It’s been a long long time …

   The past few years have been pretty shitty. My partner is wobbly and ill. Delayed the release of the second Da Silva novel, but now it is out, let my friends rejoice. If you link to David Longhorn’s Supernatural Tales blog my first review is up!

Much more involved than its predecessor Demon Weather, with more characters and an even Bigger Bad, it moves thanks to an evil British MP (no surprise there then!) to a Greek island where an ancient power waits.

Do not read this at night!

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I found this book in the children’s section of my local library. Well, I don’t know about kids, but it honestly creeped the crap out of me, and that has not happened in a long, long time. Despite the youth of the characters, I’d have put it in the adult section. With a warning on the cover.
It was the title that made me take it off the shelf. “Long Lankin” is one of the old ballads that had the Steeleye Span treatment back in the 70s, and it sticks with you.
Beware the moss, beware the moor; beware of Long Lankin…
For some reason I always imagined the moor to be in Yorkshire, but Lindsey Barraclough has taken her cue from the “moss”, setting her tale in East Anglia’s sucking fens.
Be sure the door is bolted well, lest Lankin should creep in…

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Back then, I heard it as merely the story of a murder, but according to wiki, “It gives an account of the murder of a woman and her infant son by a man… a devil, bogeyman or a motiveless villain… [later] versions add peculiar incidents that add to the grisliness of the crime. Lamkin and the nursemaid collect the baby’s blood in a basin which, along with the idea that the name Lamkin or Lammikin indicates the murderer was pale skinned and, therefore, perhaps a leper who sought to cure himself by bathing in the blood of an innocent collected in a silver bowl, a medieval cure.” These are key elements in the book.

Told from three viewpoints, the setting is the Fifties. Cora and her four-year-old sister Mimi are sent to stay with elderly Aunt Ida in her crumbling mansion. Their aunt REALLY doesn’t want them there, fobids them to explore the nearby church, and all the windows in the house are nailed shut. The girls befriend a local boy, Roger, and his small brother Peter. I was instantly catapulted back to my own childhood. Barraclough’s writing is pitch-perfect, the kid’s sounding just as I remember from a small country town in the Sixties (“he can’t run for toffee”).

The first three-quarters of the book are a spine-chilling masterclass in Jamesiana, adhering closely to the Ominous Thing rule: “into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.”

Fans of Monty will appreciate this image: “Moving slowly, creeping along the ground, it approached a bright patch of moonlight by the wire fence. It is shaped like a long tall man, yet it crawls like an animal.”

They will also recall a hand similar to this one, “with thin, almost transparent, blotched flesh, crooked, bony fingers and curved black fingernails like iron claws, reached out and curled around the edge of the doorway.”

And indeed this: “It [the window] was thickly covered with huge flies, crawling over the diamond panes, their fat black and white bodies packed tightly together. Flesh flies— flies that don’t bother to lay eggs, just maggots.”

By this time I was looking apprehensively at the darkness outside, and wondering what could possibly come next.

However, Lankin, when he materialises in suitably horrible form, lurches into a dramatic, but less scary, battle for little Mimi, in which Aunt Ida plays a surprisingly heroic role. It’s not exactly an anticlimax and it’s not un-thrilling, but it’s a little more conventionally horror-story than the subtle build-up. And, by golly, it ends on a completely unexpected cliffhanger. There is a sequel in the pipeline. I hope Lindsey Barraclough has been writing like fury, because I want to know what could possibly come next.

The Story Formerly Known As Wolfbane

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Komarovs-ebook/dp/B00EMFM0WK/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1378288410&sr=1-1&keywords=Chico+Kidd

I have a new ebook out— enovella, to be precise. It’s a long new Da Silva Tale, originally titled “Wolfbane”, renamed “The Komarovs” for *makes quoty fingers* commercial reasons. Great cover, though (if I can figure out how to make a link here). The Captain takes his family to the fair, and supernatural mayhem ensues. Featuring zombies. evil twins, mirror-magic, and wolfbane especially for the American werewolf, Ed Harris.

A big influence for this story was the sadly canceled show Carnivalè, coupled with a description from an old book on the Alcântara fair. Charley Zriny, a.k.a. The Metreman, is a steal of the carny boss Samson, though with a different supernatural pain in his ass.

Pay attention, though! This story foreshadows the 5th novel in the Da Silva series, Uncharted Seas. You read it here first! And the second novel, The Werewolf of Lisbon, is due out soon…

L-Space: Where the stories live

flying-books

Something the character Dr Reid in Criminal Minds (the show’s Sheldon) said set me thinking. He was explaining how he could read so fast, and it went something like this: the conscious mind absorbs information at such and such a speed, the unconscious x times faster (the x was many, many times faster).

