January 26, 2015

THE BIG BOOK OF DEATH, SEX AND CHOCOLATE

by Di Reed
Two Ravens Press

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

Note: This is an ever-so-slightly reworked version of an older review to celebrate the release of Di Reed's book by Two Ravens Press, an independent publisher based in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. My last review of this book mentioned how Reed’s literary agent was unable to find a publisher who would take on the collection. I wrote about how the publishing world is fearful to take a chance on anything remotely out of the ordinary. I praised Reed’s bravery to self-publish but felt that the book deserved better. I was therefore thrilled to hear that it had been picked up by Two Ravens and is now widely available.

Ever felt a little out of your depth? Like you’ve just bitten off a bit more than you can chew but the restaurant you’re in is far too posh to spit stuff back out onto your plate? That’s the feeling I got when I opened Di Reed’s collection of short stories The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate.

Regular readers will be familiar with the sorts of books I’m comfortable reviewing. I like horror and fast-paced thrillers. I like action-packed pulp fiction reprints and graphic novels. For an English Literature graduate, my reading habits are staggeringly low-brow. I’m far happier with a Clive Cussler book than something by Haruki Murakami. Whenever the shortlist for the Booker prize is released, I take note of all the titles and add them to my list of “Books that will make my head hurt”. LitFic is something I tend to keep a wide berth from, not because I struggle with it, but simply that I read to be entertained rather than enlightened. A shocking admission, I know... If there’s a choice between car chases and existential angst, the screech of tires on tarmac gets my vote every time.

There are no car chases in The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate. Nor are there any supernatural beings, square-jawed heroes or ninjas. Rather, it is a collection of short stories that deal with the three eponymous themes. It’s intelligent, artfully-written stuff that cannot be raced through in an afternoon but rewards careful reading and reflection. As I have already mentioned, I was not two pages into the book when I knew this would be a tough one to review. I sincerely hope I can do it justice... here goes.

First of all, it is worth mentioning just how talented a writer Di Reed is. I’m not just saying that because we live on the same windswept island in the Outer Hebrides and I’m scared that she might set her sheep on me. I have no ties to the author, who I met selling copies of her book at a local craft fair. I genuinely did not expect to enjoy the collection as much as I did and I certainly did not expect to write such a lengthy review of it.

The title had me two-thirds interested from the start. Everyone likes sex and chocolate (everyone, that is, but eunuchs and diabetics). The death bit seemed a little off-putting, but I was willing to give it a try just in case she managed to slip in a few ninjas. Of the three themes, it is definitely death that gets the most exposure. There are twelve stories in the collection and every one touches on the subject in one form or another (without any recourse to ninjas, much to my disappointment). From the tragic to the satirical to the outright comic, the stories all meditate on the notion of death: whether as a release from the pain of cancer or as an inescapable reality in the natural world. Some of the tales will entertain, with their ironic, satirical swipes. “If I Ruled The World” shows us an assassinated dictator reflecting on his life whilst he waits for an interview with God. Meanwhile, God has problems of his own, dealing with the ever-increasing bureaucracy of heaven. Other tales manage that difficult two-hander of being blackly comic whilst remaining utterly plausible. The recurring character of Dottie is a fantastic example of this. In “End Papers” she refuses to acknowledge how close her husband is to death as he slips away in a hospice. After his funeral her own self-centered nature takes over as she subconsciously decides to become sick herself. In “I Told You I Was Ill” Dottie is a full-blown hypochondriac who relishes her regular visits to her despairing doctor. The doctor, meanwhile, ponders how to break the news to her least favourite patient that Dottie actually has terminal cancer. Pretty dark stuff, so much so that I found myself feeling guilty for laughing at the terrible situations Reed places her characters in.

The most challenging story in the collection is “Three Crusades” where a pregnant woman named Carrie, her partner and their unborn child all consider the moral implications of her impending appointment at the abortion clinic. The tale lacks the subtlety of the other stories but is still effective, regardless of how distasteful some may find the subject matter.

Thankfully, Reed chooses to end the collection with “Life’s A Bitch And Then You Die”. Despite the title, the tale provides an uplifting, optimistic coda to the collection as Carrie gives birth to her child. Birth is a new beginning, not just for the child but for Carrie, who appears less selfish and emotionally mature enough to cope with motherhood and the responsibilities it entails.

Sex has little to do with romance in the stories. Rather, it is linked to lust and uncontrollable desire that can lead to death. “The Meaning of Life” is narrated by a male black widow spider who considers his purpose in life and wonders why sex and death are so inextricably linked for members of his species. Similarly, sex and death go hand in hand in “The Little Death” where an actress prepares for the shoot of her first sex-scene. It’s not the easiest acting job, the scene involving a rather kinky sex game of asphyxiation, the kind of which normally indulged in by rock stars, Tory politicians and David Carradine. The fact that her boyfriend is the cameraman makes filming the scene just that little bit more awkward.

Out of all the tales, it is “Death by Chocolate” that most effectively links the three themes of death, sex and chocolate. A policeman investigates the death of a man whose passion for the sweet stuff developed into a truly bizarre psycho-sexual love-triangle suicide-pact involving a bathtub, an insulin overdose and chocolate death masks. The confectionary munched on by the police officers no longer tastes quite so sweet at the end of the story. Despite the morbid connection between sex and death, Reed’s agenda is not anti-sex. In “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree” a pre-op transsexual describes her job as a sex-line operator and wonders why people make such efforts to disguise or suppress their own sexual desires. The tale possesses a remarkably liberal “do as thou wilt” attitude that is very refreshing.

The stories all exist within the same world, with characters and events overlapping in many of the tales. This provides the book with a sense of cohesion lacking from so many other short story collections. Indeed, the stories work so well as a group that to read any of them individually would be to lose some of the more subtle narrative threads that Reed has woven into the fabric of the book.

A collection of short stories juggling such weighty issues – flitting between moments of sublime comedy and solemn contemplation – is not altogether easy to get one’s head around. The peculiar mix of humour and sorrow, the serious and the strange means that at first glance it can appear to be unsure of what it is. Read a little closer and you’ll see just how clever that is, as the book has a bit of something for everyone. Except ninjas.

Read the author interview here.

Hereward L.M. Proops

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Booksquawk interviews Di Reed, author of “The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate”

Interview by Hereward L.M. Proops

Booksquawk: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Di Reed: My dad was a Flight Sergeant with the RAF, my mum was a wartime GPO telephonist. My sister Margaret is eight years older. Had peripatetic childhood with family moving around to various postings, including East Africa and Aden. Consequently attended 13 schools before studying English at University of Sussex.

