Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Sparrowhawk now issued in ebook version

SPARROWHAWK, my Christmas horror novella of last year, which was nominated as a finalist in the British Fantasy Awards, has finally made it into ebook form - HERE (UK) and HERE (US) – just in time for the 2011 festive season.

This Yuletide tale of terror and torment is probably my favourite piece of work to date (so much so that I’ve even written a two-episode film/TV script from it, entirely on spec). Quite a few of you will already be familiar with it, but for those who aren’t, and for those who prefer their reading matter in electronic format, this new version could be just what you need if you fancy acquiring something spooky but seasonal this December.

Here’s the official blurb:

In December 1843, embittered Afghan War veteran, John Sparrowhawk, is released from the debtor’s prison by the beautiful but enigmatic Miss Evangeline.

Penniless, alone and tortured by the demons of his past, he has no option but to accept employment with his mysterious new benefactor. The job she offers him is to stand guard over a house in Bloomsbury for the duration of the Christmas period. It sounds simple enough, but as the coldest winter in living memory descends on London, Sparrowhawk senses the presence of an unseen but very dangerous enemy, who will soon start to manifest in the most horrific and terrifying ways …


I’d add a bit to that now, pointing out that SPARROWHAWK isn’t just a horror story. Sure, it comprises strong horror elements, but its setting is Victorian London – desolate, frosty backstreets, ice-cold rooms in drab tenements, bustling Christmas markets wreathed in a fog of London breath as paupers and pickpockets rub shoulders with the rich and splendid – so I think it’s atmosphere is more that of a festive ghost story.

Some of its evil entities are certainly drawn from that milieu:

… The marionette was directly behind him. Its arms were by its sides, but its head had jerked upright, the beads rolling in its bauble eyes. Its hinged jaw dropped to reveal a cavernous blood-red mouth, from which a demented squawk issued …

But SPARROWHAWK is not just a ghost story either. It’s also a period adventure, taking us from the battle-scarred plains of 19th century Afghanistan to the smoke-blackened moors of industrial Lancashire, from thieves’ kitchens in London’s teeming slums to glittering ballrooms filled with lords, ladies and Machiavellian schemers.

There is beauty in SPARROWHAWK:

… Leticia was ‘peaches and cream’ pretty, as she’d always been: her lips strawberry pink, her eyes peppermint green; soft freckles dusted her nose …

And there are monsters:

… With another low growl – this one mewling and prolonged – the lion-thing tore off its dress shirt. The naked torso beneath was massive of shoulder and chest, padded all over with muscle, rich with thick, tawny fur …

I’m acutely aware that I’m what really doing here is banging my own drum again. But I guess the object of this exercise is to try to give you a sort of cinematic trailer, and not only that, a trailer with an epic feel.

For example, there is no shortage of action:

… Tribesmen were surging on all sides, their powerful jezails pouring non-stop fire into the close-packed British ranks …

… he drew his sabre and cut his way among them. He hacked an Afghan’s legs away. He shore another’s arm at the elbow. He rammed his sword through a screaming mouth, only for the blade to snap as he tried to yank it free …


Tension:

… He followed them at his own pace for several miles, heading through Clerkenwell and St Luke’s, and eventually into Hoxton, where the ways became narrow and twisting, passing between rookeries that reeked of squalour and villainy …

Or passion:

… He made to move away, but she stopped him, turned his face to hers, and, standing up on tip toes, kissed him on the lips. Her mouth was warm, moist, sweet as rosewater. It lingered on his for several moments.
When they separated again, she asked: “Am I real enough for you now?” …

… Their lips met again. His loins stirred as their tongues entwined. His muscles tightened as her hands crept around his back, the contours of her body fitting snugly against his. Suddenly, for the first time in months, Sparrowhawk felt strong again, healthy, vital…


But why take my word for it? Since the book was first published last Christmas, quite a few positive reviews have appeared. Here are some choice extracts:

Finch excels, both in his creation of the Victorian milieu, with compelling portrayals of the snowbound streets and the lives of the poor, so that you can feel the ache of the cold as it gets into your bones and the hunger in your belly, and also in the way in which the attacking entities use Sparrowhawk’s psychology against him, so that his emotional well-being is more under threat than his physical person.

