Tuesday, 1 December 2015

To fight and die in a tragically fallen world

An author you're going to hear a lot more about in the near future is SIMON BESTWICK. A Cheshire lad by origin, now based in Liverpool, he specialises in novels and short stories that tend to straddle the horror and thriller subgenres. He's also something of an urban poet, determinedly examining every aspect of modern post-industrial life, which, while it's often bleak and unforgiving, in Simon Bestwick's hands is also dark, mysterious, compelling, and thanks to his lyrical descriptive powers, entrancing. Simon also writes with a conscience and a hard-edged political awareness, which elevates his work from the purely entertaining into something far more potent and thought-provoking.

Anyway, that's enough from me. Suffice to say that that Simon's new book, HELL'S DITCH, is published today by Snowbooks, and when the suggestion was made that he use this blog to write a guest blog and blurb his new book any way he saw fit, I thought why the hell not? So here it is, HELL'S DITCH - published today (just follow the link) - in the author's own words:

'"A fallen world" is a phrase a Christian friend of mine used, and while I’m not religious, it does have a certain ring to it. And it does rather describe the world of my new book – published today! – which is called Hell’s Ditch.

'Like pretty much anyone born before the end of the 1970s, I grew up with the threat of nuclear war. It was something that could very easily have happened, and there was stuff about it wherever you looked.

'It wasn’t just a topic of discussion on news and current affairs programmes – there were heavy metal songs (Two Minutes To Midnight) pop songs about it (Enola Gay, Dancing With Tears In My Eyes, 99 Red Balloons), books about it – post-apocalyptic action-adventures like The Survivalist, YA books like Brother In The Land, horror novels like Domain – and there were films about it (Threads, The Day After, Mad Max.) It was everywhere.

'And then the Cold War ended, and the threat just went away.


'Well, it hasn’t gone away, not really. Because those weapons are still there, and more worryingly, so are people who might want to use them – we’re not that chummy, even now, with Russia and China, after all. (And even if the button doesn’t get pushed, there are loads of other ways in which our whole civilisation could go west: climate change, resource wars, food shortages, pandemics…)

'I watched Threads for the first time a few years ago – along with a 1960s film called The War Game which seriously competes with it for the title of ‘most bleak, terrifying, doom-laden film of all time’ – and was reminded, starkly, of that childhood fear. I had to do something with that, so it went into shaping a story that was brewing in my head. At the time, it was a radio play called City Of Night. The radio play never happened, but I liked what I’d done enough to carry the story on. It became a series called The Black Road, which begins with Hell’s Ditch.

'So what kind of a world is Hell’s Ditch set in?

'In it, the button has been pushed – twenty years before the book starts, Britain has been hit by a nuclear attack. It hasn’t been as bad as it could have been – for a start, some people are still alive. But the place is a mess. Millions of people have been killed in the War. Freak weather conditions have scattered radioactive fallout across the country in ‘contamination belts’.

'The country’s been split into fifteen Regional Commands (based on the contingency plans that would have prevailed had the Cold War ever turned hot) and is ruled now by a militaristic organisation called the Reapers. Much of the technology is more basic than anything we’re used to today: electronics are a rare and valuable resource as most were destroyed by electromagnetic pulse during the attack. Computers are especially rare, and have to be used sparingly, as no replacement parts are being made.

'There’s no petrol or gas, except perhaps in some parts of the Command that governs the Orkneys and Shetlands. What vehicles are available are steam-powered, running on coal or anything else that can be burnt in their boilers. The weapons used are from an older generation, from caches mothballed in the 1980s or even the 1960s, because the newer guns have worn out and broken. The society of the future is ruled with the weapons of the past: the Sterlings and L1A1 self-loading rifles the Army had during the Cold War, or Sten, Thompson and Lanchester submachine guns from World War Two.

'The Reapers are the government, the police, the security services, the army and the civil service all rolled into one. They control everything, and their primary purpose, as the only order left, is to keep themselves going. Anyone who steps out of line is met with a bullet, and anyone who doesn’t fit into their concept of a renewed Britain is disposed of – usually by the feared shock-troops of their Genetic Renewal division, otherwise known as the Jennywrens.

'There was a rebellion against the Reapers, but five years ago it was brutally smashed: its headquarters were stormed and destroyed, its forces scattered and its leaders killed – or so they thought. One of them survived. And she’s coming back, to overthrow this government.

'But there’s another kind of darkness in this book: a thread of the supernatural. Nearly everyone in this world suffers from ‘ghostlighting’: they see the dead, the people they’ve lost in the War. It could hardly be otherwise – wherever you look, you’re surrounded by reminders of what’s been destroyed and who’s been killed. Whether the ghosts are real or just inside peoples’ heads is a matter of opinion.

'Meanwhile, the Reaper Commander for North-West England – where the story is set – has one ambition: to unite Britain under his rule. To do that, he’s trying to invoke forces that should never be woken. So the stakes are higher than who rules the ruins; they’re whether anything, even ruins, will be left for anyone, anywhere, to rule.

'It’s been great to see this book finally find a home with Snowbooks, after a couple of years thinking it would never see the light of day – and that I’d never get to carry the story on. And while it’s been grim to revisit those childhood fears of mine, it’s actually pretty comforting to come up for air from the fallen world of Hell’s Ditch and remind myself that the world we live in, for all its faults and problems, isn’t in that state.

'At least, not yet.'

So there you go? Seriously, how does that sound? You just know you need to find out more, don't you?

Prior to this, Simon (pictured right) is the author of TIDE OF SOULS, THE FACELESS and BLACK MOUNTAIN. His short fiction has appeared in BLACK STATIC and BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR, and been collected in A HAZY SHADE OF WINTER, PICTURES OF THE DARK, LET'S DRINK TO THE DEAD and THE CONDEMNED. Just to reiterate, HELL'S DITCH, is out today, and is well, well worth checking out.

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