Anyone who “speed-reads” is suspected, somewhat bizarrely, of telling fibs. I didn’t learn to read fast; I was made this way. I can’t NOT read at a rate of about two pages a minute— if I try, I soon slip back into my default mode. Which is a sort of trance. My mind is open to sponging up stuff regardless of what is going on around me. A similar thing happens when I’m in the flow of writing. I tap into some limbic area and a story comes out.

And I thought: That’s L-Space!* Stories live there— written AND unwritten. Isn’t it a lovely idea, that while musicians maintain that music is in the air all around us and you just take a piece when you need it, you can also do the same with stories? It’s meditation with fiction!

*For non-Discworld fans, if there are any, L-Space is the dimension which enables Unseen University library to store many more books than could fit into a non-pan-dimensional library.

An unexpectedly fabulous journey

bilbo

I’ll start off by saying that I didn’t think The Hobbit should have been split into 3, and in some ways I still don’t. But Part One is such an unexpectedly fabulous journey, marred only by an overabundance of CGI orcs and battles with same. I should have trusted Peter and Fran! Even though we are only at the point of the travelers’ rescue by the Eagles (exactly on page 100 in my copy of the book), none of what went before seems padded.

The best thing by far is Martin Freeman, Bilbo to the absolute life. I can’t imagine any actor doing it better, from having his cozy little hobbit-hole invaded by loud and rumbustious dwarves, to being used as a hankie by a troll and riddling for his life with Gollum. He is brilliant. He IS Bilbo.  And he made me realize that of course Arthur Dent is a hobbit.

More brilliant things: tying it in to LotR with Old Bilbo and Frodo; Sylvester McCoy’s bravura Radagast, with his insane sled drawn by turbo-charged rabbits; and all of the dwarves, each one a distinct character (a feeling I never got in the book). Things that are welcome back and don’t disappoint: Gollum, Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, New Zealand as Middle-Earth.

Did I mention that there is way too much Orc CGI? Well, remember the grosser Orc-y bits in LotR? There’s more like that. Lots more. The Great Goblin is truly yucky, too much so perhaps, as are the trolls. But that is my only gripe. It looks gorgeous, as did LotR. We  revisit homely Hobbiton and fabulous Rivendell. There are scary Wargs and spiders, and bits of Smaug that hint of something absolutely immense, though nothing with quite the menace of the Nazgûl. Howard Shore’s music references LotR in all the right places.

It could have been funnier. There aren’t any real laughs. There was more lightness in LotR, despite the trilogy being heavier than The Hobbit, which is, after all, a children’s book. And, of course, there’s no Aragorn. But I was delighted to return to Middle-Earth for nigh-on three hours, and though I have to wait for the next two instalments, I’m looking forward to them as eagerly as I did parts 2 and 3 of LotR.

A truly creepy ghost story

“I felt its will coming at me in waves. Intense, unwavering, malign. Such malevolence. No mercy. No humanity. It belonged to the dark beyond humanity. It was rage without end. A black tide drowning.”

I became hooked on ghost stories at quite an early age. But my introduction to M.R. James didn’t come until I was aged around 13, via a copy of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary loaned to me by a friend. Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook creeped me out fairly thoroughly, but very few stories since then have managed that feat. (Some of William Hope Hodgson’s, for instance: it MAY be coincidence that these two writers have been the biggest influences on my own ghost story writing!) Until last week, in fact, when I read a book recommended by that very same friend. The book is Dark Matter by Michelle Paver.

As a hothouse plant, I hate long cold winter nights, ice, snow, darkness. They are primal fears, of course, for it really isn’t very long in terms of history since humans were unable to combat those things. So Paver taps into a very ancient terror in setting Dark Matter in the long dark of the Arctic winter, where Something lurks, putting out its ominous head— its round, wet malign head— unobtrusively at first, until it holds center stage… and then comes back for an unexpected and devastating curtain call.

The year is 1937 and Jack Miller, an ordinary young man with a large chip on his shoulder, joins an Arctic expedition to what turns out to be a haunted site named Gruhuken. Accidents and illness contrive to isolate him, and he becomes increasingly aware of not being alone in the perpetual night. His husky dogs disappear (save one), and he realizes that the figure he has glimpsed can open doors…

This is not the climax, nor is the mysterious fire that destroys the expedition’s lodgings; on the contrary the true horror is low-key, almost thrown away, just as the reader is breathing a sigh of relief. And there’s more, implied not explicit (as many of the best horrors are), years later in the Caribbean, where Miller has ended up: However far Jamaica may be from Greenland, the same sea laps its shore, and the same things tap into it, like a supernatural internet.

