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Wednesday, 27 November 2013

RIP Joel Lane

I received the news in an email yesterday evening, and just stared at it for – I don’t know how long. The words didn’t make sense. I spent the rest of the evening in a kind of denial: the universe had made a mistake; there was a glitch in the Matrix. Come the morning the software would have been fixed and we’d all wake up none the wiser. But it didn’t. Joel Lane, a friend for some thirty years, was gone.
 
I first met Joel in the mid-1980s: a quiet, intense young man with a passion for all things Lovecraftian and Ramsey Campbell. He became part of a tiny band of both genuine and honorary Brummies who met up infrequently – often in the bar of the New Imperial Hotel before they pulled it down – to put the world right and swap gossip. Over the years that bunch grew – becoming, informally, the Birmingham Balti Boys. Joel would always join in any conversation – be it on fiction, politics, TV (he was a great fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) – with thoughtful insights. Yet he was, typically, more reticent about his own work: more than once he was asked: “Don’t you have a book coming out?” and Joel say yes, then go on to enthuse about the publisher rather than the book itself. If we didn’t live in a world where information is now spread instantaneously, it’s quite possible he would have failed to mention winning a World Fantasy Award.
 
For a while we were members of the same horror writers group and no matter how crass or rushed a piece might be – dashed off the night before just so there would be something to read out – Joel could always find something positive to say; often finding subtlety and context in the work that made it sound far more worthy than it was. And always, no matter how serious his comments, there was always the trace of a twinkle in his eye; and more often than not, a dry, throwaway gag to leaven the criticism.
 
Joel’s passion for horror and weird fantasy (and crime fiction) never waned. I published him twice, in anthologies whose subject matter wasn’t obviously Joel material; and in both cases didn’t fail to surprise (his Clark Ashton Smith pastiche “The Hunger of the Leaves” from Swords Against The Millennium was not only selected for a volume of the year's best fantasy, but also best horror – a testament to his talent – but also highlighted a tongue in cheek humour that isn’t obvious elsewhere in his work).
 
Joel will always be remembered for his enthusiasm and erudition. In a world grown cynical, his genuine passion for horror and fantasy was both refreshing and essential. We are all a little greyer for his passing.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Pulp Heroes: Marion Pitman


Marion Pitman contributed the Western "Meeting at the Silver Dollar" for THE ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF PULP HEROES 2. Here she slaps leather and trades shot for shot in a short interview.
Would you like to briefly introduce yourself: what inspired your writing and when you began, and – if possible – of all of your published work could you tell me which your favourites are (and why)?
 
I’ve been telling myself stories ever since I can remember, and writing since I learned to write. I just have a need to tell stories. I think John Ford, asked which was his favourite of his films, said, “The next one.” I perhaps have a fondness for “The Seal Songs”, which I think was my first sale, and so far the most successful! I think it works well, and is well-constructed.
 
 
Do you have a favourite genre, or sub-genre? What exactly is it that attracts you?
 
I like all genres, and non-genre – it’s all stories, it’s all good. Anything with a sense of the extra dimension to the universe, the spiritual or whatever you like to call it, meaning and significance.
 
 
Some say Pulp is a genre, others a style; which side do you come down on?
 
Eesh, there’s a question. I think style. The subject matter can be anything, so I wouldn’t say it’s a genre. Mind you I’m very dubious about the whole genre thing anyway – as I said, it’s all stories, or should be. Genre is a marketing construct J. When I was a kid I read everything, I never thought about what genre it was.
 
 
What was the inspiration for “Meeting at the Silver Dollar”?
 
Well, the first thing was thinking, OK, what sort of thing is the editor looking for here? And I read the first book and decided that it was as much the concept of heroes as the pulp aspect. Then, I’ve been going through a re-immersion in the Western, which I adored as a kid, partly due to reading Harry Carey Jr’s memoirs about working with John Ford, COMPANY OF HEROES. Then I treated myself to a DVD of a rather bad movie called JOURNEY TO SHILOH, made from a rather good book by Will Henry. And then I thought for a bit, and various Western tropes and odd lines from movies came together and I wrote this story. Oh, there’s probably echoes of THE SHOOTIST as well.
 
