It’s the End of the World As We Know It

The title comes from an REM song that was a minor hit in the UK in the early nineties. It’s a good song by an excellent band, but that’s by the by. It’s the phrase I want to talk about: the end of the world as we know it.

To me, it succinctly sums up the attraction of post-apocalyptic fiction to both readers and writers. The world hasn’t ended in the sense that it’s been blown to smithereens and Mars has become the third rock from the sun. The world is still here, but it’s a version that we don’t recognise.

Apocalyptic events come in all shapes and sizes: meteor and asteroid strikes; deadly pandemics; nuclear war; disastrous climate change; attack by extra-terrestrials; plagues of undead. What they have in common is the wiping out of a large chunk of the planet’s population, and a struggle by the survivors in a world where the previous rules no longer apply.

In the immediate aftermath there is no law and order, no society, no culture, no international boundaries. There are no checks and balances. What morality remains has to struggle to assert itself amidst anarchy. Humankind is reduced to its basest, most bestial form.

There’s the attraction for the writer. A blank page that can be filled however he (or she, but can we take ‘she’ as read?) chooses. The writer may open the story with the apocalyptic event itself. Or he may jump forward a hundred years, or a thousand, to whenever he wants, and leap right in at a point where new rules are already established, new orders have arisen, new currencies are being traded or fought over.

The writer can develop goals and conflicts that are unlikely to arise in the world as we know it. Maybe the acquisition of uncontaminated water will be the overwhelming aim of survivors in the new world; or arable land; or sanctuary from mutant enemies; or dry ground; or a cure for disease; or shelter from deadly solar rays. The possibilities are endless.

The reader will take delight in entering a world where all bets are off. He will relish trying to identify the new rules, if indeed there are yet any, and putting himself in the place of the protagonists. How would he, the reader, cope if thrust into such a world? Might there even be, whisper it quietly, something desirable about inhabiting a world where there are no conventions?

That was how I first became attracted to the genre. I was a young boy, probably around nine or ten, and watched the film The Omega Man on television one Saturday evening. I can still recall the thrill I felt at seeing Charlton Heston enter a department store and pick out any clothes that took his fancy without having to pay for them. I imagined being in his shoes, walking down a litter-strewn, deserted high street, calling into every toy, sweet and gun shop that I passed (they were always toy, sweet or gun shops—I was nine) and simply helping myself. I was the most dangerous sweet-sucking, gun-toting, toy-laden critter in town. Of course, I was the only sweet-sucking, etc. critter in town but didn’t let that get in the way of a good fantasy. My childish self conveniently ignored the downside to finding myself in such a scenario: the loneliness, the desolation, the abject despair.

Those aspects were brought home to a slightly older version of me with the BBC television series The Survivors. I only vaguely remember the original (it was remade a good few years ago), but recall it being grey, gritty and downright miserable. It nevertheless cemented my love of the apocalyptic story.

Around four or five years later, I read Stephen King’s The Stand. This still ranks as one of my favourite post-apocalyptic books (along with Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Cormack McCarthy’s The Road—more on them in a future post). I especially enjoyed watching the apocalyptic event unfold and seeing what happened in the immediate aftermath (elements, along with a deadly virus, that I use in my own apocalyptic novel The Cleansing). Having wiped out most of the population of the United States—we never see what is happening in the rest of the world—with a manmade superflu bug, Mr King could have taken the story in any one of a multitude of directions.

There is so much conflict inherent in an apocalyptic scenario that the writer doesn’t need to invent more. The mere struggle for survival is compelling in itself: the competition with other survivors for scarce resources, threats from predators old and new (animal and human), establishment of new bonds that will determine whether the human race can continue. But that’s the beauty of stories about the end of the world as we know it: almost any new element—spiritualism, the supernatural, mysticism, the extra-terrestrial, and so on—can be introduced to add even more spice to an already tasty dish.

Mr King could have shown the surviving humans in The Stand struggling to adapt to their new world without introducing any extra conflicts, and no doubt it would have been a cracking tale. As it was, he opted to have the survivors gravitate to one of two camps (figure-headed by the ancient and pious Mother Abigail, and the charismatic and deadly Randall Flagg) and constructed a ripping yarn about good against evil, while retaining all of the basic conflicts mentioned above.

There are many more books and films in the apocalyptic genre that I have enjoyed, as well as computer games like the Fallout series, so it was inevitable when I began writing fiction that sooner or later I would turn my hand to an end of world tale of my own. Like many writers, I write the sort of stories that I enjoy reading (and watching and playing).

Apocalyptic books, films, games, they all provide the reader, the viewer, the player, with the vicarious terror of experiencing a horrifying situation and wondering what he would do next. Run for the hills? Give up? Fight back? But in contrast to being actually thrust into such a scenario, the reader will derive great pleasure from the journey without suffering the accompanying deprivations and heartaches. He will feel relieved or even smug that he will never, hopefully, have to undergo such an experience in the real world.

And that brings me back to the title of this piece. It’s not quite correct or, at any rate, complete. The full title of the REM song is It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) . Now the title sums up the attraction of the apocalyptic genre more fully. It explains it all.

The writer will pen tales that involve the deaths of millions or billions of people; he will place the survivors in yet more jeopardy (as if the poor buggers haven’t already suffered enough); he may offer them the flimsiest hopes or the thinnest opportunities to escape ever more desperate situations; he may force them to champion the cause of mankind against overwhelming odds (give them a break, for goodness’ sake).

The reader will sit on the sidelines, watching the tale unfold with increasing incredulity or awe or horror. He’ll sympathise with the survivors; gasp as they face each new challenge; root them on when there’s nobody else on their side; laugh and cry with them.

But neither writer nor reader have to die with them. And maybe, only maybe, we end up appreciating the world we know, this world, just that little bit more. Perhaps it isn’t quite as bad as it sometimes seems. The apocalyptic tale shows us that it could be a whole lot worse. It might make us feel, even if only subconsciously, a little better about our world and ourselves.