Married Mike Reed in 1986; three children, Harriet, Madeleine and Al. Moved from Bradford in West Yorkshire to the Isle of Lewis in 1994; have been copywriter for Dynam marketing consultancy since 1995, and did 8-year stint as weekend/holiday relief cook on sporting estates on Lewis, Harris and North Uist. Mike and I have also co-managed local craft events six months every year, for the last six years.

Since moving here, I have completed four books – The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate, Celtic Fringe, Royal Macnab and an erotic novel, 27. Currently working on another two novels.
Other interests: painting rocks and slates for craft markets, keen movie fan, enthusiastic but limited alto and tenor sax player, cooking – and eating!

Booksquawk: “The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate” was originally self-published. How did it come to be published by Two Ravens Press?

Di Reed: The book was originally represented by Curtis Brown; I took the decision to self-publish when my agent retired. I had been selling the book alongside two other self-published titles at the craft markets. It was too limited a platform, and as the independent publishing scene had changed so much since I had last submitted work, I decided to give it another go. I found out that Two Ravens was actually based on Lewis, and a review on their website said it was a publishing house that was prepared to take risks. I sent DSC off there, along with Celtic Fringe and Royal Macnab, and had an acceptance for all three after just nine days.

Booksquawk: Has anything changed from the self-published book to the Two Ravens imprint?

Di Reed: The cover! The original cover featured an image which expressed transience. Two Ravens felt it was a bit obscure, so it has been given a more commercial slant.

Booksquawk: Which is your favourite story in the collection?

Di Reed: That’s a difficult one. I would probably choose Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, because of its mix of tragi-comedy and the outrageous, and Tristan was one of those characters who just arrived fully formed in my head and I could hear his voice, so the writing was a real pleasure. It was also inspired by a copywriting job I had done years before, covering a transvestite emporium run by a woman who used to be a man, so I had great background material too!

Booksquawk: New collections of short stories by a single author are becoming increasingly rare… why do you think this is? Did you have difficulty getting “The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate” noticed by agents and publishers?

Di Reed: The received wisdom seems to be that you can’t launch a new writer on a short story collection. I’ve never actually heard the argument for why, and I don’t see why the sentiment should translate to an already published writer. It’s possible that reading habits have changed, although I think it more likely that reading habits are now driven by what booksellers choose to stock. The costs of producing new books and marketing them is much higher than it used to be, which means the financial risk of launching a new book is much greater. For some reason, a new writer launch with a novel is perceived as being safer. With DSC, the title certainly upped the book’s attention-getting ability; some of the rejection letters were actually apologetic – but nobody had the nerve to pick it up!

Booksquawk: Do you have a routine for writing? A favourite location or time of day that suits you best?

Di Reed: I would love to have a routine, but working between the demands of family, day job, producing work to sell at the craft markets and managing the markets, all add up to a working week where anything can happen at any time and derail the best intentions. I try to find an hour or two a day for writing – or at the moment, tying up the last remaining bits of research for a book I’ve been working on for over a decade. Sometimes I make notes in other places, but the actual writing is always done at my desk in my office overlooking Loch Odhairn – there’s something about the space outside that frees the mind.

Booksquawk: Which writers influence you? Do you have a favourite author or novel?

Di Reed: I tend to have favourite books rather than authors, although I am a fan of Dan Brown – and rather jealous of his ability to construct such good yarns and set such good pace around fairly intellectual discussion points. I liked Ian McEwan’s earlier works and was definitely influenced by the short story collections First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets. Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 9 ½ Chapters was a key influence for DSC – I realised that to write a cohesive book within a themed framework, I didn’t have to stick to a single narrative. I love Clive James’ The Silver Castle, because it’s a book about poverty that doesn’t patronise the poor, and Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm for its total Englishness. My favourite novel is Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund, for its beautiful language, and its profundity.

Booksquawk: Are you working on anything at the moment? Will we see a follow-up to “The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate”?

Di Reed: I’m drafting story and plot lines for a third Hebridean book to follow on from Celtic Fringe and Royal Macnab, both of which will be published on Kindle by Two Ravens.

Read the review of The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate here.

January 19, 2015

JAWS 2

by Hank Searls
238 pages, Pan Books

Review by Pat Black

I’ve written at exhausting length about Jaws. My reviews have been… twenty-footers, would you say, Quint?

Ah. Twenty-five. Three tonnes of ‘em. You know best.

So it’s taken a surprisingly long time for me to get around to this novelisation of the sequel to Steven Spielberg and Peter Benchley’s shark sandwich. Jaws 2, directed by Jeannot Szwarc, came out three years after the original and did well at the box office, though its reviews are mixed at best. I’m an unapologetic defender of this squalus sequelus; it’s a fine thriller in its own right, and if it existed on its own then it’d be acknowledged as such. Its big problem is that it had the misfortune to follow the greatest movie ever made.

Turning the evolution of its piscine predecessor snout-to-tail, Jaws 2 existed as a film script first, before making the translation to the page. The book is an adaptation of a screenplay by Dorothy Tristan and Howard Sackler, who carried out uncredited work on the first movie and is most famous for The Great White Hope (I’ve always wondered… did he get his Jaws gigs as a joke, or is that almighty pun a coincidence?).

That screenplay was a very early version of the movie you know. Carl Gottlieb’s shooting script bears little relation to the story we read in this book. The film incorporated a few elements from Sackler and Tristan’s original draft; but by and large, with this novel, you’re swimming in the dark.

Our shark wrangler, Hank Searls, is an established author of thrillers and adventure novels with a nautical or aviation theme. He works hard to create an actual novel, with backstories, extra scenes and credible internal worlds. It holds water on its own as a piece of prose, and is not just the hack job built around the spine of the screenplay it could have been.

One curious pleasure in this novel comes from a paradoxical intertextuality that runs parallel to the movie version and Benchley’s original novel. This should not work, but by and large it does. I’d say it is more of a natural sequel to Benchley’s novel than Spielberg’s movie – but on occasion the two elements elide.

The basic plot is the same: another giant killer shark appears off Amity Island. Martin Brody, the police chief, is the man to stop the second sharkocalypse. But there are intriguing differences between book and film.  