Finch also uses the novel to criticise the politics of the day, and by inference those of our own time seem firmly in his sights also, with plenty of correspondence to be drawn – British soldiers involved in a hopeless Afghan conflict, civil unrest at home over social conditions, etc. Scenes such as the victory feast at which Sparrowhawk’s vanity is massaged by a famous general of the conflict, and his memories of the Peterloo massacre, ground the book in our present day as much as they do the Victorian age …
Black Static


Sparrowhawk is defined as “a Victorian ghost story” masterfully blending different fictional elements. Partly it’s a historical tableau – the story is set in London in 1843 and features an Afghan war veteran who, at the beginning of the story lies in a debtor’s prison – depicting with efficacy the features of life during Victorian England.

A mysterious and fascinating employer recruits Sparrowhawk to guard and protect the inhabitants of a London house against unspecified enemies which soon will reveal their true, supernatural nature. Thus the novella soon becomes a ghostly, horrific tale full of creepy surprises.

In addition Finch manages to squeeze into the tale a fleeting love story which will briefly soothe the Captain’s emotional pain deriving from a past private tragedy.

Reading this book is a pleasure for any lover of good fiction. I warmly invite you to partake in this pleasure.
Hellnotes


Finch’s strength in this sub-genre is his obvious detailed knowledge of the periods he writes about. This is not portrayed through any great protracted exposition but via the everyday lives of the characters. Sparrowhawk’s revelations about the tragedy of the original Afghanistan war resonate into modern times but it is the war’s effect on the returning soldiers that is most powerful. Here are war heroes sent by their lords and masters to do their bidding in the most dreadful circumstances only to find on their return they are discarded by society, sound familiar?

This emotional resonance is portrayed with a light touch but is only part of the story. The details of the surroundings and everyday life in Victorian London really bring the book alive, you can almost smell the filthy backstreets and grimy bodies. But this is first and foremost a ghost story and it succeeds by never revealing too much of the threat.

Ideally it’s a book that should be read on a snowy Christmas Eve, preferably by candlelight and with the local urchins singing Christmas carols outside but even in a blazing hot April it still managed to impart that atmosphere and Christmas spirit.
The Black Abyss


I should add quickly that SPARROWHAWK is still available to buy in print form if you prefer it (the original text has not been altered in any way for this ebook). Just call in at PENDRAGON PRESS or AMAZON UK or US.

But if you’re dead-set on the new electronic version, you can buy it HERE. I’m not trying to twist your arm or anything, even though John Sparrowhawk definitely would – literally – but at £2.86 / $4.41, is this an opportunity for an early Christmas prezzie that you can honestly afford to miss?

Friday, 18 November 2011

These macabre are well and truly dancing


Quod fuimus, estis; quod sumus, vos eristis ...

If an understanding of that once-famous Latin quotation doesn't spring immediately to mind, don't be too embarrassed. It only exists now as part of a fading fresco in a 14th century European church. But back in the day, that would have been quite a salutory lesson to anyone who encountered it, especially if he was in church because he felt he had a few sins to unburden from his soul.

It features originally at the end of a short medieval parable, in which three well-heeled young men are hunting in the forest only to strange hear voices calling them to an isolated glade. When they arrive there, they are confronted by three decaying cadavers who approach and embrace them.

The Latin text relevant to this tale translates as: "What we were, you are; what we are, you will be."

Nice thought, eh? But to be fair, the artist responsible was only trying to do what I have tried to do with my new short novella, KING DEATH, released by SPECTRAL PRESS this last week: take some meaning from the appalling tragedy that was the Black Death, the ghastly plague which arrived in England, having already ravaged Europe and the Middle East, in 1348.


('Black Death' was the name given to it by English writers of the time; it was also known as 'the Pest', 'the Scourge', 'the Visitation' and 'the Darkness' - none of which, correct me if I'm wrong, sound as if they were coined to try and reassure those living in its shadow).