And that can only be a good thing.

Marketing for Muppets – Part 3

In the last instalment of Marketing for Muppets I wrote that Part 3 probably wouldn’t appear until the New Year. Hmm, so much for foresight. As you’ll see if you read to the end, this wasn’t intended to be Part 3 but sort of morphed into it when the subject of marketing insisted on inserting itself firmly into the narrative like a persistent salesman and wouldn’t be shifted. But on with the post…

In one of the online forums I frequent, a perennial question posed to the indie author community who gather there is, “What does success mean to you?” I don’t normally involve myself in the ensuing threads, but when I saw the question posed yet again it got me thinking.

The answer, of course, will vary from author to author, depending on the reasons why they write and the stage they have reached in their careers.

The person with a deeply personal story they need to tell, or someone approaching their twilight years wanting to share their life story with family and close friends, may regard completing the work as success; selling it to the wider reading public may hold no appeal to them whatsoever.

Contrast the writer with perhaps a dozen or more titles to their name. Success to them may mean nothing less than maintaining a four-figure monthly income from sales of their work.

Then there are the writers who seek validation, for whom only a deal with a traditional publisher will do. There are others who are willing to self-publish or publish through the small press, but for whom reaching the number one spot in their genre is the Holy Grail.

Whatever floats your boat.

I suspect for most writers the meaning of success is a fluid concept. When I first bundled together ten short stories and let them loose on Amazon with only a placeholder cover, short-term success to me meant one person who didn’t know me buying the collection.

However, in the back of my mind where it had been nestling since my late twenties was the desire to make a living from writing fiction. No matter how much my short-term concepts of success have shifted like sandbanks over the ensuing five years, that overarching goal has remained as constant as granite.

“May we give you a hefty wad, enough that you’ll never need work again, for the rights to make movies of your books, Sam?” Of course you may, and thank you very much. But back in the real world I’ll be happy if I can make a steady income, enough to give up the day job altogether and spend the remainder of my working life writing fiction.

If you’re a writer struggling to make your way in today’s over-saturated market, it might be worth taking a moment to consider what success means to you. If your answer is a little vague, like mine, it might help to formulate shorter-term goals, ones that can be more easily quantified in terms of words written, or sales numbers, or new subscribers to your mailing list; whatever works for you. Doing so can inform marketing tactics, ones that might help you reach those smaller goals on your way to the larger one.

This didn’t start out as a post about marketing. Its original title was The Meaning of Success, until I got this far and realised that it’s difficult to discuss success without touching upon marketing since, after all, in most cases one is likely to be the precursor of the other.

As I might have mentioned previously, I’m not good at promoting my own work. Useless. A muppet. Yet, it seems impossible to escape the bloody subject. I guess we have to suck it up and get on with it. And this is an opportune moment to state the third proposition I believe to be true about marketing:

Proposition 3: When a writer defines success to include any element based upon level of sales, marketing is inexorably linked to that success.

To try to achieve my measure of long-term success, I’ve broken down my aims into smaller, achievable ones. For instance, publish more works. With a Christmas-themed collection of horror stories coming out today, and the final two novels in a trilogy on course to be finished in time for January publication, that’s going okay. But it’s only one of my short-term aims.

Another one, the most pressing it feels right now, is to build my mailing list. It’s all well and good publishing new works, but without a sizeable body of readers willing to be informed about them and to help make them visible, they will quickly sink to the murky depths, rarely to be seen again.

Despite my misgivings about giving away work in return for signing up to a mailing list (see Marketing for Muppets – Part 2), I’m going to give it a go. Wish me luck. I shall report back in a future instalment.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

On 20th October 2017, I am releasing a new collection of short stories: Ghosts of Christmas Past and Other Dark Festive Tales. As the title suggests, each story has a Christmas theme and each is from the dark side. It will only be available in e-book format, but can be purchased from most mainstream online retailers (see links below).

Here is the cover:

Within you might encounter the occasional ghost, perhaps a vampire or two. Oh, and zombies. One tale is set in the Earth Haven universe, at the time of the start of The Cleansing. And there’s a bonus story, one which has previously been published in a Christmas anthology, also set in the Earth Haven universe.

Here’s the blurb:

‘Four festive tales of the supernatural, apocalyptic and blood-sucking variety—an antidote for anyone who occasionally finds Christmas overly sentimental or commercialised and likes to escape to somewhere darker.

In Ghosts of Christmas Past, a newly-wed couple spend every Christmas in the same remote country cottage. It’s their ‘thing’ and they’re not about to let tragedy get in the way.

In I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, a small boy creeps downstairs to see his mother in the embrace of a crimson-robed stranger. But Jake’s not convinced: since when did Santa have long teeth and red, glinting eyes?

In Rottin’ Around the Christmas Tree, Nia decorates the tree while her parents look on. But this is not just another Christmas—it is the time of The Cleansing, the time when family life and the world as we know it are ending.

In Christmas ‘Midst the Zombie Apocalypse, two survivors sit out winter on the edge of an overrun city. Their efforts to enjoy Christmas Day as normally as possible turn out to be a mistake; a potentially fatal one.’

Finally, here are the links to purchase:

Amazon

Kobo

itunes

Barnes & Noble

Ho, ho, ho!

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 1

Firstly, I must apologise for the groan-inducing title. Yes, this is a post about grammar. And, yes, there may be more to come. A post about grammar? Part 1? Yawn.

Don’t be like that. I don’t intend them to be dry, technical posts. Rather, I want to talk about the idiosyncrasies of grammar and, occasionally, of those who use it.

