Monday 29 November 2010

A fun night with the Twisted Tales crowd

The Twisted Tales event at Liverpool One’s Waterstone’s last Friday evening was well attended and great fun to be part of. I had the honour of reading alongside Simon Kurt Unsworth, who, though he’s relatively new to the genre, is one of the most exciting talents on the scene, and of course the great Graham Joyce, who needs no introduction to anyone.

The event was superbly hosted by horror addicts Glyn Morgan and David McWilliam, and of course Roy Gray from Black Static magazine, who all went out of their way to make us feel at home. A very attentive audience, perhaps seventy strong, including the genre’s godfather over here in the UK, Ramsey Campbell, filled the rows of seats in front of us.

Simon kicked things off with his lovely An Afternoon With Danny, which, though superficially a ghost story, is at heart a touching study of parental angst, and must be a likely candidate for one of the Year’s Best anthologies. I lowered the tone a little bit after that with Elderly Lady, Lives Alone, first published in Bare Bone 9, in 2006. I’d originally intended to read something a little more cerebral, but Elderly Lady was a convenient fit for the time-slot available. On reflection, I’m not sure it was the best choice. It features an odious central character, whose revolting thought processes are to the fore throughout. I detected the odd, shocked intake of breath as I ploughed my way through it (pictured), and afterwards Cathy said she felt it too explicit for a public reading. However, the guys have now invited me to do another Twisted Tales, so I can’t have offended them beyond recall.

The evening was rounded off when Graham Joyce read an extract from his majestic novel, The Silent Land, which, if you haven’t read it, belongs on the masterworks shelf. It concerns a couple who get caught in an avalanche, and though they manage to dig their way out, end up returning to a world that is very, very different. The Silent Land is gentle, moving supernatural fiction at its finest, and, for what it’s worth, carries my strongest recommendation. The passage Graham chose was also an excellent choice – tragic and yet heartwarming at the same time (and that takes some doing); it had the audience queuing to buy the book afterwards.

It was a very enjoyable evening indeed, and well worth the two hours it took us to fight our way through twenty miles of log-jammed early evening traffic to get there. Cathy and I also had the pleasure afterwards of looking around Liverpool One in all its Christmas finery, in atmospheric temperatures that must have been touching five below.

Waterstone’s are not the top booksellers in the UK for nothing. They deserve all the praise we can give them by supporting horror fiction with these events. Getting the authors in to breathe life into their prose, and at the same time to meet and chat to the readers is a unique idea, which I hope continues for many years to come.

Saturday 27 November 2010

The Power of Three - 2nd Installment

A little later than I'd hoped, here is my second weekly pick from the world's best horror stories. As before, there is no rhyme or reason to these selections. I've opted for them purely on the roll of a dice. There’ll be no connection between them other than that they all came out of the hat on the same day. Again as before, I'm not bothering to rate these tales on a best-out-of-five or best-out-of-ten type basis. Suffice to say that if they’re here it’s because I really, really like them, and if you haven't read them already, I'm sure that you will too.

Lost Hearts by M.R. James

An orphaned child goes to stay with his eccentric adult cousin, only to be visited by the ghosts of two children who appear to have had their hearts cut out. Needless to say, his nice, kind cousin is not guilt-free in this matter.

A real shocker – certainly at the time – from the master of the English ghost story. The twin subjects of alchemy and Satanism were tough enough for a late Victorian audience to swallow, but spice it up with child-homicide as well and you’ve got a real witches’ brew. James himself (pictured) was uncomfortable when he saw the story in print. Even today, its aura of decadent evil has the power to chill.

First published in the PALL MALL MAGAZINE, 1895.

The Quest For Blank Claveringi by Patricia Highsmith

A scholar heads out to a remote island to see for himself if it really is home to a unique and very special life-form. He only finds out when it’s too late why no-one has ever reported on these animals before.

A masterpiece of slow-moving terror, as our central protagonist is pursued relentlessly by an ungainly but tireless foe. The limitations of the small island soon become as much of an enemy as the monster itself. One of those rare compulsive reads, where, even though it's all very leisurely, you can’t wait to turn the next page.

First published in the SATURDAY EVENING POST (as ‘The Snails), 1967.

