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Monday, 20 February 2017

He was Legend

The author Richard Matheson was born on today’s date in 1926.

His output was varied and prodigious. He wrote genre fiction, short stories and novels, screenplays and teleplays.

His 1954 novel I Am Legend has been adapted for the screen four times; his time-slip romance Bid Time Return, was filmed as Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour with evocative music by John Barry; The Shrinking Man and A Stir of Echoes, are two more sci-fi films from his works. 

He contributed to The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Wanted Dead or Alive, Cheyenne, Have Gun Will Travel, and Lawman, among many other TV shows.   

As well as horror, fantasy and sci-fi, he wrote western novels, among them Journal of the Gun Years, The Gunfight, The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok, Shadow on the Sun and a collection of western tales, By the Gun.

Ever since reading I Am Legend in the 1960s, I was a fan of Matheson, and I have many of his books and collected short stories. He has been a huge influence on many writers and film directors.

The title of this blog seems apt, but it isn’t original; it was used as He is Legend as a celebration of his work by several genre authors, published in 2009.

He died on June 23, 2013, aged 87.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Love on the doorstep

Forty-four years ago on a Friday (16 February, 1973), Jennifer, my wife-to-be appeared on my doorstep.

No, she wasn’t selling anything.

I was serving in the Royal Navy then and rented a room in a Gosport three-bedroom house owned by John Bevan, a civilian who worked at the Alverstoke Institute of Naval Medicine’s Royal Naval Physiological Laboratory (RNPL). At the time, he gained fame for the ‘deepest dive’. In March 1970 young laboratory scientists John Bevan and Peter Sharphouse made experimental dives in a pressure chamber, which proved that a man could survive in the sea for 10 hours at a depth equivalent to 1,535 ft. This was 300ft below what was believed to be the maximum at the time, described by American colleagues as ‘a hyperbaric moon landing’.

John’s girlfriend Brenda was a university friend of Jennifer’s. Before this weekend, Jennifer told Brenda she was at a loose end and Brenda invited her to stay at John’s house – there was room. Jennifer was teaching in Oxford.

The weekend arrived. In the lounge I’d been watching Rene Cutforth’s documentary about Czechoslovakia; I was doing research for a novel I planned to write some time in the future.
John was out when the doorbell rang and I answered it.

Standing on the doorstep were Brenda, who I knew, and Jennifer.

I was vaguely aware that my purple jumper had a hole in its shoulder seam. As we chatted, it transpired that we had a great deal in common. Jen had taken her degree in Newcastle upon Tyne University, and had digs in Whitley Bay. Those rooms were at the top end of Oxford Street – which happened to be the same street of my family home. We were not destined to meet then; I was usually at sea, or living in the south, in Hampshire. We discovered that we were both adopted. We liked similar books, movies and music, though both of us thereafter broadened our appreciation from each other’s interests. Surprisingly, she didn’t mind my sense of humour and puns! Oh, and the holey seam was eventually mended; true love will conquer all, it seams.

My heart wasn’t my own afterwards, either.

We got engaged six months later and were married a year to the day after first meeting on that doorstep.

Dedication in Mission: Prague (to be re-issued soon)
‘To Jennifer with love. Holey jumpers, this brings back memories of love at first sight, Rene Cutforth, Ma Vlast and all.’

Monday, 13 February 2017

Writing - when to leave a scene

There are no rules, really, but sometimes we writers insert more words than are necessary to convey the scene; indeed, we have been known to linger too long in a scene. It can help to study modern films, where scene shifts are generally slick and move the story forward, and no time/words are wasted.

Take, for example, this snippet from a book I read recently. (Names have been changed).

Jackson nodded. 'Okay,' he said. 'First, I'll send you up to Records. Third floor. Ask for Janine. She's the chief paper-pusher up there. Tell her I sent you.'

'Thanks,' Mike said. He walked to the elevator and took it two flights up.
Janine glanced away from her computer screen as Mike entered her office.

'Mr Jackson sent me up,' he said. He took out his identification. 'Mike Shaw.' 

Janine looked at the identification for a moment, then glanced back up at Mike. 'What can I do for you?'

'It's about a woman...'

Now, there's nothing wrong with this. But if you're visualising it as a film director, you'll probably see how the scene could shift earlier and the new scene could start that fraction later, without losing anything except time/words. Something like this:

Jackson nodded. 'Okay. First, I'll send you up to Records. Third floor. Ask for Janine. She's the chief paper-pusher. Tell her I sent you.'
Janine studied the identification for a moment, then looked at Mike. 'What can I do for you, Mr Shaw?'

'It's about a woman...'

So, it has become shorter, tighter.

It's obvious Jackson is speaking, so we can drop 'he said'. The phrase 'up there' is fine, colloquial, but the word 'up' tends to get overused (three times in this short piece); so that's one less!

We don't need to know Mike took the elevator - unless the elevator is going to figure in a later scene (which it isn't). Taking the elevator can be a given - or he could take the stairs; it's not relevant.

