old fashioned concept album about an alien called Oilas piloting a spacecraft called the Moorglade Mover from his home planet, which has experienced a volcanic catastrophe, to a new planet called earth (small e). How sci-fi is that? The cover art looks splendid as well.

I first heard Yes being played on Tommy Vance’s radio show when I was a kid and decided I didn’t like Jon Anderson’s high pitched voice. These days I listen again and I think it suits the music. I must admit that I only really like their Rodger Dean artwork period. Tales from Topographic Oceans is an album for long car journeys unless any of your passengers hate prog rock which most people I know seem to.

Olias of Sunhillow

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When I was growing up in the 1980’s there was a mini prog-revival with bands such as Twelfth Night and IQ being played on the Tommy Vance Friday Rock Show. To my knowledge, the only one of these bands to adopt the sci-fi imagery and lyrics explicitly was Pallas. Their 1983 album The Sentinel was a semi-concept album focusing in the destruction of Atlantis. The cover art alone was enough to get me to ask my parents for it on my 13th birthday. I was so cool. While all the other boys were pulling girls to Duran Duran (a band whose name was taken from a character in Barbarella) I was at home studying the lyrics to prog opuses like this. Talk about wasted youth.

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Another aspect of my life that guaranteed my virginity into my twenties was my love of heavy metal. Back then girls didn’t like metal. These days girls walk around in Marilyn Manson and Slipknot t-shirts. Talk about being born too early.

Heavy metal and horror go hand in hand but metal is no stranger to Sci-fi. Iron Maiden I’ve already mentioned but Brummie metallers Judas Priest wrote some fine sci-fi themed songs. Invader from 1978’s Stained Class album begins with the sound of a UFO in take-off mode and warns of aliens invading. Electric Eye from 1982’s Screaming for Vengeance uses as its subject matter satellite monitoring but the finest conceptual song from this band, in my opinion, is The Sentinel from 1983’s Defenders of the Faith. (The one with a metal lion on the cover armed with missiles and named the Metallion. Metal-lion? Get it?)

The lyrics depict a post-apocalyptic future of upturned, burned out-cars and a shell of a cathedral where hordes of Mad Max type thugs challenge The Sentinel to a fight. He kills them all with throwing knives. The drama and intensity are ramped up to the maximum by the music and Rob Halford’s powerful voice. The times I’ve nearly crashed the car singing along to this one.

Look, the metallion, teeth, claws, missile launchers and all.

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Birmingham’s other, more famous sons, Black Sabbath have flirted with Sci-fi. Planet Caravan; a nice, laid back ditty describes a travel through space while Into the Void tells the story of refugees escaping a dying earth to begin a new life on a better world.

 

From space, looking to the Earth, it would seem as if all the sci-fi excesses in music happened in the Seventies with Yes and Hawkwind (I don’t count ELO in this even if they did have a spaceship). So what about now?

By now I mean the last twenty-odd years. Well, our old friends Iron Maiden had an album out in 2010, The Final Frontier, which had a wrecked spaceship on the cover. I’ve discovered a few sci-fi gems myself. In 1998 industrial thrashers Fear Factory had released a concept album called Obsolete. The protagonist of the story being a terrorist/freedom fighter who calls himself Edgecrusher, battling a megacorporation hell-bent on taking the Earth to the edge of destruction and oppressing its people in the meantime. The Edgecrusher fights the system without much success before finding inner piece in a ruined church. Linear notes written by Burton C. Bell, vocalist, describe the concept written as a short story. This was the only time Fear Factory dabbled with the concept album idea which was a shame as it worked very well. They even had Gary Numan on guest vocals.

Eighties thrash band, Bolt Thrower based their concept around the Warhammer role playing game. Their debut Realms of Chaos boasts a track listing of songs exclusively based on the Warhammer world such as World Eater and Through the Eye of Terror. As with most extreme metal, the lyrics aren’t always decipherable and the music is just too much for the normal ear. Not mine, of course, I love this sort of stuff.

 

Put this on at a party when you want your guests to leave.

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Finally, in this day and age, the sci-fi concept album as something of a re-emergence with modern prog bands such as Transatlantic, Star One and Spock’s Beard. Leading this resurgence is Ayreon (no, I can’t pronounce it either), a band formed by Arjen Lucassen. Lucassen is a Dutch Multi-instrumentalist who gets his mates involved with his projects. Mates such as Fish from Marillion, Devin Townsend, Mikael Akerfeldt from Opeth, Sharon Del Adel from Within Temptation and the bloke who played the flute from Focus. Ayreon release good old fashioned concept albums that span two whole discs and that is a lot of Music. 010111001 is the title of one of the concept alums and not a Stockholm telephone number, as is The Theory of Everything and Universal Migrator (parts 1 and 2)

Sorry, I couldn’t get this to go any bigger so you might have to squint. It’s the cover to Universal Migrator Parts 1 and 2, Ayreon.

