2016 – Not The Best Of Years

So, 2106 is coming to an end – and good riddance too. It has not been a great year for all sorts of reasons. For a start, we lost a lot of great performers across the arts – people like Victoria Wood, Terry Wogan, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Gene Wilder, Greg Lake, Prince and too many others. Hollywood continues to grind out the retreads and remakes (although Deadpool was good). In politics we had the twin disasters of Brexit and Donald Trump. Far too many wars and acts of terrorism continue to plague the world in general. Religion and political ideology continue to be used as justification for hate, prejudice and bigotry. I could go on (really, I could!), but enough is enough.

Not everything was bad. There was some great music released (including albums from Dream Theater, Babymetal, Ana Popovic, Roxette, The Monkeys, Epica and Green Day), small publishers continued to release the books that the traditional publishers are too afraid to, there were a few good tv shows starting or continuing (The Good Place, No Tomorrow, People Of Earth, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Crazyhead, Frequency, Sweet Vicious, Lucifer) among the almost overwhelming mass of mediocre and just plain bad, and my wife finally dumped her too stressful job for an altogether pleasanter one.

But the main reason for this blog is to look at what I’ve been up to this year, in terms of writing anyway.

I have had no books published in 2016. This is a depressing but true statistic. However, this does not mean I’ve been doing nothing.

My short stories Assassin On The Seventy-Fourth Floor (Crimson Streets), The Light Ship (Electric Spec) and Young At Heart (reprint in Red Fez) made an appearance, and two more (Castle Ruins and The Great Prophecy) have been accepted but not yet released. I also had a story, Locusts – The Return, included in a special tribute book for Guy N Smith (Hell Of A Guy) which is not on general sale. Permission has been given for the story to appear elsewhere, but I haven’t decided whether I want to do that just yet.

I wrote a novelette (Vampire Worms), a novel (Eyes Of The Raven) and am currently finishing off the final draft of another novel that still doesn’t have a title! And as soon as this draft is done, I’m finally starting on the third and final novel in The Szuiltan Trilogy, The Offspring.

In terms of works that are out there waiting for responses, I have three short stories, a novelette, a novella, and two novels. This is not a lot compared to some writers, but it’s pretty good for me.

The other thing I’ve done in writing is sign up (again) to Wattpad, and this time I’m determined to make use of it. There are already several short stories, the whole of The Ant Man, and samples of currently unpublished work up there. My main project on it is to, gradually, put the whole of my science fiction thriller novel A World Of Assassins on there. Everything is free to read, and it seems a good place to spread the word 🙂

As far as my other creative outlets are concerned…

The 1850 Project (the collaboration between my son and me) is far from dead, it’s just resting. Mainly because our home studio (or Jonathan’s bedroom as it’s sometimes known) is in complete disarray, and we can’t afford the studio time we would need in our regular place (Whitby Studios) or anywhere else at the moment.

Art. It’s a very long time since I attempted any serious drawing or painting, but my wife was determined to get me to paint something for her. It’s taken her a long time, but she finally won, and I have taken up the brush and the acrylics again, after many years, to produce the painting you see below, which she seems to like (thankfully). I suspect that, now that I’ve started, I will probably continue in 2017. It was fun and quite relaxing to do.

painting-2016

That’s about it. I won’t be sorry to see 2016 go, and can only hope that 2017 will be a better year for all of us. The one thing I can promise is that I’ll continue to write, successfully or otherwise. I hope some of you will continue to read, too.

Thank you for reading.

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The Risen Dead

Tidying up The Risen Dead, a novella, the first in a series called The Givers Of LifeAt the moment, with the sad demise of Screaming Dreams (who it was placed with), I have no publisher and am having difficulty finding one willing to take on a series of zombie-based novellas. Therefore (and with my children’s permission… read old blogs to find the relevance of that!) I may consider self publishing it.
 
No absolute final decision yet, and I am still looking at publishers (anyone know any zombie and series friendly ones out there?).
 
I thought I’d take this unexpected and unfortunate opportunity to go over the novella one final time… it was originally finished over a year ago, and I haven’t read it since then. Fresh eyes will always find things to change.
 
The novella does stand on its own, but I really wanted to go further into its world, which is why I plan to do a series. And there are some questions deliberately left unanswered, or at least vague. Lots more to write on this.
 
And if you don’t like zombies? Give it a try anyway, when it comes out from whatever source. I hope I’m bringing a slightly different slant on the genre, rather than retreading the same old themes, but ultimately you, the reader, will decide that.
 
Thank you.

Award Winning?

Here’s a question. At what point is a writer justified in calling themselves “award winning” or “prize winning”?

It’s a common enough claim on social media. “So and so, award/prize winning writer/author.”

(For the rest of this blog, if I say “award winning”, think of it as “award or prize winning”. It’s less clumsy than stating it every single time!)

Now, I’m not questioning any of those writers’ claims to be award winning. This is not a rant about people claiming to be award winning when they’re not. I’m sure the vast majority of the claims are true – I just wonder what counts as “award winning” in these cases, and where to draw the line? If I won a school award for a story back when I was 9 years old, does that mean I can claim to be “award winning”? Is a “prize” the same as an “award”? Does there need to be a monetary value to the prize or award? Lots and lots of questions that I don’t have the answer to.