Okay, okay ... I'm not trying to put myself on the same pedestal as the great artisans of that gloriously artistic age. I'm just trying to point out that the Black Death has long been a source of fascination to creative types.

Haivng minuscule science to hand, those living at the time were moved to try and understand it through their imagination. With two out of every three people dying (imagine that!), it's perhaps no surprise that many artworks produced during the plague years and post-plague years came to depict the inevitability of Death in general, and made great play of its non-discriminatory nature. The woodcut at the top of this column is the famous 'Dance Of Death' by Michael Wolgemut from (1493), a shocking image which movie buffs will also recollect from the end of the classic motion picture on the same subject, Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957).

Below is 'The Abbot' by Holbein the Younger, which shows that even the most dignified personages could also be dragged off to become part of Death's cannibal feast. Lower down is a freely pinched segment from 'Totentanz' as it was in L├╝beck’s Marienkirche (destroyed in World War II); this one is particularly chilling, as it vividly portrays the fiendish glee with which the dead prepare the living to join them.


Of course, the artists who created these meaningful nightmares had a better excuse than me. They experienced the plague at first-hand, and it almost certainly marked them for the rest of their lives. All I can admit to with KING DEATH is having told a grim and hopefully spooky tale set against the turbulent backdrop of plague-stricken 14th century England.

If you can forgive a minor conceit, thus far the reviews are pretty positive. I'm not going to reproduce them in full, but here are a couple of choice extracts.

Walt Hicks of HELLBOUND TIMES says of it:

In the capable hands of multiple award-winning author Paul Finch, we are masterfully, if reluctantly, transported to those unimaginably dreadful days of pestilence, death and misery. And yet, Finch renders these gruesome horrors with such an achingly beautiful and precise prose that the reader’s heart is torn in pity ...

Geoff Nelder of SCIENCE42FICTION comments:

“... award-winning author, Paul Finch, steeps us in the stench of rotting bodies, and plays with the retaking of the environment by Nature. To keep us engrossed in the medieval experience we are treated to a wonderful lexicon of the ages: Jongleur, rambraces, rerebraces, miniver, bascinet, seneschal, sokemen, and my favourite – ouches of gold. To save you reaching for Dictionary.com there is a glossary bringing up the rear though the context is usually enough to keep you going ..."

(It would be very remiss of me not to here thank Spectrals's Simon Marshall-Jones for suggesting the idea of a medievasl glossary of terms - I do sometimes forget that not everyone is as drenched in that era as I am).


In some ways it feels strange being congratulated for having re-evoked the full horror and mystery of the plague era, but I'm fortunate in that history never feels dead to me. I always believe that, unless you have a specific agenda to do otherwise, you're not being true to the past unless you present it - even in fictional terms - warts and all.

Or should that be 'plague-sores and all'?

I'll get my coat ...

Monday, 14 November 2011

Celebrating death in the Lake District mist

I'm pleased to be able to report that one of the contributions to TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, Simon Bestwick's blood-chilling THE MORAINE, has been recommended for a BRAM STOKER AWARD in the capacity of Best Short Fiction.

THE MORAINE is certainly a scary one. It tells the tale of a couple who get lost on the misty Lakeland fells, becoming increasingly antagonistic to each other, only to then start to suspect that they aren't up there alone. But that's only the start of it. There are twists and turnes galore as the sense of horror and confusion (because this is no ordinary stalker who is on their tail) mounts.

As so often in Simon Bestwick's stories, the human heroes are flawed by weakness and self-interest, and as such are completely unprepared for the unexpected terror they are suddenly forced to deal wtih, but equally as always in Simon's work, these characters are so well drawn and realistic that you always end up rooting for them.

In other news connected to TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, a rather nice review on Amazon gives it five stars and describes the book as "a creepy and entertaining set of stories, among which were a few absolute classics".