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I’ve only heard two of these double disc concept albums. Musically there are influences from Yes and Marillion as well as a lot of what could be termed Eurometal. The Human Equation is a concept album about a bloke in a coma going through his life. The other one that I’ve heard is the sci-fi epic Into the Electric Castle: A Space Opera (He even entitles it a space opera, how sci-fi is that!).Various characters from history get taken out of time to the electric castle by a seemingly benign entity voiced by Peter Daltrey (no relation). He begins by telling them not to be afraid then tells them that some of them may die in the tasks they will be expected to undertake (so no need to be afraid, then) and ends by having some kind of vocoder melt down as the minds of the characters that the entity has captured are the only things keeping him alive. Some songs sound like they could be entered for Eurovision and to the cynical ear this is nothing but flamboyant and pretentious. I don’t have a cynical ear and simply enjoy it for what it is; imaginative, slightly cheesy and as I can’t play a note I’m really in no position to criticise music. Also, there are some great keyboard parts and the guy from Focus can really play that flute.

 Look at the artwork on that. Squint again.

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So, if you made it this far you have either a) been given some musical pointers b) been taken on a tour of songs and bands to avoid. Thanks for listening.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Man on the Net

23 Mar

My wife and I often joke about who comes from the poorer family. She says that she came from a poorer family because her mother used to take in lodgers and she wore her sister’s hand-me-downs.  I say that I came from a poorer family because we didn’t get a video recorder until 1987.

            When it comes to technology I’ve always been a bit slow on the uptake. I bought my first CD player in 1999, I didn’t get a mobile phone until 2004, never cut and pasted on a computer until 2005 and this year, 2014, have begun to e-publish.

            I begin this digital adventure at a time when ‘everyone is doing it’. So, have I missed the boat? Shut the stable door after the horse has bolted? Shaved my chickens before the earthquake? Pressed ‘play’ halfway through the programme? (And other sayings)

            Well, here’s another saying; better late than never.

            My fears about having done all this too late are reduced when I think that this might not have happened at all. Since 2000 I’ve written eleven full novels and one novella. Some of them I’ve submitted for publication and some I’ve just left because, well, they were more like practice runs. If the digital publishing revolution had never happened then these novels would just sit on my hard drive, unread. Maybe some friends would have read them but that would have been it.

            Before digital self-publishing I remember trudging down to the post office, a first chapter, covering letter and return envelope in my hand, queuing behind some poor soul there to pay his gas bill, and sending off my submission to some large faceless publishing house or literary agent only to be rejected a few weeks later. My scuffed return envelope would arrive with a standard rejection letter but more often than not they would always use a paper clip to attach the letter to said rejected submission. Okay, Jeremy Farquaharson-Canker Literary Agents, so you’re rejected my work but I’m one paper clip better off so who’s the loser now?  

Now, this is NOT a pop at literary agents or publishers. Having met a few at conventions I hear their side of the story. They get thousands of submissions a week and publishing is a business. They can’t take risks on unknowns who think they’re the next JK Rowling. And they did give me all those paperclips. But seriously, a few years ago it was a literary agent who kindly wrote back to tell me to get involved with the BFS which led to my first short story publication. They are not anti-writers, quite the reverse in fact.

            The sad truth was that, back then, trying to get your novel published was like hitting your head against a brick wall with the words GO AWAY, YOU WILL NEVER BE PUBLISHED  writ large upon the brickwork. So, my manuscripts sat in the darkness of my hard drive.

            Until now.

            You may have read a thousand blogs about how the literary establishment has been rocked by ebooks but it’s true. I came to realise that all the novels I’ve written can now see the light of day. My first novel, Bad Acid, was rejected hundreds of times. There were a couple of scares when one agent wanted to see the next five chapters, another wanted to see the full manuscript but decided not to go with it. I actually changed the title to The Deities (a title that I didn’t like but thought may be more saleable) to try to get it published. When Bad Acid hits the digitals shelves in May it will retain its quirky, trashy title. So, the wall with GO AWAY, YOU WILL NEVER BE PUBLISHED has been smashed down. I am now published. My first independently published title, The Acid Lounge, a 9,000 word novelette is now out there to buy for the whacking price of $0.99. When I’ve worked out how you make it free I will. How many I sell will be up to the ebook buying public. Success will be determined by the people, not by just one person somewhere in an office drowning in submissions. How many I sell will be down to how well I publicise the product and whether the purchaser thinks it’s any good.

