Guest Blog: Alex Davis

2 Mar

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So, I’ve actually got a guest on my blog today. I’ve cleared out the empty beer cans, gave the place a bit of a hoover and got the kettle on. My guest today is Alex Davis, Author, publisher and film analyst. Welcome Alex.

  1. So, Alex Tell us about Film Gutter.

 

The whole thing started back at the start of 2015, when Jim McLeod of the fantastic Ginger Nuts of Horror said he was looking for new writers and reviewers for the site. I’d been a fan for a while, so I was really keen to jump on the opportunity, and then I had to kind of decide what to do. I’d always been interested in really controversial films, and that was getting really resparked by youtube channels like Otoobach, so I figured that was something I could bring to the table. Film Gutter is effectively a quest to find the movie I simply can’t watch – I’m 15 months in and still trying, and although some have come close I’ve managed to reach the end of everything so far! It’s been a crazy journey really, because it just started out as a weekly review and then the interviews started kicking off, and now the ebook is out, and I have Jim and the incredible readers to thank for that.

 

  1. What extreme/ obscure films to you recommend to the open minded viewer?

 

I think an open mind is essential for Film Gutter! Phil Stevens’ Flowers was a real highlight of 2015, and Julia was also a wonderful recent movie. Headless was as disturbing as hell but genuinely brilliant too. Of less recent offerings I really enjoyed Cutting Moments.

 

One thing that has really interested me is how many people I know read the articles just out of interest – they wouldn’t watch the kind of horror we look at, but I suppose there is a morbid curiosity that drives some of our readership!

 

  1. So, you watch a lot of extremely violent and disturbing films. Has this adversely affected your mind or polluted your soul?

 

I wonder sometimes! I don’t think so though – I’ve always loved horror in all its forms, I’ve just been digging a lot deeper into one particular niche of late. There are definitely films that have affected me and left me really down in the dumps – Megan is Missing stands out as a great example of that. If there’s a more depressing 20 minutes of cinema in existence than the closing of that movie, I haven’t seen it. At least not yet. There are also really visceral films like Thanatomrphose and The Vomit Gore Trilogy that you simply don’t forget, no matter how much you might prefer to. There are many fans of horror – even this much darker end – that are just totally normal, well-adjusted folks. I like to consider myself among them!

 

  1. Do you watch ‘normal’ films (like Star Wars or Deadpool)?

 

I’ve actually not thought about this till you asked, but basically no. That’s in part a time consideration – I probably have time to watch a few movies a week, tops, and with so much great stuff out there and the odd screener and stuff that I get that largely gets taken up with stuff for Film Gutter. But I think it’s also partly because it’s such an incredibly cool scene of people, and there’s so much great stuff out there – it’s rare I give a movie low marks because the quality on the whole has been excellent, and I love indy and foreign film on the whole, which the majority of our stuff tends to be.

 

I’ve not been to see Star Wars or Deadpool – in fact my last trip to the cinema was to take my daughter to see Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. And even that had a John Waters cameo and a Pink Flamingos gag to keep me going. It’s also very rare I go to the cinema even to see a horror film – the mainstream stuff just feels a bit disappointing to me so much of the time, even stuff that gets so hyped and loved like It Follows. That was such a huge letdown for me. I suppose you could ultimately say I’m pretty much happy in the gutter!!

 

  1. So, enough about films. Is there anything you’re reading which is sick, terrifying or just gripping you can recommend?

 

Disturbing-wise, one of my very favourite books is Conrad Williams’ The Unblemished. He’s always been one of my favourite horror writers, and to me this is his magnum opus, and has a lot of pretty extreme stuff in it. The book that most freaked me out – although it doesn’t really get marketed as horror – was Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves. It’s so immersive and believable that it legit gave me nightmares and had me lying awake at night for a bit.

 

  1. You are also a publisher. Tell us about Boo Books. Any new releases on the horizon?

 

Boo Books is my small press venture, which I set up about 18 months ago with a view to trying to publish regional writing talent. We’ve had some great stuff out so far – Andrew David Barker’s two titles The Electric and Dead Leaves have been particular big hits for us. Next up is James Everington’s stunning neo-ghost story Trying to be So Quiet – a slim volume but one that literally reduced me to tears – and Tracy Fahey’s incredible short story collection The Unheimlich Maneouvre, which we’ve just announced.