 
Do you have a particular favourite author, or authors? What is it about their work which appeals to you?
 
Neil Gaiman’s high on my list, as he is on a lot of people’s. He writes about people you can relate to, and his world is rich and many-layered. Also he writes superbly and always with humour.
 
Other authors I read and re-read are Diana Wynne Jones, GK Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers, Sarah Caudwell – all for much the same reasons: good writing, involving characters, a meaningful universe. And I still like CS Lewis, despite being aware of his faults.
 
 
Outside writing, what else occupies your time (assuming you have any free time left)?
 
Trying to earn a living, which involves selling second-hand books; watching cricket and rugby; interacting with friends (very important); travelling as much as I can afford. Reading, naturally. Trying to sing.
 
 
Is there any particular style of music – or musicians – which appeals to you?
 
Folk music has always been my favourite, leaning more towards the traditional. Also early music – 17th century and earlier. I also like classical, jazz, and some (by no means all!) rock music. Musicians – probably too many to mention.
 
 
What are you currently working on?
 
Couple of short stories, in the weird/fantasy/supernatural field, and a novel that I don’t know how to classify, which takes place partly in contemporary England and partly in another dimension, where one of the characters is mad, one’s been dead for years, and it kind of goes on like that. It’s good.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Pulp Heroes: Adrian Cole


Adrian Cole contributed the Nick Nightmare story "Kiss the Day Goodbye" to THE ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF PULP HEROES 2.
Would you like to briefly introduce yourself: what inspired your writing and when you began, and – if possible – of all of your published work could you tell me which your favourites are (and why)?
 
Adrian Cole, born 22nd July, 1949 in Devonport, Plymouth. I guess I was inspired to write through an early love of reading and a natural desire to (literally) put pen to paper. From Primary school onwards I always used to write essays (stories) that took up half an exercise book. I read all sorts as a kid, mostly adventure stuff and my first introduction to “classical” literature was thru reading most of the CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED comics! I started my first book when I was 19 (published five years later as THE DREAM LORDS trilogy) in 1968.
 
My favourite books of my own are MOORSTONES, which captures the mood and atmosphere of Dartmoor (where I grew up), A PLACE AMONG THE FALLEN, which broke new ground for me and NIGHT OF THE HEROES, which was just great fun to write.
 
 
Do you have a favourite genre, or sub-genre? What exactly is it that attracts you?
 
My favourite genres are Fantasy (to some extent) Horror, Spy Fiction and Ancient/Dark Age History. I like stuff to stretch the imagination and the Dark Age stuff is something I seem to have an affinity for, probably as I have “Celtic” antecedents, being from Devonian stock.
 
 
Some say Pulp is a genre, others a style; which side do you come down on?
 
I don’t think it would be right to call it a genre, as it comprises of loads of genres – crime, SF, fantasy, westerns, horror, S&S, etc., etc… It is more of a style, rooted in the Depression Era in the States, when dozens of writers hacked out stories for dimes, the mags printed on trashy pulp paper and sold very cheaply at a time when most people were eating their boots for breakfast. Perversely it does seem to have “evolved” a bit, but pulp today reflects the old style.
 
 
What was the inspiration for “Kiss the Day Goodbye”?
 
As a writer, I am ceaselessly caught out by the truly horrible: “Bugger it, someone has already written my latest brilliant story!” How many times have I come up with something hot, only to find out someone got there before me? If other writers are honest, they’ll tell you the same. I’m still peeved about the fact that George Lucas nicked my DREAM LORDS stuff as the basis for STAR WARS – my stuff came out first, by the way. So the Scene Stealer in “Kiss the Day Goodbye” was my answer to it. Only there must be more than one, because I’m still getting my brain picked…
 
 
Do you have a particular favourite author, or authors? What is it about their work which appeals to you?
 