            The most important thing, for me, if the fact that it is being published and the stories aren’t stuck on my hard drive. As a human being you want to make your mark on the world, hack a chunk into the fabric of reality. I feel I’ve done this, however small my mark may be.  

 

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The Omega Man and Me

12 Jan

One January, in a shell garage located by the A45 dual carriageway in Northamptonshire, I stopped to get some petrol, like you do. As I waited in the queue to pay at the counter I saw that they were selling a few DVD’s. Among the popular titles like Die Hard and Toy Story sat the 1971 version of The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston retailing at a whacking £3.99.

            Sometimes you watch a film with low expectations, hoping for something cheesy, laughable yet lovable. Sometimes you’re in for a surprise.

            I’ve not read Richard Matherson’s novel I am Legend but I’ve seen the Will Smith film adaptation. Basically, the majority of the world’s human populace gets infected with a plague that turns people into blood-crazed zombies. Will smith has to fight them off and find a cure at the same time. In our day and age the Man-fights-zombies-then-finds-other-survivors plot is well worn and has been seen a hundred times. In 1971 that particular plot-path was still fresh and new. Night of the Living Dead had only been out for a couple of years and the man-fights-zombies plotline was not embedded in our consciousness as it is today.

            So, back to The Omega Man. In my £3.99 DVD Charlton Heston’s character Dr Robert Neville is living in a deserted city, hunting for supplied during the day but barricading himself in his home in a hotel at night, lights blaring out against the infected victims of the plague. The big difference here is that Neville’s enemies aren’t mindless zombies but thinking, conscious, religious and totally mad.

            Neville’s nemesis is, if I remember correctly, The Family. A cult of survivors infected with the plague. They present as pale, albino-like and photophobic; The Family can’t stand light so only come out at night. Their leader is Matthias, a fundamentalist who abhors the technology that, he believes, created the plague. Neville, who is unaffected, is the heretic, the ‘Creature of the wheel’ who still embraces technology. (He drives a car and, more inconveniently for the photophobic Matthias and crew, leaves the lights on at night). So Matthias and his band of hooded cultists, Neville, the omega man, is the number one target.

            Matthias preaches from a pulpit, wears a hood like some crazed monk and has legions of loyal followers. Which, on balance, is scarier? A mindless zombie or a fundamentalist?

 

The 1971 version of The Omega Man remains one of my favourite sci-fi/horror films of all time. There are no CGI effects; the stunts are real as are the locations. The city where Neville lives and survives is deserted but not decaying or weed-strewn yet. In the opening shots of deserted streets where litter is blown around and silence reigns, a chilling sense of the post-apocalyptic is evoked. Matthias and his hordes look effectively menacing and insane with their pale faces and black cloaks. They look medieval in their get up which creates a sense of the surreal by placing them in the modern urban environment.

            The drama created between Neville and his nemesis could never have been achieved if Matthias had been a mere zombie and the sense of struggle between the two opposing view points just adds to the tension. In one scene one of the main protagonists, a young woman hardened by fighting for survival on the streets of the city, becomes infected with the blood-plague and joins Matthias’s family. You could almost say how this illustrates how seductive the beliefs of the fundamentalist can be to the lost and the frightened. But hey, this is just a movie. I really should stop over analysing this.

            In the end, Neville finds a cure for the plague, Matthias tries to stop him from getting the cure to the non-infected survivors and Doctor Neville dies just as he gets the cure to them.

            So, to the 2008 version. I don’t want to slag it off, it was an enjoyable film but no where near as enjoyable as the 1971 version. I would like to have been a fly on the wall at some of the scripting meetings for the 2008 I Am Legend. Why did they choose to leave Matthias out of it and give Will Smith a mindless nemesis? Maybe they didn’t want to invoke the image of the fundamentalist in these times where fundamentalism is a more pertinent issue? Maybe they thought they’d play it safe with the well-worn plot of man-versus-zombie. This is a shame because in Matherson’s novel the vampires’s weren’t mindless attackers, they put Robert Neville on trial at the end of the book. Whatever the reason I still prefer the 1971 version.