 

  1. You are also a writer with a sci-fi book out. Very different to horror I think. Tell us about that.

 

I suppose SF would be my second love behind horror, and The Last War was initially written to be part of a shared universe for a publisher out in Australia. When they went bust, I was left with a manuscript I rather liked with no home. I sent it on to Gary at Tickety Boo some time afterwards and he was really keen right away, and we released last summer. It’s a story about the start of an alien civilisation, and for me was kind of an effort to explore religion and how it affects people and society. There’s some good old telepathy in there as well, which definitely causes its share of problems for our protagonists.

 

  1. As well as running Film gutter and Boo books you also run the Edgelit Convention. What’s in store this year?

 

Last year was our biggest yet – with 250 attendees – so that was really cool, although we now have to match that! We’ve got three Guests of Honour confirmed with M John Harrison, Emma Newman and Alastair Reynolds, and we’ll have our patented mix of panels, workshops (those are always really popular!), readings and shenanigans such as the raffle and quiz. We’ve already got more launches and dealers than ever before, so it’s shaping up to be a cracker at this early stage.

 

  1. What music are you listening to these days.

 

I tend to flit between obscure metal and obscure rap these days! Metal-wise I’m bang into Rammstein right now – it’s so motivational with that industrial feel. I love a lot of the Scandinavian metal – Katatonia are a particular favourite right now. Rap I love a lot of the stuff on Tech Nine’s Strange Music label – I think MayDay are astounding, and Brotha Lynch Hung’s cannibal-inspired stuff is so dark and out there.

 

Bonus Question:

  1. In or out?

 

Honestly, I don’t know. Weirdly the one thing I do feel strongly about is the referendum – if parliament isn’t there to make decisions, based on expertise and suitable information, then what the hell is it there for? We might as well all vote on huge national decisions via our Sky remotes if the government aren’t going to make them. Press Red to Stay In Europe…

 

Sure, there will be some people who will look into it and make a judgement based on the info they find, but how many will be voting knee-jerk or without the facts in front of them? It’s like a football manager going out and asking the fans to pick the team – it’s nonsense. He’s employed to get the best results, and because he knows football inside out. If the powers that be don’t know, how is the man on the street supposed to know?

Thank you Alex Davis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Autumn of Discontent: ‘Dead Leaves’ by Andrew David Barker reviewed.

26 Jan

 

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Dead Leaves by Andrew David Barker is essentially about a day. A day where dramatic, scary, funny events don’t just take place but shape a life.

Scott is a seventeen year old living in Derby in the eighties. He and his friends Mark and Paul are horror film fans living in an era when Mary Whitehouse whipped up a media storm about so called video nasties. Dead Leaves offers a snapshot of these times; high unemployment, youth violence, heavy metal and police raiding video shops. All these things happen within a day. Dead leaves is one of those books which is an absolute page turner and with some chapters being only three words long you really have no choice but to turn the page. Don’t let that put you off, though.

For me, it managed to capture what it’s like to be young, have dreams and have people tell you that your dreams are worthless. Scott realises he wants to be a film maker but he’s working class, lives in Derby and has a mum and dad that do not share those dreams. This is something of an understatement. The odds are stacked against him but he knows that his parents vision of his future, that you work and work and work, marry, have kids, work then die, is a waking nightmare to be avoided at all costs.

I grew up in the eighties. None of my friends had video players and my family didn’t get one until 1987. So I didn’t see any video nasties myself. My father wanted me to go into the building trade, I wanted to be a writer. And a traveller. And a…well…I don’t know what I wanted. I had no clear vision but work, marriage, kids death was not for me. Not at that age anyway. Reading Dead Leaves bought back powerful memories of arguments with my father, that feeling of despair when facing the possibility that your days will be filled with working on building sites and getting up at six every morning.

As I said earlier Dead Leaves is essentially about a day when everything turns round. I had my day in 1988. It started with a wedgie.

Having listened to my father  I found myself unhappily slogging it through a Youth training scheme in painting and decorating at the Tech. One day my compatriots decided to get me. I wore pink boxer shorts which would stick out at the back so I was asking for it really. I got very upset as my balls were hoisted into my belly, called them all wankers and stormed out. The guy who’d pulled the wedgie followed me up the road, apologised and we actually had a good chat. He tried to persuade me to come back to the course but that was it. There was no going back. We shook hands and I hitch-hiked home, a first for me. That evening I went to the village disco and had my first snog (another first) with a woman who was 43.