Apart from lifelong favourites like Edgar Rice Burroughs, HP Lovecraft, JRR Tolkien and Robert E Howard, I particularly like Dan Simmons, Jonathan Carrol and Bernard Cornwell/John le Carré. The old gang were the very best at excitement and adventure and the modern writers combine superb storytelling with powerful, evocative writing that is not only exciting but moving.
 
 
Outside writing, what else occupies your time (assuming you have any free time left)?
 
From about March to November (weather permitting) I’m a bit of a beach bum and like nothing better than plunging into the waves at nearby Westward Ho beach – one of the best in the country. I also like cycling through the local woodland areas. For my indoors pursuits, I am an avid comic book fan (as well as doing a lot of reading) and love movies. And there’s the small matter (very small these days) of my favourite soccer club, Plymouth Argyle, whom I visit during the season. In the summer I’m hard of hearing, on account of my “surfer’s ear” and in the football season I’m hoarse from encouraging my team.
 
 
Is there any particular style of music – or musicians – which appeals to you?
 
Weaned on the Stones in their early years, then used to go to gigs very regularly – top bands for me were always Pink Floyd, Bowie, Deep Purple, Quo and then on to the electronic stuff like Kraftwerk and Tang Dream. New Order, too. Still like new stuff – e.g. Daft Punk.
 
 
What are you currently working on?
 
An ambitious three volume saga about an alternative Romano-Celtic Europe, which begins with the death of Augustus Caesar’s wife, Livia, in 2 AD and the murder of Claudius shortly afterwards at the age of 16. After that, things begin to drift right off the known historical map…
 
Also working on some new Nick Nightmare stuff, with a view to putting enough material together for his very own collection, NICK NIGHTMARE INVESTIGATES.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Birmingham Tales

Even though Birmingham is one of Britain’s largest cities, historically it’s never been the setting for fiction (or even drama) in the same way that, say, London, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh or Glasgow have. That may be changing with the success of the BBC’s Peaky Blinders (even though it was filmed elsewhere) and less obvious drama such as Hustle and By Any Means (both set in London, but ironically filmed in Birmingham…). There has been the occasional literary excursion, too, and it recently occurred to me that I have appeared in three of them.
 
First there was Birmingham Noir (Tindal Street Press, 2002, edited by Joel Lane and Steve Bishop). Well before Peaky Blinders, this anthology showed that Birmingham was just as gritty and crime-ridden as any major city. After the building of the ICC and NIA, Birmingham had established itself as a major conference and sports venue, with accommodation to match – from Hilton and Radisson hotels down to the humblest Travelodge. And keeping pace came adult entertainment; either legit or criminal, businesses grew to keep visitors amused. My contribution – “Brindley’s Place” – was set among the pubs and restaurants that were growing up alongside the newly-scrubbed canals in Brindleyplace and along Broad Street. It showed what happened when those at the bottom of the food chain get caught up in the inevitable sleaze and corruption – whilst offering the hope of some form of redemption.
 
Years later, to accompany a historical walk around Brum’s Digbeth and Deritend areas – part of the Andromeda One convention held at the Custard Factory – Weird Trails (Fringeworks 2013, edited by Adrian Middleton) was published: a compilation of facts that tied in with the walk, and short pieces of fiction set around the area. I supplied a mock article that was supposed to have been originally published several years earlier in the magazine Strange Brew (a fictionalised Fortean Times). Under the by-line Clifton Davies (“…a writer and fortean investigator living in the Midlands”), the article – “Bird’s Over the Bullring” – was a melange of actual history (the Bird’s Custard factory in Birmingham and Banbury) mixed in with reports of UFOs, strange figures, hauntings and mysterious voices on the telephone. All completely fictional (at least, that’s what I told the editor). It was a fun thing, and gave me a chance to indulge my interest in strange phenomena.
 