Quitters, Inc. by Stephen King

A lifelong smoker joins an anti-smoking help-group, who guarantee that they’ll break him of the habit straight away. And they’re not kidding. This lot could stop dogs barking.

One of those glorious early King stories, when it was all about the horror and the fun. There are laughs and screams in equal measure as our helpless hero learns the hard way that there are actually worse things than fifty a day.

First published in NIGHT SHIFT, 1978.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

The scary secrets of the real ‘Hell House’

I’m over the moon this week, as I’ve picked up a fascinating gig – to write and present a night of ghost stories for the Wigan Literature Festival, which will be held next Easter. The most exciting part of this, however, is that my presentation will be given during the hours of darkness in the spookily derelict upper tier of Haigh Hall (pictured), the so-called ‘Borley Rectory of the North’.

Haigh Hall is a stately home located in my native borough of Wigan, Lancashire. Wigan, of course, was once the butt of many a music hall joke concerning its terraced houses, pitheads and bogged up canals, but that’s never been the whole story. We have a lot of green space up here as well, and Haigh Hall is a case in point, as it occupies an isolated spot in the very middle of The Plantations, 250-acres of Victorian era parkland, much of which have now degenerated into dense and impenetrable wildwood. The Hall itself, which is now local authority-owned, was first built in the 1830s, but occupies a site where manor houses have stood since the Norman Conquest. It has seen much tragedy and bloodshed, particularly during the Middle Ages and, later on, during the English Civil War. It now has a reputation for being one of the most haunted houses in the whole of northwest England, yet it has proved difficult for ghost-watch societies to get permission to hold vigils there, and the reasons for this have always been closely guarded. Rumours abound that when you investigate supernatural events at Haigh Hall, it often has a disastrous outcome.

So, all in all, it’s going to be quite a challenge. No booking information is available yet, as the brochures and tickets will only be going on sale in the New Year. But obviously I’ll be getting to work quickly, researching and writing.

Haigh Hall is not new to me. It provided the blueprint for two very different horror stories of mine, The Mummers, which appeared in Shadows And Silence in 2000, and Deep Woods, Dark Water, which appeared in Nasty Piece of Work 10 in 1998. Both necessitated research trips there, but last week was the first time I’ve actually been allowed into the Hall’s mysterious and much feared upper tier, which has been closed to the public for as long as anyone can remember.

I literally had to claw my way through curtains of dust-webs as I moved from one derelict chamber to the next, many of which still bore evidence of their former use: peeling and faded wallpaper; fireplaces stuffed with ashes and rotted feathers, and of course, in one of them, the ubiquitous rusty old wheelchair. There was even a wax mannequin wearing what looked like a shroud. Its face was horribly scarred, as if someone had attacked it with a knife. The staff, none of whom knew the origins of the mannequin, also told tales of strange sounds and odious smells pervading the eerie structure, and of mysterious handwriting appearing on the walls, begging for help or mercy.

A friend of mine who holds scientific paranormal enquiries was extremely jealous; he told me he’d “kill someone to get permission to go in there”. I replied that I didn’t think this a wise choice of words, as many of those who roam its dingy passages may have done exactly that!

We were both in agreement that I couldn’t have found a better venue for what looks like being a ghoulishly enjoyable night.

More details as I get them.

Sunday 21 November 2010

In the deep (and deadly) midwinter

Ahhh, Christmas!

The season of mince pies and mistletoe, holly and tinsel, joyous carols and roasting chestnuts. What could be more enjoyable than a traditional Victorian Christmas: snow cascading in feather-sized flakes, friends and family coming to call, lively music, games and revels, a parlour adorned with festive greenery, piles of colourful packages stacked under a tree laden with stars and candles and glistening white angels …

But this merriest and most mythologised time of the year can sometimes have a sting in its tail. It’s also notable for long nights, icy mist, and supernatural stories. For those trapped outside the realms of common society, Yuletide can be a tale of …

The ornate Christmas chamber had vanished – instead it was a bare brick hangar. Where the jolly fire had crackled in the hearth now there were only dull, red flames, the vile smoke of which hung below the ceiling in a dirty blanket …

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 …

The snow had now been churned to filthy mush; there was a nauseating reek of sewage. Looming over everything, Newgate Prison looked even grimmer than usual. Its massive, black brick walls were streaked with sickly, greenish ice …

If you fancy a Christmas of the more spine-tingling sort, my short novel, SPARROWHAWK, is now officially available from the Pendragon Press website ( and from Amazon. We may even, if we’re lucky, have a few copies with us at Twisted Tales event at Waterstone’s, Liverpool One, next Friday evening (but that’s not guaranteed at present).