At the end of the book it’s clear that Scot did follow his dreams and didn’t take up a factory job. I ended up hitch-hiking around Europe two years later then went back to get my A levels (all right, I did an Access course) then left my home village and moved to the vast heaving metropolis of Northampton to study English, Drama and Sociology.

Okay, so, this is supposed to a review of Andrew David Barker’s Dead Leaves but I’ve talked about myself for most of it. That’s because the book triggers such personal memories, for me at least. To my knowledge Dead Leaves has had only limited exposure which is a real shame because it’s as good as any classic coming-of-age novel. Dead Leaves is a Kes for the video generation. The age old struggle to break free from your parents demands is a timeless source of literary material which Andrew David Barker has tapped into and used brilliantly.

The Lost Film

13 Jan

downloadI’m always complaining that there are too many rehashed monster books and films out there. Dracula, Frankenstein, Zombies for flip sake. Bacon and West have come up with a new type of evil entity. One that stinks and gives you a hard-on (or the female equivalent) if you’re close enough to them. Strangely this idea works.
Another idea that works is the notion of a lost film that contains power to curse. This had been explored in The Ring series by Koji Suzuki but it’s an idea that can be reworked in new and interesting ways. Mr West and Mr Bacon have had a go and pulled it off rather well. The Lost Film consists of two novellas. Steven Bacon’s Lantern Rock and Mark west’s The Lost Film.
Lantern rock is set on an island and home of elderly film director, Lionel Rutherford. This director has his own home cinema and plenty of strange rooms in his rambling mansion which is the only house to inhabit the island. Reporter Paul Madigan and his slightly unwanted companion Ellie Rutherford arrive at the island to interview the reclusive director. Like all good horror stories a storm cuts them off from the mainland and the fun begins. Bacon manages to mix the occult aesthetics of Dennis Wheatley with the otherworldly creatures of HP Lovecraft but doesn’t give too much away. Enough tantalising hints kept me turning the page.
Mark Wests The Lost film (the title track if you will) is altogether different. A typical gumshoe detective story but set in the fictional towns of Gaffney and Heyton (both having appeared in his work before) sees private investigator Gabriel Bird on the trail of lost film director Roger Sinclair. Sinclair’s unreleased film apparently drives people mad and clips have started appearing on the internet.
The detective clichés are all there; from the opening scene where the client appears to Bird in his office to offer him the case to a visit of a past associate in a mental hospital which goes horribly wrong.
In this decade, the seventies are close to becoming ancient history. I imagine that in the Seventies they treated World War Two in much the same way but the old films that we watch on the Horror channel late at night fire the imagination as to how they were made and what went on behind the scenes. They are testaments from another time and are used by West in much the same way as medieval texts were used by MR James to give historical credence to a story. Hats off to Bacon and West for being the first (as far as I know) to use the canon created by Hammer and Amicus etc as a tool in horror fiction.
The two novellas are both satisfying horror reads using an interconnected mythology created around both Seventies film directors. Well-researched and atmospheric, these two novellas almost belong in the archaic canon which they so revere.

Religious madness: God Bomb by Kit Power reviewed.

17 Nov

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I heard about God Bomb back in the summer, read the blurb and instantly wanted to read it as so many issues explored in the book seemed pertinent to me. God bomb is set in North Devon in 1995. A teenage atheist suicide bomber walks into a born again Christian revival meeting and states that if God doesn’t appear now, in person, then he’s going to detonate the bomb strapped to his body and kill everyone in the hall. The ensuing story details (and it does detail with excruciating clarity) the next few hours of this siege situation. The book screamed for my attention for several reasons. I’m a Christian myself and I go to small rural church. Also I naturally gravitate to anything with a theological angle. The old adage of ‘write about what you know goes’ both ways as far as I’m concerned as I also like to read about what I know too.

