Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Darkness holds sway in glorious Cornwall


I’m concentrating on Cornwall this week, and not just because that’s where I wish I was as the glorious summer of 2018 gets ever hotter and sunnier, but because the new Heck novel, KISS OF DEATH – out next month – is partially set there, and also because, as I promised back on May 16, this year I’m going to be proposing some portmanteau horror movies based on horror anthology books that I like, and this sun-kissed week (with even Heck heading down to the Summer Land) it seems appropriate to look at TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL.

On the subject of summer-time chills I’m also going to be reviewing and discussing Jason Arnopp’s innovative horror novel, THE LAST DAYS OF JACK SPARKS. If that’s the only reason you’re here, fair enough – you’ll find that review, as usual, at the lower end of today’s blogpost. But if you’ve got a bit more time to spare, we can chat about that other stuff.

Cornwall

At the time of this writing we are supposedly in the midst of the hottest British summer since 1976. Now, I was there in ’76 and I remember it well. So, I understand just how high the bar of this comparison is set.

In 1976, we had unbroken, scorching sunshine from early May all the way through to mid September. Thus far in 2018, we’ve had nearly-unbroken scorching sunshine from early May until now, early July. Who knows what the rest of the summer will bring, but if you can get over the usual, predictable annoyance of threatened hosepipe bans, stand-pipes and the rest (after the endless months of rain and snow that we’ve just gone through!), then it’s all looking pretty promising.

At times like this, we inevitably start thinking about going away on holiday. And if you’re on holiday in the UK at present then you’re a very lucky person, particularly those of you who’ve headed down to England’s southwest tip.

Mythologised as ‘the Summer Land’, regularly the warmest part of the UK and easily one of the most beautifully kept, it’s little wonder that Cornwall is still regarded as our quintessential holiday idyll. With its miles and miles of unspoiled white sand beaches, its rocky coves and rolling, cerulean seas, and inland its sweeping emerald moors broken only by the occasional wild pony, granite outcrop or derelict tin mine, it’s surely one of the ultimate summertime experiences in mainland Britain. Okay, there are some heavenly places in my homeland, but I know of nowhere else I’d rather be when the sun is beating down and the ocean running high and blue than Cornwall.

But it’s a place of mystery and magic too, and no little menace. Check out this part of the back-cover blurb for TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL, which I edited back in 2017:

Cornwall, England’s most scenic county: windswept moors, rugged cliffs and wild, foaming seas. But smugglers and wreckers once haunted its hidden coves, mermaid myths abound, pixie lore lingers, henges signal a pagan past, and fanged beasts stalk the ancient, overgrown lanes …

The picture-postcard quaintness only helps in this regard, providing the cosy prism through which some truly fiendish tales can safely be assessed. It shouldn’t surprise us that one of the great godmothers of British scary fiction, Daphne due Maurier, chose her beloved Cornwall as the location for two of her spookiest stories, Rebecca (1938) and The Birds (1952).

Other writers of golden age horror clearly felt about the county the same way. Cases in point: The Smell of Evil by Charles Birkin, The Roll-Call of the Reef by Arthur Quiller-Couch and The Bodmin Terror by R. Chetwynd-Hayes, while Peter Tremayne went all monstery on us in The Morgow Rises, and Chill Company was an entire smorgasbord of eerie Cornish tales supplied by supernatural/romance author, Mary Williams.

Even in the gentler climes of high fantasy, Cornwall has figured prominently. Jack Vance’s wondrous Lyonesse  trilogy gorgeously and perfectly invokes the Cornish atmosphere with its minutely-detailed imagining of a now-lost continent located just beyond the tip of Land’s End, wherein faeries and ogres abound, evil wizards plot, and knights ride off on deadly quests.

On the subject of heroes on deadly missions, I now come neatly round to Heck and his latest escapade, KISS OF DEATH (published on August 9), which, among sundry other locations in the UK, takes him – yes, you’ve guessed it – to Cornwall.

I’d be lying if I said that it hadn’t always been an aim of mine to at some point get Heck down to the southwest peninsula, preferably at the height of a glorious English summer. He spends so much of his time working through the desolate inner city ruins of Broken Britain, usually in the most miserable weather, that it only seemed fair to give him a holiday eventually.

Not that this is actually much of a holiday.

I’ll be honest; KISS OF DEATH is only partly set in Cornwall. Before he gets there, he visits all his usual haunts: motorway underpasses where murder has been done, dingy ghettos where street-gangs and drug-dealers run unchecked, and derelict basements in forgotten parts of town now turned to the foulest purposes possible.