Christmas may be a time of fun and frolics, but evil wakes when Man is off his guard.

His golden eyes were saucer shaped; his very breath seemed to rumble as it slipped in and out of his capacious chest. It reeked of brandy and cigar smoke, but there was something below this that was vaguely unpleasant – blood maybe?

Friday 19 November 2010

The Power of Three – 1st installment

After much painful navel-gazing, I’ve decided that constantly promoting myself on here, even if it is MY blog, is a little self-indulgent, and doesn’t do justice to my many rivals in the horror field, both past and present. So each Friday afternoon from now on (or most Friday afternoons, workload permitting), I thought I’d treat you all – and myself – by posting reviews of three great horror stories that have caught my attention over the years. I’ve kept a careful list of these tales, which I constantly update, so all I need to do at the end of each week is dip into it thrice – but folk should be warned; the list alone is over 90 pages long, so there’s an awful lot to choose from.

There’ll be no rhyme or reason to my selections. With so much material to hand, it would be tediously time-consuming trying to find themes and comparisons each week, so I’ve taken the easy option – I will literally pull out each Friday’s choices on the roll of a dice. There’ll be absolutely no connection between any of the stories I choose to talk about, except that they all came out of the hat on the same day. Unfortunately, each review will need to be fairly brief (as per the ultra concise but always appetising short story outlines that you see on the excellent ‘Vault of Evil’), and I’m still not sure at this point whether it would be wise to include spoilers. Most likely, I’ll continue to follow the ‘Vault of Evil’ model by attempting in a few short lines to capture the flavour of the story in question and only hint at the horrors to come. I won’t bother to rate these tales on a best-out-of-five or best-out-of-ten type basis. Suffice to say that if they’re on my list already it’s because I really, really like them.

So here we go. It’s only a bit of fun, but if it helps pass a Friday afternoon tea-break, it’s got to be worth it. My choices this week are:

When The World Goes Quiet by Simon Kurt Unsworth

A guy and his girl hold out in their north of England flat, while, outside, the dead walk.

It may not sound hugely original, but there isn’t a word wasted in this exquisite study of what it would actually mean to have survived the first zombie onslaught and then be stuck in the desolate hereafter. But the really good news – at least from my POV – is that Skuns doesn’t skimp on the fear factor for the sake of soppy post-Apocalypse ponderings, and yet it’s what you don’t see in this tautly written terror tale, rather than what you do see, that frightens the most.

First published in Unsworth’s Ash-Tree collection, LOST PLACES, 2010.

The Drain by Stephen Gallagher

A bunch of Lancashire urchins, up to no good, find themselves in a derelict drainage system – and guess what? It isn’t long before they realise they aren’t alone.

Another of those masterly Gallagher chillers that flawlessly captures the time and place in which it is set. This was unputdownable reading for me, not just because it’s edge-of-the-seat scary, but because there was a time when I was a Lancashire urchin, myself, as, I suspect, was Mr. Gallagher. But as usual with Steve, the mundane combines with the monstrous to create perfect horror symmetry, and the backdrop of the industrial north, with all its grot and grime, and its deceptively non-supernatural atmosphere, adds to it immensely. A classic.

First published in FANTASY TALES 4, 1990 (as far as I’m aware – though I’m quite happy to be corrected; in fact, I make no claim to be a horror scholar, so readers should feel free to correct me about any dates or details of first publication, etc).

The Horror-Horn by E.F. Benson

A mountaineer is pursued through the Alpine forests by something less than human.

A bit of a slight tale compared to the other two this week, but Benson conjures up a delicious sense of fear as his hapless hero struggles through a snowy landscape which, while it doesn’t figure very often in horror fiction today, certainly seemed to do it for our Edwardian forebears given the number of times it was utilised. Not Benson’s cleverest perhaps – in fact it isn’t wrapped up completely to my satisfaction – but a fun ride while it lasts, and a genuinely spooky if unexplained monster.