In short, God Bomb is an excellent book. The tension of the siege situation bleeds from every page and I found myself torn between wanting to read the next chapter and needing to put it down because the tension was too much. The narrative is in first person, jumping between character’s different points of view. I usually find first person prose a bit pretentious, a tool to try to give prose more of an edge but with God Bomb this is absolutely necessary because the fast pace and the tension of the situation demand it. This also worked well with the Hunger Games series, books brimming with tension.
Kit also uses broken dialogue as an effective tool, sometimes starting conversations halfway through or not finishing them, a neat tool to show how distressed a character is as they collapse into near mental breakdown or sharply focus on action taking place somewhere else in the room. This technique is well used in the part of the story where one of the characters, Mike, is giving his testimony but never finishes. There is no second guessing the plotlines to this story either and Kit throws in some really unexpected curveballs as far as plot goes.

The realism in this book is absolutely spot on, achieved largely because the characters portrayed are so lifelike. As I said earlier I go to a small rural church myself in a not so small market town and I’ve met every one of these characters. Twitch, the alcoholic man in his in his mid 30’s can be found in my church as can Mike the sax player and the ordinary couple Peter and Emma. As a description of a ‘modern’ protestant church (It’s set 20 years ago but society hasn’t changed that much) the book is spot on. It’s how these characters interact under pressure which is the really interesting part. How they bare their souls and make their choices. The preacher seems like a genuinely nice man (perhaps I’m biased) and here a writer with an agenda could have painted him as a Bible-verse-spouting nutter but the beauty of God Bomb is that this character is allowed to a be a fully rounded human being with a range of emotions who is trying to do the right thing in his own eyes. The bomber himself is the most chillingly realised psychopath Iv’e read in a long time. His motives are driven by his fluctuating morality and he is utterly unhinged and unpredictable.
For me, the key strength of God Bomb is the power the book possesses to provoke thought. Quite simply it doesn’t preach to the reader. It doesn’t preach Christianity. It doesn’t preach atheism. It allows the reader to make up their own mind yet promps more questions as the story unfolds.
So, what other texts could God Bomb be compared to? Well, I thought God Bomb could almost fall into the religious fiction category (okay, some of the more conservative Christians might have a problem with the sheer amount of violence but this is about a psychopath holding a church to siege. It needs to be violent) Iv’e not read much modern Christian fiction (for example The Shack by William P. Young. Iv’e not been moved to pick it up) Iv’e read C.S. Lewis and Adrian Plass but that’s about it.
This book is a million miles away from those two writers: an academic and a comedy writer.

However, this did strongly remind me of the small biography of Cassie Barnell a girl murdered in one of the many high school shootings in the USA. The book was called She Said Yes: the Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Barnell by her mother Misty Bernall. Two heavily armed nihilistic youths walk into a school, begin shooting, find Cassie cowering under a desk. With guns pointed at her they ask her is she’s a Christian. Cassie replies in the affirmative and they shoot her dead on the spot. God Bomb is a ‘what if’. She Said Yes is a true story. Just because God Bomb is fiction this does not invalidate its content.
For me the book is close to the bone. Iv’e met some quite intense characters, Christian and non-Christian, in the church. People with quite extreme ideas making chilling verbal statements (Iv’e also met a lot of nice ordinary people in church, just for the record). I could easily imagine someone walking into a church with a bomb or a gun making the same statement that the bomber in the book makes. I could imagine it happening in my church. No one from outside would call the police because no one really knows what goes on on a Sunday morning in that funny old building opposite Costcutters just off the high street. These days someone inside might be able to text a message or make a phone call (I see one reason why Mr Power chose to set the book in 1995 when mobiles were few and far between). The church is often a target for the deluded yet the church is open for all to enter.

Of course attacks on churches have happened. Recently in America, in Charleston, a white supremacist walked into a church with a gun and opened fire. In 1999 a man walked in to St Andrews Roman Catholic church in Croydon one evening with a sword and attacked the congregation. My aunt was one of those people in that church. She relayed how she lay on the floor under a pew, a severed hand close to her face. She said that she tried to pray but couldn’t because she was so paralysed with fear.
God Bomb can’t be praised highly enough. Our world is still vastly influenced by religion. We live in the era of post 9/11, Islamic fundamentalism and the GOD channel. God bomb is a book of our age.