In my own case, I could confidently call myself a “prize winning” writer (I don’t think “award winning” would be right in my case) because in 2004 I won the oncewritten.com Midnight Hour Halloween Fiction Contest with the story “The Midnight Hour”. Then, in 2006, I won the Writing Prompt Contest, also on oncewritten.com, with the story “Conversation”. Both of these contests had cash prizes, and the proof of my winning is still there on the website. But I don’t tag myself as “prize winning” because these prizes were some time ago and I’m not sure they’re relevant to me as a writer now. Am I right to do that? Or am I missing some great marketing potential by not telling everyone?

I personally think that the best way to do this is that all claims of “award winning” or “prize winning” should be accompanied by the particular prize or award won, and its date. That way the visitor/reader can judge for themselves whether the claim is relevant or impressive enough to be taken note of. I know some writers already do this, but I think all such claims should be accompanied by those details. As long as the claim is genuine, where’s the harm?

If you’ve won an award or prize, be proud of it. If it’s relevant enough for you to tell everyone, tell us which particular award or prize you won, and when. Boast about it. Why not? I personally love to know that a writer I’m looking at is a past Stoker or Hugo Award winner (or similar). It’s shows they have some ability as a writer and are worth a closer look.

And if you’ve never won an award? Don’t worry, there’s lots of us out here. Doesn’t mean we’re any less as writers, just that we don’t tick certain boxes or simply haven’t been “discovered” yet by the people who vote in these things. Show how good you are through your writing. Ultimately, that’s where it counts.

As for tagging myself a “prize winning writer”? I don’t think I’ll bother. Doesn’t mean I won’t mention it somewhere in my profile or in interviews though 🙂

Still writing… slowly

Long time since my last blog post I think.

Despite the lack of contact, I am still writing, albeit very slowly. My main WIP is fighting me every step of the way, and my complete mastery of procrastination isn’t helping. But I know if I keep working at it, and accept that a lot of what I’ve written might need to be thrown away and the plot rethought, I will reach the breakthrough it needs.

It’s not the first time a book has proved difficult. In fact, most of my books hit that wall at some point – The Village Witch (published last year by Omnium Gatherum) hit the wall numerous times during its creation. Plot lines changed, characters came and went, thousands of words were written, dumped and then rewritten. It’s all par for the course. The one exception was Hard Winter: The Novel (also from Omnium Gatherum) – that one just flowed. But it’s unusual for it to be that easy.

I still write the occasional short story, because it’s nice to see something completed in a relatively short time. I’ve about 10 or 11 out at the moment, waiting for acceptance or rejection (mostly rejection based on experience) and I keep an eye on upcoming themed anthologies in case one just catches my interest. But I can’t deny that my main focus is on the longer pieces of fiction – novellas and novels. That’s where I get the chance to develop characters and more complex storylines. It’s the type of writing I enjoy the most.

In a potentially soul destroying decision, I’ve engaged the services of my son and his English Literature degree to rip my writing apart – which is something he takes an inordinate amount of pleasure in doing. The hope is it will improve my overall writing, if my ego allows me to survive it! Through working with the excellent editing skills of Omnium Gatherum’s Kate Jonez, I have become completely convinced in the usefulness of having someone who knows what they’re talking about look at my writing. A good editor, and I’ve been mostly fortunate, can really help improve the writing and the flow of a story (I’ll ignore the bad ones who think editing means rewriting – they can crawl away and die). Both my wife and my son are very good at improving the readability of a story, finding those lines that are clumsy or just suck! But my son currently has the time, and can bring the skills he picked up doing his degree to the task. If nothing else, it should be interesting.

If you’ve liked some of the books I’ve written so far, stick with me. More are on the way. It just takes time…

The start of the story

Given my current struggle to write anything (not helped by too much pain medication, although the anti-emetic is working at least) I’ve been looking over various Works In Progress hoping for inspiration, or at least that urge to write which is sadly missing at the moment. Not sure I’ve succeeded in that, but it did make me think about the start of stories. I’m aware that I have a certain “style” I gravitate to for the opening chapter/prologue/whatever and that gets me worrying about whether they are all too similar… but then, I’m a worrier, particularly when things aren’t going particularly well for me. Everything makes me worry. Solution? Stick some of them on here and see if anyone has any comments about them. So that’s what I’m doing.

Bear in mind two of these are still early drafts so I’m not claiming great writing, but they should give you an idea of how each tale begins and you can maybe tell me if any of them make you want to read more. In other words, do they work at all.

Also, why not take a look at the openings of books you love and try and work out why they work. What grabbed you and made you want to read? In my own opinion, two of the best writers of opening chapters are Graham Masterton and the much missed Richard Laymon. They, at their best, have the ability to pull me in and keep me reading.

Enough waffle. Here are my three openings (rough as some may be).

The images are all copyright Steve Upham of Screaming Dreams

Rebirth

REBORN (30,000 words, complete and possible first in a series of novellas)

The pain he felt as he lay dying in the gutter, aged 27, the victim of a random, frenzied knife attack, could not compare to the agony he felt four years later when he was reborn.