First appeared in HUTCHINSON’S MAGAZINE, 1922.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Worrying weirdness at Waterstone's

BLACK STATIC magazine, in whose cold, rustling pages my fiction has featured twice, will provide the banner for the Twisted Tales event at Waterstone’s Liverpool One a week tomorrow (November 26th), kicking off at 6pm.

I’ll be there to read a story, along with two other maestros of monstrousness, Simon Kurt Unsworth and the star attraction of the evening, multi-award winning novelist Graham Joyce.

I’m not sure what the other guys have opted for yet, but my last tale to feature in BLACK STATIC – which, in case you’re unaware, is one of the most stylish and sophisticated horror mags on the UK market – was called WE, WHO LIVE IN THE WOOD, and as it would take far too long to read that at an event like this, I’ll be opting for something which didn’t appear in BLACK STATIC but hopefully will spook our listeners nonetheless.

I haven’t named my poison at this moment, but will be trialling various tales on my Dictaphone over the next few days to see which one has the most impact.

If you’re moping around the northwest of England that Friday night, with nothing else to do, pop in and say hello.

Friday 12 November 2010

When the Devil went down to Guernsey

The publicity wagon for THE DEVIL’S ROCK is seriously starting to roll. Stills are now appearing, which I’ll be posting over the next few days (starting with this one, featuring the deliciously wicked Gina Varela). Also, the fab news reached me last week that we’ve sold the UK rights to Metrodome in a six-figure deal, so folk in Blighty will have no problem getting to see it. Hopefully more territories will follow as we progress through post-production.

It’s now widely known that THE DEVIL’S ROCK is a World War Two era chiller, but I think it’s fair to say that you won’t have seen too many war movies like this. It certainly comes to something when the Nazis – as unspeakably evil as ever – are not the most evil characters in the story.

I’ve mentioned before what an astonishing turn-around this has been. I began writing the script – blabbing into a Dictaphone while walking the dog, which is my preferred method with a first draft – during the heavy snows of last winter. It’s hard to believe that only a year later, with the leaves falling again and the first frosts appearing on our car windshields, the movie is done, dusted and almost ready to go. When you think that I have other movie projects still in development which were first optioned as long ago as 2002, it puts things into perspective.

Anyway, enough of my giddy ramblings. Here are some relevant links:

We also have a Facebook page up and running for the movie:

Wednesday 10 November 2010

The Doctor will be in - at least until Xmas

I received the amazing news this week that my proposed Dr Who novel, HUNTER’S MOON, has been commissioned by BBC Books, and that I’m to start writing it forthwith. I’m not allowed to say anything about the plot at this early stage – and obviously there’s no artwork I can put up yet, but this is a terrifically exciting development for me, and one that will hopefully be another string to my ‘Whovian’ bow.

To be honest, I’ve not yet got used to the idea that I’m now classified as ‘a Dr Who writer’. It sounds nice though, doesn’t it? Kind of rolls off the tongue.

Just to recap, thus far I’ve written two Dr Who audio dramas for Big Finish – LEVIATHAN (pictured), which was adapted from my late father’s 1984 TV script of the same name, and which starred Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant (who were both an absolute joy to work with), and SENTINELS OF THE NEW DAWN, a Companion Chronicle, which will be released next year, starring Caroline John as science ace Liz Shaw. I’m also writing a third audio for Big Finish, though I’m not allowed to reveal too much about that one either; suffice to say that it stars another of the classic Doctors, and someone else I hope to get a chance to meet when we record it down at Ladbroke Grove studios. With that and the new novel, it’s going to be a busy end to the year.

And now a little anecdote – assuming you can forgive me just a tad more self-indulgence. I wrote for several of the Doctors before I ever penned a single Dr Who episode; during the early ‘90s, several horror and science-fiction stories of mine were performed on various spoken-word anthologies by, among others, Colin Baker, Peter Davison and the late, great Jon Pertwee. The last name on that list makes me especially proud these days. Does it mean I’m one of the few ‘Dr Who writers’ working today who wrote for the legendary Third Doctor? I like to think so.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Hard horror from Britain's shadowy past

I’m pleased to be able to report that my Ash-Tree collection, WALKERS IN THE DARK, will very soon be going into print in a hardback version (cover art to be posted soon).