Defending Dennis: Some Thoughts from the 21st Century on Dennis Wheatley’s ‘The Satanist’

25 May

The satanist

Many older writers of the fantastic seem to have achieved cult status I this day and age. H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock, M.R.James for example. However, Dennis Wheatley seems to be overlooked. The actual reasons are unclear but from what I’ve picked up from comments on social media and conversations with friends the reasons for his burial range from poor writing to colonial outdated racists attitudes. Well, HP Lovecraft was notoriously racist and M.R. James was writing in a time of colonialist attitudes and wider class division and they seem to be forgiven. One conversation I’d had with a fellow churchgoer who wasn’t really big on reading horror (funny that) was that Wheatley’s work shouldn’t be read because of the occult themes. With this in mind I tracked down a copy of his 1960 book The Satanist (actually, that’s a lie. It was a Christmas present).

I enjoy reading and watching older fiction to see how things have changed since the time of writing. So with some relish I read The Satanist.

The story follows British Secret Services’ attempts to stop communist infiltration of Britain via the trade unions. ‘The Reds’ are also linked to a group of Satanists. A young agent called Barney Sullivan infiltrates the communist unions whilst Mary Morden infiltrates the Satanist sect which was responsible for her husband’s murder. Mary attends a spiritualist group and meets one Mr Ratnadatta, a talent scout for the Order of the Great Ram, a Satanist group who meet in a temple in central London.

I wasn’t expecting a lot of sex and gore but I was expecting a lot of sexist attitudes and racial stereotyping.  As a novel it was real page turner with some good, jaw dropping plot twists. Mary, as an initiate, would be expected to take part in orgies at the temple and ‘have many lovers’ in one night. There is a lot of talk of having sex but no actual sex scenes. This was 1960, remember. Pre Lady Chatterley and the sexual revolution. As for sexism….well. Okay, being a man I’m not going to be as able to spot sexist attitudes in literature as my female contemporaries. I say this as my female contemporaries have pointed out sexist attitudes in literature that I haven’t spotted. For me, the character of Mary Morden was a positive role model. A strong, independent woman avenging the death of her husband. Mary who uses her intelligence to save the day more than once in this novel.

What about racism? Oh dear. Several times Mr Wheatley refers to his black characters as ‘negros’. Even in 1960 I imagine this word has horrible associations with the slave trade. His heroes also use other racial slang words which are pretty offensive today but weren’t back in the sixties. Probably the most glaring racial stereotype in the Indian Character Ratnadatta. Wheatley has him speaking in this Indian accent, over emphasising the F’s which looks clunky on the page and is actually a painful and awkward to read. The effect, for me, is the same as when the character Joseph speaks in his broad Yorkshire dialect in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Not only is it hard to understand but as prose is grates with the reader.

More than anything in the book the Ratnadatta character suggests the ‘Johnny-foreigner’-as-the-enemy-attitude that was prevalent at the time. What makes this less offensive then and more offensive now? Well, we live in a multicultural society. I’d hate to think any of my friends from ethnic backgrounds being labelled in this way and I cringe when I think of any of my Indian friends reading the character of Ratnadatta thinking I shared the writers attitude.

I’m not going to be an apologist for Wheatley but I will defend his writing. The Satanist was a page tuner, had a good plot, and (with the exception of Ratnadatta) had likeable, well-formed characters most of whom seemed to spend time having a whiskey and soda in Colonel Veasey’s club.

So, the occult knowledge seems to be quite genuine and more or less square up with what I know about real occult practices. Wheatley warns against having anything to do with the occult and seems to advocate Christianity as a viable alternative. Colonel Veasey refers to ‘Our Lord Christ’ a few times, Mary knocks out the Satanist by chucking a cross at him. I get the feeling that Wheatley is fascinated by the occult but also morally opposes it. I’d like to know if he had any experience in the occult and where he got his ideas of an international secret anti-church from.

A few times he quotes Crowley ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’, and the Satanists’ creed seems positively Crowlean in its promotion of freedom both morally and sexually. Conversely, the sect will punish anyone who doesn’t obey. Crowley was notorious in the early twentieth century and occultism did have quite an interest at that time in Europe. This popularisation of the occult may have acted as a foundation to Wheatley’s fiction. Crowley’s activities in the abbey at Thelema in Sicily made the front page in 1920’s tabloids and saw him expelled from Sicily under Mussolini’s regime.

In the sixties and seventies Wheatley’s books sold by the bucket load. Now you can’t even find them in Charity shops although they have just been reissued by Bloomsbury.   