The stretching of withered muscles, the aching of bones, burned hot pain throughout his body. Dry facial muscles forced his mouth open in a silent scream as thoughts and images, a bastardised, corrupt version of life, streamed through his mind. Synapses sparked to life, pushing signals between lethargic neurons. He was not sure who or what he was, but there was a consciousness stirring within his brain. Not quite alive, but no longer dead.

He heard voices, sibilant, sinuous.

It is coming. Soon. The time for you to rise.

He felt no fear, nor even curiosity, just awareness, a strong sense of anticipation and, most of all, hunger.

*

When the end came for most of humanity, John Roundtree was standing quietly at the bottom of his garden, listening to the early evening birdsong and the soft bubbling of the brook just two hundred yards beyond the wire fence.

As a child he had played there, leaping the great chasm from bank to bank that he could now almost step across, playing the war games with his friends that would one day become his career. The brook had always been there, and the small matter of a three-hundred home housing estate constructed nearby was not enough to disturb its shallow path through the fields.

“You’ve got that mysterious look on your face again,” said Chris Thomas, stepping out of his house next door and handing John a cup of coffee across the knee-high picket fence that separated their gardens. “Childhood memories?”

John nodded and took a sip.

Chris had known John’s parents, watched John grow up, leave to join the army and, after his mother’s death, return home to care for his father.

“I was surprised you stayed on after the old man passed. Thought you’d be back on your travels again.”

John glanced at his neighbour. Somewhere between his own age of 34 and his father’s, Chris Thomas had succeeded in staying friends with both generations, carefully avoiding the frequent loud and vitriolic arguments between the two.

“Got to settle sometime. When I came back I was a mess.”

He turned back to the field and Chris could see the moist glint of tears in his eyes. Things had happened over in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he had never spoken of them in any detail. He had been a loud, lively, cheerful youth when he signed up, but he came back a quiet, introspective man.

“I didn’t mean to bring back bad memories John, I was just worried.”

John managed a smile.

“I know. This is my home. Doesn’t matter what happened elsewhere. This is my home now.”

“Dinner’s ready!”

The shout startled them both and they turned as Chris’s wife stepped out onto the garden path.

“Oh, hi John,” she said, smiling. “Didn’t know you were there. If you’re hungry, there’s enough here for an extra mouth. Annie’s always watching what she eats so there’s plenty to go round.”

“I’m okay thanks. Got some things cooking.”

“Fair enough, but you know you’re always welcome. Chris? You coming in soon?”

“In a moment. I’ll just finish this cup of coffee and be right in.”

They raised their cups and drank, looking back out over the fields, listening to the brook and the birds.

Except there were no birds.

Everything but the soft bubble of the water had fallen silent.

“That’s odd,” said Chris.

Barbara, stepping further down the path, looked up to the sky.

“Probably means there’s a storm coming or something.”

Chris nodded. “Probably. Still, I’ve never known them to all stop singing like this. What about you John?”

John said nothing. Instincts, naturally sharp and sharpened even further by his Special Forces training, were telling him to run, hide. It confused him. There seemed no obvious threat.

“Told you there was a storm coming,” said Barbara. “Just look at that sky.”

John looked. Black clouds were rolling in, faster than any he had ever seen, bringing with them an eerie, heavy darkness. They filled the whole sky, from horizon to horizon, boiling and bubbling like thick, viscous oil. The air grew dense, tasting of iron and sulphur.

“I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t think it’s a storm.” John looked back towards his house, judging the distance and how long it would take for him to run it. “Chris? Barbara? I really think we should all get back indoors, right away.”

The air grew suddenly thicker, heavier, overpowering. John looked to the sky again, struggling for breath. He thought he saw a break in the rolling blackness, two patches of deep red, glowing, but then they were swallowed by darkness once more.

They had looked like eyes.

John’s instincts screamed at him. He could no longer ignore them. Grabbing Chris around the shoulders, he pulled him to the ground, at the same time shouting “Barbara, get back in the house!”

She hesitated, watching, scared as Chris and John struggled. She was unsure what to do, whether to help her husband or go inside. But the sky was mesmerising, the way the clouds rolled and undulated like waves, and she chose to do nothing but stand and gaze upwards.

Across the world billions of others did the same.

“What… the… hell..” gasped Chris, struggling ineffectually against John’s solid restraint.

Lightning ripped the darkness from every section of the sky, a simultaneous discharge of electricity unlike anything ever witnessed before. It blinded those, like Barbara, who were looking upwards, burning holes in their retina, vitreous jelly boiling out of their sockets.

The blast of thunder shattered windows, split the ground, ripping open great wounds in the grass of the fields, the tarmac of the roads. John’s ears bled, the pressure of the sound wave almost unbearable. The rock deep in the earth vibrated, the low moan of a dissonant harmonic rising as the percussive blast subsided.

More lightning, a matrix of blinding light and jagged bolts, brief blossoms of flame sprouting for miles around, scarring the landscape with craters. Another explosion of thunder punching through walls, tearing the ground, pounding at the two men where they lay.

John covered Chris with his body as best he could. He kept his head down, his eyes closed. It was incoming fire, worse than any he had experienced in warfare, but the rules were the same. There was no point running. You just huddled down and hoped for the best.