But yes, he also heads down to Cornwall, and in that regard, I found myself in a world of descriptive writing very different to the norm. Here are a couple of snippets:

… the whole of the West Country was famous for its pastoral ambience and picturesque villages where placid ways of life ambled on regardless of other events in the world. Even now, processing slowly into its heart via the clogged artery that was the M4, he was encircled by acres of verdant countryside, which, drenched gold in the August sun, and dotted with harvesters and hay bales, seemed almost quintessentially English.

The village was every bit as quaint as he’d expected, mainly comprising whitewashed cottages with pan-tiled roofs and flower-filled window-baskets and built higgledy-piggledy down its own coombe to the water’s edge, where a stone quay curved outward like a bow, entrapping a small harbour filled with leisure craft.

If none of that sounds like Heck’s normal beat, I’ve now got an admission to make. And this is an odd one for me, as I usually get edited for being too ghoulish or violent, decisions were made at Harper HQ to cut down some of my more descriptive Cornish passages because they feared that it might change the tone of the book at little too much. You see, even down in Cornwall, Heck can’t get a break. Darkness holds dominion over all.

Anyway, you’ll be abe to judge how much for yourselves in August.

As a very quick aside, the other big Heck release of 2018, DEATH’S DOOR, a brand-new e-novella, set during his days as a junior detective in London, has been available free since June 29, and I’ve had one or two very positive responses to it so far. If you are enjoying, don’t be shy … feel free to tell the world, post reviews, etc. That’s always the best way to ensure that the fictional characters you like will keep coming back for more.

Terror

Now, back to Cornwall – and the fun part of today’s blog.   

TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL was published in 2017 as the 10th volume of my round-the-UK horror anthology series, which I started in 2011. The ethos of the Terror Tales books has always been to mingle local fact with local fiction, with a heavy emphasis on folklore.

So, for example, in TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL, I published lots of new Cornish horror fiction by writers old and new; there were two reprints in there, but much original material as well, the fictional stories interspersed with spooky snippets of Cornish mythology that I myself had researched and written up.

This has been the format throughout the series, and the format we’ll continue to use when, later this year, my Terror Tales publishers, Telos Publishing, and I, will be going all out to get TERROR TALES OF NORTHWEST ENGLAND ready in time for an autumn release.

Anyway, on this same subject, you’ll hopefully recall that, last month, I decided to slightly alter my regular Thrillers, Chillers, Shockers and Killers section by occasionally reviewing and discussing anthologies and single-author collections as well as novels, and each time, of course,  selecting four particular stories from the book in question, which I’d love to see incorporated into a single movie, and giving them my usual fantasy cast.

Well … I’ve still got no anthologies ready to review at present, though plenty reside in my to-be-read pile. So, in the meantime, and just for a bit of a laugh, I’m keeping my hand in by doing it with the Terror Tales books. Obviously, I won’t be reviewing them, as that would be a bit incestuous, but at least I can turn each one into a portmanteau horror movie all of my own. You may recall that on May 16, we did it with TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, so here, totally keeping up with today’s main theme, is …

TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL – the movie

Just a bit of fun, remember. No film-maker has optioned this book yet, or any of the stories inside it (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed. Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for a compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories to each other. It could be that they’re all trapped in a cellar by a broken lift and are awaiting rescue (a la Vault of Horror) or are marooned on a fogbound train and forced to listen to each other’s fortunes as read by a mysterious man with a pack of cards (al la Dr Terror) – but basically, it’s up to you.

So, without further ado, here are the stories and the casts I envisage performing in them:        

CLAWS by Steve Jordan

The Pirates Bounty is s shabby, underfunded amusement arcade on the Newquay seafront. Its machines are mostly second-hand, its carpets are dirty, and its owner/manager is the loutish Jared, a guy who mistreats his staff and neglects safety regulations. Slavish underlings, Sonia, Sam and Ron, suffer continually from his bad moods, and when a series of minor sabotages occurs, they cop the blame. No one listens to youthful regular, Billy, who suspects that local pixies are at fault. When Ron is injured by dangerous wiring, Sonia and Sam decide to avenge him by returning late at night and robbing the place. And still no one will listen to Billy …