Paver’s writing is clean and beautiful and spare, her descriptions vivid; not a word is wasted. This is her first book for adults. I hope she writes many, many more.

A literary mystery

The most beautiful bookshop in the world, Livraria Lello in Porto, Portugal

“It is a very common thing, in my experience, to find papers shut up in old books; but one of the rarest things to come across any such that are at all interesting. Still it does happen, and one should never destroy them unlooked-at.”—M R James

James is right, of course, although he was writing in a different context. I’ve never found any mysterious papers inside old books, but I did find a poem. When I was in college, one of my friends had a book entitled Planet and Glow-Worm: A Book for the Sleepless, an anthology compiled by Edith Sitwell. It has been described as “a literary curiosity from another generation that richly deserves to be brought back into print”.

The preface states: “This is not a book about Dreams; it is meant for those whose ‘continual cares, fears, sorrows, dry brains’, drive rest away; it contains some of the composing and calming beauties that, in the compiler’s own experience, bring a happy sleep in their train. Here are evocations of a beauty that conceals no terror, here are flowing rhythms that hold no more wakefulness in their sound than those of a river, thoughts and ways being like those of music … And this is a book to bring sleep to us.”

It is a quirky collection, as one might expect, and I liked it enough to find a copy for myself. Which brings me to the mystery. Inside the back cover was handwritten the following poem, signed “Listener” and dated May 18th, 1944:

The Bargain

Love hurt you once, you said, too much.
You said you’d have no more of such
Hot heartbreak and long loneliness,
You said you’d give and ask far less
Than love, that demon without pity,
That far, miraged, old, golden city
Across the desert of desire,
Ringed with the gateless ring of fire.

You said you’d drink, but not too deep,
Of life; explore yet always keep
Your final secret self intact—
Entire, untired, untorn, unracked.

And I, may heaven forgive me, said,
“Lay your blonde beloved head
In the hollow of my arm—
We’ll love lightly without harm
To either’s heart, and I’ll defy
Your warmth and loveliness; and I
Won’t love too much;
Forgive my lie.”

I find that remarkably poignant, and have always wondered what the story behind it was. Was “Listener” a serviceman? Did he survive the war? It would make a fine romantic story, but I’m afraid I don’t do romantic.

Stuff from my head

Big Damn Heroes

Telling lies is a funny way to spend your life

Among the books I re-read fairly regularly are H Beam Piper’s (and others’) Fuzzy novels. The plots often turn on the Fuzzies’ inability to tell a lie; the first Fuzzy to do so is the one who first made contact with the humans on his home planet, Little Fuzzy. (There is a good reason for this seemingly uninspired name.) He does this in order to save a band of “wild” Fuzzies from danger, as they can’t comprehend what a “not-true thing” is. But we writers spend our lives telling not-true things, which is a bit of a funny thing to do when you think about it.

“I think of folklore in much the same way as a carpenter thinks about trees”—Terry Pratchett

I’m more of a woodcarver, tinkering with smaller things. Someone recently asked me what influenced my writing. The true answer to that is, every book I have ever read— whether I admire and enjoy them or use them as an example of what not to do. A writer, I guess, is part sponge, part magpie, and part craftsman. You absorb an awful lot of stuff and pick up many many shiny things before you find your voice. Some of the earliest things I absorbed were myths and legends., which had the result of making me almost more familiar with Norse and Graeco-Roman pantheons than the Christian one, although I use its mythos copiously as well.

“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look beyond the ranges”— Kipling

Travel has been a great love for half my life, and has inspired many stories. Captain da Silva has voyaged to some of the same places, but (for example) never made it to Oz; on the other hand, I haven’t been to Shanghai, Rio or some of the rougher parts of Africa as he has.

I dreamed of travel as a child stuck in England while my dad, a soldier, was posted to Germany and Aden and Borneo. Names drew me: the Everglades, Rotorua’s boiling mud, Yellowstone Park, the South Pacific… Now I’ve been to Fiji and sat in the sulphuric steam at Whakarewarewa; time will tell about the rest.

Why I am a Browncoat

It wasn’t until I’d been blogging for some time that I realized why I am drawn to certain fictional characters, and that is how the Captain came into existence. Philip Marlowe, the wisecracking outsider, answers to no-one and nothing but his code of honor. Chandler’s style has informed my writing for some time, though not as overtly as it does with the Captain. Han Solo (and Indy, his alter ego): louche and insouciant, mostly one step ahead of the game, reluctant to get involved but pitching in when it counts.