As the last rumbles of thunder rolled away, a sudden, furious wind was sucked into the vacuum of silence from all directions. It tugged at John’s clothes, his hair. It span dust devils from the ground, stripped leaves from branches and whipped up the fires from the lightning strikes. Risking a glance towards Barbara, he saw her still staring at the sky with sightless eyes, a strange smile on her face, a face now red-raw with the wind-blown heat. He looked up to the sky and saw twisting tornados of pulsating colour, tentacles of lightning writhing across black clouds, and those glowing red patches that looked like eyes. They seemed to stare right at him.

He turned his face back to the ground as a further bombardment of lightning pummelled the earth, struck through the windows of houses, tore holes in roofs, killing people who thought they were safe inside, out of the storm.

The wind intensified, the thunder almost lost in the speeding-train-like noise. John and Chris screamed, battling to stay as flat to the ground as they could, the wind tugging at their bodies, the heat singeing their hair.

Barbara, lifted by the wind that swirled around her, spiralled almost gracefully into the air.

Struggling to maintain consciousness, John watched, helplessly, as the limp form of Chris’s wife slammed into the wall of their house. She hung for a grotesque moment before slipping to the ground, a trail of blood staining the brickwork. He barely heard Chris scream her name, the words torn away by the wind, lost in the howl of the elements, the blasts of lightning, the roar and rumble of thunder. And buried within that confusion of noise, so deep it was little more than a suggestion, other words twisted, rose, fell, on the edge of understanding, of reality, of belief…

Soon they will rise.

John had no time to wonder at their meaning. The air was full of debris, a flying stone clipping the back of his head, blood spatter whisked away in a fine spray.

His vision swam, fluid and unfocussed. Screeching metal twisted and tore nearby as the garden fence was ripped apart. As blackness began to engulf his thoughts he felt Chris trying to move, to crawl towards his wife. John held on tighter. He had seen enough death to recognise its look on a person’s face.

They were both thankfully unconscious by the time a wind-blown spade decapitated the already dead woman sprawled by the house wall.

<End>

FirstEncounter

Untitled Science Fiction Story (9,000 words so far)

Two men stood on the ramparts of the Napoleonic North Fort at Berry Head. Below them, in near darkness save for a few lights along the quayside, sat the Devon town of Brixham. The men shivered in a cold breeze coming from the sea, both looking warily in the direction of the old Guard Room, turned Visitor Centre and Cafe. Their view of the building was blocked by the protruding dome of an impossibly smooth, metallic looking meteorite, bulging upwards from where it had burrowed upon landing.

One of the men reached a decision.

“Come on, Bill, let’s leave.”

“No,” said Bill, surprised by his colleague’s suggestion. “Mr Banks told us to keep watch, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Mr Banks told us. I couldn’t care less what Mr Banks told us. This place is giving me the creeps. This is a job for the army, not us. That thing’s not natural.”

“If it was natural, Dennis,” said Bill, in the voice of one instructing a small child, “Mr Banks wouldn’t be interested in it, would he? Tell me something I don’t know.”

Dennis Inchmoor grunted his dissatisfaction. He tried to pull an ill-fitting overcoat closed over a stomach that was beginning to suggest a paunch, but the buttons wouldn’t reach. At twenty-eight, he thought he should be leading a better life.

“You want to know something that pisses me off, Bill?”

Bill Traynor, two years older than Dennis, but beginning to feel the gap was much wider, managed a small smile that tugged reluctantly at one corner of his mouth. “Do I have a choice?”

“Our boss, and others like him, get more money than they’re worth, while the real workhorses of the Civil Service, people like you and me, struggle to maintain a basic lifestyle.” Dennis tugged angrily at his overcoat. “See this? It’s a hand-me-down from some dead uncle or other. It doesn’t fit properly, and it smells of old people. But it’s the only one I’ve got. I can’t afford to buy a new one!”

“That’s why we do as we’re told and push for promotion,” said Bill. “I’ve no intention of staying in the lower echelons any longer than necessary. What about you?”

Dennis ignored him, turning his back to a sudden gust of bitter wind that carried the spray of the waves with it. Bill, protected by a snug fitting raincoat and woolly hat, withstood the gust face on, tasting salt in the drops that peppered his face.

“But look at it, Bill,” said Dennis, needing more than the increasing cold to stop him talking. “How come there’s no major damage around here? How come there’s only the hole the thing is in, and even that doesn’t look like a meteor crater, more like a… well, a hole.”

“And your point, Mr meteor-expert?”

“It’s like it didn’t smash into the Earth. More like it landed.”

“And next there’ll be little green men climbing out of it. Make some sense will you? Now, just be quiet and do your job.”

“Bill, this isn’t our job! We’re Civil Servants for Christ’s sake. I told you. This is a job for the army.”

The sea breeze quickened again and the two men hunched their shoulders against it. Bill checked his watch. 3:30am.

“Shouldn’t be too long before the sun comes up,” he said. “It’ll get a bit warmer then.”

He was glad when Dennis turned sulkily away, for the moment out of arguments. A short drive away, just outside Paignton, Bill’s wife would be asleep beneath a thick duvet. In a little over an hour’s time, the central heating would click on and begin to warm the house. By the time Erica woke up, he hoped to be sitting in the kitchen nursing a hot cup of coffee. He didn’t need the griping from Dennis. He just needed the next shift to arrive so he could go home.

