Monday, 27 January 2014

Dead & Buried, a review by Mark West

Directed by Gary Sherman
Starring James Farentino, Robert Englund, Melody Anderson

As a horror fan, I’ve loved the genre for a long time and my first contact with the film side of it was when BBC2 showed the 1930s Universal movies in the early evening.  Then, growing up in the 80s with the advent of home video and the subsequent Video Recordings Act, my friends & I had a shopping list of “banned” films with garish titles and gaudy cover art which we’d never heard of before.  The 80s were a glorious time for horror (and, occasionally, a real trough) and although I could mention Videodrome (David Cronenberg’s ideas, James Woods and Debbie Harry and Rick Baker’s fantastic make-up effects) and An American Werewolf In London (for John Landis, Jenny Agutter and, once again, the superb Rick Baker), I thought I'd instead write about a film that not many people seem to know.  And I think they should.

“Dead & Buried” was written by the then white-hot duo of Ron Shusett and Dan O’Bannon (who co-wrote Alien), the film was directed by Gary Sherman (of Deathline fame – “Mind the gap!”) and starred James Farentino (big at the time with Blue Thunder), Melody Anderson (from Flash Gordon) and Robert Englund (soon to be Freddy Kruger).  It was included in the original cull of “Video Nasties” (which, once you watch it, it clearly never should have been) and remains a very dark and often grim film and is really quite gruesome at times.

It takes place in Potter’s Buff, a seaside town in Maine and opens with a photographer taking pictures on a beach.  A blonde approaches him, models for him and then he’s brutally attacked, but doesn’t die.  The local police chief (James Farentino) who has passed up promotion to the city to stay in his home-town, is disturbed by the brutality of the crime in this close community.  When a drunk fisherman is also slain – then the photographer is finally killed – he realises that something sinister is happening.

To say more would ruin the plot, since surprise is a key element and some of the set-pieces are put together so well it’d be a shame to spoil them – though it’s safe to say that the film is never actually what you think it’s going to be.

Sherman does a great job, keeping things moving at a good pace and the whole film has a really cold tone (you only see red when it’s the blood of the victims, apart from the blonde at the beginnings shirt) that compliments the story perfectly.  The cast do a good job, the music is well used, it’s exceptionally atmospheric and it all works together to pull you in, until you’re not quite sure what it is you’re watching.

Of course, a horror film from the early 80s often stands-or-falls on the strength of its effects and here Stan Winston excels himself, using sleight of hand, photo-realistic make-ups and puppets (for one piece of ocular mayhem that made me groan when I saw it in the mid-80s and still makes me feel unwell now) and there’s a sequence set in the funeral home that is almost beautiful in its precision and care.

There are downsides, of course – the film is 30 years old and some of its ideas have since been mined by poorer productions – but these are far outweighed by the positives.

So if you’re in the mood for a creepy, intelligent, well-made horror film that isn’t afraid to show gore but doesn’t glory in it, then you could do a lot worse than watch this.  If only “they still made ‘em” like this today.

Monday, 20 January 2014

The SF Genome, by Rod Rees

A couple of years ago I attended a SF conference where the keynote talk was given by a very successful writer (who shall remain nameless). This pompous individual opined that ‘classic’ SF wasn’t worth reading because the science underpinning it was ‘flawed’. I challenged him, suggesting that as all SF writers stood on the shoulders of the giants who have gone before it was the originality of their ideas we should be celebrating rather than disparaging them on the basis of their antiquated science. It was an argument that cut little ice with the speaker.

Thinking about this I got to wondering, if the SF genome could be disentangled, which books provided the ideas that underpin the stories being written today. In other words which SF books were truly original, which novels were, well, novel. 

This is my list and I’ve been pushed to think of any book post-1990 which has added to this SF genome, something that might, or might not, speak volumes for the state of SF today.

1.       Le Morte d’Arthur (Sir Thomas Mallory, 1485)
Every ‘quest’ story since has referenced, in some way, Book VI, ‘The Noble Tale of the Sangreal’, which describes how Lancelot, Percival, Bors and Galahad searched for the Holy Grail.

2.       Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus (Mary Shelley, 1818)
The book that kick-started modern SF and provided the template for every ‘mad professor’, ‘science mustn’t interfere with Nature’ and ‘man creates monster’ story ever since.