Caveat: I do not hold myself out in any way as being an authority on grammar and its usage. If you want authority, refer to one of the style guides, like the Chicago or Oxford manuals*. Alternatively, visit an online forum related to writing and post something like, ‘There’s nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive’—you’ll soon be swamped with authority or, at least, those who believe they speak with it. I am not claiming to speak with authority. I have, however, been around the block a few times and have published more than half a million words of fiction, so I ought to know a little about the subject.

I’m going to start with one of the most bemusingly controversial of topics: the Oxford comma. It’s also known as the Harvard comma or serial comma, which always puts me in mind of Jack the Ripper. (Or should that be Jack, the Ripper? You have my permission to call me rude names.)

Now, I doubt whether the average reader has even heard of this unassuming little fellow; I’m almost certain that he couldn’t care less about it. For those who aren’t sure what it is, take this example:

For dinner we’re having pie, chips, and peas.

The Oxford comma (OC) is the second one, the one that separates ‘chips’ and ‘and’. Here’s the sentence without it:

For dinner we’re having pie, chips and peas.

In case there are any grammar pedants looking in, I know that some will feel that the sentence should contain a comma after the word ‘dinner’, but I’m making the style choice not to include it. So sue me. (I don’t consider there’s anything wrong with pedantry, by the way. I have a strong pedantic streak in me, but find as I get older that I care less and less about what others choose to do. You should try it; it’s liberating.)

Back to the example. Neither sentence is grammatically incorrect, but I prefer the second one. The OC adds nothing in my eyes and the second example looks less cluttered.

So it comes down to which style a writer prefers, then? You’d think, but there are a surprising number of people out there who will argue vehemently that either the OC should always be used, or that it should never be used. It’s difficult to think of another example of grammar usage where writers (not all, it has to be said, but many) are so polarised, supporting one position to the exclusion of the other.

Whenever I’m visiting a writing-related forum and see a thread started about the OC, I can guess what’s going to happen. Before too long, someone will come along who will declare that the OC should always be used. It clears up ambiguity, they argue. To back up their argument, they’ll post some (often ridiculous) example, like this:

I’m going to dinner this evening with my brothers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

See? they’ll say, without the OC the sentence reads like the narrator is saying his (or her, but for the sake of brevity I’m sticking with his) brothers are Laurel and Hardy. Therefore, they’ll say, the OC is always required to avoid such ambiguity, so that the example should read:

I’m going to dinner this evening with my brothers, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy.

And they are right, up to a point. Unless the narrator wants to say that Laurel and Hardy are his brothers, the OC removes that ambiguity. But with most of the examples (possibly all; I haven’t tested) that get bandied about in support of this position, it only requires a little tinkering and the OC will produce the opposite result, i.e. it will create ambiguity. Take the Laurel and Hardy example. Now change ‘brothers’ from plural to singular:

I’m going to dinner this evening with my brother, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy.

Now it sounds like the narrator is saying that Stan Laurel is his brother. If that’s not what he intends, the OC needs to go.

So why do (some) writers get so bent out of shape by this and insist that the OC is always, or never, required? Beats me. It also amuses me in a head-shaking-sadly sort of way. For me, the OC is simple, so simple that I’m going to state this in bold:

If the intended meaning of a sentence is improved by inclusion of the OC, use it. If the meaning is obfuscated (man, I love that word) by inclusion of the OC, omit it. If the meaning isn’t clear with or without it, rewrite the sentence.

And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s all there is to say on the matter.

That’s all for this week. I’m in the middle of trying to get a collection of dark Christmas-themed stories ready for publication in time to catch the festive market and I need to crack on. Till later…

* I mention the Oxford and Chicago manuals because they are the ones which seem to be most favoured by writers (I have a copy of The Oxford Manual of Style sitting on the bookshelf above my writing desk) and both of which happen to be in favour of the OC, but there are other guides which aren’t.

(P.S. I’m including this addendum because I realised after posting that I said at the outset that this is a post about grammar, then proceeded to talk about punctuation. I am hereby redefining ‘grammar’ for the purposes of this series of posts to include punctuation, spelling and anything else loosely related to the mechanics of writing. So there.)

Marketing for Muppets – Part 2

I posted Marketing for Muppets – Part 1 in July so thought it was about time for Part 2.

Quick recap: these posts are not, emphatically not, about me offering advice on how to market books. Why would I presume to offer anyone advice? I might have mentioned that I’m an absolute muppet when it comes to marketing. No, these posts are merely my observations, such as they are, on marketing and a chronicle of my attempts at becoming better at it. A little like a hen blogging about her efforts on learning to play the flute.

Since that first post I have been on a two-week cruise around the Med, and very nice it was, too, thanks for asking, and posted six times here. You can see them by scrolling down, but to save you the bother there were a couple about movie adaptations, one each on horror novels, science fiction novels and children’s books, and one about words that readers don’t know how to pronounce.

I said at the end of Part 1 that I’d report back on whether regular updating of my blog has any effect on sales. Well, nothing of note to report yet, but it’s still very early days to judge whether it’s an effective approach because, by its very nature of trying to slowly build an audience by providing (hopefully) interesting content, it’s a longer-term tactic. I shall keep at it and see what happens. If nothing else, I’m having a lot of fun writing the posts.

On, then, to other marketing tools writers can employ. More specifically, one tool in particular, regarded by many as the most important tool we have. High time for another principle:

Proposition 2: The received wisdom is that a mailing list is an indispensable marketing tool for authors.

When you buy advertising slots with marketing sites like BookBub, you are in effect paying to use their mailing list of thousands of readers to advertise your book. Not all those readers, even if they read in your genre, will necessarily be interested in your book. The idea of building your own list is that you have a way of reaching readers interested in your work without having to pay a premium or having to rely on third parties spreading the word about your latest release or promotion. In theory, it’s like having your own private BookBub without the expense.