So, if Wheatley was writing today how different would the books be? In the sixties religious fundamentalism wasn’t making the headlines as it is today. The world of the sixties seems to have forgotten religious persecution; witch trials, the Torquemada. In post war Britain the black and white, good-verses-evil was more plausible. We live in an age of ISIS and Al-qaeda, We’ve just been through the age of Bush and Blair, alleged Christians ordering bombs to be dropped on cities. This would complicate the idea of good being the church of God and evil being the church of Satan.

If he were writing today there would be more sex, more orgies would take place. There would probably be more violence too. However good plot and characterisation are universal whatever age you are writing in.

So, to conclude I wouldn’t be too hard on Wheatley. The pace, plot and overall concepts of The Satanist were strong. I’ve not sold the amount of books he has so who the hell am I to judge anyway?

How to Kill a Rat with Your Teeth

10 May

I was sitting in a pub reading alone the other week and a lovely drunk girl looked over from her cool looking hipster friends to ask me what I was reading.

‘Er…this…a book of short stories by Roald Dahl,’ I replied.

On seeing the book she actually came over and sat at my table which was nice and we had a conversation about Roald Dahl stores we’d read at school. I remember The Twits making me feel physically sick (the twit with the food, including a fish tail stuck in his beard. The only other media to make me almost physically sick being the puke-eating scene in Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste) and the alien from the Great glass elevator scaring the crap out of me.

I was reading Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life and the girl, on inspecting the book, said she had book envy before the conversation moved on to veganism.

I’d remembered one of the stories from this book being taught at school. Being 14 I didn’t notice the literary subtleties and character development. I just remember liking it because it had the word bastard in it somewhere.

Dahl has several volumes of short stories for adults out but Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life impressed me because all the stores are about rural life. I grew up in the country, moved to a city but now I live in a fairly rural environment. The book is comprised of seven short stories all set in the same village with the same characters running through each story. Short stories aren’t my greatest love as I prefer the expanded plot and character development afforded by novels. However, as the setting and characters run through each story they give the same satisfaction as reading a novel. There are other instances where I’ve found an anthology with a running theme most enjoyable. One of the best anthologies I’ve read recently is Fogbound From 5. Interconnected stories all set on the last train home published by Hersham Horror press. There’s also Lovecraft’s collections of Cthulhu stories which I love.

I digress. Back to Dahl. I found the stories to be brilliant and funny. For instance Parson’s Pleasure is about an antique dealer who disguises himself as a vicar to inspect rural houses and pick up antiques. The Champion of the World is about two poachers who decide to use raisins impregnated with sleeping pills to drug and catch pheasants.

One of the most memorable characters is a The Ratcatcher, a truly disgusting creature, the kind of in your face nutter you pray doesn’t start speaking to you in the pub. The Ratcatcher revolted me almost as much as Mr Twit and his beard. This guy looks like a tramp and keeps live rats about his person to demonstrate how to kill them to his customers. He demonstrates to the narrator and his mate, Claud, how he can kill a rat with his teeth alone. Stephen King seems to enjoy creating rural working class characters but Roald Dahl absolutely rules at this. The horrific and the hilarious to rub shoulders and create a brilliant friction.

You don’t seem to hear his name banded about as much these days in literary circles but since finishing this book I’ve met all kinds of people from different back grounds who have an admiration for Roald Dahl’s adult work. Living in the countryside I just hope I don’t bump into The Ratcatcher anytime soon.

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The Blog Hop

10 Apr

First memory

Typically my first memory is television based. I remember watching Doctor Who in the early seventies and seeing one of the characters creep past a sleeping dinosaur. Thanks to this modern, information-rich age I now know that the story was Invasion of the Dinosaurs, screened in 1974 and thanks to the wonders of DVD I can now re-live my first memory again and again. I also remember something about a sliding bathroom door and possibly a monster behind it. I don’t really need to relive that one again.