The reader already knows Janine is in an office, so there's no need for the computer to be described here. Also, it's repetition to say 'Mr Jackson sent me up'; it's filler. Move directly to the purpose of the visit.  We don't need to see Mike introduce himself; she's got his name from the ID, anyway. 'back' is another overused word, not always necessary.

We've got 'looked at' and 'glanced back up at' in the single sentence. A glance is ephemeral, a brief but not a studied look. 'Gaze' might work better, but seems to my mind inappropriate. Maybe it could have been worded as shown above, replacing 'looked' with 'studied' (which then drops one 'at'); and inserting 'looked' instead of the dubious 'glanced'.

We can all benefit from self-editing, and later publisher's or a professional editor's input. By editing as above, the scenes are tighter and nothing is lost.  The first example was 93 words; the revised version was 48 - almost half.
I discuss opening and closing scenes in my book Write a Western in 30 Days (pp 142-144).


Sunday, 12 February 2017

Book review - Flesh and Blood

Thomas H. Cook is the author of over 25 novels, mainly in the mystery and crime genre. Flesh and Blood (1989) is a sequel to Sacrificial Ground, which I haven’t read.

After the events in Sacrificial Ground, PI Frank Clemons is living with Karen, a survivor from his last case. They’ve moved to New York, but Frank finds it hard to settle, and often slips out in the early hours to imbibe whiskey.

A garment designer called Hannah is slain and her hand is severed and is missing. While the police investigate the killing, Frank is hired by Hannah’s rich employer, Imalia, to locate any living relatives of the dead woman, so they can claim the body after the police have finished with it. Frank is helped in his quest by the mysterious Farouk, who proves useful with many contacts; they make a good world-weary team.

Hannah had two sisters (don’t tell Woody Allen), but they’re hard to find. Frank starts to dig, from Hannah’s childhood with her rabbi father, fresh from Poland, in the 1920s. Slowly, a picture of Hannah begins to emerge. After their father’s death, Hannah cared for her younger sisters and found work in a garment sweat-shop. She joined a union and became a visionary, instituting a strike for better conditions in the 1930s.

‘For a long time, Frank stared silently at the photograph. He could almost feel the cold winter wind which lifted her scar and held it fluttering in the air, hear the roar of the crowd as they cheered her, feel the triumph of her hand in the crisp biting air, sense the sheer driving power of her voice as it pealed over them, crying out the words (of inspiration)’ (p117)

This is one of those detective novels American authors do so well, peeling away the past, and in the process illuminating the working and living conditions suffered by the deceased protagonists. The fashion industry of the time is laid bare: the final revelations are troubling, even shocking, in several ways, but it would be unkind to reveal why; suffice it to say that the conclusion was satisfactory and provided a closure of sorts for Frank.

In many instances, Cook’s writing tends to rise above the standard PI novel. Frank exhibits great empathy for the victims: ‘Whatever small hope still remained for Hannah Karlsberg had died in that moment, and a few terrible seconds later, she had died as well.’ (p35)

And as he delved into Hannah’s history, getting to know her through the reminiscences of those who knew her, ‘He could feel the heaviness of time all about him, the brevity of life, the way it drained away in a quiet rush of days until it was gone, gone as if in one quick, invisible streak.’ (p109)

Throughout, there’s the shadow of Hannah and her brutal death, hovering, and as Frank’s investigation brings him close to a solution, the foreboding becomes fact: ‘Frank turned and looked at the room, and as he did so, a chill swept over him, haunting and inexplicable, a sense that the world had suddenly shifted in its flight, edged itself a little deeper into the engulfing darkness.’ (p245)


Editorial comment.
(Minor points, but perhaps instructive when writing).

Like a number of US crime authors, Cook displays a tendency (here, at least) to overdo dialogue attribution, particularly when there are only two individuals in a scene, for example:
            ‘Early in the morning,’ Imalia said. ‘That’s all I can tell you.’
            ‘And you said she was an employee of yours,’ Frank said.
            ‘What do you do?’ Frank asked.
            Imalia smiled quietly. ‘You don’t know?’
            Frank shook his head. (p17)
It’s not a simple call, of course. Injecting a name from time to time is necessary to keep the reader on track, though the dialogue itself is usually sufficient to indicate who is speaking. Naturally, he sensibly avoids the plethora of alternatives to ‘he said, she said’.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to find names that don’t begin with the same letter (to avoid reader confusion): yet here we have Imalia Covallo, Frank Clemons, and desk sergeant Calvino. Then the two main male protagonists are Frank and Farouk.

Not a particularly good cover, Berkley Books: you can barely see the 'severed' hand dark grey on black, and the title is broken up by that same hand.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Writing, writing... as you do

Sorry I have been absent from posting new blogs here, but I'm active writing and doing other related 'stuff'.