Sonia - Eleanor Tomlinson
Sam - Charlie Heaton
Jared - Robert Pattinson

WE WHO SING BENEATH THE GROUND
by Mark Morris

Stacy, a Manchester-born primary school teacher is increasingly concerned about Adam, a withdrawn little boy in her class, who brings in a very unusual item during a game of ‘Show and Tell’, and then, the next day, fails to show up for school. Stacy opts to make a home visit but finds that home is a ramshackle farm on a bleak stretch of Cornish headland. Failing to read anything into the curious row of standing stones not too far from the apparently deserted homestead, she proceeds to uncover the secret of the weird object that Adam brought to school, and in the process encounters a nightmare being from local legend …

Stacy – Suranne Jones

A BEAST BY ANY OTHER NAME by Adrian Cole

Cranlow, an investigative journalist, looks into the death of Derrick Treskellian, a Cornish businessman found half-eaten on Bodmin Moor. When it was finally discovered that Treskellian was attacked by an escaped panther, the rumour that the mythical Beast of Bodmin had finally claimed a human victim was put to bed, but now, acting on a tip-off from local oddball, Jack Harrower, Cranlow comes to suspect Treskellian’s ex-business partner, Alec Ransome. The furious Ransome responds by luring Cranlow into a derelict tin mine, where it seems that many truths can be found, including the terrifying truth about the Bodmin Beast …

Cranlow - Hugh Dancy
Harrower - Eddie Marsan
Ransome - Hugh Laurie

LOSING ITS IDENTITY by Thana Niveau

Elderly widow, Miranda, lives with her fading memories in the declining coastal village of Porthkellis, and makes regular trips alone to the beautiful Lost Moon cove – much to the consternation of her daughter, Tessa, who is fearful that coastal erosion is weakening the rocky steps and changing the coastline in a way that might cause the increasingly scatty old lady to lose her way (and her life). But Miranda hears the voice of her dead husband, Will, at Lost Moon, and simply refuses to stay away. One day, she is fascinated to find the ocean rolled back and a landscape exposed reminiscent of the mysterious Roscarrock drawings, which depicted a Cornwall never known to have existed in real life. Naturally, she must investigate …

Miranda – Eileen Atkins
Will – Edward Fox           


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

THE LAST DAYS OF JACK SPARKS 
by Jason Arnopp (2016)

Gonzo journalist and pop culture author, Jack Sparks, is the ultimate embodiment of the Me Generation. Self-important, narcissistic, hugely opinionated, convinced to a self-delusional degree that he’s intellectually superior to everyone he meets, arrogant, rude, you name it, he’s there, only occasionally taking time off from thinking about himself to socialise with roommate and buddy, Rebecca ‘Bex’ Lawson, though he desires her sexually as much as he wants to be her friend, so it’s not a genuine platonic relationship even then.  

However, the big difference between Jack Sparks and many others of his ilk is that he is genuinely talented. A good writer, especially under pressure, scathingly witty, more than prepared to put in torturous hours to complete his assignments, and a powerpack in terms of youthful energy, he should have all the tools to go far.

Jack certainly thinks this. In fact, to Jack Sparks, success is inevitable; it’s his destiny, his entitlement. But what he is not allowing for are the two serious chinks in his armour.

First of all, he lacks discipline; so, for example, when writing the book Jack Sparks on Drugs – which needed to be completed by a ghost-writer! – he became addicted to cocaine, a habit that he’s never really thrown off. Secondly, he lacks objectivity. In many ways, Jack Sparks is not a real journalist. He goes looking for stories with preconceived notions and a determination to find the outcome that he wants, so when he settles on his comeback project, Jack Sparks on the Supernatural, it won’t be an even-handed investigation of the unknown, it will be a thorough debunking of it, a complete trashing of all those who believe.

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Jack’s agent and editor are no more than lukewarm about it. But Jack is adamant that he and his hipster audience are going to have a lot of laughs at the expense of the world’s gullible fools. 

As he likes to travel, his first port of call is rural Italy, where he attends the exorcism of a village girl, Maria Corvi, by humourless Catholic priest, Father Primo di Stefano. Jack just about manages to keep a lid on it while the ancient rite unfolds. He’s already on the lookout for fakery, as he continually informs his fans via Twitter, but then, when the seeming heap of mumbo-jumbo becomes too much for him, he bursts out laughing.

As you can imagine, this doesn’t go down too well with those others involved, including the malevolent intelligence allegedly possessing Maria. But Jack isn’t fazed. Warnings from beyond mean nothing to him. But then someone posts an Mpeg on his YouTube account, depicting a curious and disturbing video. On the face of it, it’s the sort of thing that is commonplace online: an amateurish snippet of film depicting an alleged paranormal event – but there is something about this one that upsets everyone who sees it. People think it looks real, including Jack Sparks. The main problem, though, is that he isn’t the one who uploaded it; he doesn’t know what it’s even supposed to be. At the same time, he comes into possession of a mysterious book, which is such a shock to him that he barely mentions it in his notes – not initially.

