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Friday, 24 December 2010

A Christmas Story


She came out of the godforsaken planet's seasonal mists, struggling under her immense weight. She wasn't welcome. Abraham Hertzog didn't like company. That's why he had settled in this inhospitable place, a last fuelling stop at the rim of the galaxy: a bleak station, where sand and dust vied with alien plants, neither succeeding for long to cling onto the barren rocky landscape. Planetary storms were too frequent. Which reminded him: he was due to telecast Headquarters. It was a full 3 months since he last ordered victuals.

His metal shack abutted onto the side of a towering ultramarine cliff. The rock was heavily pitted, from recent meteor showers and severe gales: he used the nearest caves for storage. But now stocks were running low.

He squinted out the porthole, past the thousand-meter landing pad, the fuelling depot and its attendant robot-mechanics.

As the green six-legged creature stumbled onto the tarmac, a robot wheeled toward her and solicitously helped her to large ungainly feet. Even from this distance, Abraham could detect the gratefulness in her protruding eyes. They were so damned trusting!

Perhaps that was why he didn't want to see her?


Not a thousand kilometres to the west there had been a luxuriant mauve forest, sprouting from purple springy grass. Now there were just a few tree-stumps; the rest was overbuilt by settlers. When mankind seeded the stars, he also brought diseases, pollution, greed, prejudices and weapons... The aliens were decimated, the survivors now outcasts on their own planet.

The robot helped the creature to the door, which chimed.

‘Just a minute,’ Abraham called, ‘Oy veh!’

The airlock whispered and he stepped out of the air-conditioned atmosphere onto the metal veranda. The air was thick with dust, the ozone crackling. ‘What is it?’

But he needn't ask. The pregnant creature was exhausted, and near term.

Against his better judgement, he directed the robot to bring her round the back and made room in the half-empty storage cave.

‘Stay here with her,’ he instructed the robot, ‘while I get some halvah.’

Later, as he dialled Headquarters about those victuals, he looked out the rear port.

The creature had managed a guttural approximation of English: her name was Yram; she had voraciously devoured his offered confection and now lay contented, watched by a number of mechanic and haulage robots. His attention was suddenly drawn to the green bundle of limbs swathed in sacking as the telecast speaker announced: ‘Merry Christmas, Abe!’

And he looked up at a star, twinkling overhead, brighter than any he'd seen on his journeys through the Milky Way.

‘Yes, of course. It would be, wouldn't it?’ he mused and realised that perhaps this planet wasn't God-forsaken after all.

Happy Christmas to all readers of this blog.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Beating the snow and ice, my gratis 3 copies of the Linford Large Print book The $300 Man arrived today. I like the cover - it features a train, which is significant since the book begins with a train robbery. And the standing gunman could conceivably have a hook on his left hand, since it's hidden!

Interesting to see how Linford have managed to shorten the blurb; a good abridgement. The book, of course, is complete and unabridged.

The hardcover blurb:
What’s a life worth? $300, maybe. Half-Mexican Corbin Molina lost a hand during the Civil War but he has adapted. Now he’s on a mission to Walkerville. On the way, he prevents a train robbery and finds an old friend. Corbin always carries $300, which is significant, since that’s what he was a paid as substitute soldier for the Union.

When Corbin starts asking questions about Walkerville’s law and administration, he discovers that the Walker family, who seem to have bought and paid for loyalty and position, dominates the townspeople. Inevitably, Corbin’s questions attract plenty of trouble. And his past emerges to confront him during a tense showdown that threatens not only him but also his newfound love.

The Linford blurb:
What’s a life worth? $300, maybe. Corbin Molina lost a hand during the Civil War and always carries $300 – his pay as substitute Union soldier. He’s on a mission to Walkerville. When he arrives Corbin investigates their law and administration and finds that the Walker family dominates the townspeople and his questions bring trouble. His past emerges to confront him during a tense showdown that threatens not only him but also his newfound love.

Pleased to see that The $300 Man is 4th in the book depository Black Horse Western bestseller table, for December:

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Editor’s pet peeves-01: what’s empty?