A sudden bright light, reflected back from the overhead clouds, span both men towards the meteorite. The dome glowed, first white, then green, red, back to white. An increasingly rapid pattern of lights bursting from the seamless surface.

“What the…?”

“I told you, Bill,” said Dennis, more than a trace of panic shaking his voice. “I told you! Let’s get out of here.”

But Bill was already walking towards the meteorite, mesmerised by the light show. Dennis watched him go, unable to conjour the courage to move after him, to drag him back, away from the alien mechanism.

The lights dimmed as suddenly as they had burst into brilliance. Bill stopped walking, but continued to stare blankly ahead.

A rectangular section of the dome slid open, forming a tall and wide doorway where there had, previously, been no indication of one.

In the darkness within, something moved.

<End>

RagsNBone

Untitled Horror Story (38,000 words so far)

It was one of those rare mornings when Spencer Parkes woke at peace. Cautiously, he lifted his head, waiting for the quick, shadowy movements seen from the corner of his eye, the sibilant whispering filling the stale air of the small bedroom. There was nothing. Just still, silent darkness.

He thought of waking his wife, Swan, to share his sense of relief and happiness. But she had never heard the voices, or seen the shadows move. If he woke her, she would be angry at being disturbed more than an hour before the alarm was due. It would ruin his mood. It would ruin the stillness. He eased his head back onto the pillow and lay awake, enjoying the silence, the peace.

Slowly, dawn lit up the window through the thin curtains, and birdsong twittered and whistled through the trees of nearby Ottmor Wood. If only all mornings could be like this, he would not need the medication, the therapy. It might even make his life with Swan less combative.

If only.

*

Wyatt Road lay quiet and sleepy on the outskirts of Anbal, a small town on the Wirral Peninsula. The commuter traffic, from Liverpool to the north and Chester to the south, bypassed Anbal on the M53 motorway. What little diverted through the narrow main street of the town itself, passed the end of Wyatt Road without any thought of turning in. Wyatt Road was a dead-end. If you did not live there, and were not visiting, your only destination would be the turning circle, just before the wooden style leading to Ottmor Wood.

It was the quiet, more than anything, that had drawn Swanhild Parkes to number twenty when it came up for sale. A narrow mid-terraced house, it stood more or less equidistant between the end of the road and the wood. Built in the early 1930s, it had more recent additions of a concrete driveway at the front, newly installed plumbing and electrics, and a narrow, but long, well-groomed garden at the back. That was eleven years ago, when she had persuaded Spencer that this should be their first family home. Now, standing at the kitchen sink, staring at the overgrown lawn, the legs of upturned plastic chairs like skeletal limbs reaching up from the long grass, she felt nothing but despair.

“It’s not my fault I got made redundant,” shouted Spencer from somewhere behind her. She had almost forgotten they were mid-argument. The same argument they had had almost weekly for the last three years.

“No,” she said, agreeing. “But it is your fault that the grass hasn’t been cut for weeks.”

“You know it hurts my back.”

“We can’t afford to get someone in anymore,” she said, striving to be both truthful and understanding. “Since you can’t do it, I’ll have to do it at the weekend.”

“I’ll worry if you do that. I don’t want you to do that.”

His voice almost whined. She hated it when he whined.

“Yes, well, there’s not much choice, is there.” She turned from the sink to face her husband. “Now, I have to get to work.”

“I’ll move the car,” said Spencer. “May as well go to the shop while I’m out.”

He turned and began burrowing through the accumulated clutter under the stairs for his shoes.

Swanhild, Swan for short, wanted to be even more truthful. She wanted to tell her husband that he was a morbidly obese, out of work man in his early forties, and that it was no wonder his back and joints hurt, given the weight they were carrying. But she knew the redundancy had hurt him badly, destroyed his confidence, shoved him into depression. That the weight-gain was almost completely due to emotional eating since then, and that, despite what the Department of Work and Pensions said, Spencer Parkes was not currently fit for work, mentally or physically. She wanted to tell him these things, but she knew it would just deepen his depression and worsen an already terrible self-image. He needed to know she supported him, still loved him, despite all that had happened.

Spencer had found his shoes and, with some difficulty, put them on. Breathing heavily, he led the way out of the front door. Swan shrugged her one and only coat on, and followed.

*

Spencer reversed his old Peugeot 405 out of the narrow driveway and waited, the engine idling. He felt comfortable in the car, able to relax, away from whispered voices, away from Swan. Alone. It had been bought for the long drive to his last place of work, and held on to stubbornly after the redundancy. Big and impractical it might be, given how little driving he now did, but it was his. And it was the only thing that connected him to his old life. His purposeful, employed life. When he hadn’t felt quite so worthless. When he didn’t spend days in introspection and deepening depression. When he felt confident his wife loved him.

Swan’s Vauxhall Corsa reversed out, and the bright pink of the bodywork pulled a slight smile out of his frown. Even she agreed she bought it more for the colour than the car itself.

They waved to each other as she drove off, and Spencer waited until he saw her safely negotiate the junction at the end of the road before he put the Peugeot into gear and headed for the shops.

Just get the essentials and back home.