Books

As a youngster I used to find reading hard going but when I was twelve I read James Herbert’s The Rats. According to the school I had a reading age of 9. After finishing this my reading age went up to twelve. Previously to this I found To the Devil a Daughter by Dennis Wheatley and The 7th Pan Book of Horror Stories in a spare room at my grandfather’s house. My grandfather had been quite a moral man. He’d been in the navy for a number of years and could be quite authoritarian when he needed to be. I also remember having arguments with him about religion as I’d become an atheist when I was five. He was pro-God. Remembering his character it didn’t seem to square that he’d be reading occult horror in his spare time. I read most of To the Devil a Daughter over several afternoons when I was eleven. At the same time I read a really scary story about a giant spider in the Pan book. In fact, I read this one twice, going back to it on my next visit I was so fascinated by the concept of a giant spider appearing and giving an arachnophobe a heart attack.

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Libraries

I grew up I rural Oxfordshire and there were no libraries in the vicinity. However, a library van would stop in the hamlet where we lived and after a while the librarians got to know my taste in books. I was about 15 back then. They’d furnish me with Dean Koontz and Stephen King books. The library van had a big back window which in let lots of light and I remember the rocking motion the van made when you climbed aboard. I don’t know if they have library vans anymore.

Mobile library

Passion

Apart from writing I have a couple of extracurricular occupations. I volunteer with a church-run charity in Northampton called Reachout. Once every six weeks myself and three others go out and about in Northampton’s town centre and give food, clothing and a hot drinks to homeless people on the streets. There is a rota so every Friday a team will go out. There are enough people on the rota to take turns going out each week without the responsibility falling to just one team. Walking around town at night isn’t as onerous as it sounds and the majority of the people we see know us. Reachout is linked with other homeless projects which offer everything from a hot sit down meal to a residential drugs/alcohol detox programme.

My other curricular activity is Morris Dancing. Not only does Morris dancing keep you fit, you get to wear bells, a tri-corn hat and wave hankies and hit sticks in public places. I’ve made lots of good friends through this and had more fun than I’ve ever had. I’m in my forties, I shouldn’t be having fun. Morris dancing also inspired me to write a story called The Snap End Morris Men which appeared in an anthology called Haunted from Boo Books, which I’m very proud of.

Learning

I didn’t like school. I’ve been categorised before as an ‘odd learner’ by university lecturers and colleges in my current field of work (Occupational therapy). At school I was shockingly bad at maths but okay at English. Because of this I was streamlined into remedial classes and left school with a city and guilds in how to work in a factory and very little else. Subsequently In my adult life I’ve completed two degrees, one in English, Drama and Sociology and a second degree in Occupational Therapy. I’m sure, subconsciously, I only did these two degrees to make up for my lack of progress at school.

At one point in my life I started training to be a teacher and, yes, just to absolutely confirm it, I still hated school. Obviously I was then on the other side of the fence then but the same routines and disciplines, (registration, the end of period bell) still freaked me out. Some people hate hospitals because of the smell and general atmosphere. I hate schools in the same way. I work in a hospital now, though.

Despite all this there was a teacher at school who inspired me. This man was head of the remedial block where I was learning to tell the time using a cardboard clock. He recognised that I enjoyed reading so lent me 1984 and The Lord of The Rings. He also encouraged my writing and fought to get me into the mainstream sets with little success. He was sorely disappointed when I left school disillusioned, angry and without an O level to my name. I may have left school without any qualifications but, thanks to this teacher, I didn’t leave school without learning anything.

Writing

I am a firm believer that reality exists merely to provide me with interesting settings and plotlines for works of fiction. At present I work in a hospital, a microcosm of society and an excellent setting to explore mortality. I’ve previously worked in psychiatric units, placements for people with learning disabilities and once I worked in a factory painting cones red. All of these experiences offer interesting scenarios to twist into fantastic fiction. My latest novel, Bad Acid I wrote fifteen years ago whilst on night shifts in the psychiatric unit. I’ve another novel, Highcross, set in a village recently refurbished after being left empty for seventy years Highcross was written when working as an Occupational Therapist in a rehab unit for people who were overcoming physical ailments such as brain injury, stroke or fractured bones. I’ve been privileged see the many facets of the human psyche working so close to so many people which informed the characters of that novel.

bad acid - cover 1

I like doing nothing more than writing. There is no better feeling than making a coffee, switching on the computer and banging out a couple of chapters of  a story that’s really enjoyable to write. I usually find that I’m so engrossed in the writing that my coffee’s sometimes gone cold before I’ve finished it. That never happens when, for instance, I’m at work writing reports which are not as engrossing as writing fiction.

For the next blog hop I hand over to Alex Davis.

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.