Wednesday 26 March 2014

Checking out those spooky rites of spring

One question I was asked a lot after the second novel in my DS Heckenburg series - SACRIFICE - was published last year, was why, of all four seasons, I opted to set it in the spring. Surely autumn and winter, with their creeping mist and long dark nights would provide a more suitable backdrop for a tale of kidnap, torture and human sacrifice?

Well ... there's no escaping the bright sunshine and flowery meadow stuff when it comes to spring. But the truth is that, as SACRIFICE followed Heck's investigation into a series of grotesquely theatrical murders, each one seemingly designed to commemorate (or mock!) some special feast-day in the calendar, the earlier part of the year gave us a much more varied choice of occasions.

I mean okay, I cheated a little bit by commencing the horror on Christmas morning, which can hardly be classified as spring, but of course the killers got to work fast, and as the weeks rolled by, with the cops getting no nearer, the body count rose and the blood ran red among the daffodils and crocuses.

While researching all this, I was literally spoiled for choice by my range of spring options. As we're now into that time of year again, I thought it might be of interest to assess a few of these with the advantage of hindsight.

Lenten feasts like Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, or special saints' days like St. Patrick's Day (March 17) and St. George's Day (April 23) are all well-known of course - being mainly of religious origin - and the history behind them doesn't really need explaining (though the killers in SACRIFICE tend to make their own distinctly irreligious interpretation of each and every feast). But that isn't the whole story.

Did you know, for example, that Valentine's Day (February 14), while ostensibly a celebration of the early Christian martyr, St. Valentine, also draws many of its traditions from the Roman feast of Lupercalia, at which time men would parade the city dressed as wolves, carrying whips and howling, seeking to drive away the evil spirits of winter; at the same time, girls and women hoping to improve their fertility would stand outdoors and demand a whipping (!!!), which most of them, I'd imagine, received. Or how about All Fools Day (April 1), which is only one of several medieval festivals of fools, though this particular date is believed to have been fixed upon due to a mistranslation of Chaucer's The Nun's Priest's Tale, a mock epic filled with satirical fallacies (the horror potential of this oddball holiday has already been explored several times in the movies).

And then there are those lesser known spring feasts, such as Candlemas (February 2), Beltane (April 30) and Royal Oak Day (May 29). The first of these concerns itself with the presentation of the Baby Jesus at the Temple, but is also a Christianisation of Imbolc, a pagan Celtic celebration of the goddess, Brighid, a benign but powerful figure, who was believed to visit the homes of worshippers on this date, and had to be greeted with gifts of food, drink and bedding (or else?) - this was a popular occasion for corn dollies, divination and the like. The second of course, is the big Gaelic and Wiccan May Day festival - the blood-letting potential of which has been hugely exaggerated by horror writers and film-makers over the years (though it seems likely the maniacs in SACRIFICE had watched The Wicker Man at least once). And the third honoured the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, and featured as part of its 'fun and frolics' the tying up with nettles and pelting with rotten eggs of any person deemed to have Republican sympathies or even found without a sprig of oak leaves on his or her person.

We all know about the Ides of March (March 15) on which Julius Caesar was famously assassinated, but have you ever heard about the Ides of May (either May 13 or 15, depending which piece of fiction you are reading), when the Romans celebrated Lemuralia, a festival in which the terrifying Lemures - or 'unsettled dead' - would grant boons from beyond in return for a ritual slaying (usual of the human variety, but only if said victim was very important, like a captured prince or general).

Interesting stuff, eh? Well, if you haven't read SACRIFICE yet ... I know, sorry, this sounds so like a shameless plug for the book, but there actually is an awful lot of stuff there relevant to this kind of thing. So if you're interested in the many and varied (and sometimes quite spooky and gruesome) rites of spring, now wouldn't be a bad time to check it out ... especially with blossoms outside the window and bluebells in the woods, and mysterious energies just waiting to burst out from the rich, re-energised and blood-sodden earth.