I resisted setting up a mailing list for a long time, not because I didn’t think they are a good idea, but for a couple of other reasons. Firstly, I’m not a technophobe but find learning new applications vastly time consuming; I preferred to spend my limited spare time writing than sussing out Mailchimp and sorting out a PO box address. Secondly, with all the junk e-mail that keeps popping into everyone’s inboxes these days, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to receive e-mails from me. I wasn’t far wrong about that. Anyway, long story short, I eventually set up a mailing list in October 2016, with sign-up forms on my Facebook page and website. I included a link in my most recent release. We’re approaching the list’s first anniversary and so far I have fewer than twenty subscribers. (See? I told you I was absolutely pants at marketing.)

The thing with a mailing list is this: it’s all well and good having one, but how do you encourage readers to sign up for the bloody thing?

And isn’t that the whole marketing issue in a nutshell—it’s all well and good having published a book, but how do you encourage readers to read it? So, for me, creating a mailing list has merely created another layer of something to be mildly fretful and feel vaguely helpless about.

There are various methods for increasing the subscribers to your mailing list. These seem to be the main two:

—giving away free short stories, novellas or even novels in return for the donee subscribing to the list. Kudos to those who succeed with this method, but I have my doubts as to how effective it can be. Before you start thinking it, I’m not too much of a skinflint to give work away—I’ve given away thousands of copies of The Cleansing as a way of giving readers a cost-free entry into the Earth Haven trilogy. It’s that I wonder how likely it is that readers who sign up only to take advantage of a free offer are going to buy the next release. No doubt there are many readers on these lists who are genuinely into the authors’ works, but there must be many who aren’t. Still, perhaps it’s nevertheless worth going down this route to find readers who may become converts to your work.

—taking part in cross-promotions with other authors, which involve e-mailing readers on other authors’ lists. Again, good luck to those who find success with this method, but it’s not for me. The thought of sending promotional e-mails to readers who haven’t subscribed to my list makes me, like any form of cold-calling, shudder. Besides, I promise on my sign-up page never to share subscribers’ e-mail addresses with anyone. I also promise not to contact subscribers unless it’s to share news of a new release or promotion.

To date, I have sent one e-mail to my list. Just one. But, then, I’ve only had one release since October and no promotions of note. That will change soon when I’ve finished my current works-in-progress—the final part of a trilogy where only the first part has yet been published, and a quartet of dark Christmas stories. I intend to make available all new releases to subscribers at a discounted price (or, occasionally, as a gift) to express gratitude to them for their interest in my work and to reward them for their loyalty. In today’s world, the value of loyalty should never be underestimated.

But I urgently need to do something to build up my list. Despite my doubts, I have come to suspect that giving away the first instalment of the new trilogy in return for subscribing may be the way to go. I’m taking it out of Kindle Unlimited—its last day in KU is 5th November—to give me that option. If I decide to try that, I’ll report back in a later instalment.

Here endeth Part 2. Part 3 isn’t likely to be written until the New Year and I have no idea what it will be about—hopefully my successful efforts at building my mailing list and using it to effectively launch the forthcoming sequels—but I’m not holding my breath. And if that sounds negative, a little doomy and gloomy, it’s because that’s generally how I feel about my feeble promotional efforts. But that’s okay. I’m a determined bugger and if I never manage to make a full-time living from my writing, wholly or partly because of my woeful attempts at marketing, at least I’ll know I didn’t fail from lack of trying.

When I Was Three, I Ate Mud

There’s a meme doing the rounds on social media that goes something like this: the average three-year-old can switch on an i-pad and stream videos; when I was three, I ate mud.

Makes me chuckle every time. Not that I can recall eating mud as a toddler, but I might have. I can certainly recall, at about that age, munching on dog biscuits. Never did me any harm. Rowf-rowf. Whatever ways I found to entertain myself when three, I was soon to discover a new form of delight that has never left me since. I refer not to eating chocolate, but to reading.

In earlier posts, I’ve touched upon some of the books I loved as a child. There are so many, I thought they deserved a post of their own. These are the books I grew up reading. There were plenty more, but these are the ones I still recall clearly all these years later and which must, therefore, have made a profound impression on me back then.

Let’s begin, as it began then, with Enid. A few years ago, I wrote an article for Mass Movement magazine, which I called Enid Bloody Blyton. In the article I called her books for younger children ‘insufferably quaint’ and wondered what she had been stirring into her tea while she wrote them. Although it might sound like I was having a dig at her, in fact it was quite the opposite—I felt then as I do now: I owe her a great deal of gratitude for opening my eyes to the unboundless possibilities of the imagination and to the delights that can be found within the pages of a book. That sense of wonder has never left me and is as strong now as it was forty-five and more years ago.

As soon as I learned to read—I’m guessing at the age of four or five—I began to devour her books. The Enchanted Wood, The Magic Faraway Tree, The Folk of the Faraway Tree and Adventures of the Wishing Chair. Read them over and over until they began to fall apart. Bought new copies for my first-born and read them to her.

I graduated to her books for older children. She wrote tons of books aimed at children between the ages of six and ten, but there were two particular series that I adored: The Famous Five books and the Adventure stories.

Five on a Treasure Island is the first of twenty-one books recounting the adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy. In case you didn’t know, George was a tom-boy whose full name was Georgina and Timmy was her dog. (One of the books involved George being captured by the baddies who made her write a note to the others whom they also wanted to capture. George alerted them to their peril by signing the note ‘Georgina’, something she’d ordinarily never do. That so struck the six-year-old me as a clever ruse, I remember it still.) At the start of each school holidays I’d nag my parents to take me to W.H. Smith, where I would spend my pocket money on the next book in the series. Some of those books cost as little as £0.30. Inflation, inflation. I’d take the book home and finish it that day. I collected the entire series and, again, read them time after time.