The most startling contrast is that, while it features even more carnage than Benchley’s original, hardly anyone knows there’s another shark at large off the beaches until the very end. Only its victims are in on the secret, in the moments before they get chomped. In the course of a 238-page book, Brody only discovers on page 212 that he has another great white problem.

Similarly, in the film, Brody encounters the shark for the first time off Cable Junction, prior to carrying out some emergency root canal treatment with a giant electrical cable. But he’s aware from the very first that there’s another shark on the loose – a marked contrast to every other character, who think he’s a couple of pickles short of a fish supper.

For me, the most intriguing element of the movie is when Roy Scheider’s likeable family man starts to lose the plot after the first couple of disappearances. Given what he went through in the first story, you could forgive him for being a bit jumpy at every bobbing beer can he sees in the water. However, his sharktennae are a wee bit too sensitive, and soon he is running through the surf, firing his handgun at shadows, terrifying bathers and generally making a great white prick of himself. He sees sharks all over the shop. You wonder if someone perhaps stuck a mini-fin to his binocular lens.

Viewers know Brody is bang on the money – but no-one else does. He is treated as a dangerous crank and finally sacked as police chief, a scene I found as difficult to watch as any shark buffet. He’s a good man, and he’s on the right lines; but no-one believes him.

The original premise, as explored in Searls’ novel, follows a different channel. Here, Brody never suspects shark play, even when people start dying. As in the movie, the two missing divers take a picture which is sharkbombed an instant before they are turned into hors d’oeuvre. Their camera is recovered, with the film developed by a snarky local pharmacist. He sees the clear image of the shark tying a napkin around its neck before tucking in. The developer then decides to keep the images to himself, thanks to some blackmail shenanigans regarding property which he wants to exploit.

“The original shark isn’t dead!” this nasty piece of work sneers. “Brody lied! He didn’t kill it! It’s still here!”

This is far less affecting than the notion of the chief of police cracking up and seeing the shark everywhere, when no-one else does. However, although Brody doesn’t suffer so much in the book, it was disturbing to imagine that people might think Brody lied, regardless of his later heroics. This scenario is repeated by several people - and Brody himself. It is never resolved. By the end of this book, Brody might still doubt that he ever watched the first shark die.

This brings us into conflict with the movie version of Jaws – not only did Bruce end up as shark salsa thanks to a magic exploding Scuba tank (which doesn’t leave much room for interpretation), but there was a witness to Brody’s heroics: Matt Hooper.

As you probably know, the kooky, funny nerd as played by Richard Dreyfuss bears no relation to Matt Hooper in Benchley’s original novel. The Hooper of the book is a six-foot, blond, Ivy League snob; even worse, he has a fling with Brody’s wife, which I suppose makes us feel a bit better about him being eaten alive. In the movie, of course, Hooper the good guy escapes with his life. Searls never refers to Hooper as being still alive in the book, but surely Brody knows he’d corroborate his story if so. Searls ducks the question completely.

Searls never directly refers to how the original shark actually died. We can guess that his main source is the Benchley novel, as it does hint towards Brody suspecting that Hooper and his wife were carrying on. I suspect Searls favours the shark’s eerie evanescence in the novel. Pinpricked with Quint’s harpoons, the fish is finally worn down and appears to drown just before it can grind the chief into Brodymince… Leaving us with a suspicion that it’s still out there.

But there’s another reference in the Jaws 2 novel to Brody’s eldest son, Mike, having been traumatised by “the man on the raft” who was killed before his eyes. This is a complete muddle. The “raft” part refers to the little boy who was so memorably chomped in both film and book; but the traumatic episode Searls refers to is surely the chap knocked off his boat in the estuary (think: severed leg, white trainer and sock). This is something that only happened in the movie. So either Searls is hedging his bets and mingling both movie and book… Or, as I strongly suspect, Searls did not see the original Jaws movie before he wrote this novel.

That seems hard to believe these days, when you can own a pristine copy of the film in hardly any time at all, and for relatively little money. But in the mid-70s, VCRs would have been rare, and your only chance of revisiting a movie was if it was re-released in the cinema or shown on TV; I know it took six years for Jaws to be shown on terrestrial television in the UK. So, Searls might have had to make do with Benchley’s novel for his research, plus whatever clues were to be found in the Sackler/Tristan screenplay.

This hermeneutic confusion is especially apparent in the plotting. It follows the course of Benchley’s novel in that it has a bit more fishy business on its mind than simple shark thrills. As in Benchley’s book, the real estate concerns of Amity are a main driver of the plot; regrettably, the gangsters who threaten the mayor and Brody are also back. A new casino is coming to town, and it’s seen as a great chance for the town’s house prices to recover from the effects of what is referred to by everyone as The Trouble. Unfortunately, it’s backed by the mob.

I hated this tacked-on stuff in the original Jaws novel. House prices? Gangsters? Sales figures? Bad sex? Steven Spielberg was wise to cut it and focus on the shark. But, capricious critter I am, I was happier with the sub-plots this time around; they let us spend time with Brody and his family, characters who we’ve come to know and love through repeated screenings.

In fact, the shark is almost incidental to this book, occasionally munching people but doing so undetected. Its actions are misinterpreted. First of all, the two divers have vanished, as in the movie. This is written off as, of course, a boating accident. Then there’s the water-skiing scene – explosive conclusion included. This incident forms the centrepiece of a more realistic delusion from Brody, after he comes across a boorish cop on holiday who’s been shooting at a seal on the beach. Brody comes up with a theory that this trigger-happy pillock killed the waterskiers by firing a stray bullet through their boat’s petrol tank, triggering an explosion. In fact, the guy on the boat fired a flare through his own petrol tank, in a panic as the shark attacks, having watched it swallow his wife.

This false premise becomes an obsession with Brody which brings him into conflict with the mob, as well as the casino’s backers on Amity council. Even when he’s proven wrong, Brody refuses to back down, bringing the gunman to book for shooting at the seal. It’s comical to think of the shark going about its business and even swimming off scot-free, thanks to Brody unwittingly running interference thanks to an animal rights squabble.

Brody’s wife is a flirt in this book, giving her an added dimension she lacks on-screen (much as I love Lorraine Gary’s performance). She teases Harry Meadows, the heavy-duty newspaper editor, hinting that he might have a chance with her if he drops some weight. She is also suspiciously keen on a rugged Navy pilot, much to Brody’s irritation. However, Peterson, the up-and-coming town official who is held up as a possible romantic rival for Brody in the movie, is someone the chief gets on with in the book. In fact, it seems that Brody might be at risk of straying, as he forms a friendship with a glamorous forensic investigator who looks into the waterskiers’ deaths.

