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Monday, 12 October 2009

Spare Chinns

So there I am - Sunday evening, vegging out in front of the idiot box, when the phone rings. I answer it.
After a brief pause, a woman says "Is that Mr Chinn?"
Wary that this is another of those damned cold-callers, I reply, "Yes."
"Mr Michael Chinn?"
"Yes - who's this?"
"Lorna." says the woman. I don't say anything at this point - but my mind's going: Who? Lorna? Lorna who? "Lorna Chinn," she adds - just to make things more confusing.
"Who?" I finally get to say out loud.
"Your niece - Lorna!"
At this point my brain goes into overdrive, and I'm beginning to think I've accidentally stepped across into some parallel dimension. The woman's still talking, saying something about how difficult it's been to get my number. I didn't doubt that for a second.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" I finally get her to stop. "I don't have a niece named Lorna."
It's her turn to pause - I can just about hear her muttering something about being given the wrong number.
"Have you got a brother?" she asks.
"No." Which is true.
"Of course you have - I recognise your voice!"
So now not only am I supposed to have a niece I've never heard of, but a brother I've never met in over fifty years. And apparently I'm the one who's confused.
I'm getting irritated by now, say one last time: "I don't have a brother," and hang up.
But it left me a little shaken. Who was this strange woman who was so insistent that I was her uncle? Was it a genuine mistake (I've had people with the same surname ring me in the past to ask if I knew this or that relative of theirs), or a bizarre hoax call? Someone ringing in the hope I'd offer personal information that could be used for identity theft? (Call me cynical).
I did a 1471 a little later, and wasn't surprised to find the caller hadn't left their number. That in itself isn't proof the call wasn't on the level - but it didn't help calm my suspicions.
But it left me wondering: is there someone out there - a Lorna Chinn - trying to find her uncle and just got this grumpy bastard instead.
Must be a short story in there somewhere.

Monday, 8 June 2009

What a way to spent a Saturday


Rain. Cold. A June Saturday more like one in late autumn. Were we downhearted? Never! Not when there are huge South African two-foot gauge Garretts to be pored over and photographed, and all that North Wales scenery.
The day didn’t get off to the liveliest of starts (4:30am on a Saturday – never thought there was such a time!) but once we were safely ensconced in our Pullman seats and our train was on its way from Tyseley (and I was on my second coffee), the world was coming into something like focus. It was an organised trip – run by Vintage Trains of Birmingham – up to visit the Welsh Highland Railway in North Wales: a narrow gauge line that will eventually run from Caernarfon to Porthmadog (and link up with the Ffestiniog Railway), via Dinas and Beddgelert. The trip was originally advertised as a chance to run all the way down from Dinas to Portmadog before the route officially opened; however, problems with the right of way towards the line’s terminus meant that we got no further than Hafod y Llyn – a run-around in the middle of the picturesque Glaslyn valley. No matter.


The power on the WHR is mostly provided by huge Garrett locomotives – built in Manchester for South African use – towering above the usual breed of UK narrow gauge. Hard to believe these monsters run on two-foot gauge – you think they’d fall off. Our special was double-headed by no.87 – just out of the restoration shop bearing a fetching livery of pale grey – and no.143 in shiny black. Apparently there’s a limit to the number of coaches these beasts are allowed to pull: twelve. Since Vintage Trains had commandeered virtually every item of WHR passenger stock except one – totalling thirteen carriages – extra motive power was required.
I didn’t hear anyone complaining.


There are spectacular views on this line – especially once you get above the trees. Mount Snowdon isn’t too far away – not that we saw it, what with the weather and other mountains blocking the view.
On the way back to Dinas, we had to leave no.143 behind – mechanical trouble – at the Rhyd Ddu station. Regulations or not, no.87 managed a steady 17-19 mph all the way back to Dinas (mind you – it was mostly downhill…).
Then it was a case of catching the hired coaches back to Llandudno Station, and our ride back to Tyseley (yes – that was steam-pulled too, since you ask: ex-GWR Castle class Earl of Mount Edgecumbe; best moment: leaving a Virgin Voyager unit standing, just outside Crewe!).
And did I mention the WHR also has a Pullman Car...


That's the way to travel.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

World Horror Convention 2010 Announces Special Guest of Honour

World Horror Convention 2010 is proud and delighted to announce that our very Special Guest of Honour is Britain's most influential and successful horror writer of all time -- JAMES HERBERT. 

James Herbert created the modern mass-market horror genre with the publication of his first ground-breaking novel, THE RATS, in 1974 (for the record, Stephen King's CARRIE was published a few months later). Since then he has reigned as Britain's undisputed #1 author of chiller fiction, with more than 20 novels to his credit -- which have sold more than fifty million copies world-wide. His books have been translated into more than thirty-five languages, including Russian and Chinese. 