3.       Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865)
The first fantasy and the first to use anthropomorphic creatures/objects.

4.       20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne, 1870)
‘What use are the best of arguments when they can be destroyed by force?’ Captain Nemo: the prototype madman (tho’ is he mad?) who wants to change the world.

5.       The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886)
Good vs evil, the duality of the human condition, transmogrification: it’s all here.

6.       Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897)
The quintessential vampire story that spawned the whole blood-sucking genre. (Nelli insists that it should have been Gogol’s ‘Vy’ cited here but given the popularity of ‘Dracula’ it gets my vote)

7.       War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells, 1898)
Every ‘alien invasion’ tale ever since owes a debt of gratitude to this book.

8.       Time Machine (H.G. Wells, 1895)
The novella which spawned a multitude of ‘time travel’ stories.

9.       Tarzan of the Apes (Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912)
Tarzan was, perhaps, the world’s first ‘superman’ in literature and a man to whom all who come after are indebted.

10.   The Lost World (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1912)
Where would ‘Jurassic Park’ be without it?

11.   We (Yebgeny Zamyatin, 1921)
Dystopia; check. State surveillance; check. Dangers of totalitarianism; check. Little man kicking against the pricks; check. Feisty, insightful female protagonist; check.  ‘We’ predated ‘1984’ by twenty-eight years.

12.   Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932)
Just pipping Wells’s ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ (which I prefer) is this seminal vision of a future London of 2540 AD. It sets the tone for all stories that come after that deal with extrapolation of the present in the future, eugenics, psychological manipulation, and recreational drug use.

13.   I, Robot (Isaac Asimov, 1950)
The Three Laws of Robotics have been referenced in practically every tale of androids since. These stories also provided the seed corn for the tales that came after concerning the problems of artificial intelligence and ‘out-of-control’ computers.

14.   The Foundation Trilogy (Isaac Asimov, 1951)
With these three books the ‘space opera’ came of age. The Foundation trilogy was the original universe spanning, multi-world encompassing, tale of political machinations (and, it did, of course, introduced the world to the intriguing theory of psychohistory).

15.   I am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954)
The harbinger of all the zombie stories crowding our bookshelves.

16.   The Man in the High Castle (Philip K. Dick, 1962)
The genesis of the alt-history genre.

17.   To Your Scattered Bodies Go (Philip Jose Farmer, 1971)
The book that melded ‘real’ and ‘fictitious’ characters within the same story.

18.   The Difference Engine (William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, 1990)
The progenitor of the ‘steampunk’ genre.


Eighteen books which, in some way, can be described as ‘original’ or ‘seminal’. I’m surprised there are so many. Of course, this is a very personal list and hence subject to challenge: for instance, Nelli was aghast that I’d omitted Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. Any suggestions gratefully received.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Some Advice for Budding Writers, by Ian Watson

From Ian Watson, chairman of the Northampton SF Writers Group

When I used (past tense) to visit places to give workshops for just an hour or two, here is some of the advice I would give....

Write about a violent incident (robbery, fight, quarrel, accident, or whatever) from the point of view of a blind person – because we often ignore the senses other than vision.
Smell, touch, sound, etc.   The other senses are important to add flavour, though we don't want to go over the top.

To practice compression and leave out irrelevancies, write a story that is exactly 100 words long (excluding the title).

“16 year old John, an only child whose father had just died, was knocked down by a bus.  An ambulance rushed John to hospital, where he needed an immediate operation.  As John was wheeled unconscious into the operating theatre, the surgeon looked down at John’s face and exclaimed, `Good heavens, it’s my son!’”   How could this be?  Write similar stories that reveal latent gender expectations.

The author knows what she means but the reader only has the words on the page.  What is vague to the reader?  What is confusing?  What is ambiguous?  If you reread your own story after a few weeks and feel the slightest momentary hesitation somewhere, something is wrong there.

English words can often mean more than one thing.  This can cause unintended ambiguity, which the writer doesn't notice because she knows what she means.  “The woodpecker is a boring bird,” said so-and-so.

"She flew in from London..." —in an SF story anything can be literally true.  This can cause temporary misunderstanding of the text.

Get events in the right order.  People often write down an event than add on something additional they think of.  “He tiptoed into the room after taking off his shoes.”  The reader's mind has to jump back.  This is irritating after a while.