I've finished a sci-fi novella involving time travel and Roman Britain in AD 192 and 193, the latter being the year of the five emperors, a fascinating (and blood-thirsty period). Then again, it seems that every period in Roman history was exceedingly sanguine!

Presently, I'm writing another time travel novella set in future London and 1897 Transylvania!

Then it's time to write a chapter in a shared 'universe', a western series called Wolf Creek.

Besides that, I'm attempting to design new covers for the Tana Standish psychic spy series, since the rights have now reverted to me for the first two missions, Prague and Tehran.  There are three which will be self-published: Mission: Prague, Mission: Tehran and Mission:Khyber. In addition, I shall be self-publishing two other books currently out-of-print, The Bread of Tears (formerly Pain Wears No Mask) and Death is Another Life. A time-travel sci-fi novel will follow in due course. All under the Nik Morton byline.  If Dennis Wheatley could publish horror, sci-fi, thriller, historical, ghost and adventure tales under one name, and get a massive following, maybe I can do the same and not worry about so-called branding (though I doubt I'll get the 'massive following'!). My belief is that readers are adult enough and intelligent enough to appreciate the genre of a story by its blurb. If a reader doesn't like sci-fi, no problem, but they might like my other genre fiction.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Book review - The Day Of Creation

For many years I’ve admired the science fiction works of J.G. Ballard, but I’d never got around to reading his non-sf novel The Day Of Creation (1987). I have now corrected that oversight.

The story is narrated by Dr Mallory, who is working for the WHO in an unnamed central African republic, near the River Kotto, yet on the edge of the encroaching Sahara. Inevitably, political and native unrest has overtaken him and the villagers in the guise of General Harare and his guerrillas. Mallory is about to be executed when the arrival of Captain Kagwa and his government troops rout the terrorists.

Shortly afterwards, as a landing strip is being bulldozed by Kagwa’s men, a huge tree is uprooted and water gushes out from the new hole. It doesn’t stop, but steadily floods the area, moving over the land. The blessing of this fresh water’s arrival affects Mallory strangely; he christens the new river with his name. Together with a twelve-year-old girl guerrilla he calls Noon, he escapes from Kagwa and commandeers a boat to head up the new river to find its source. Before long, he is also accompanied by a myopic filmmaker and his assistant.

We’re soon in the territory of an unreliable narrator. Perhaps the first clue is naming the ‘river’ after himself.  ‘The River Mallory. I felt a curious pride. Yet knowing that it  bore my name made me all the more determined to destroy it.’ (p71)  He attempted to defeat the river at the place of its ‘mouth’ but failed, so realised he must find its source in the mountains. Yet, ambivalently, ‘I was eager to see how it would grow and change.’ (p99)

Over time, the river becomes polluted with the rubbish from civilization – fridges, bottles, condoms, and the usual detritus found in a Ballard disaster novel: ‘the aerosol can and the hair-dryer, lying in the sand like objects displayed in a museum of consumer archaeology’ (p220). Is the River Mallory a metaphor for something? Maybe: man creates, then spoils, sullies and ultimately destroys?

Ballard writes ‘literary’ novels – presumably books with profound psychological depth, a message and telling metaphors. Here, there are metaphors on virtually every page. A few are strained, such as ‘I stared at the sleek swollen surface of the river, like the fleshy body of a sleeping woman’ (p112), but the majority tend to work.

Here are a few of his many metaphors:

‘Fires burned fiercely across the surface of the lake, the convection currents sending up plumes of jewelled dust that ignited like the incandescent tails of immense white peacocks.’ (p20)

‘Angry voices crossed the airstrip, an altercation that moved like a skidding stylus from French to German to Sudanese.’ (p50)

‘… cadavers in the dissection room, laid out on the glass tables like the forgotten patrons of a Turkish bath who had waited too long for physicians…’ (p70)

‘The trees leaned over the water, their roots exposed like chandeliers…’ (p92)

‘The huge trees advanced towarfds the water like an army of knights…’ (p92)

‘Hours had slipped by in seconds, falling like dust through the open grilles of my mind.’ (p106)

‘Two metal aircraft hangars stood in the grass, their curved, pockmarked roofs like the hulls of collapsed Zeppelins.’ (p224)

It’s interesting that in one point Mallory refers to Noon as a teenager, yet she isn’t; she’s twelve, pre-pubescent. She is often naked, diving for fish to feed them on their journey up-river, and Mallory seems to lust after her, though whether anything happens in fact is debatable as he becomes disoriented by disease and malnutrition. Bordering on unsavoury territory, here, perhaps.

There are moments of humour, when Noon attempts to learn English by listening to cassette tapes, though these are all Marxist indoctrination lessons for Captain Kagwa! ‘Exploitation!’ becomes her word of warning of danger.

Ballard’s lush description of the jungle and the ‘dream river’, aided by rich metaphor create good visuals, though the characters seem less substantial than the environment, perhaps because they’re translated through the fragile sanity of the narrator. Imagery supplants plot; Ballard’s imagination is seen to be formidable through his revealing prose.