The name Daisy Whicker resurfaces, which made me smile; Ms Whicker is the girl supposedly set up with Hooper at the Brodys’ disastrous dinner party in Benchley’s Jaws. When Hooper is squiring Brody’s missus, he gives the police chief an alibi of having spent the day with Daisy Whicker. Except, the story doesn’t check out, as…der-dunnnn! It turns out Daisy Whicker is a lesbian. Gasp!

Shark scenes are the meat and bones of this book, and Searls’ execution of these are fantastic. The sudden terror of the thing appearing is beautifully done. What makes it worse is that, they have it in the back of their minds that The Trouble took place a few years back, and get a sudden inkling all is not well, before all is most definitely not well.

Searls doesn’t just exploit humans in peril; he also makes good use of the surrounding natural world, featuring “the White” (not “the great fish” this time) chasing and eating wildlife. We also see the wider ecosystem’s terrified reaction to the super-predator; schools of fish appearing where they shouldn’t, seals popping up on beaches and what have you. The shark’s natural prey includes these seals as well as a Navy-trained dolphin. These scenes were bleakly realistic and unsentimental.

Searls even gives his shark a motive for her Pac-Mannish behaviour; she’s pregnant, and driven mad with hunger before she gives birth to three pups. In Benchley’s Jaws, the fish was an almost supernatural entity, a clear nod towards Moby-Dick, as well as a great big metaphor for a corrupt America. There’s a more Freudian reading, put forward by Easy Riders, Raging Bulls author Peter Biskind, which imagines the shark as a “marauding penis”, a reflection of the lusts of Amity’s land-lubbing population.

My own take on Benchley’s beast is that it represents the seven deadly sins, visited upon small town America in the decade when the US confronted its own dark heart as never before. Crudely put, Jaws is Richard Nixon.

Searls is more in tune with the natural world and the business of humans interacting with it. While his oceanic menace seems less near-mythical than Benchley’s, it’s easier to believe as a living, breathing animal, familiar to us from TV documentaries.

The book builds to a climax that’s close in execution to the movie, as Brody drives a boat out to rendezvous with the children of Amity as they take part in a sailing regatta threatened by fog. This teenagers-in-peril angle isn’t the centrepiece of the book, as it is in the movie. Right up until the diving instructor he’s sailing with gets nommed in front of him, Brody has no idea that he’s puttering into shark trouble rather than attending a series of simple boating accidents. He does get the odd sharky shiver, but dismisses his instincts. “Nah. It couldn’t happen here… Not again.”

Bits and pieces of the book don’t work. Brody’s meltdown in the movie is much more compelling, as is his ultimate redemption when he is proven right. Here, he misses all the clues, and just kind of shows up to sort things out. The water-skiing nightmare and the helicopter crunch are present, but the rest of the attacks were totally new to my eyes – you don’t see the kid being nutted into the boat, nor do you see the movie’s most upsetting death, when motherly Margie is gulped down in one.

Anyone who wanted more out of Peter Benchley’s cod-Godfather gangster sub-plot will be more satisfied with Searls’ take on it; there is gunplay in this book as big-shot “Shuffles” Moscotti comes into conflict with Brody’s boy-scout copper. I’m not sure it worked – Italian American gangsters not created by Italian Americans tend to be laughable creations, verging on parody - but Searls deserves credit for humanising his mafioso, and spending time in their heads. Benchley simply drew a comic strip.

Jaws 2 was like a dip in a nice warm bath. Stripped of a sense of direct threat and dread, the shark circles Amity with almost complete impunity until Brody blunders in at the end.

It’s only doing what comes naturally. What a shame the beast must die.


Hank Searls was handed another great white gig after this one – the novelisation of Jaws: The Revenge in 1987. I’m sure that’ll come to a Squawk near you soon… But the man has a job of work on his hands to make sense of that fish-on-a-Death-Wish turkey.

January 5, 2015

WHITSTABLE

by Stephen Volk
140 pages, Spectral Press

Review by Pat Black

Booksquawk has taken a couple of cracks at this book already, and I can see why. Here’s my take.

Whitstable has a tough job on its hands. It takes for its subject a revered figure for lovers of the fantastic, Peter Cushing, and weaves a fictional narrative around him. Necessarily for the man who played classic characters such as Baron Frankenstein and Van Helsing in the classic Hammer movies, that narrative is a horror story. But its terrors do not concern Gothic castles, shovelled grave dirt, flapping bats, stinging holy water or punctured necks. Whitstable’s horrors are depressingly mundane, familiar from any number of awful headlines on a daily basis. Only Cushing, cast in Stephen Volk’s story as a real-life hero, can stop it.

Stephen Volk is best known for creating Ghostwatch, a Halloween TV special monstermentary from the early 1990s. It used used real-life British media personalities like Michael Parkinson to investigate a mock haunting, supposedly live on air. It was played for real, and through a combination of innovative subliminal effects and good old-fashioned scares, the show led many viewers to believe that their television set had been taken over by a malevolent spirit. Although the idea might seem quaint in the current multimedia universe, this show terrified people at the time and caused the screaming hab-dabs in a few tabloids. I’ve often read that the national grid surges after big football matches or contest finales as the entire country clicks the kettle on; I wonder if the same was true for bog roll sales after Ghostwatch.

Reality and fantasy combine in a similar way in Whitstable, named after the town on the south-east coast of England where Cushing lived out his final years – although anyone expecting a schlocky parody on a par with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter should look elsewhere.

We meet the actor in 1971 in the aftermath of the death of his wife, Helen. Footage of Cushing from these days – it’s particularly apparent on The Morecambe and Wise Show, where he appears cadaverous alongside cheeky chappies Eric n’ Ernie – is distressing in the context of what he was going through. It’s well known that Cushing fell into a blue abyss after Helen passed, never quite recovering from that awful blow. Whitstable’s power is in addressing the physical and mental rigor mortis that depression stemming from deep grief can cause. Those days when you’d rather not get up out of bed at all; when you skip breakfast, and every other meal to follow, feeling that something has stuffed your mouth and guts with cotton wool. In the book, Cushing has even sent his beloved helper, Joyce, away, and is completely uninterested in life outside his four walls, never mind reviving his movie career.