The Island of Adventure is the first of eight books in my other favourite Blyton series. (Yes, I can have two favourites—it’s my website.) These stories were about four children—Jack, Lucy-Ann, Philip and Dinah, the obligatory pet sidekick coming in the form of Jack’s parrot, Kiki. I had all eight books and, you’ve guessed it, read each of them umpteen times.

Looking back with the cynicism of adulthood, the plots of these books were outlandish, involving unlikely spy rings and treasure maps and, memorably, anti-gravitational wings being secretly manufactured in the depths of a hollow Welsh mountain—you know, I’ve lived in Wales for most of my life and haven’t once heard anyone add the words ‘look you’ to the end of a sentence like the Welsh characters did in The Mountain of Adventure. But never mind the ludicrousness of the storylines or the stereotypical supporting characters, I was seven and lapped it all up.

Not, I should add, that I was a boy for spending all my time indoors reading. I played outside with my friends at every opportunity. We played football, went hunting for slow-worms, scrumped apples, built dams. But this is the UK; we can have weeks of continuous rain, even in summer, so there were ample opportunities for reading. And even during sunny weather, there was always bed time. I was the sort of kid who was more than happy to go to bed half an hour earlier in order to read.

That’s enough about Enid. There are too many others to mention. Books like The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down, wonderful stories about car-driving toads and talking rabbits. The works of Roald Dahl—amongst my favourites were Danny, the Champion of the World and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The heartwrenching time-travel tale Tom’s Midnight Garden and a story about two boys, a yacht and the rescue of stranded soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, The Dolphin Crossing.

I enjoyed the Twain adventures starring the eponymous heroes Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge about a boy’s adventures in preparatory school in the 1950s and 60s. I also dipped into the Just William books, but didn’t take to them as well.

Run For Your Life by David Line is a paperback I have no recollection of how I acquired, but is a book of which I have the fondest memories. It’s about an unlikely friendship between two boys. When they witness a murder, they are forced to flee across the wintry Norfolk countryside with the murderers hard at their heels. No matter how many times I read it—needless to say, rereadings occurred frequently—the tale never failed to grip. I just checked on Amazon and it appears possible to pick up second-hand copies. Whilst there, I checked out the reviews: the reviewers mostly seem to be of the same mind as me—a fantastic read for boys of around the age of ten. I wish I knew what has happened to my well-thumbed copy because writing this is making me want to read it again. Nothing like a bit of nostalgia.

When I was nine, one afternoon in school our teacher gathered the class around, took out a book and began to read it to us. It was about four children who are sent away to the countryside as evacuees in World War II to stay with an eccentric uncle in a rambling old mansion. I was instantly captivated. The book was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and so began my lifelong love affair with C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I couldn’t wait for the teacher to finish the story in class; I had to get my hands on my own copy. When I discovered there were another six books in the series, I probably went into raptures. I’ll never forget the teacher who introduced me to them: thank you, Mrs Davies.

Quick aside: I often stayed with my grandparents as a boy. Their spare room contained an old wooden wardrobe. Yep, I used to step into it, remembering to leave the door ajar behind me since sensible children never shut themselves inside wardrobes. (Crikey, it must be fifteen or more years since I last read The Lion… to my younger daughter, yet that line popped into my head as though I’d read it yesterday.) I’d push through the clothes hanging there—never fur coats; my grandparents weren’t rich—and tap forlornly at the wooden back, hoping it would give way beneath my fingers and become a chilly passageway leading to fir trees and snow and fauns and white witches who handed out Turkish Delight. It happened every time in my imagination.

When I was three, I ate mud. Maybe, but when I was five and upwards, I devoured books. I only hope that despite all the modern distractions that I didn’t have, there are children today deriving as much joy from books as I did as a child.

Reach for the Stars

It is so long since I read my first science fiction novel that I can no longer recall the title or author. It was something to do with space travel to a distant planet, possibly Mars, and that’s about all I can remember. However, I do recall the way the book made me feel: it fired my ten-year-old imagination, struck me with awe not so much by the suggestion of man reaching for the stars, but of the boundless possibilities for inventing stories about such exploits. Whatever that long-forgotten book was, it made me fully realise that even if there are limits on what we as a species can achieve, there is no limit on what we can imagine and convey through fiction. I’d like to say that this was the moment of epiphany, when I realised that I had to become a writer as nothing else would ever feel as fulfilling, but I’d be lying; that wouldn’t come until years later.

Here’s a mention of some of my favourite science fiction novels; at least, of the ones I can remember.

There’s a crossover between science fiction and fantasy—sometimes the line between them is a blurred one indeed—but I’m confining myself to stories where the fantastical element is based on some form, no matter how far-fetched, of technology, as opposed to magic, or mythical creatures like elves and centaurs, or imaginary worlds reached through magical portals. Of course, aliens and imaginary worlds reached through faster-than-light space travel qualify, which just goes to show how artificial these distinctions can be.

Oh: as usual this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list— there are too many books I’ve read, let alone the thousands I haven’t, to even attempt such an ambitious undertaking. And these are my views, based on my tastes, with which you are free to agree or disagree as you wish. Just don’t take it personally if I happen to like a book you hated, or vice versa.

Oh, part 2: I’m excluding apocalyptic and dystopian novels because they’ll get their own piece at a later date, along with fantasy and a few other genres.

Oh, part 3: I don’t want to say too much about any of the books I mention in case I inadvertently spoil it for those who haven’t yet, but intend to, read them. So, of necessity I talk only superficially about the works.

To the first book, then, a perfect illustration of the marriage between science fiction and fantasy: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. How can this be science fiction, do I hear you ask? It’s about gods of eastern mythology, like Buddha, Vishnu and Krishna. And so it is, yet their powers (or ‘Attributes’) in Zelazny’s wonderful imaginings are technology based. I read this recently and wondered why I hadn’t read it years earlier. It’s the sort of book that’s so breathtakingly good, most writers will read it in awe and wish they’d written it.