Jack continues writing, even though he suspects that he’s being scammed by someone. But Jack is no longer quite himself. The unexplained video has unnerved him, and when his quest takes him next to Hong Kong, where, despite the guidance of eccentric Aussie medium, Sherilyn Chastain, he is even further alarmed by some of the things he experiences, an angst compounded by his determination not to accept the supernatrural. He even keeps a list of reasons why people profess belief in ghosts – THE SPOOKS LIST (Sparks’ Permanently Ongoing Overview of Kooky Shit) – and even though he continually finds himself extending it, until at one point it reads:

1) They’re trying to deceive others.
2) They’ve been deceived by others.
3) They’ve deceived themselves.

… while it may appear to represent modern analytical truth dressed in irreverent terms, it mainly perpetuates his narrative of scorn.

We know from the outset that none of this is going to end well. We are told from the start that ‘Jack Sparks died while writing this book’, but what we don’t know is how and why he died (or how horribly).

But neither we nor he could possibly expect it to occur in Los Angeles, where he eventually goes to meet the fat-bellied, woolly-headed Astral Way and his group of total believers, the Hollywood Paranormals, who want to him to document their attempts to create a thought-form. From the outset, and again Jack is almost pre-programmed to scoff, this feels like the biggest load of bunkum yet, but already a nervous wreck, he can’t imagine the mind-bending terror that awaits him …

The first thing to say about The Last Days of Jack Sparks is that it’s not a straightforward novel.

A lot of it is presented to us in linear format as written by Jack while he travels around the world, seeking to expose phonies. But it also contains letters, emails and footnotes written by others, his concerned but disapproving older brother, Alistair, for one. And this throws up some interesting dymanics.

For example, there are actually two Jacks. The one he and his juvenile audience believe in: the cool, smart intellect who is always ahead of the game, who can drink his rivals under the table and take out tough guys if he needs to. And the real one, a coked-out, alcoholic wreck, who fails to impress almost everyone he meets.

Okay, so Jack’s an unreliable narrator, but this device doesn’t just represent some bravura and highly original character-work by Jason Arnopp, it also plays a key role in the development of the story, because it is only gradually and through these secondary communications that we come to understand exactly how much more is going on than Jack will admit to, and how much more frightened he is than his own narrative would have us believe.

For all these reasons, I found The Last Days of Jack Sparks a completely compelling read. It turns and twists mercilessly; you literally never know what you’re going to encounter in the next chapter, and it isn’t as if stuff comes at you totally from left field, because if you read the book carefully, almost every surprise has been flagged beforehand, albeit in subtle, semi-concealed ways. In that regard, it’s an absolute romp of a thriller, but it’s also wildly, unexpectedly funny.

Some reviewers have described The Last Days of Jack Sparks as a comedy rather than a horror novel, but I think it’s probably about half-and-half. Jack’s acerbic asides are uproarious, often to the point where you briefly forget what a jerk he is. Again, this is hugely to the credit of the author, who doesn’t just use it to entertain us, but to keep us on our subconscious toes, because when we’re laughing we’re briefly distracted from what’s going on and are less ready for the next dollop of bad stuff just around the corner (and the scares eventually come thick and fast).

There is a slightly po-faced side to it as well, because in some ways The Last Days of Jack Sparks is an essay on the politics of self, with plenty of acid observations passed on the modern habit of living one’s life in the glare of social media, (or perhaps living a lie that passes for one’s life).

A terrific, highly entertaining new novel from an author who has gone out of his way to do something different with the genre and has comfortably succeeded.  

And now, as always, I’m going to try and come up with a cast that might do a film or TV adaptation of The Last Days of Jack Sparks justice. Just a bit of fun, of course. I have no expertise or authority in this field, and I have no idea whether or not the novel has been optioned, but it’s always an enjoyable exercise. So, here we go …

Jack Sparks – Taron Egerton
Rebecca ‘Bex’ Lawson – Elva Trill
Alistair Sparks – Ben Whishaw
Maria Corvi – Siena Agudong
Sherilyn Chastain – Rachel Griffiths
Astral Way – Haley Joel Osment
Father Primo di Stefano – Tony Sirico

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