And Mal Reynolds, operating in the gray area between legal and illegal, clinging to independence in a ‘verse that tries to suppress it, but mostly retaining his sense of humor even when things are bleakest. Mal alone has a family (Han acquires one when he pitches in with the rebels): his crew. His motley crew who are all strong personalities in their own right but— this is the thing— they follow Mal.

Remind you of anyone else? How about Col. Jack O’Neill? Leroy Jethro Gibbs? These guys, that guy, they’re my type. They’re variations on Luís da Silva, just as he is, if you like, a variation on them.

The Werewolf of Lisbon

Well, we are hoping to get Da Silva #2 out before the holidays!

The Werewolf of Lisbon is a bigger book than Demon Weather in all senses— more locations, more plotlines, more characters… including the Russian witch, Tatiana, who first appeared in only the third short story (Past Acquaintances). This her debut in the novels. She and the Captain go way back: “The first time I met Tatiana Dimitrovna Andropova, she tried to kill me. The second time, she tried to seduce me. She’s tried to do one or the other every other time we’ve run into each other. Hasn’t succeeded in either.” That first time is chronicled in another story, Brief Encounter.

Tatiana, the Russian witch

Tatiana was another character who appeared and surprised me. She since became a regular rather than a guest star, as she is very much her own woman. Daughter of a Russian aristo who was exiled by the Tsar for his magical meddling and of a shaman from the area where Russia and China mix and meld, she’s a very powerful witch indeed, but her day job is a sculptor. As with most of my characters, I didn’t plan her at all.

The more times I write that sentence down, the weirder it seems to me. A few posts ago, I claimed that I rarely use my dreams in my fiction. But it occurs to me now that maybe I am dreaming it all. I don’t mean that in some kind of metaphysical way, but perhaps when I’m writing my mind actually does go into another world, that same place (I suppose) that dreams come from. Certainly I know that if I try too hard, my writing starts to stutter. I can’t just bring in a character to make a point— I have to let them come of their own accord, which they do when and where they are needed.

Why isn’t Dodger a Discworld novel?

Okay, everyone should know by now that I am a huge Terry Pratchett fan. But I was rather underwhelmed by his new book. Dodger is the second non-Discworld YA novel but its similar boy/girl dynamic makes it feel like a re-run of Nation in different costumes. There are Discworldy things which feel more like a nod for form’s sake (“kick him inna fork”), but its biggest problem is that it isn’t a DW novel.

Given that it is set in a grimy city with a colorful but plucky underclass, through which a noisome river runs— or rather oozes—what made Pterry decide that it was going to be London rather than Ankh-Morpork? Was it really just to people it with comic versions of Charles Dickens et al, who only bring to mind Charles Darwin et al in The Pirates in an Adventure with Scientists. (As I was reading, I was picturing most of the characters as animated much in that style.) Surely not… he’s no slouch at insinuating them into DW. Nobody has any doubts about who the originals for Leonard of Quirm and Bloody Stupid Johnson are.

And no-one thinks that DW is “only” a fantasy world. But what it is, is a place that is a character, and one which has endeared itself to Pterry’s fans over the past thirty years; so it seems rather perverse to set a tale in Not-Ankh-Morpork-Pretending-Not-Very-Convincingly-To-Be-London when all it lacks is C.M.O.T. Dibbler and the odd dwarf or werewolf. If C.M.O.T. Dibbler had turned up I wouldn’t have been surprised but he would have had more substance than most of the characters.

I can’t be the only fan wondering why Pterry went down this route, which could have benefited greatly from having been built on many crusty layers of Ankh-Morpork. Instead, this London has no such layers: it is a TV set of wonky cutouts splashed with the paintballs of period detail beloved of film-makers who have a shallow little story to try and flesh out. For it is a shallow story, with shallow characterization. Dodger, the Lovable Rogue (not all that lovable really), is a bit of a Mary Sue, and so to a different extent is his mentor Solomon. Simplicity, the Rescued Damsel, is well-named: she doesn’t even have the depth of Nation‘s heroine, and that is particularly disappointing as Pterry is usually good with female characters.

The solution to the characters’ dilemma is rather more distasteful than ingenious, and I can’t help feeling that an Ankh-Morpork urchin would have come up with something with more flair, perhaps aided by Gaspode rather than the doubtfully-named and mutely noisome dog Onan. (IS that a joke? Really?)

For the record, I did enjoy Dodger— while I was reading it. But unlike the DW books, I won’t be reading it again.