Thursday 13 March 2014

More journeys into darkness, but what fun

 A rarity to kick off with this week - details of a new short story shortly due to be published.

For a long time I've been an avid short story fan, both as writer and reader. It used to be the case that I wasn't happy if I didn't see at least one of my short stories published every month. The demands of the Heck novels and various film and TV projects I'm developing mean that I haven't got anything like sufficient time to pen so much short fiction these days, but now and then it is nice when a gap in the schedule comes along and I can quickly jot down another short trip to terror, though it's often the case that I have to target my market carefully, or maybe respond to a specific invitation.

I was very happy therefore, when Trevor Denyer - a very busy editor back in the 1990s (the much lauded 'Golden Age of the British Small Press'), and the master of all he surveyed at ground-breaking horror magazines like Roadworks and Midnight Street - asked me if I'd be interested in writing something for a new anthology he was putting together.

The finished book, which is due for publication in the very near future, is MIDNIGHT STREET: JOURNEYS INTO DARKNESS, pictured above, which looks as though it will be a very fine collection indeed (it'll be out both in print and e-format). I don't have a full table of contents for it yet, but these are the contributors and their stories that I do know about (in no particular order):

After The Party by Gary Couzens; Again by Ramsey Campbell; Amen by Simon Clark; Dead Man's Handle by Stephen Gallagher; Lapland, Or Film Noir by Peter Straub; The Spoils by Joel Lane; When They Come For You, They'll Look Normal by Ralph Robert Moore; En Saga by Nina Allan; The Return Of The Pikart Posse by Rosanne Rabinowitz; No Such Thing As Sin by Paul Finch; Traffic by Elliot Smith; Creeping Blue by Allen Ashley.

I have it on Trevor's authority that more names will join this list in due course. My own contribution, No Such Thing As Sin, is a brand new piece concerning weird events at a lonely house on the outskirts of Atherton, one of the most desolate corners of Greater Manchester. I'll post publications details as as soon as possible, so keep an eye open for those.

In other news, I had a marvellous couple of days last week in the company of Lars Schafft and Silke Wronkowski from the KRIMI-DOUCH.DE website in Germany, a massive operation catering mainly to the European thriller and crime fiction market. The back-story to this is pretty simple. The first of my Mark Heckenburg novels, STALKERS, will be published in Germany by Piper next month, under the title MADCHENJAGER. The Heck series has also been sold to Poland, Hungary, Turkey and Japan, but Germany is currently the scene of most overseas activity - apparently there is a lot of interest and pre-sales have been very good. So much so that the guys from KRIMI-DOUCH.DE came all the way over to Lancashire to see me. We were together two days and I gave them several interviews on video (see above), which of course I will post links to as soon as they are available.

As always, I was shamed by my German visitors' faultless knowledge of English when my own German is so poor (not to say non-existent). But In addition, Karl and Silke were great company and hugely knowledgeable - not just about the crime and thriller scene, but about my own work, which was fascinating and flattering at the same time. Personally, I can't wait to see the interviews once they've all been edited together, and I'm hoping to meet Karl and Silke again in the near future.

Last week was fun for all kinds of reasons. I also attended a literary lunch at the Caledonian Club in West London, at the invitation of THE LADY magazine whose very attentive audience was keen to know all about my crime-writing. This was an amazing experience: the environment was sumptuous, the food exquisite, and the company convivial. I said beforehand that I never expected the grim investigations of Detective Sergeant Mark 'Heck' Heckenburg to attract the interest of a cultured mag like THE LADY, with its very refined readership, but I was wrong. I gave my spiel, which seemed to go down well, and then participated in a lively question and answer session.

My thanks go to all the staff of THE LADY and the Caledonian Club (two of whom quietly told me they'd read my stuff and enjoyed it - result!), to ANNABEL GILES, who was my charming hostess for the day, and to D.E. MEREDITH and ANNA HOPE, my fellow writers and guests at the event.