Diction is the word. Cushing’s was perfect on-screen, the classic received pronunciation delivery, something like what you might expect when an impressionist from beyond Albion’s shores is asked to do a “British accent”. You can almost hear Cushing’s clipped consonants and flattened vowels in his speech and in his thoughts. It’s an advantage for both reader and writer to be able to draw upon a rich internal archive when it comes to a character, but Volk sketches his subject extremely well.

So, Whitstable succeeds as a moving portrait of a real person in grief. But there’s a plot. It involves a young fan, barely out of short trousers, approaching Cushing for help. He sees the actor in the guise of one of his most famous characters, Van Helsing; who better to approach when you want rid of a vampire plaguing your life?

This cracking concept could have gone in a different direction, by treating the boy’s story as genuine and placing Cushing in the role of real-life vampire killer. I was about to type, “this would have been dreadful”, but actually… imagine it. Cushing sees that there is a real-life vampire on the loose; he speaks to the police but they laugh him out the station… “Gone mad, he has, since his wife died… All those movies have warped his brain.” Hmm.

But Volk takes a more realistic route. After making a social call on the boy’s mother, Cushing understands that he is not dealing with the stuff of fiction, but genuine evil, as it turns out the stepfather is a child abuser.

This is controversial territory. Cushing may be 20 years in his grave, but it was a brave step to introduce such subject matter into a story detailing a real-life person. Cushing, of course, finds his courage and also a reason to live in an intriguing battle of wits with the monster. Their exchanges were compelling, and frightening in their own way. First of all, Cushing’s quarry is in complete denial, all jokey bonhomie. “That lad… the ideas he gets!” Then, as in my alternate storyline, the police dismiss Cushing’s early inquiries. Then it gets more sinister, as the abuser decides to turn tables on Cushing, accusing him of inappropriate behaviour. This part was most distressing to me, but Cushing remains resolute, using reason, decency and a sense of justice to combat the calumnies levelled against him.

There is a quite delicious section where Cushing hits back with sinister insinuations of his own, drawing upon his experience not as the heroes of the Hammer movies, but as its villains. His electric blue glare unnerves his opponent, penetrating the mists of deceit and obfuscation. It’s a brilliant touch, one among many.

Another wonderful part was in the book’s central clash, where Cushing goes into a decrepit cinema to watch his latest Hammer appearance, battling Ingrid Pitt’s lusty bloodsucker in The Vampire Lovers, only to be confronted by his nemesis in the seat alongside him. This part contained a horrifying insight into the minds of such creatures of the night, addressing not only their knowledge that what they are doing is wrong, but also the horror of having a diabolical compulsion they cannot control. Cushing’s character is aware that he could be killed here, but he remains brave and outlines his simple beliefs; that just as goodness exists, so does evil, and just as goodness must be protected, evil must be fought.

That’s a tad simplistic and reductive, but the ending to this book left me as uplifted as the denouement to any thriller I’ve read of late. And, fiction though it is, it left me with a new appreciation for an ever-present face from the small screen of my youth. 

December 31, 2014

SQUAWK OF THE YEAR

Wherein we squawk about our favorite books from 2014

Kate Kasserman:

My choice for the year is a book with no character development and prose that could be fairly described as adequate, or perhaps functional. I know, I’ve sold you on it already! But it is a book I stayed up late to finish and one that has stuck with me, and its simplicity was part of what made it so good (with the important caveat that if you are looking for stylistic excellence or emotional subtlety, please look elsewhere so you do not become sad). The Martian (by Andy Weir) is a straightforward, optimistic adventure set in the near future. We are sending small manned missions to Mars, and one of these gets hammered by an unexpected and brutal dust storm. The mission aborts, but one man is left behind for dead – except, as you have guessed, he is not, and the book documents his efforts to stay alive with the abandoned equipment and material available to him long enough to be rescued. Although a few scenes are set back on Earth, almost all of the story is about the astronaut, Mark, surmounting one technical challenge after the next and remaining generally cheerful while doing so. No one with good luck ever had so much bad, as it is pretty much a series of one almost disaster after another, each time leaving Mark alive enough to puzzle his way through it. And he does figure things out, every time – as he doesn’t have the option of not doing so, which is perhaps the key psychological insight from this not psychologically oriented book. When watching a horror movie, you might yell (or think) “Don’t go down the stairs!” or other such beneficial advice – doesn’t usually work. Well, in The Martian, Mark grew potatoes to live on and ate one raw; I yelled at him, “Noooooooo don’t eat them raw! There’s higher caloric value in a cooked potato!” A few paragraphs later, he made the same basic observation and cooked his potatoes in the future. It’s that kind of book – there is plenty of thinking in it, and plenty of dreaming. It is just of the sort that has generally gone out of fashion in entertainment, and I did not realize how much I missed it until The Martian brought it back.

J.S. Colley:

My Squawk of the Year is The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms by Ian Thornton. Spanning several decades, it has great characters, subtle humor, some historical fact and a sprinkle of magical realism. What’s not to love?

Paul Fenton:

My squawk of the year goes to Gun Machine, by Warren Ellis.  I first came across Ellis with his excellent d├ębut novel Crooked Little Vein, which I loved, so I was always going to pick up his next outing into warped hard-boiled noir.  Gun Machine follows John Tallow, a frazzled New York cop who should have been on mandatory leave after his partner was gunned down by a shotgun-wielding nut-job.  Following up on his partner's death, he uncovers a hidden cache of ritualistically-arranged guns, hundreds of them.  Naturally, his colleagues hate him for creating this new massive case load for them; even moreso when they discover that many of the guns can be linked to unsolved murders going back decades.  Tallow is given no choice but to take on the case, with the reluctant help of some unconventional forensic techs, and they find themselves caught in the undertow of a dark, twisted and occult side of Manhattan.  Gun Machine is more tightly plotted than Crooked Little Vein, and considerably less absurd, but weird enough for me to like it very, very much.

Pat Black:

There were a couple of very strong contenders which I had to disqualify - sparing me an uncomfortable decision. 

It's looking unlikely I'll get Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk finished before the end of the year... Going by what I've read so far, it would have been near the top of my list. I'm about halfway through, but halfway is nowhere.

Another honourable mention should go to Stephen Volk's amazing novella, Whitstable. A project that could have turned into a bad joke was one of the most powerful and affecting pieces of fiction I've read in a while.  , so...