Choose 3 words from a dictionary by opening at random and sticking your finger on the page, and write a story logically but subtly linking the 3 words.

Be specific, to give a feeling of reality.  “He walked through the park.  Flowers were blooming.”  What sort of flowers?  What colour?
However, one specific item implies a whole context.  If the flowers are daffodils, the story must take place in Spring.  (And therefore you do not need to state that is Spring.)
At the same time you don’t want to cram a story with irrelevant details.  Ideally everything mentioned should help the story along, as setting or atmosphere or part of the plot.

Can the viewpoint character actually hear and see what is being described?  Just because the author knows does not mean that the character is aware of something.
A writer sits still and describes action.  Sometimes the action is physically impossible.
Act out in your mind instead of just writing words.  I have read total rubbish by published authors who not only don't know how to change a tyre (fair enough) but seem never to have been in a real car on a real road in the country they themselves live in.  A story must be thought, and felt, not just written.

If you have a viewpoint character, don't suddenly veer to a different point of view for a while, or include a different character's point of view however briefly within the narrative.

Unless you are writing in the first person, keep your own personal likes and dislikes out of a story.  The reader won’t necessarily like and dislike the same things as the writer.  Though we are interested in the likes and dislikes of the characters.

Vary the structure of your sentences.  Instead of: “I walked down the High Street.  I went into the chemist’s…”  try: “The High Street was busy.  I went into the chemist’s…”   Do not start successive sentences with the same word or phrase, unless for special emphasis, or you will be monotonous.

Prefer active to passive constructions.  Instead of “The field had been flooded by rain” – “Rain had flooded the field.”  This has more immediacy.  

Never misuse "careen" to mean "career" as in "he careered along the corridor".  To "careen" is to turn a boat on its side to scrape off barnacles, for instance.

Never misuse "actinic" to mean a lurid, eldritch, achingly blinding light.  It only refers to the action of sunlight upon something, which is usually very minor.

If you don't know for sure exactly what a word means, even though it seems suitable, look it up.

Long sentences, with many parentheses and multiple synonyms for nuance (such as "it was boring, tedious, and mind-numbing") are the norm in most Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian etc) and seem more sophisticated to the reader of those languages.  In English these are waffle and lack focus.  English has a bigger vocabulary than, say, French, and can usually provide a single perfect mot juste.

Wage war on the word "it" which is almost meaningless.  Prefer a noun where possible.  Count your "it"s and get rid of as many as possible.

Likewise wage war on "There is/are/was/were" as a starter for sentences.  "There was a blazing fire in the hearth" is lazy and abstract compared with "A fire blazed in the hearth".

"with" is often a meaningless connective.  "A man with red hair came in, with a red scarf around his neck" " should be "A red-haired man came in, a red scarf around his neck".  Purge unnecessary words.

Have fun!

Monday, 6 January 2014

That was the Year that Was (a round-up by co-Chairman Ian Whates)

So we bid a fond farewell to 2013, a successful year for the NSFWG and its members in many regards.

Now resident in Spain, chairman-in-exile Ian Watson made a welcome return to the pages of Asimov’s in July when his story “Blair’s War” appeared there, to be followed by his poem “Catalogue Note by the Artist” in the December issue.  Ian also saw stories published in French and Romanian and had an original piece feature in Daily Science Fiction, while his classic “The Very Slow Time Machine” was reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Time Travel Stories. His greatest achievement of 2013, however, was undoubtedly to marry the lovely Cristina (clearly a brave woman).

Nor is Ian the only member of the group to have tied the knot.  In May, members Donna Bond and Neil K Bond were married in a wonderfully relaxed steam-punk themed event at a Northampton hotel.  A month later, Donna, who continues to edit books on a freelance basis for several publishing houses, took over as chair of the British Science Fiction Association from yours truly (clearly another brave soul)  She also had a story featured in Daughters of Icarus, an anthology of new feminist SF and fantasy from Pink Narcissus Press.