But did he really want to go home? There was nothing there but than an empty house, another long day of watching the clock ticking slowly by, the flash of movement from the corner of his eye, and the voices.

He wanted to tell Swan, he really did. But how do you tell your wife that you hear voices in the home you share? She already thought him fat and useless, blamed him for his depression and for failing to get another job. To admit to hearing voices and seeing things would finally convince her he was completely insane. She would probably leave. He couldn’t risk that.

Only two other people knew about the voices and the shadows: his local GP, Doctor Banks, and his one and only friend, Steve Newman. The only two people he had told differed in their reactions.

“It’s not that unusual,” Doctor Banks had said. “Particularly in someone clinically depressed like yourself.”

“But what do the voices mean?” said Spencer. “Why are they mostly unintelligible? Shouldn’t they be sending me messages from God, or telling me to kill the supporters of gay marriage or something?”

Doctor Banks smiled. If there was one thing that Spencer hadn’t lost, despite his serious depression, it was a sense of humour.

“The mind is a complex thing,” he said. “It can push bad and unpleasant thoughts aside if it doesn’t want to deal with them. It sidelines them, and they become a different part of you.”

“You mean like another person in my head?”

“Not quite, but another aspect of you, certainly.” Doctor Banks removed his narrow framed glasses and held them in his right hand, twisting them back and forth as he spoke. “These are things you don’t want to have to cope with just now, so they’re pushed into the background. And mostly, that’s where they stay. But every now and then, they push back, forcing themselves forward, and that’s where the voices are coming from.”

“So it’s all in my mind,” said Spencer. “Does this mean I’m psychotic or something?”

Doctor Banks shook his head. “No, it’s not any kind of psychosis. It’s termed dissociated. Like I say, it’s quite common among those suffering from depression.”

Steve, on the other hand, saw things slightly differently.

“So, you hear voices. Are they always in your head, or sometimes from outside?”

They had been sitting in their local Sainsburys cafe, meeting up during Steve’s lunch break from his nearby office job, and before Spencer went shopping. Talking with Steve boosted Spencer’s self-confidence enough to make it round the aisles without panicking.

“Sometimes in my head, sometimes not,” said Spencer, keeping his voice low. He was sure some of the old people at neighbouring tables were listening.

“I don’t reckon it’s anything to do with depression,” said Steve, casually dismissing what Spencer had told him about the Doctor’s opinion. “I think it’s a lot simpler than all that stuff.”

“Oh yes?” said Spencer, doubtfully. As a general rule he sided with doctors over laymen. But he always had time for Steve’s thoughts on matters, however outrageous they might turn out to be. “And so what do you think it is?”

“Simple.” Steve leaned closer, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Your house is haunted.”

*

Spencer managed to delay returning to the house for just over an hour, driving round, listening to the inane presenters on the equally inane radio shows. But he could not put if off forever. There were things he should be doing in the house.

He knew that Swan was right when she accused him of not doing enough. But most times, the low moods and aching joints were just too much to handle, and certainly too much to allow for housework. On the other hand, he sometimes worried that it was all just an excuse for laziness, doubting that he was even being honest with himself. Today, he knew he did not want to do housework. His back, and his knees in particular, were hurting, and he felt exhausted, even though he had, so far, done nothing. Nevertheless, in an attempt to make Swan happy when she came home from work, he was determined to try.

I need to start pushing myself, he thought. It’s only fair on Swan. She’s out earning the money. I have to do something here in the house so she knows I’m trying to help.

If fear of the voices was a factor, it was one he kept deliberately in the background. Maybe, for once, if he didn’t think about them, they might not be there. The quiet morning might extend into a quiet day.

Everything looked fine as he stopped in the driveway and climbed out of the car, something that was becoming increasingly difficult and painful as time went by. Even as he entered the house itself, the atmosphere was peaceful, totally lacking in the low susurration of voices he dreaded. On days like this, he could almost convince himself that he imagined they ever existed at all.

What did exist, however, was a musty, unclean smell. The smell of unwashed clothes and dusty furniture. Of unvacuumed carpets. A smell that reminded him of old people, living on their own with no family to help. Old people who did not wash, could not clean and wore the same clothes they had worn for the last who-knew-how-many days. It was not a smell that should exist in a house occupied by a couple in their forties. It was a smell that said no one cleaned. And that no one was him.

“Okay,” he said, hanging his one-and-only fleece up under the stairs. “First job of the day decided. Get rid of the smell.”

He was an hour into it, wiping down the kitchen work-tops and almost ready to vacuum the front room carpet, when the first whispering slithered into the still musty air.

He froze, cleaning-spray bottle raised in one hand, the other grasping a wet paper-towel, mid-wipe. The usual, sensible list ran quickly through his mind: plumbing; someone walking by outside; a nearby radio; the wind, even though there was none that day. He considered them all and discarded them. Neither was it coming from within his head. It was a voice, and the source was somewhere in the house.

He was long past the point of running from this thing. Frightened, yes, but not enough to run. As scary as they were, they had never hurt him. The voices in the house were always soft, on the edge of hearing, and always unintelligible. The movements were quick but nonthreatening, and never anywhere but his peripheral vision. If he had to give a name to his feelings, when that first voice hissed by, it would be disappointment. Disappointment that a day that had started whisper-free had become like every other day.