From time to time, I’ll offer a few (possibly pedantic) comments on what tends to grate slightly when reading novels or works in progress.

‘Rossiter and Jacaud sat at a table… a bottle of cognac between them. Otherwise the place was empty, except for Mercier, who stood behind the bar counter polishing glasses.’ – A fine night for dying, Jack Higgins (1969).

Otherwise the place was empty, except for… Why not simply write: the only other person was Mercier…?

I’ve seen this example time and again, ‘empty, except for…’ The place wasn’t empty, since there were at least two other people in there. What constitutes full? When is it half-empty? This phrasing is often used by new writers who haven’t mastered critical self-edit yet.

I just happened to read this book yesterday so there’s no intention of slighting fellow Geordie-born Jack Higgins – a writer who has published over 60 novels and sold 250 million books and doubtless given pleasure to even more. Some years ago, a Sunday supplement journalist castigated him for unoriginality and regurgitating much of his material – whether gun lore, dialogue, events or even characters. Probably written by a disgruntled author who hadn’t achieved Higgins’s success. When you’ve written so many books, it’s quite possible some repetition creeps in. For example, Tarzan kept tripping over lost cities and civilizations in Africa, so that it seemed that the continent was overpopulated with them, but that didn’t detract from reader enjoyment.

It’s a strange coincidence but in the above book, Higgins writes: ‘Rossiter’s… hand dipped into his pocket and emerged clutching the Madonna. There was a sharp click and the blade jumped into view.’ And in Bad Company(2003), which is advertised at the rear of this book, there’s the passage: ‘(Marco) keeps an ivory Madonna in his pocket. When you press the button, the blade jumps out and shears right up under the chin.’ But, so what?

The majority of his early books are competent thrillers, though these days it’s unlikely they’d get published. And maybe that’s a fault of the present system; Higgins wrote 35 books before his breakthrough The Eagle Has Landed. Few, if any, publishers would now consider nurturing talent for that period of time. Yet he tells good fast-paced stories, is prolific – and popular. Go figure.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Go Green!

November 5, 1959. I was eleven and my mother said I could have some money to spend on fireworks for Bonfire Night. Mr Andrews, the newsagent, sold fireworks as well as periodicals, stationery and books. I gave it some thought and convinced her the money allocated would be better spent on a handful of comics. ‘All right, make your selection,’ she told me, and stipulated the amount I could spend.

I was spoilt for choice from the rack. I’d never read or bought any of the super-hero comics available, though I’d seen them in the rack. I’d encountered black and white reprints of Pecos Bill – one episode gave me nightmares, apparently; the monochrome Roy Rogers comic was a regular too, but hitherto I bought and read British comics – Eagle, Express, Lion, Hotspur, Tarzan adventures, Comet and so on. Full colour on every page was a new experience.

My handful consisted of Strange Adventures, Mystery in Space, My Greatest Adventure, World’s Finest, Brave and the Bold, Showcase and Our Army At War.

And that night I got to see rockets blazing in the sky from other people’s back gardens, too. Win-win.

So began a long – and doubtless costly – fascination with American comics. I had a number of favourites, inevitably. One of these was Green Lantern. The covers by Gil Kane were great. I was introduced to the silver age version, (not appreciating there’d been a golden age GL!), this one created by John Broome, in Showcase 22 – ‘Menace of the Runaway Missile’, Sep/Oct 1959. GL’s Showcase outing was obviously popular, because he subsequently featured in his own bi-monthly title. Odd, that #1 didn't have No.1 on the cover, though...

Over the years, I avidly collected as many titles from the DC universe as I could afford – and find. GL#5 proved elusive: I found one copy, but couldn’t buy it at the time as I needed that money for a Scouting event. Many years later, I read a reprint version.

In the 1970s, I sold quite a number of comics from my collection, including GL#1 for the sum of 8GBP, which was quite a lot then, since it cost me that to purchase a replacement car tyre after a puncture on the same day!