THE RATS has never been out of print, and Jim's list of best-selling titles includes THE FOG, THE SURVIVOR, FLUKE, THE SPEAR, LAIR, THE DARK, THE JONAH, SHRINE, DOMAIN, MOON, THE MAGIC COTTAGE, SEPULCHRE, HAUNTED, CREED, PORTENT, THE GHOSTS OF SLEATH, '48, OTHERS, ONCE, NOBODY TRUE and THE SECRET OF CRICKLEY HALL. 

THE RATS (aka DEADLY EYES), THE SURVIVOR, FLUKE and HAUNTED have all been made into movies, the latter starring Aidan Quinn, Kate Beckinsale and Sir John Gielgud. 

In his 1992 Introduction to the bio-bibliography JAMES HERBERT: BY HORROR HAUNTED, Stephen King wondered "with real excitement" what James Herbert might be up to in the year 2010. Well, now we know -- he'll be at World Horror Convention in Brighton

Thursday, 16 April 2009

DC Showcase Presents: The War That Time Forgot

DC Comics’ Showcase Presents library is – let’s face it – an exercise in nostalgia. Something for those of us who remember the days when just about every newsagent had a revolving stand of US comic books and which – long before the rise of specialist outlets – were the only sources for your monthly Superman and Spider-Man.

The Showcase Presents books contain 500 pages of black and white reprints from DC’s past: Green Lantern, Atom, Metamorpho, Aquaman, Superman, and Justice League of America among others – often in multiple volumes. For anyone who wants to revisit their childhood – or just to see what the Silver Age of comics was all about – it’s a cheap way to do it. But it can also be a chastening experience – a reminder that you really can’t go back…


The War That Time Forgot is a case in point. The title is an envelope term that covers a series of short comic strips originally published in Star-Spangled War Stories in the 1960s – off-kilter tales that sat oddly alongside your usual All-American gung-ho war comic. Mainly because instead of the Japanese, these GIs are taking on dinosaurs. And not just any old dinosaurs, either – these bruisers are huge! Maybe not Godzilla-sized proportions – but big enough to bite transporter planes in half, swallow submarines, rip tanks open like sardine tins, and shrug off clip-loads of .45 slugs like they were nothing.


And did I mention the robots…?


So are they as much fun as I remember? Perhaps unsurprisingly the answer has to be, on the whole, no. Even taken on their own, limited, merits most of the stories are repetitive and sorely lacking in imagination. The blame for that has to rest on Robert Kanigher who scripted every one in this volume (so perhaps we can be generous: who knows what his workload was back then; recycling the same plot may have been the only way to keep up). Generally, a bunch of GIs are sent on a mission and end up on an unmarked tropical island, chased constantly by a succession of oversized pterosaurs, marine lizards, fish, crabs, and a variety of sauropod and therapod dinosaurs. Often there’s a veritable army of both herbivore and carnivore dinosaurs who – ignoring their usual diet – are intent on swallowing humans who wouldn’t even constitute a morsel. Needless to say, all the herbivores are just as intent on eating men and machinery as their flesh-eating cousins. And to balance things up, there’s also a giant white gorilla – or even several giant white gorillas. Son of Kong, anyone?


Many of the characters seem cursed with selective memories, too (or maybe they’re just in denial). Early on in the series, characters find themselves back on the island (or back in time – it’s never entirely clear) with no memory of their last adventure there. But Kanigher obviously cottons on to this being one implausibility too many and he introduces running characters such as members of The Suicide Squad, The Flying Franks … and that robot I mentioned earlier. That’s right: a robot GI, named Joe (and a later model called Mac).


(Although not to be outdone, there’s also a Japanese robot that is – naturally – a giant. A precursor to the Transformers, perhaps? Pity he never gets to duke it out with one of the giant gorillas).


Okay – maybe I’m being too cynical; these all come from a more na├»ve age, after all. They were meant as simple entertainment – and I certainly lapped them up as a child (though I think even I baulked at a T-Rex and Apatosaurus having a prolonged fight under the ocean without coming up for air). And yes – there are stories here that I remember buying (or rather – my father buying for me): one concerning a were-dinosaur (seriously!) drawn by the wonderful Joe Kubert, and the other about a tyrannosaur with a taste for high explosives, illustrated by Gene Colon. Both come late in the run (the first TWtTF was published April/May 1960, and the last in this collection is dated August/September 1966), and Kanigher appears to have finally discovered a few more plotlines (or maybe it was just desperation – how else to explain a horror-obsessed GI becoming a T-Rex when the moon rises?).