The voice continued, a diatribe of unknown words, and Spencer wondered briefly where this particular one was coming from. The corner of some room? Behind a half-open door? The attic? Beneath the suspended flooring? From where he stood, it came from the hallway, and he glanced quickly around the kitchen door to see, with some relief, what he had expected. Nothing.

But the voice continued. Just the one. That, at least, was something to be grateful for.

He had restarted cleaning, choosing to ignore the interruption, when he heard the first intelligible thing ever to come from the voices in the house. It froze his heart.

Swanhild.”

There could be no mistaking the sound of his wife’s name, dropped into the middle of the usual nonsense sounds.

He stood still. He listened. It came again.

Swanhild.”

The voice stopped, suddenly and completely. No echo or reverberation of sound. Just his wife’s name one more time and then silence.

He put down the cleaning-spray and the tissue, and hurried out into the hall. Nothing. He stepped into the front room. It was quiet and empty. Struggling up the stairs gave out no other clues. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he wanted some explanation for hearing his wife’s name. He felt the same as he had the very first time he’d heard the voices. Frightened, confused and sick.

He was still upstairs in the bedroom when the voice began again, from downstairs. It repeated one word, over and over.

Swanhild. Swanhild. Swanhild.”

Other voices joined it, a rising mass of eerie susurration, all repeating his wife’s name, none of them in unison.

Moving as quickly as he could, almost in tears from a sense of helplessness, a feeling that he was somehow failing his wife, he went back down into the hallway. The hissing, serpent-like voices surrounded him. It was no longer a case of where they came from. They came from everywhere, even from inside his own head. Repeated and repeated, battering him unceasingly, until the name became an almost unrecognisable collection of sounds. He pressed his hands to his ears. His mouth opened, wanting to shout, to tell them all to go away, but no sound emerged. Tears were squeezed from tightly shut eyes.

Perhaps I really am insane.

The voices stopped, with just as much suddenness as the one voice had earlier.

The silence had a sound of its own. A background hum of nothingness.

He opened his eyes. There was movement in the corners, shadows shifting and darting. It seemed somehow more frantic than usual. And then, not on the periphery but directly in front of him, an intense, Stygian blackness bled outward from the wall. It coalesced, grew, all but blocking the kitchen door from his sight. It radiated emptiness. A hole in the air before him.

Eyes snapped open in its depths. Veined and hooded, with cornea as black as the void they floated in.

Terror gripped Spencer’s heart, and he ran, puffing and panting, from the house.

<End>

Well, that’s it. Three openings to three new works, two unfinished. Interest from any publishers out there is more than welcome… Reborn is currently sitting with someone but has no publication date set, but if anyone likes the look of either of the two Works In Progress, let me know. With that fantasy aside, all comments welcome, but if you’re going to criticise, make it constructive please. Thank you.

A Literary Question

I have spoken of this before, but it continues to worry me. Should my fiction contain meaningful insights into the human condition? Or should it just tell a good story?

There may well be times when I have highlighted something of the suffering so many go through, or have even used metaphor to tell a greater truth, but if I have it has always been secondary to the plot in my mind.

I admit it! When I write, I don’t set out to edify anyone, or raise questions of morality or justice, or challenge the prevailing views of society. What I am hoping to do is tell a good story without my writing getting in the way of it. It’s true there is an underlying comment on racism and immigration in A World Of Assassins, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about a series of murders and the detective sent to another world to catch the killer. There are comments and views on depression throughout much of Hard Winter, but it’s not the driving force of the novel. I try to write believable characters that readers will invest in, and stories they can get involved in. If anything else hitches a ride at the same time, it’s a minor issue compared to the narrative whole.

Let’s turn the tables. What about me as a reader? Do I choose the fiction I read to be educated, to grow as a person? Do I f… no, I don’t. I read non-fiction books for that kind of thing. I read fiction to be entertained, to escape, to bury myself in a good story well told. A quick look at some of my favourite writers will show that. Wonderful writers and story tellers like Richard Laymon, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H Rider Haggard, Steve Gerlach, Brian Keene, Guy N Smith, William Meikle, Arthur C Clarke. It’s true that within the full (and growing) list of my favourites there are some “deeper” writers, people like H G Wells, Frank Herbert, Douglas Clegg, who often have some very serious thought and meaning behind stories (and the previous list are not above the occasional foray into more “serious” passages in their fiction) but the one thing they all have in common is the ability to tell a good story and not let the message get in the way. Ok, so maybe H G Wells was guilty of it occasionally, but not generally when it came to his science fiction, which is what I enjoy the most.

Where does this leave me? Well, if many of the authors above are considered “pulp” writers (as they are) then I hope I am worthy to be included, at some time in the future, in their ranks. Pulp is not an insult. Pulp is a history of writing where the story is the most important thing, not some hidden (or not so hidden) message, and not some attempt to be “literary” by focussing on the minutest detail with a plethora of long words that send most of us rushing to Google to find out what the hell they mean.