Mark West has enjoyed one of his most successful years to date as a writer.  In addition to editing an anthology, The Anatomy of Death, for Hersham Horror Books and co-editing "ill at ease 2" for Pen Man Press, Mark saw his short novel Conjure reissued by Greyhart Press and had no fewer than seven short stories appear in various anthologies, including “Jack In Irons” in The Bestiarum Vocabulum: 2 (Western Legends Publishing), “The Bureau Of Lost Children” in Ill at Ease 2 (PenMan Press), and “It Was A Dark And Stormy Night (tale for Emma)” in The Book Of Horrors (Spectral Press). In addition, Mark’s story “Fog on the Old Coast Road”, which appeared in 2012’s Hauntings (NewCon Press), gained honourable mention in Ellen Datlow’s Years Best Horror.

Another member to gain honourable mention from Ellen Datlow was Emma Coleman, with “Home”, her debut appearance in print, which featured in NewCon Press’ 2012 anthology Dark Currents.  The story was also longlisted for a Bram Stoker Award.  Emma has recently sold a story to PS Publishing for a future edition of Post Scripts, expected in 2014.

Demi-Monde: Fall, the fourth and final volume of Rod Rees’ ambitious and original series, appeared from Jo Fletcher books in August. Various instalments of the Demi-Monde series were also published in Germany, Turkey, Croatia and France. Not content with that, Rod followed the Demi-Monde up with the feisty dystopian short novel Invent-10n (Alchemy Press) in December.

Nigel Edwards’ debut novel, Badger’s Waddle, an anarchic and surreal take on life in a warped English village, appeared from Greyhart Press in May, while his parable-esque tale “The Last Star” closed the NewCon Press anthology Looking Landwards in October.

Andy West’s debut collection Engines of Life, published in July by Greyhart Press, includes a story that won the University of Central Lancaster’s SF prize.  For much of the year, Andy has focussed on the climate change debate, producing several controversial blog posts on the subject.

Paul Melhuish’s story “Time Television” featured in Twelve (Horrified Press), an anthology of Gothic time travel stories, and he is currently working on his next novel.

Tim Taylor’s Greyhart Press continues to go from strength to strength, with ten new titles appearing in 2013, including three via new YA imprint The Repository of Imagination.  The year’s highlight for Greyhart was hitting the #1 bestseller spot on the alternate history and time travel romance charts in June, while the second edition of Tim’s own guide to laying out books for Createspace became his first ever paperback to pass a thousand sales. When Tim added up all the editions of all books he had laid out for paperback or eBook during 2013, the total came to 227. No wonder he felt busy! Notable ventures included working with Peewee Hunt to bring out his tales of life aboard the Ark Royal in the 1950s, and completing the reissue of Jeff Noon’s back catalogue as eBooks.

I’m sure there’s another member of the group who is involved in publishing… Oh yes, that would be me, Ian Whates. In 2013 NewCon Press enjoyed our most prolific year to date, publishing a total of nine new titles, including debut collections from Adrian Tchaikovsky, Stan Nicholls, and Mercurio D. Rivera, and a first SF collection from Steve Rasnic Tem. Highlights included Chris Beckett’s The Peacock Cloak occupying #1 bestseller spot in Amazon UK’s science fiction short stories for both kindle and books, producing the Looking Landwards anthology to commemorate 75 years of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers, and compiling Legends: Stories in Honour of David Gemmell.  The signed hardback of the latter (150 copies) sold out almost immediately, and the title continues to feature high in the kindle sales charts.  Personal highlights included the publication of my second short story collection Growing Pains (PS Publishing) in March, having my novella “The Smallest of Things” appear across four consecutive issues of Aethernet (April to July), and seeing seven new short stories feature in various venues, including “Eros for Anabelle” in a January edition of the science journal Nature, “Default Reactions” in The Alchemy Press Book of Urban Mythic in October, and “Without a Hitch” in the anthology End of the Road (Solaris) in December.

Nor have the other members of NSFWG been idle.  After five years immersed in academic study, Heather Bradshaw has emerged with a doctorate and has begun to write her own brand of cutting edge SF once more, Steve Longworth continues to craft his unique style of short stories while wrestling with the demands of working as a GP in modern day Britain (a task often more surreal than anything he might write as ‘fiction’), and Susan Sinclair continues to develop the themes and narratives of various ongoing novel projects.

So, that was 2013.  Watch out 2014: the Northampton Science Fiction Writers Group has you firmly in its sights!

Ian Whates
Co-Chairman NSFWG
January 1st 2014