Now, at long last, the Emerald Gladiator is going to feature in a movie. The teasing trailer for next summer’s release suggests they might even do him justice.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Countdown to Centenary-01: Noble Savage

To see him today, it is difficult to credit that John Clayton was born in 1872. His entire life, from its bizarre beginning until this present time, has been filled with mystery, adventure, wonder and remarkable coincidence. His father was John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, who had recently married the Honourable Alice Rutherford. It was a brilliant match. In 1872 Clayton took his wife with him on a secret investigation of conditions in a British west coast African territory. They took passage in the barkentine Fuwalda and were never seen again.

The facts came out many years later. The crew of the Fuwalda mutinied and set ashore on a sandy African beach both John Clayton and his young pregnant wife. They were left with two crates of belongings, a rifle and some ammunition. Bravely facing up to the terrors of a strange primitive land, Clayton built a small hut among the trees and there they retired to relative safety, frightened by the jungle noises. Nearby, huge apes congregated, issuing terrible grunts and growls: these creatures had their own language and called themselves mangani; they were more hominid than gorilla, it seemed. Clayton wrote in his diary all his feelings, his fears and hopes. Alice gave birth to a boy, John.

It was shortly after John’s birth that a gorilla, Kerchak, attacked the couple and they barely escaped with their lives. However, a blow to the head permanently affected Alice’s view of her world: while she cared for her baby, she did not step outside the hut again, thinking herself in London. Some time later, she died while the infant slept. At about this time a female gorilla, Kala, had lost her own infant, falling to its death from the emerald canopy of the rainforest. Hearing the wailing sound of John Clayton mourning the death of his wife, the gorillas approached the hut. Kerchak barged in and killed the English Lord. But in that same instant Kala snatched up the baby from its makeshift crib, dropped her dead infant in John’s place, and rushed out with the infant John clutched to her breast.

Acting as baby John’s mother, Kala was very protective of him. The baby was called Whiteskin, Tarzan in the mangani language.

Little Tarzan survived by chance rather than his prowess, though his young mind quickly outstripped the mental capacity of his fellow apes. Being isolated from humankind, he was fortunate not to suffer any diseases. The Gabonese do not consider a man sick unless he has at least four diseases at once: malaria, filaria, intestinal worms and tuberculosis.

The next nineteen years of Tarzan’s life were to be spent largely in the interior of the closed-canopy rainforest. In his formative years he found the hut built by his father and puzzled over the children’s alphabet books, the mirrors and combs, the shoes. On seeing the depictions of men and women in the picture-books, he yearned to see others like him, for he knew that he did not resemble the rest of his tribe of apes. Eventually, he had his wish when Kulonga, a native, set out to hunt and slew Kala with an arrow. Tarzan learned all about grief then and later took the life of Kulonga with his father’s knife he borrowed from the hut: he learned about revenge, also. From that time on, he haunted Kulonga’s village, sometimes watching the tribesmen getting drunk, or fighting with other tribes, or maltreating their women or prisoners.

A child of nature, Tarzan discovered the world was not an Eden. It was harsh, filled with threat and danger from many sources. He quite understood the natural predators’ urge to seek food, but he could not fathom the sense of inflicting pain on an enemy simply because he was your enemy.

In 1891 a scientific expedition landed near to the Clayton hut. It comprised Professor Porter and his daughter Jane, her fiance William Clayton and a Frenchman, D’Arnot. Tarzan by now wore a breech-cloth to more resemble a MAN seen in his books. He rescued Jane from a gorilla and later saved D’Arnot from a savage tribe.

Having taught himself to write after a fashion in English, Tarzan learned to speak in French with D’Arnot’s aid. The party returned to America, with Tarzan. Here, D’Arnot sought help to identify Tarzan’s background and origins. When the news finally arrived that Tarzan was the inheritor of Greystoke, Tarzan kept the truth secret because he did not want to deprive Jane, William Clayton’s intended, of such wealth. His self-sacrifice for love of Jane meant he’d return to his beloved jungle.

Once back in the jungle, Tarzan became the chief of the warrior tribe of Waziri. With the Waziri he discovered the fabled lost city of Opar, whose vaults were filled with gold and jewels. In the meantime, Jane Porter’s fiancĂ© William died before they could be married and she was reunited with Tarzan. They were married. Tarzan finally came into his true inheritance as Lord Greystoke.