What set all this off? We’re beginning to see the lists of “best *** books of 2015 so far” (fill in the genre of your choice) and, as is so often the case, the books that tend to be chosen are the most “literary” of the genre – the ones with deep meanings or, alternatively, worlds so weird that the reviewer feels they must be deep and they are just missing the point (which they will never admit to of course). Where are the lists that are the great stories, the exciting tales? Believe me, this is not bitterness at never being on any such lists (I have a long way to go before I can even think of such a thing) but rather just the disappointment I feel when I read another list and find no books on there (or at least very few) that I would even read, let alone enjoy. The lists make me feel inadequate, then they make me angry for feeling inadequate.

In the end, of course, it’s all down to personal taste, and there is more than enough room for all types of storytelling in the world. But don’t look down on “pulp”. It takes a lot of skill and hard work to be a good “pulp” writer. It’s not easy telling a really good story and making sure your use of language assists, rather than hinders, the telling. I know. I’m still trying to get it just right.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already, find and read some books by all the authors mentioned above. Every one of them is worth your time and effort (and your money). Good reading 🙂

The story behind… Welcome Home

The story behind… Welcome Home

Welcome to the first in a probable series of blog entries detailing the stories behind the ideas and writing of some of my books. The reason for doing this is simply because I, as a reader, like finding out the thought processes and ideas behind the writing of books I read and it is therefore possible that some of you might be a little interested in the same behind my own books. I could be wrong, in which case no one will read beyond this point but, what the hell, I’m doing it anyway!

A lot (if not all) of this will have been said in other posts or on Facebook, Twitter and so on in the past, but this will be the first time it’s all gathered together in one gelatinous mess.

One final note – I’m doing all of this from memory. I’m not going back to the books and reading them again, that would be a dull and predictable thing to do. What follows are my memories, without a safety net. Talk about living on the edge 🙂

WELCOME HOME

Welcome Home began life as a determination to write a haunted house story for my wife, Cathy. She had complained, not long before, that I wrote horror and hadn’t done a ghost story. In fact, to her mind, no one wrote ghosts stories anymore, without blood and guts and so on. As far as I’m aware she has never read such classics as the ghost stories of M R James or the more recent ghost stories of writers like T M Wright or Shirley Jackson. But I understood what she meant. The majority of well known horror both in fiction and on screen were, at the time, of the slasher/killer/gory style. I therefore determined I would write an old fashioned haunted house story for her.

The second thing feeding in to this at the time was a single line – ‘The house cried’. It was in my head.

So began the original draft of Welcome Home, with the words ‘The house cried’ and the scene being Victoria standing before the abandoned house, in the rain, waiting for her husband to return with an estate agent in tow. The only plan in mind was the old tale of the house being haunted and Victoria finding out why.

The setting. Cheshire.

At the time I started writing this, we were spending a lot of our weekends driving into Cheshire, through Beeston, out Nantwich way and beyond. Lovely areas and lots of country lanes to drive along. Plus lots of small villages and towns and isolated houses. The setting for my new ghost story seemed obvious. Later on, other things would feed into the story, such as the computer training I had done for Cheshire Police, at their headquarters by the race course in Chester.

The problem: boredom.

Not long after I started writing, I hit a problem. It was dull. While I liked the main character, the story held no real interest for me and so I could hardly expect any readers to be interested either. I don’t think I’m cut out to write a traditional haunted house story – I enjoy action, drama, blood and guts in writing my horror (and my science fiction for that matter), and I was struggling to hold this story back. In the end, I gave up and released the reigns. It all started to build from there.

I kept the basic idea of the abandoned house, and Victoria being drawn to it, pushing her husband into buying it. I kept the Cheshire setting, the isolated houses, the small village (the fictitious Taupington). I even kept the ghosts in the house, but gave them a little twist, feeding into Victoria’s hidden past and even casting some doubt on whether they are actual ghosts at all (I leave that, to a point, for the reader to decide). Other than that, the whole direction and ‘feel’ of the book changed dramatically.

It became a serial killer book, with some supernatural overtones. It became a violent, in-your-face horror. Most importantly, it became a lot more fun to write and, I hope, to read. Sorry Cathy.

The one other major decision was to write some of the chapters from the killer’s point of view, in first person. To try and make this as believable as possible, I dug into the darkest parts of myself and pushed it that bit further. One of my favourite comments from a review of Welcome Home is that the serial killer parts read like an actual serial killer retelling his past crimes. I love that, because it means I succeeded, at least for that reader. If it reveals some slightly worrying things about the way my own mind works in the process… well so be it.

That’s pretty much it. Obviously there was a fair bit of plotting, a lot of struggling with the connections between characters, a huge amount of writing and rewriting, but the basis of the book was there.

I distinctly remember finishing the first draft. I stayed up all night Christmas Eve, typing away on a work laptop I had the use of at the time, and actually typed THE END on Christmas morning, half an hour before the kids woke up to open their presents… about 4 in the morning. The feeling was wonderful. I still love that feeling of finishing the first draft of a new piece.

The cover of the final book is from a photograph by Amanda Norman, and the lettering and layout over it is by Steve Upham. I am fortunate to know such talented and generous people.

The following book trailer was done for me by my good friend, the annoyingly multi-talented Tony Longworth.

If you have read the book, I hope you enjoyed it. If you have not yet read it, I hope it might interest you enough to give it a try. If you do, write a review and let me (and everyone else) know what you thought, good or bad.

welcomehome_cover