My winner is Philip Hoare's The Sea Inside

I was curious to note that it shared many attributes with Helen Macdonald's award-winning book; it's part natural history document, part memoir, part biographical journey, part philosophical inquiry. I would not have enjoyed making a decision between the two, if pressed, technicalities aside.

Coincidentally, both books share a fascination with the author TH White, a complex, tragic man, and they are both framed by a reaction to grief. Like Macdonald's, Hoare's book sparkles with lyrical power. 

This is a heavy world and a heavy life at times, and with that in mind I'm tempted to call The Sea Inside whimsical. That would be a dreadful disservice. It gripped me and resonated with me, and I can't wait to see what Hoare does next. 

Bill Kirton:

I’ve mentioned in previous years the disjunction between the number of books I’m reading nowadays and the number I actually review, and the balance hasn’t changed. All I can say is that the ones I do feature on Booksquawk are either so enjoyable that I want to share the pleasure they give or (very, very infrequently) so bad that readers need to be warned to avoid them. Fortunately, there have been none of the latter in 2014 and yet I suspect that my choice of Squawk of the Year may raise some hackles and cause some people to disagree pretty violently (as only those with strong religious convictions can).

The book concerned is The Second Coming, by John Niven. Any book which makes me laugh is precious and this generates laughs of all sorts - from pretty basic ‘gags’ to delightful, intelligent observations and asides that draw on a wide cultural and religious framework. The central premiss establishes a clear example of what Koestler identified as the basis of laughter - the juxtaposition of conflicting or mutually exclusive sets of values. He called it bisociation. In this case, Heaven is populated by weed-smoking, laid-backed individuals, including God Himself, who express themselves in the broadest vernacular. Where they are, peace and love prevail. On earth, however, there’s mayhem, most of it specifically engendered by groups and individuals claiming to represent the Lord. God’s only commandment - ‘Be nice’ - is fragmented into laws and interpretations which lead people as far from His divine will as it’s possible to get and He has no option but to send Jesus down again to try to sort them out. The result is a brilliant, biting yet hilarious satire on what we’ve become and the extent of our self-righteousness and self-delusion. It has lots of intelligent messages to convey but, above all, it’s very, very funny.

Marc Nash:

A really poor year this one, with much touted books such as "Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore", "Vault" & "The Bone Clocks" all turning out to be really disappointing. My favourite book is no surprise as Ben Marcus has become my favourite living author and it's his "The Flame Alphabet".

“The speech of children has become toxic to adults. So much so it will kill them if exposure is maintained. Thus comes the drive to protect oneself from hearing and reading words and yet parents are desperate not to cast themselves away from their children. Love is mixed irrevocably with pain, even within the intimacy of marital sex a spoken word can harm one's spouse. The whole metaphorical conceit is a brilliant one and Marcus sustains it throughout by tweaking and finding new little insight s each time as to just what such a loss of language might entail.”




December 26, 2014

DEAD FUNNY:

Horror Stories by Comedians
Edited by Robin Ince and Johnny Mains
224 pages, Salt Publishing

Review by Pat Black

Laughter and death. Often seen out as a pair, but not the most comfortable of couples. Despite any number of sick jokes you might see on TV or share with your friends on email, the two concepts don’t quite fit together. When you fall into rapport with one, the other tends to tug your sleeve.

Even Billy Connolly’s famous Parkinson couch joke about the uxoricidal husband needing somewhere to park his bike becomes sinister when you stop to consider domestic violence. And yet, the whole country laughed.

Robin Ince and Johnny Mains have a job on their hands, then, putting together Dead Funny, a horror story anthology where mirth lingers like a somewhat unwelcome, but nonetheless compelling dinner guest. So it’s a massive help that they’ve drawn on a talent pool of some of the UK’s best-known comedians to write the stories, with contributions from Al Murray, Charlie Higson, Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Ince himself and many others.

Horror anthologies of any vintage are to me as anti-freeze is to your neighbour’s cat, and I would have been a lock for this book in any regard. However, I was doubly fascinated by the concept and some of the people involved, and eager to see what fiction they would produce.

First up is “Dog”, by Reece Shearsmith. Shearsmith is co-creator, writer and star of The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville, both of which helped re-define the concept of black humour in the past couple of decades. Both those shows had an undercurrent of pure nastiness and sinister intent among the laughter, and that’s evident in this story. It’s a tale of revenge as a boy seeks to kill the dog which he believes infected his young brother with toxocariasis, a bug which lingers in dog faeces and can result in blindness, as it does here. The two siblings decide to kill the dog that laid the not-so-golden egg... Except, there are a few cases of mistaken identity along the way.

So, children killing dogs; you could say that’s a strong start. You’ll need a robust palate for these flavours, and anyone with a beloved four-legged friend may want to give “Dog” a miss. It calls to mind Irvine Welsh’s recollections of the reaction to Marabou Stork Nightmares, which features a scene where a dog is killed with fireworks. Welsh claims this part gathered more hate mail and opprobrium from critics than the passage later on in the book where a woman is repeatedly raped by a gang of football hooligans. What that says about us as a society, I don’t quite know.

Sara Pascoe’s “A Spider Remember” continues a fine tradition of arachnophobic horror stories. The stand-up comedienne’s tale looks at a boyfriend infected by a strange nervous condition in which he starts to hallucinate tiny spiders running across his field of vision. Imagine if it wasn’t a hallucination, though?

Mitch Benn, a writer of comic songs (and also the author of a science fiction novel, Terra), takes us down a sadistic path with “The Patient”. This story sees a doctor taking care of a special charge in his basement – the drunk-driver who killed his wife and daughter. The doctor undertakes a long-term study into how much pain he can cause his “patient” without killing him. It’s very, very good. Even a few pages in, I thought to myself: “This one would have taken its place in the Pan Book of Horror Stories, easily.”

“Pub landlord” Al Murray, possibly the best-known name in the book, weighs in with “For Everyone’s Good”. For an artist who made his name playing a brash, boorish comic persona, Murray’s story is a composed, curiously sensitive piece. Its most obvious influence being “The Yellow Wallpaper”, this tale sees a young woman institutionalised by her family for being “feeble minded”, and details the abuses dished out, all prescribed by experts of the time, to “hysterical” women in lunatic asylums not so very long ago.  

Curious thing: the two stories which most resembled a transcript of actual stand-up comedy material came from Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. Once a double-act, they were a sort of Burke and Hare of early-90s alternative comedy, and even made the breakthrough onto the BBC with their own show and having a hand in The Day Today before retreating back into the fringes. Although both still feature regularly on television and their tours sell out, they’ve never quite broken through into becoming household names on a par with people like Russell Howard, Lee Mack or Michael McIntyre. More’s the pity.