There is also an interesting new offer out from the book's publisher, GRAY FRIAR PRESS ... just in time for Christmas, no less

Visit the GRAY FRIAR site, and if you purchase TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT from there, you can get the previous anthology DEATH RATTLES, for only an extra £4 / $7. That comes out at £14.99 / $31 including shipping. Add an extra £4 / $7 to that, and you can also get the Gray Friar anthology published before that, WHERE THE HEART IS (£18.99 / $38).

In a separate offer from GRAY FRIAR PRESS, they still have a few signed, numbered editions of my most recent collection, ONE MONSTER IS NOT ENOUGH (though these have no jackets, I understand), and they are available at £8 / $20, including shipping. (I'm also advised that paperback versions of ONE MONSTER IS NOT ENOUGH can also be bought for only £7 / $18, including shipping). If you want to take advantage of any of these special offers, apparently you need to send funds by PayPal to gary.fry@virgin.net.

So there we are. Bargain offers, I'm sure you'll agree. In other news this week, my latest Dr Who audio drama, HEXAGORA, starring Peter Davison, Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton, is now available from Big Finish Productions. It's a full-cast drama, which I adapted from an outline by Peter Ling and Hazel Adair (not, as some know-alls have posted online, from an original television script), and it tells the tale of an alien abduction from Earth which leads the Doctor and the Tardis crew to a distant planet and a street-for-street replica of Elizabethan London. Thus far, I'm glad to report, it seems to be going down rather well.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

No rest for the wicked: now it's story time

Well … my frenetic few weeks of intense, round-the-clock work has come to a (possibly temporary) halt. With a completed Dr Who audio script, a completed novel, and two completed novellas all delivered in the last month or so, I’ve suddenly found myself with a couple of spare days on my hands.

Not that they are really spare, you understand. I’m certainly not going to be sitting around, gazing through the rain-streaked lounge window at grey skies and leafless trees. There are still jobs to be done: ideas to spin, concepts to hatch, pitches to be sketched and then fired off forthwith to my favourite publishers and producers. There is also a necessity to assemble the remaining anecdotal material for the next TERROR TALES OF … volume. (Four of the short stories are now in for that anthology, and they make unnerving reading). At the same time, I’m slowly but surely assembling the writing team for the third volume in the series though if I’m honest, that isn’t likely to start happening until well into next spring.

Of course, none of these chores carry the high pressure tag. However brief an experience it proves, it’s nice to be able to work to the sort of relaxed deadline that will not cost anyone – i.e. me – significant money if it slips. It’s also nice to be able to have a crack at a few short stories of my own.

While I was at Fantasycon in Brighton last October, I was asked a couple of times if I’d stopped penning short stories as folk hadn’t seen much of these from me in recent times.

And it was true, when I totted it up in my mind – discounting the new material included in my collections WALKERS IN THE DARK and ONE MONSTER IS NOT ENOUGH, or in my three MEDI-EVIL ebooks, I’d only actually had seven new short stories published during the whole of 2010 and 2011. They were: PROFANITIES (which appeared in EXOTIC GOTHIC 3); WE, WHO LIVE IN THE WOOD (which appeared in BLACK STATIC 14); THE DOOM (which appeared in BLACK BOOK OF HORROR 6); THE GREEN BATH (which appeared in BLACK BOOK OF HORROR 7); SPECIAL POWERS (which appeared in ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE); TOK (which appeared in BLACK BOOK OF HORROR 8) and FULL CIRCLE (which appeared in FULL FATHOM FORTY).

Once I had a reputation for being prolific in this department, but of course we’re all a little bit older and wiser now. Short stories, though my favourite literary form, unfortunately carry the least cash potential. I can boast a grand total of two which have been optioned for movie development – LAW OF THE JUNGLE (which first appeared in SACKCLOTH AND ASHES in 2000) and THE BELFRIES (which first appeared in ACQUAINTED WITH THE NIGHT in 2004), though neither have been made thus far. Of course, as your short story output dries up, so do the invitations. Because you’re too busy chasing the bigger bucks, you risk becoming a non-person in short story terms (probably a bit of an exaggeration there, but you get my drift).