Then most recently has been Second City Scares (Horror Express 2013, edited by Marc Shemmans), an anthology of horror fiction not only set in Birmingham, but with contributions from local writers who should know the place (and its terrors) best. I supplied “Cheechee’s Out”: a straight to video nasty about the subversion of the city fathers and other well-placed individuals, and the role of the extensive underground car parks and miles of passageways underneath Birmingham (almost a mini-city in itself). All played out in a part of the suburbs which, despite some altered names (to protect the innocent), might be familiar to anyone who knows where I live. Again, it was a fun to write and, I hope, to read.
 
I’m pleased to be able to write about my home city: its seedy underbelly and even darker, less tangible elements. Birmingham has a rich history, present and intended future – all of which may be mined for their potential. Here’s to future editors and anthologists, and the shadowy treats they may perceive in the city’s grimy heritage or burgeoning prospects.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Pulp Heroes: Pauline E Dungate

Pauline supplied "Night Hunter" for THE ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF PULP HEROES 2. Here she answers a few questions on it and life in general.
 
 
Would you like to briefly introduce yourself: what inspired your writing and when you began, and – if possible – of all of your published work could you tell me which your favourites are (and why)?
 
I write fiction as Pauline E Dungate but poetry, non-fiction and reviews as Pauline Morgan. My own favourite? If I have to choose I’d go for “In the Tunnels” that first appeared in BENEATH THE GROUND edited by Joel Lane (The Alchemy Press). Stephen Jones liked it enough to put in BEST NEW HORROR 15.
 
 
Do you have a favourite genre, or sub-genre? What exactly is it that attracts you?
 
I don’t have a favourite genre as so many genres have good practitioners. I like writing that is well crafted. At present I am drawn to Urban Fantasy as that has the capacity for mixing genres together.
 
 
Some say Pulp is a genre, others a style; which side do you come down on?
 
Can’t it be both?
 
 
What was the inspiration for “Night Hunter”?
 
I had been playing with the set-up for “Night Hunter” for a while but as a film in which my lead character was the actor who played the role of Hunter. The setting, Shoreham in Sussex, is where my mother lived and when there were recent reports of sightings of a lion in the Home Counties, the ideas came together.
 
 
Do you have a particular favourite author, or authors? What is it about their work which appeals to you?
 
There are too many to list. I like the aspects that constitute good writing such as believable characters and a strong plot.
 
 
Outside writing, what else occupies your time (assuming you have any free time left)?
 
These days my main interests are gardening and wild life photography. Travel to out of the way places like Ecuador and Easter Island give great opportunities.
 
 
Is there any particular style of music – or musicians – which appeals to you?
 
Heavy rock. On my time table at present are Black Veil Brides, Alice Cooper and Within Temptation.
 
 
What are you currently working on?
 
A nearly contemporary novel involving a rock group.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Agents of SHEESH (with apologies)

 
I’ve been a fan of American comic-book superheroes for decades; in fact one of my earliest memories is of going on holiday, on a coach (we didn’t have a car at the time) reading a Green Lantern comic – over and over, as only young children can. I discovered Marvel comics several years later and became an instant convert to the garish, OTT universe its characters inhabited (at the time DC was definitely in the doldrums – despite having the lion’s share of the market – with repetitive and frequently boring storylines). These days I don’t hold a torch for either company – preferring individual characters (such as the Batman) or artists (like Howard Chaykin) over universes which are becoming mind-numbingly over-complex. When they’re not getting the far too frequent reinvention and clear-out treatment. But when movie technology finally caught up with the visual insanity of the comic-book worlds, I for one was delighted.
 
I think it’s fair to say that, in the movies anyway, Marvel is doing slightly better, with the separate X-Men, Spider-Man and Iron Man/Thor/Captain America franchises. The Batman and Superman films (all of the sequels and re-boots) have had their successes – but Green Lantern was, I’m sad to say, a disappointment (doubly so for me for, as a youngster, the Gil Kane illustrated Green Lantern and Carmine Infantino’s Flash were my favourite characters). Talk of a Justice League movie remains just that – talk – whilst Avengers Assemble has not only spawned a cartoon version, but has been spun out into the Joss Whedon produced Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Which is where everything gets flipped.
 