Despite some rather antiquated (that’s putting it mildly) outlooks on women and their place in society, I’ve enjoyed most of the Robert Heinlein books I’ve read. (There’s a notable exception: Farnham’s Freehold; as well as his usual misogynistic touches, there are some aspects about race that make uncomfortable reading to a contemporary audience.) Here are some of the better ones: Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Door into Summer, Tunnel in the Sky.

In a previous post, I mentioned Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, probably my favourite book of his I’ve read, but another I enjoyed was The Man in the High Castle. It’s a dystopian tale presenting an alternative reality in which Germany and Japan have won the Second World War, and are competing as the world’s superpowers. I didn’t find it the easiest book to get into, but am glad that I persevered.

I haven’t read a great deal by Arthur C. Clarke (too many books, blah blah blah), but one I thoroughly enjoyed is Childhood’s End. It slightly depressed me, with its gloomy outlook for the future of the human race (I don’t always like to be reminded of man’s fallibility when reading for pleasure), but is a greatly entertaining read that also makes you ponder, and despair, a little.

Apologies to any hard science fiction fans looking in, but that branch of the genre doesn’t overly interest me. (‘Yeah, anyone who’s read your books can tell that, you techno-doofus,’ I hear someone say.) Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed works of hard science fiction, but pages of detailed exposition on how a plasma blaster or anti-gravitational device works tend to make my eyes glaze over. I’m less put off by detailed world building, however, politics and all. I’m thinking of two tremendous series I’ve dipped in and out of over the years: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Iain M. Bank’s Culture series. If you’re a fan of science fiction which involves power-struggles and cultural clashes and political machinations on an intergalactic scale yet have never read either series, you’re in for a treat. (I suppose I could include the Dune series, but didn’t enjoy that as much after the first book.)

The next book was written by an author who some readers boycott due to his controversial views. This isn’t the place to go into those views; suffice to say I strongly disagree with them, too, but that didn’t stop me greatly enjoying his novel Ender’s Game. The whole book was good, but the ending, which I completely didn’t see coming, was a real Wow! moment.

I couldn’t write a piece about science fiction without mentioning The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It became a ‘trilogy’ of five books, but it’s the first one that I am fondest of and re-read from time to time. It’s wacky, irreverent and pure genius.

Finally, a quick shout out to some fine indie authors I have met online who write science fiction: T. Jackson King, Linell Jeppsen, John Patin and Michael Brookes. (The trouble with doing this is that I’m bound to forget to mention someone. If that’s you, I apologise from the bottom of my absent-minded soul. Feel free to send me a rude e-mail.)

From Page to Screen – Part 2

In Part 1, we took a peek at adaptations of some of Stephen King’s works. Now I’d like to cast the net wider and talk a little about other books I’ve read that have been adapted for cinema or TV. As always, what follows are the highly subjective views of one person, based on his personal taste. It’s perfectly okay to hold an opposing view and for us to remain friends.

Let’s start with a couple of contemporary novels, which were made into films on the back of runaway success. I didn’t particularly like either of the books, but the adaptations were both very well done.

First up, Gone Girl. I loved the writing in this book, but hated the characters and the selfish, psychotic ways in which most of them behaved. Then I watched the film, more out of curiosity as to how far they would stick to the source material than from wanting to relive the story. In fairness to the film makers, I thought they did a good job in being faithful to the novel: I hated the onscreen characters as much as I hated their written versions.

Next, The Girl on the Train—if this is one of your favourite novels, you might want to look away. The main character irritated me to distraction. The decisions she made throughout the novel were, quite frankly, often ridiculously idiotic, even when she was sober. I guessed the ending around a third of the way before reaching it and it felt more than a little contrived. Still, I thought I’d give the film version a go because, well, Emily Blunt. (Incidentally, anyone else think that she and the Welsh actress Eve Myles could be sisters?) Again, I thought the film makers were in the main faithful to the novel, though (warning: mini-rant ahead) why they insisted on changing the setting from London to New York is beyond me. Surely American film-goers aren’t so insular as to be put off by a film set in Britain, are they? Look at the success of the Harry Potter films, for goodness’ sake. (Mini-rant over.)

So there’s a couple of novels I was lukewarm about which were made into half-decent films. What about a few novels I enjoyed, but the film-makers’ translation fell woefully short?

The first turkey that springs to mind is Life of Pi. The novel, with its hauntingly enigmatic ending, became a stunning visual feast when translated to screen but, unless I missed it amidst the splendour of the cinematic images, completely fudged the ending, making the film version a delight to the eye but a let-down to the intellect.

I enjoy Isaac Asimov’s Robot tales, though wondered how they might translate to the big screen. Not very well if the film I, Robot is anything to go by. Paying only lip service to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the film turned into a frenetic series of chases. Not even the presence of Will Smith could save it.

The last turkey I’ll mention is Dune. In short, liked the book, hated the film. Where the former was rich in detail and intrigue, the latter didn’t seem to know quite what it was trying to be and ended up simply being a mess.

What of the meh films; those where they made a good stab at translating the source material to screen, but didn’t entirely succeed? Here’s a couple:

One of my favourite post-apocalyptic novels is I Am Legend, with its deliciously dark ending. The film version of the same name is okay. Will Smith is, as usual, easy to watch, but the film lacks something, particularly as it nears its conclusion. This is the second adaptation of the novel I’ve seen (the first being The Omega Man—more on that in a future post) and they both, in my view, chickened out at the finale. Sticking with the ending of the novel would have improved them both.

Red Dragon is one of the best psychological horror novels I’ve read, and one I meant to mention in the piece about horror a couple of weeks back. The film version was nothing to write home about. A reasonable attempt, I suppose, but it failed to capture the dark menace of the book.