It was originally published last March for the World Horror Convention in Brighton, in a special softback edition, though more than a few folk at the time elected to wait for this hardback to come out. Well, they won’t have to wait much longer.

WALKERS IN THE DARK contains three new novellas and two short novels, the locations for which vary from the Highlands of Scotland to the Welsh mountains to the industrial wastelands of south Lancashire where I grew up. Because many of these tales are specifically folklore-based, it’s been likened a little in some reviews to GHOST REALM, my Ash-Tree collection of 2008, which also plumbed the darkest depths of homespun English mythology (and also consisted entirely of original material). For those interested, both books can be acquired from the usual Ash-Tree outlet:

On a slightly different matter, I had the pleasure last week of attending a posh London club and watching the first rushes of THE DEVIL’S ROCK, which is now in post-production and is expected to go on release next April.

This is my second movie script to go on to completion – the first was SPIRIT TRAP in 2005 – but there’s a lot more of me in this one than there was in that. I wrote it while snowed in during last year’s very bitter winter, but it was based on an idea I thrashed out with talented movie director Paul Campion much earlier in the year – even so, sixteen months from conception to post-production registers as a remarkably quick turn-around in this age of restricted development monies. It tells the tale of an Allied commando raid on a German base in the build-up to D-Day, which uncovers a very fiendish plot. It may not sound like a horror movie, but students of the genre need not be alarmed. This is an out-and-out supernatural chiller, complete with lashings of in-yer-face grue.

I treated myself to a celebratory drink afterwards. There’s truly no greater thrill for a writer than seeing your stuff on the big screen.

Friday 5 November 2010

'Tis the season to be scared to death

Here's the new cover for my forthcoming short novel, SPARROWHAWK, which will be published by Pendragon Press on December 1, but is now available for pre-order from Amazon (and Pendragon very soon).

For those who missed my last update regarding this, it's a Christmas ghost story in the traditional Victorian vein, but with some very dark and hopefully thought-provoking undertones.

In 1843, An Afghan war veteran is released from the debtor's prison and charged with standing guard over a mysterious house in Bloomsbury for the duration of the Christmas period. It's the coldest winter in living memory, but it won't just be the ice and snow that John Sparrowhawk has to worry about ...

What I've tried to do with this is not just tell a tale of supernatural horror, but to evoke the atmosphere of the season in the most vivid way possible. So hopefully it wouldn't be out of place as a neat little stocking-filler for someone (hint hint).

The lovely cover art is by Scottish painter and illustrator, James Higgins, who I shall certainly be using again in the future.

Monday 1 November 2010

Craddock is back on the beat

I'm please to be able to announce that a collection of my Craddock stories will shortly be published by Ghostwriter Press.

For those not in the know, Jim Craddock is an unconventional police detective working in the industry-polluted Lancashire of the 1860s. He doesn't consciously seek out cases with supernatural or occult aspects but those always seem to be the ones he gets saddled with. I'm not quite sure when the book will be out, or what form it will take yet, but it should be available before the end of the year and it will probably contain reprints of three Craddock novellas - THE MAGIC LANTERN SHOW (1999), SHADOWS IN THE RAFTERS (2000) and THE WEEPING IN THE WITCH HOURS (2003), plus a brand new adventure, THE COILS UNSEEN.

A little taster anyone?

The floors were covered with rotted, trampled straw. It was easy to picture these hellish rabbit-holes packed with huddled, pathetic figures; ragged, lice-riddled, barely alive in the darkness and the damp. One dismal level followed another as they descended amidships. It seemed depthless, a multi-layered maze of ropes, timbers and corroded grille-work.

I like to think the Craddock stories, of which I intend to write many more, contain all the traditional elements of Victorian ghost and horror stories, but that they're also strong on police procedural and authentic period detail (even if I do say so, myself). Perhaps you lads and lasses can be the judges of whether or not I've succeeded.

As soon as I have more details re. this release, I'll post it on here and on my Facebook page.