Most of the art chores were handled by Ross Andru, with Russ Heath pencilling one story, and Gene Colon and Joe Kubert drawing two each. Personally, I prefer the Kubert and Colon art – with Heath coming in second (or should that be third?) his pencils are less dramatic than any of the others – but marginally more photo-realistic; in fact his style reminds me of the unfussy, nuts and bolts British style of artwork found in DC Thomson’s Commando and Fleetway’s long-gone Battle Picture Library. Andru’s art is fine – and he certainly had a way of defining muscle and scales on his creatures – but it just doesn’t have the haunting quality of Kubert or the sheer in your face impact of Colon.


My final gripe is with the endless anachronisms (apart from dinosaurs and robots in the 1940s, of course). Turning up with relentless regularity are frogmen and helicopters. Now Jacques Cousteau didn’t help invent SCUBA gear until after the war had finished, and the only workable choppers during that period were German. I know they’re devices to keep a story that has a very limited number of pages moving – but let’s not push it.


The best way to approach this collection is in small bites – don’t try to take it all down in one go or you’ll lose patience long before the end. And you might be more forgiving of the many shortfalls. Just keep telling yourself they’re fifty years old and comics have changed in that lifetime.


Luckily for us.

Monday, 6 April 2009

More Starblazer Adventures

Argentinean artist Enrique Alcatena has come on board the Starblazer Adventures - Legends of Anglerre RPG supplement. He drew all of the original Anglerre-themed issues - so he should know just about as much as I do about the place.

Sadly, the budget probably won't stretch to any new artwork - but they'll be using some of Quique's panels as spot illustrations (we're presently charged with going through past issues and picking out our favourites and/or ones that give a feeling for the fantasy world that Anglerre inhabits). Almost like old times.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Return of the Paladin

I can't believe it's been over ten years since my collection THE PALADIN MANDATES was published by The Alchemy Press: six Pulp-inspired tales set in mid-1930s America in which Damian Paladin and his adventuress sidekick Leigh Oswin take on vengeful spirits, banshees, ghosts and undead pharaohs. During the intervening years, I've not written any Paladin stories - other than continue to wrestle with a novella that includes Nazis, the Grail and Knights Templar, and kid myself I'm going to write a novel - but recently, the muse must have come back. I banged out one all about zombies and a mad scientist (as you do) and another concerning an ancient church in The Bowery which grants hints of the future.

A third was born when I read a review of the collection in Stephen Theaker's THEAKER'S QUARTERLY DIGEST in which he complained that - writing as a Biggles fan - he didn't think there was enough flying (one of the continuing themes of the Paladin stories is our hero tazzing about the skies in a vintage biplane on the thinnest of excuses). This prompted two thoughts: one - Stephen is very brave to admit his liking for Biggles (these days you can admit to almost anything, even necrophilia ... but Biggles...!); two - I was going to write that story, so help me!

And so it came to be - Paladin and Leigh, flying through the Rhode Island skies in two 30s pretty biplanes (as seen here) taking on... Well, I won't spoil it - but the fact that the action takes place not so far from Providence might be a clue. Better yet, I submitted it to Stephen - in his role as editor of the British Fantasy Society's journal, DARK HORIZONS - and he accepted it. More than a decade since his last appearance, Damian Paladin has returned - and he doesn't look a day older.

Next? Well I fancy something to do with dinosaurs...

Monday, 23 March 2009

Go to Starblazers


The Cubicle 7 RPG Starblazer Adventures - based around the old DC Thomson digest-sized comic Starblazer is due to start publishing supplements to the core - most SF - game. As someone who scripted over 20 issues of the much-missed comic, I agreed to give a hand, where I could.

Earlier this month, I got the call.

Flatteringly, I was told they intended to base much of the first Fantasy supplement on 5 of the issues that I'd written: a sword & sorcery soap opera featuring three generations of the d'Annemarc dynasty of Anglerre. Recurring characters, recurring themes - over the top in the extreme. First I provided a breakdown of characters, and then the storyline for the whole five issues (today we'd call it the story-arc). Of course, there wasn't an overall, continuous story for those issues - originally they weren't even written in the fictional chronological order; but I'd always been careful not to introduce too many contradictions, so it wasn't hard linking together stories that already kind of followed on anyway.

The fun part was filling in what had happened between issues (i.e. making it up!) to give a sense of changing geo-politics, and the march of time. And I admit I also tweaked some of the storylines to make them a better fit. What I hadn't anticipated was how long it would take me. I mean - each issue was only 60-odd pages long, two black & white panels per page ... just how much plot could there be...?

Okay - I probably provided more information than they needed, but to be honest, I was beginning to enjoy myself once I'd gotten back into the world the comics inhabited. The first couple of days I thought: "What am I doing with my life?" - but the ancient, siren call of magic swords, magic realms, gods and hideous demons eventually sucked me in. 15,000 words later, I was done.

And not a dragon, pixie or Hobbit to be seen.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Hello world

Everyone's doing it, so I thought: "Why not?" No doubt the weeks that follow will answer that question only too clearly...