So to the rarities, those films which were so faithful to their source material that they provided just as pleasurable an experience to watch as reading the novels they are based upon; or—shock, horror—those that improved upon the books.

Wolf Hall, about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his rise to prominence in the court of Henry VIII, wasn’t an easy read. But it was worth persevering with and I enjoyed it so much that I bought the sequel (that sits in my TBR pile patiently awaiting its turn). I watched the BBC dramatisation not expecting to overly enjoy the novel in visual form, but I was pleased to be wrong—the series brought the novel to life with its excellent casting (Damien Lewis was surprisingly good as the regal lecher), superb acting and spot-on sets.

I’m not a fan of young adult literature. I’ve read both first books in the Divergent and Hunger Games series, and in neither case felt compelled to read any more. Nothing particularly wrong with the stories (though one of the basic premises in Divergent struck me as wholly unrealistic), but it’s the style of writing that doesn’t appeal to me. In both cases, however, I enjoyed the film adaptations much more than the books.

Philip K. Dick is regarded as one of the most influential science fiction writers to have lived. I’m a little ambivalent about his works that I’ve read: some I’ve thoroughly enjoyed; others not so much. One of the former was his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? , adapted for film as Blade Runner. I thought the film took all that was good about Dick’s novel and improved upon it; a rare thing, indeed.

To end, the book I’d name if pressed to name just one (just one? are you nuts?) novel as my favourite ever: The Lord of the Rings. I know it’s technically a trilogy, but I’ve only ever owned it in one volume and have always thought of it as one book. Anyway, I watched the first attempt at making a film version, an animated affair that stopped where The Fellowship of the Ring stops. At best, meh. I seriously doubted that a worthy film version would ever be made. Step forward, Peter Jackson. I remember going to the cinema to see the first instalment, heart in mouth, afraid I was going to hate it. Needn’t have worried; it hooked me from the opening sequence and never let go. I could see why they chose to leave out what they omitted from the novel (I always found the Tom Bombadil portion of the book a little tedious) and loved, loved, loved that Peter Jackson’s image of places like Minas Tirith and Edoras exactly matched my own. Watching those films is like seeing my own imagination brought to life.

As a final aside, my younger daughter shares my love of the LOTR films. Once a year we buy a load of unhealthy but tasty snacks and binge watch the extended DVD versions of all three films back-to-back. It takes us around thirteen hours, allowing for the occasional break, but we think it’s great fun. (My wife and older daughter don’t share our enthusiasm; in fact, they think we’re a little on the nerdy side of Geekdom, but we don’t care.) My younger daughter has recently turned twenty but is as keen for another ‘Lord of the Rings Day’ as ever. Ah, the magic of movies.

The Avid Reader’s Curse

Despite having more than half a million published words of fiction to my name, I still consider myself to be more a reader than a writer. Since I learned to read beyond ‘see the dog run’ at the age of four or five, I’ve read pretty much constantly. If I had to give up all sources of entertainment except one, books are what I’d keep. I’d miss watching films and sport, and listening to music, but I’d miss books more. Yeah, you get the point.

Like other avid readers, I probably have a more extensive vocabulary than someone who doesn’t read for pleasure. But that can bring its own problems and thus the title of this piece. (‘Curse’ is probably putting it too strongly but, you know, snappy titles.) There are words I have encountered in reading whose meaning I know, either from context or from looking them up, but that I have absolutely no clue how to pronounce.

I couldn’t have been more than six when I first encountered this problem. In school, writing a story, I wanted to say that the protagonist was so tired he collapsed from ‘exhaustion’. I knew the word, but not how to spell it. Even less, as it turned out, how to pronounce it. Try as I might, I could not make the teacher understand what word I wanted him to spell for me and in the end I gave up in embarrassment.

When I was around ten or eleven, I read a series of Westerns, passed down to me from my grandfather, in which one character frequently called another a ‘sonova bitch’. I had absolutely no idea what the term meant, mainly because I was pronouncing ‘sonova’ incorrectly in my head as ‘sonne-over’. In the end, I settled for it meaning a not-very-nice person from an even-less-nice place called Sonova, which the author had forgotten to capitalise. It took a good while for the penny to eventually drop, bless me.

Years later, when I had started working for a living, I encountered for the first time in writing the name Siobhan. In my head, and to my great discomfort on meeting the lady of that name, I pronounced it as something sounding very similar to autobahn. Thankfully, she found it amusing and corrected me with a twinkle in her eye, though I suspect she secretly wondered how I had spent all those years in college.

Then there were the Harry Potter books, which my elder daughter read as they were published and which I read after her. I’d never come across the name Hermione before. In my head, for the first three or four books, she was ‘Herm-ee-own’, that sounding marginally better to me than the alternative ‘Herm-ee-won’—my brain insisted on adding ‘Kenobe’ to that version. It wasn’t until I overheard my daughter telling her younger sister about the books that I heard the correctly pronounced name of Hermione for the first time. How they mocked when I confessed my ignorance, while I laughed outwardly and cried a little inside.

There are many place names in the States which I read about long before I heard them spoken. There are two that immediately spring to mind: Arkansas and Yosemite. I don’t remember hearing the state being spoken about much before Clinton’s rise to prominence and, yep, I used to pronounce it in my head as ‘Ar-kansas’, not the correct ‘Ar-ken-saw’. As for Yosemite, I failed to realise the link with the name of the cartoon character Yosemite Sam. So I pronounced it ‘Yosser-might’, which makes it seem more like a cousin of that vile-sounding Australian spread vegemite than a national park.

Here are some more, though this list is by no means exhaustive; I tend to come across new ones every few months or so:

Hyperbole—I mention this one because I’ve often heard others mispronouncing it, usually to make it sound like a super-duper version of the USA’s Superbowl.