Stewart Lee’s “A View From A Hill” is entirely typical of his material – a kernel of sensitivity towards the tragedies of modern life, stabbed to death and crudely slabbed over with irony. Supposedly told by the author himself, this is a story of a down-and-out he once knew and the pitiful circumstances he gets into. In the background, casting an ethereal atmosphere over the sometimes grubby proceedings, there’s the prehistoric chalk outline of a horse on a hill. Although it’s a study in mockery - of author, reader, subject matter and medium - this story was nonetheless studded with pathos and startling images.  

In a similar vein, Richard Herring’s “Woolboy” plays with its theme, seeing a narrator encountering an abandoned shack in the woods, with the strange knitted creature in the title peering out from the window. Herring’s jokes are brilliant – I laughed aloud on a train during his deconstruction of the sign warning trespassers of the “viscous dog” (sic) – but, like Lee’s story, it doesn’t quite follow any kind of conventional narrative, and would have been more at home as a vignette told from the stage.

How odd that Lee and Herring should plough such similar furrows, 20 years-plus after I missed their appearance at Strathclyde University union. Perhaps they could collaborate in future; after all, there’s a lot of horror to be mined from the dangers of wishing for the moon on a stick.

The co-editor, Robin Ince, appears next with “Most Out of Character”. Like The Day of the Triffids and 28 Days Later, this takes on a favourite mantle of uncanny stories, where a character suddenly awakens after a period of unconsciousness or coma to find that the world has changed around him. Except that instead of being befuddled, the narrator finds himself tearing apart a corpse and eating it. What scientific horror could have caused this state?

You may or may not be surprised to find that Garth Marenghi himself has written the book’s most disturbing story. Matthew Holness played the pompous horror writer in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, a much-loved cult comedy show which helped launch several careers and probably provoked the same feelings in authors like Shaun Hutson or Guy N Smith as Spinal Tap did in members of Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden.

“Possum” is an absolute horror, taking in mental illness, childhood abuse and, fittingly, an evil ventriloquist’s doll. It was quite jaw-droppingly nasty, and the only laughs to be found are of the blackest kind. Like “The Patient”, Herbert van Thal would have stamped “approved” on this one any day of the week. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat used fly paper again.

The star of Mongrels and her own Big Ass Show, Katy Brand appears next with “For Roger”, a chilling portrait of a family man in the grip of grim predestination. The man in the title finds a diary in his loft one day. It’s apparently written in his own hand, and seems to presage the date his wife will die, and whose abrupt conclusion points towards the day of his own passing. What would we do with such knowledge? Can these events be avoided? Or could another Roger, in another dimension, benefit from a kind of forewarning?

It’s hard to say why this story chilled me so much. There was a weird coincidence of sorts, as at roughly the same time as I’d been reading this, I was trawling the BBC’s Radio Times Genome project. It features the listings in every single edition of the Radio Times, scanned into an easily accessible database, giving the TV and radio schedules for every single day back to the genesis of broadcasting in Britain. Drawn by the same compulsion which makes me read nasty fiction, I had a look at the listings on a day in which tragedy blighted my own family, many years ago.

Hours before it happened, I have a recollection of watching a documentary on BBC2 about Scuba divers exploring dank underwater caves in the UK. Then, as now, my young mind fizzed with the possibilities such a scenario could offer to fiction. Why, there might be monsters lurking in such caves, I thought to myself. I might write a story about that… Later on in the day, such fantasies of monsters and mysterious beings were exposed for the playthings they really are in the face of true horror, genuine tragedy; but I always remembered watching that show, being fascinated with it, and wondering whether I’d ever find out what it was called.

Thanks to the Genome project, I discovered what the show was called – it was Hidden Depths, filmed by Sid Perou – and in checking out all the other shows which I recalled watching during the numb days that followed, I had a small flavour of what Roger felt when he came upon the diary in his loft.

Danielle Ward’s “In Loving Memory of Nerys Bag” shares the same themes. Ward creates an unsympathetic character, a bit of a waster struggling with hangovers and trying to give a monkey’s about her miserable job and dead-end lifestyle. There’s a catch, though – Nerys knows the day she is going to die, predicted by a Ouija board when she was a teenager. The date soon draws closer, with no great fanfare or drama – similar to the final days of most of us, our last experiences will most likely be mundane. Nerys keeps telling herself that the Ouija board thing was a prank carried out by one of her friends, and that everything will be fine…  We know fine well, of course, that it won’t.

If one or two stories in this book seem like a stand-up comedy anecdote, then Tim Key’s “Halloween” is the equivalent of a one-liner. The award-winning comic puts together just four paragraphs, although they are horrifying enough. As for the comedy, extra points must be awarded for creative use of a footnote.

Rufus Hound’s “Fixed” was the most cerebral tale in the book. A veteran of panel shows and a familiar face on television, Hound takes the idea of premature burial to some strange places. “Fever dream” is the phrase I’m trying hard not to use, here, but it’s the most apt.

Comedian and performance poet Phill Jupitus, the man who’s stuck out Never Mind The Buzzcocks above and beyond the call of duty for almost 20 years, is another familiar face to British TV viewers. With “Anthemoessa”, he examines some very modern horrors, inflicted on society by a relatively small group of people within one square mile of the City of London. It sees rookie trader Steve Webb, a young man determined to make his way in the world of high finance, scoring early triumphs and upsetting the established order in his firm. The scene is set for an entirely different story, a bildungsroman which might see Steve winning renown, fame and fortune… but the seas of high finance are haunted by many Sirens.

Stand-up comic Michael Legge’s “The Dream of Nightmares” again played with themes of predestination we’ve already seen in the book. This one followed a woman whose husband suffers brain damage, and as he recovers he mutters things in his delirium. Gwen realises that these apparent nonsense phrases are in fact the solutions to various crimes she’s seen featured on the evening news. Gwen begins to act on these somnambulistic tip-offs and soon earns a reputation as an ace amateur crime-fighter, solving mysteries, finding kidnapping victims and unearthing criminal conspiracies often before the police even know they’ve happened. It’s a merry old jaunt, until Gwen’s husband mutters something about a crime about to take place much closer to home.

Neil Edmond’s “All Warm Inside” was of a feather with Robin Ince’s story, and again features a man shaking off unconsciousness to find himself in strange circumstances, with no memory of who he is or what he’s been doing. Nasty things, as it turns out.