            Having said this I’ve not seen the 1964 version of Mathersons Novel, The Last Man on Earth Starring Vincent Price. I might like that even better but I don’t think they’ll be selling it at any Shell garages anytime soon.   

Action, action,action

13 Oct

A few weeks ago I went to the cinema to watch Elysium. I was really looking forwards to it. Made by the same people who did the excellent District 9, Elysium promised a thought provoking premise and detailed, convincing CGI. The thought provoking premise was basically this; all the rich people went into space to live in a vast orbiting suburb that reminded me of parts of Surrey. These elite millionaires had found a cure for ALL disease and illness. Of course, they were all keeping all for themselves so struggling citizens from the poverty stricken Earth wanted to make it to Elysium and find a cure for their sick children or themselves. The protagonist gets a dose of radiation from the nasty robotics factory where he works and needs a cured in the next five days so takes a risky illegal flight to the orbiting space station.

            All brilliant but then the fighting began. I sat through repeated action sequence after action sequence and this caused me to wonder if all these sequences were specifically put in to keep the audience happy.

            So, what do I mean by keeping the audience happy? I’m not saying that Britain is populated by knuckle dragging morons who’s attention is only kept by action sequences and let me categorically state that I DO NOT BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE. You cannot separate our society into two fractions; those who watch documentaries on BBC4 and those who watch the X Factor. I don’t believe humanity cannot be so easily categorised. I have friends who don’t have a humanities degree and like to watch the X Factor but also understand the complex metaphysical conundra central to the plot on a programme such as Life on Mars. They understand it but don’t use pretentious phrases such as ‘metaphysical conundra’ to explain it like just did.

            From my perspective that film producers seem to think that you can categorise society like this and an action sequence will bring in the masses of drooling Burberry-wearing chavs to a film like Elysium because they won’t understand the plot and a fight sequence will keep them entertained. The media always underestimates the intelligence of the average citizen.  

 

Sci-fi, in the cinema at least, now seems to equate lots of shooting with big, futuristic looking guns. Since the space-marines in Aliens stepped out onto LV-426  back in 1987 there has followed a trail of films where space marines step onto an unknown world and shot the hell out of the aliens. No wonder extra-terrestrials haven’t made contact with us when we make this kind of film about them. Apparently when signals are transmitted from Television Centre to our TV’s they are also sent out into space. We’ve been inadvertently broadcasting re-runs of Aliens, Starship Troopers and Doom into space for (light) years. We’ve also been broadcasting X –Factor and Strictly Come Dancing into space for the last ten years which may be another reason they’ve not made contact.

 

Literary sci-fi has its fair share of space marines-action-shoot ‘em ups but this is balanced by philosophical, thought provoking concepts. Two of Britain’s biggest selling sci-fi writers are Ian M. Banks (sorely missed) and Alistair Reynolds. Why have they never made any of these great writer’s books into films? Not enough fight scenes perhaps or maybe the media again underestimates the cinema-going public’s grasp of big thought provoking concepts. Some of the best sci-fi has been thought provoking, mind and opinion changing. Take 1984. The phrase Orwellian is now used to describe states such as North Korea. Brave New World is another example and it’s a real shock that no one has tried to put Huxley’s dystopia on the big screen (although there is a TV series from the Seventies). Perhaps, maybe, because the premise is too close to the knuckle; a society patronised by its leaders and the media, continually told to be happy and smile and not think too much. Oh, while you’re up, pass me the Soma would you?

 

So imagine if Winston Smith and Julia had been lying together in that rented room above the junk shop in the East end of London in Oceania. As they talk, asking each other if they are the dead a voice booms from the telescreen concealed behind the picture.

‘You are the dead! Make no move, remain exactly where you are…’

As the thought police smash their way in Winston, still naked, grabs two massive lazer guns from under the bed supplied by the Brotherhood.

            ‘No way, mutherfuckers, you are the dead!’

            As he opens fire on the thought police Julia produces a bomb.

            ‘What, you’re part of the resistance too?’ gasps Winston between firing off lazer rounds.

            ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you Winston, I had to protect you.’

            ‘Yeah? Well the revolution begins here baby. Let’s show these Ministry of Love bastards some real thought crime. Hey, big Brother, Eat this!!!!!’

            Winston shots a helicopter out of the sky with the atomic grenade launcher, then grabs Julia’s hand and they bolt out of the shop taking out that ministry agent, the shop owner, before they by smashing his head into the telescreen by the front door.

            Jason Statham would play Winston Smith and it would be in a cinema near you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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