Paradigm—never sure about this one: is it ‘para-dim’ or ‘para-dime’? It’s the sort of word where knowing the correct pronunciation won’t help me because it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever use it in conversation and so the next time I see it in print I’ll have forgotten the correct pronunciation and will make it sound in my head like whichever version first pops into it.

Preface—this comes at the beginning of a book so it made perfect sense, to me, to pronounce this ‘pree-face’. It came as a surprise to learn that it’s properly pronounced with a short first e, like in ‘pretzel’.

Segue—yep, this was pronounced like ‘vague’ in my book (that’s the autobiographical Sam Kates book of being an ignoramus). I knew there was also a word out there to do with transitions in music which sounded as if it was spelt something like ‘segway’, but the connection between the two, i.e. that they are the same word, didn’t occur until recently.

Victuals—an oft-read word, especially when younger when I used to read books about explorers and expeditions, and one I pronounced phonetically, enunciating the c and the ua combination as you would in the word ‘actual’. Who’d have thought (not me, certainly) that it’s pronounced like its archaic spelling ‘vittles’, to rhyme with ‘skittles’?

There is an upside to this problem: many of these words are rarely, if ever, going to be dropped into casual conversation—not unless you’re an expeditionary or a musician or you’re trying to sound pompous—and, really, nobody cares how we pronounce these things in the private space of our own head. Just as well, eh, or every time we came to have to pronounce one out loud, we’d all be in an ague.

The Horror, the Horror…

I started out reading books written by Enid Blyton. The Famous Five books (‘lashings of ginger beer’—did they really say that? I do recall one saying of Ann’s: ‘Food always tastes better when eaten outdoors’; no doubt the wasps would agree) and the series beginning with The Island of Adventure I lapped up, rereading them over and over as my age approached double figures. Then I discovered C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and fantasy was back on the reading menu; my enjoyment of that genre had begun with Enid and her Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair adventures. I read westerns (the Sudden series by Oliver Strange) and thrillers (if you have a son or nephew around the age of nine, try to get hold of a copy of Run For Your Life by David Line and I’d dare him not to enjoy it) and science fiction. I enjoyed some of the classics (Coral Island, The Three Musketeers, The Wind in the Willows, to name but a few) and gave up on others.

But it wasn’t until I approached the formative years of my teens that I began what I consider to be my first love affair with one genre. Too long ago to recall whether it was a particular book which began it, though I suspect it might have been Dracula, but I began to devour horror books at such a rate I look back and wonder where I found time for schoolwork, not to mention playing football and rugby and making awkward, tongue-tied overtures to the fairer sex.

My friends and I would swap books by Guy N. Smith and James Herbert about man-eating rats or giant crabs that scuttled from the sea to attack scantily clad women on the beach. There was a sexual element in these books that was part of the attraction—we were at the age of sexual awakening and easily titillated—but it was the horror aspects that kept me hunting out more. Oh yes, it was. I still recall the immense thrill of reading The Fog by James Herbert for the first time. As far as I can remember, though the plot seems irrelevant now and, to some extent, was back then, it was about the escape of a nerve gas that had been buried deep below ground; everyone it encountered was driven instantly insane and began acting like psychopathic lunatics, the sort who would end up strait-jacketed and muzzled à la Hannibal Lecter. To a teenager hungry for gore and terror, it was like attending for the first time an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Then, with the discovery of a writer from America by the name of Stephen King, I hit the paylode. I’ve read almost everything he’s published in the way of horror, science fiction and fantasy. Of his out-and-out horror novels, my favourites have to be Salem’s Lot and IT, both of which I mentioned in a recent piece I did about adaptations of his work and won’t rehash again here. Suffice it to say, both novels had a profound effect on me when I first read them and I’ve returned to them many times since; it’s like renewing acquaintance with an old but disturbed friend.

I’ve never confined myself to reading in one genre, though that period between roughly the ages of thirteen and fifteen was probably the closest I’ve come. Ever since, I’ve regularly returned to the genre and perhaps it’s unsurprising that a couple of my earliest published short stories (Celesta, Room Eight) and my first novel (The Village of Lost Souls) were horror. Not every horror novel I’ve read since those teenage days has been to my taste, but I’ve come across many goodies and I shall mention a few.

House of Leaves by Mark. Z. Danielewski. In many ways I found this a difficult book to get through with its pages of annotations written at weird angles (it’s not easy constantly turning a book that size upside down and on its side when you’re reading in bed) and its strange side plots, but it contains enough moments of genuine scalp-prickling scariness to have made the effort worthwhile.

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. I read this in my twenties before I’d seen the film. Even before reaching the well-known shocking moments, it frightened me with its creeping sense of menace as scientific tests are carried out on the unfortunate Regan MacNeil and various strange things about her behaviour are revealed, such as her ability to speak perfect English backwards. The film, when I saw it, probably didn’t scare me as much as it would have had I not read the book, but I don’t regret reading it for a moment.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. Set in the snow and ice deep within the Arctic Circle, this held moments of such breath-catching terror that I was reluctant to turn out the light to try to sleep. I’ve been to the Arctic Circle, though nowhere near as far into it as this book is set, so could appreciate even more the sense of desolation and isolation the protagonist was experiencing. It all added up to a fantastic horror read.

That’s an off-the-top-of-my-head selection. There have been many other good ones and I’ve many yet to read, such as the complete set of Lovecraft sitting patiently on my Kindle. The paperback I’m currently reading (The Last Days of Jack Sparks) is shaping up nicely, too.

It would be remiss not to mention a few indie authors whose works of horror I’ve enjoyed, so shout out to Will Macmillan Jones, David Haynes, Kath Middleton and Edwin Stark. Keep ’em coming, guys.

(The links should take you to the books’ paperback versions on Amazon. If you prefer reading electronically, it should be a simple matter to find your way to the Kindle version from there, or it will provide you with the detail you need to search out kobo or itunes or whatever version floats your boat.)