Anyway, eager to put this right and reassert myself as a reliable teller of tall but short tales, I’ve recently been seeking out various editors and anthologists I know, and have managed to persuade them to pencil me in on their next TOCs. As things stand, I ‘m now starting work on four new short stories. I can’t see that this brief window I’ve got will be sufficient to get them all boxed off, but if I can make a head-start, who knows? Perhaps my handful of easy days will allow me to re-energise sufficiently to write in the evenings again, not that I enjoy this much.

No details or titles yet, but here are a few hints about what may be to come:

Story A takes us along a scenic but eerie coastline, where abandoned buildings are all the rage and unpleasant entities lurk inside them; Story B takes us on a working weekend to another coastline, though this one is more suited for party mayhem – the only problem is that no-one is quite what they seem; Story C takes us to the Highlands of Scotland, where even the local red-blooded outdoorsmen are experiencing a spot of bother (trust me, their blood is very red indeed); Story D takes us to a tatty little circus in the grounds of a gloomy manor house …

If all that isn’t intriguing enough, I may have some more movie news in the next few days – so keep checking in.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

No shortage of horror over this Halloween

I make no apologies for using this rather excellent image to accompany this particular post. It doesn’t illustrate anything I’m currently working on, nor is it an outtake from the next movie. It simply shows the ingenious outfit that my son, Harry (16), donned for our friends’ big Halloween bash – which was held last Saturday, and what a smart decision that turned out to be given the way the weather deteriorated yesterday.

Last night in northwest England the leaves swirled on a howling wind and the rain fell like torrents of ink. Very atmospheric, I suppose, but there were relatively few trick-or-treaters out and about, and an entire bucket of goodies remained uneaten in our porch – not at good thing for those in this house who are supposed to be dieting.

Of course, Halloween is not a holiday over here in the UK. I spent mine at the grindstone, putting the final touches to my contribution to the long-awaited sequel to the very successful ‘mosaic novel’ of last year, ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, created and edited by Stephen Jones.

I’m not at liberty to say what my section of the next book will be about, but I was watching THE WALKING DEAD this evening and must admit that it’s very impressive. In fact, if it wasn’t for ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE being optioned by Palomar Pictures in Hollywood, I really would regard this TV show as the last word on this gruesome subject. But here's a thought - isn’t it about time we rolled zombies back to their supernatural roots? I don’t know about you guys, but I miss the days when zombies were only to be found on blighted Caribbean islands, being raised from their shallow, palm-frond covered graves by maniac voodoo priests. Well, in the sequel to ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, we can’t boast palm trees or Caribbean islands (though don’t hold me to that - I’m not writing all of it, after all), but this time there will be a strong supernatural element.

In other horror-related news this week, I‘ve been working on the anecdotal section of the next book in my TERROR TALES OF … series. This refers to those incidents of ‘true horror’ that I’ll be inserting between all the fictional stories.

Readers of TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT (also available from Amazon, UK and US) will remember such ghastly curios as The Mad Clown of Muncaster, which detailed the devilish doings of a demented jester in an isolated Cumbrian Castle, The Devil’ Hole, in which shrieks heard from a very deep cavern close to Kirkby Stephen were mistaken (or perhaps not) for the screams of the damned, the case of The Croglin Vampire, in which a grotesque, mummified figure made nightly visits to a lonely country house, and so forth.

In this spirit, I’ve been researching vigorously for the next book, and have settled on 17 similarly macabre anecdotes with which to pepper it. Of course I’m not going to say anything about them here, because that would give it away where the next book is to be set – though as always, I’m flabbergasted by how much of the weird and unexplained still lurks close beneath the UK’s placid surface. You literally only need to nick it.


Here are another couple of clues to prick your interest with regard to the next book’s location. The first (right) is a medieval brass rubbing depicting an ancient king who even though he was beheaded, continued to administer his own brand of justice.

The second one, shot (below), shot by John Salmon, depicts a ghostly ruin where a nobleman, whose ambitions took him far beyond common treachery, brought an unimaginably awful fate on himself.