The grand finale, then, is Charlie Higson’s “Filthy Night”. Although he has published widely, Higson reached wider acclaim as a novelist over the past decade with his Young Bond novels. Of course, to many of us, he will forever be associated with The Fast Show, which has a reasonable claim to being the funniest television programme ever made. His characters, Ted and Ralph, Bob Fleming, Colin Hunt, Swiss Toni and Johnny Nice Painter (“Black… black, all of it black!”) can trigger off  a flood of memes and comic riffing among people within a certain age bracket down the pub.

In fact, if you’ll indulge me, here’s something of a horror story. A stand-up comedy friend of mine was once compering a bill featuring some up-and-coming talents, all in their teens or early twenties. They fell into conversation about their comedy influences, and my friend told them: “Well, I always loved The Fast Show.”

He was met with blank stares. One of his young charges said: “Mate… what’s The Fast Show?”

Higson’s story, “Filthy Night”, isn’t the scariest in the book, but it’s the most accomplished. It sees an elderly former star of British horror movies invited into the house of a younger fan. He is clearly based on the old classically-trained troupers who would turn in creditably gamey performances in the Hammer Horror movies of the sixties and seventies; there’s also a dash of thespian roguishness in the mix, a la Oliver Reed or Peter O’Toole. Hastings is a fruity delight, sending himself and his profession up with some wonderful lines (“Carla was a vision, with knockers like she’d been torpedoed in the back”). And yet there’s something rather needy about the old boy, just as there’s something a little off-kilter about the horror memorabilia collector. All will be revealed when Hastings is led down into the cellar…

This is a fine collection and a worthy addition to the growing trend of horror anthologies, bridging the gap between the classic collections from Pan and Fontana and the present day. No great shock, this, but there’s plenty of laughs amid the bloodshed. I should like to see a sequel. Mark Gatiss, surely, would contribute at a moment’s notice. And can you imagine a horror story penned by Frankie Boyle?

Dead Funny does what it says on the coffin lid. And if, in life, you should snigger somewhere you’re not supposed to, don’t feel too bad about it. Taboo is such a lovely word.


Read the interview with Dead Funny editor Johnny Mains here.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Booksquawk speaks to author and editor Johnny Mains about his anthology, Dead Funny:Horror Stories By Comedians.



Interview by Pat Black

Booksquawk: Dead Funny draws on some very big names from the world of comedy. How did the project come about, and how eager were the people involved to write horror stories?

Johnny Mains: The project first came about when my wife and I were having a chat about what horror anthology I should do next. I wanted a book that would be wholly original and had never been done before – something that in this day in age is more difficult than it seems.

We decided on horror stories by comedians because it was an expansion on what I had already done on a previous anthology, The Screaming Book of Horror, by asking Charlie Higson and Robin Ince if they would both write stories for it. People had really got behind those stories, so it made kind of sense that a whole book of stories by comedians just might work.

I asked Robin if he would come on as co-editor because I needed an ‘in’ to the comedy world, and we had known each other long enough to know that we were both heartfelt fans of the genre and that we were both dedicated and hard-working enough to pull it off. So Robin got out his contact book, I asked Charlie Higson and Reece Shearsmith if they would write me stories and everyone was very enthusiastic about the project and slowly but surely, the stories started to trickle in!

Booksquawk: Laughing in the face of death is a great taboo. Do you think black humour is a common experience for humans, or do you need a certain kind of kink in your wiring to enjoy it?

JM: I think we need black humour to survive. I know I certainly do. It’s how we stop ourselves from going hysterical and having a mental breakdown. It’s a simple defence mechanism. I have a friend who works in the funeral home, the stuff that he comes out with is so dark and so out there, but as he tells me – that without that humour to fall back on, he would never be able to cope with the job.

Booksquawk: You’re a bit of a one-man army when it comes to horror anthologies, a very noble tradition in publishing. As well as your own work in reviving the original Pan Book of Horror and your anthologies with Salt, I see signs of a strange revival all around. There is The Spectal Book of Horror Stories, and Charles Black’s anthologies (now into the 10th edition), plus several others featuring major names such as Ramsey Campbell. Do you think there’s a growing appetite for this type of anthologies - and if so, why don’t the major publishers take notice?

JM: The small press is truly thriving, but then it always has been. The big publishers don’t seem to think that horror anthologies sell, but then they haven’t given them a chance or put any real money behind them for a while. Saying that, Dead Funny is ticking along rather nicely, as has been Best British Horror – and there has also been Stephen Jones’ Best New Horror anthologies and his Zombie Apocalypse series and the excellent anthologies Jonathan Oliver is editing for Solaris.
Maybe the horror anthology will become fashionable again, who knows? When I go to my local Waterstones, there are anthologies on the shelves, but they’re mainly all from US publishers.

Booksquawk: What is it about the short story that lends itself so well to the horror genre?

JM: The horror short story is a quick fix of gruesome delight that can be had whilst on the bus, at lunch, before you go to bed. A whole formed world in as many words the author deemed fit. And you know that a horror story is bound to end horribly, so you read just to see what the pay-off is.

Booksquawk: Can we expect to see another Dead Funny anthology? And regardless, who would you like to see contribute, living or dead? (I’d like to see Mark Gatiss take a stab at it, and who knows what a Frankie Boyle horror story would produce…)

JM: I can exclusively reveal that Robin and I have agreed on principle to do another Dead Funny anthology for Salt, to be released next October. We’re working on a line-up and may ask one or two of the authors from the original if they’d like to do another story, but nothing’s set in stone.

Booksquawk: Talk to us about your upcoming projects.

JM: Next year will be taken up with writing my Pan Book of Horror Stories scrapbook (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1027049759/the-pan-book-of-horror-stories-scrapbook) which was funded through Kickstarter. Already knee-deep into it and enjoying writing it. It was the book I was born to write – no doubt about that!

Best British Horror will be out in May/June - I have a novella out in February, called The Gamekeeper, I’m appearing in Terror Tales of the Highlands in the spring,  I’ve somehow written a Sherlock Holmes story for an anthology called Sherlock Holmes Abroad which is coming out in April, I’ve written another story (10k) called The Curse of the Monster which is also coming out in April, and then in October I’m hoping to see the release of my third collection. So most of the work has been done this year, and hopefully I can ease up a little bit.  

Read the review of Dead Funny here.