 
Over the past couple of decades there have been various attempts to get superheroes on TV. I won’t mention the Dr Strange and Captain America TV movies, both of which suffered from tiny budgets; nor do I intend to cover The Hulk or Wonder Woman (other than to say the first was simply The Fugitive all over again, and the second a camp throwback to the mid-60s Batman show). In the wake of the X-Men films there was a dire series named Mutant X which somehow managed to survive three seasons; whilst the DCU came up with Birds of Prey (based on the comic of the same name) which was cancelled before all of the first season was aired (don’t ask me why: it was far from perfect, but still superior to Mutant X) Some years earlier there had been a Flash TV series which only lasted one season even though it was quite fun and – unlike Hulk and Wonder Woman – actually had a few super villains (such as Mark Hamill’s Trickster). And of course Supes was represented by both The New Adventures of Superman (aka Lois and Clark) and Smallville, both of which had long runs and – in the case of Smallville anyway – did a good job of presenting a version of the DCU to a largely unfamiliar audience. Plus there were all the cartoon series: Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, Justice League, X-Men and the Avengers.
 
 
Notice something: with the exception of the animated series, nearly all of these shows are based on DC characters.
 
Which brings us up to the present day: the DCU represented by Arrow; Marvel by Agents of SHIELD. And what a difference. Whilst Marvel certainly has got into its stride with movies, they’re still lagging on TV.
 
Based on the Green Arrow comic book, Arrow seems to be more a spiritual twin to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy: shadowy, angst-filled – there’s even a budding Batman/James Gordon style relationship building in the second series between Arrow and the demoted policeman Quentin Lance. Although aiming less for the spandex look, there’s still an impressive roster of characters from the DCU: Deathstroke, Deadshot, Roy Harper (Oliver Queen’s younger sister, Thea, already has the nickname Speedy – so it’ll be intriguing to see where that goes); Black Canary has become an established part of season two, with the promise of Barry Allen/the Flash later. Although it’s occasionally a little too po-faced the series is confident, and clearly knows where it’s going.
 
 
Agents of SHIELD, on the other hand, is so far suffering from what I can only see as a failure of nerve. Growing out of the crazy Marvel universe (in many ways a direct sequel to Avengers Assemble), with Joss Whedon at the helm I had expected so much more. SHIELD was Marvel’s answer to James Bond and The Man from UNCLE, and the comics were brash and OTT: operatives typically dressed in form-fitting one-piece suits, with shoulder holsters that held something far more exotic than a Glock automatic. They even have a flying aircraft carrier. So why, when AoS finally hit our screens is it so much like any number of other cops-with-fancy-technology shows? To be blunt, the hardware on display in CSI:NY was more fantastic than most of what Agent Coulson and his band of cyphers have so far encountered. It doesn’t matter how many times they name-check Captain America, this doesn’t feel like the same universe in which New York was invaded by a gang of other-dimensional creatures, master-minded by a Norse god, and involving a death-worshipping alien. It’s just too ordinary. Audiences in both the US and UK must feel the same, as viewing figures in both countries drop weekly. Unless things change, I don’t see AoS being picked up for a second season.
 
 
But maybe I’m being overly pessimistic. Recently I’ve started rewatching the first season of Babylon 5 – and I’m surprised at just how bad it is, with no sign of the heights it would attain in later years (ignoring the final series, which should never have been made). So perhaps AoS will make it yet; perhaps they’re still establishing the characters, and we may expect some real Marvel comic-book action. I hope so.

Bring back Hydra I say, introduce AIM (both have been name-checked either in the series or the films) – and let’s throw the automatic pistols away in favour of shoulder-holstered blasters, before it’s too late.