Many adventures befell the couple. They had a boy, Jack, who adopted the name Korak – mangani for ‘killer’ – when he took to the jungle. The Waziri lands became a protected reservation. Tarzan befriended a young lion, Jad-bal-ja, who became a staunch ally. And Tarzan adopted Nkima, a mischievous monkey.

During the Second World War Lord Greystoke enlisted in the RAF and was a successful pilot. He also served in Asia. On their travels, Tarzan and Jane discovered a supply of immortality pills, and this goes some way to explain why John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, Tarzan of the Apes, together with his wife and family, is still alive today, some 138 years after his birth.

It was decided by Lord Greystoke that if he was to preserve privacy for himself and his people – the Waziri, his family and the animals of his reservation – then he must cultivate a fictional persona. Also, he had no wish to be hounded for the secrets of immortality, or indeed the vast riches of Opar. To this end, he obtained the services of an impecunious writer, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who fictionalised certain sections of the Tarzan epic and juggled the chronology of events to cause confusion. The hollywoodization of the tale moved the true events even further from reality.

The above is a ‘brief biography’ of an icon. It’s based on the first two books, Tarzan of the Apes (1912) and The Return of Tarzan (1913) by Edgar Rice Burroughs, plus Tarzan Alive by Philip Jose Farmer (1972). Recommended reading.

2012 is the centenary of the publication of Tarzan of the Apes. It’s about time this great character was restored to his former glory, not as an adventurer in children’s fiction but as an exciting pulse-pounding adult hero.

Tarzan is the Trademark of Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010


Latest Black Horse Western available on 30 May 2011. Can be ordered now! Even if Amazon has my penname reversed as Morton Ross...

The blurb goes something like this:

Clint Brennan interrupts two men kidnapping his wife Belle and he’s shot and left for dead. When he recovers his senses, his wife has gone and he discovers he is blind. Most men would give up there and then, but not Clint. Astride his donkey, he sets out with his faithful dog Mutt on the trail of his wife’s abductors.

Belle believes her husband is dead. She’s rescued, but not by Clint. Her saviour is protective and takes her to his grand home in Wedlock where she meets the charming housekeeper, Mrs Kilbride. Maybe here, they say, she can forget her husband and start a new life…

On the trail, Clint is waylaid by robbers but soon learns to combat enemies at night, when darkness is his ally. Distracted and delayed, he’s still determined to locate his missing wife.

A tale of betrayal and lies, it will all end at Wedlock, amidst flames and bullets.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Phoenix Tree by Jon Cleary

This was published in 1984. Cleary was a successful Australian author, his most famous book being The Sundowners, which is excellent. According to the blurb, seven of his books have been filmed, no mean achievement. And his Peter’s Pence was awarded the Edgar Allen Poe prize for the best crime novel of 1974. Despite the crime novel award, he wasn’t pigeonholed as a genre writer: he was a novelist and could write about anything. Not so easy, these days – publishers look for ‘brands’…

In the closing days of the Second World War, two friends, Kenji Minato and Tom Okada – the blurb mistakenly calls him Akada! – are working for the US Navy and become undercover agents in Japan, intent on identifying the members of the secret Peace Faction. Tom’s contact is Natasha Cairns, the widow of an English agent and radio-operator. They fall in love, but are constantly at risk from exposure, the Allied bombing raids and the kampei, the Japanese military police. An added complication is the unexpected appearance of Natasha’s concubine mother, a marvelous creation.

The Phoenix Tree is mainly written in the omniscient POV, and suffers from that by frequently jumping from one character’s thoughts to another’s in the same scene. It’s doubtful if the novel would find a publisher these days, judging by the masses of advice out there concerning POV etc. Yet the scope of the novel demands this approach, because Cleary is not only writing about individuals, he’s conveying the massive and horrendous cataclysm of the two A-bombs, which, naturally, could not be related from a single character’s viewpoint.

Cleary depicts the subtleties of Japanese customs and sense of honor and has a good novelist’s turn of phrase: ‘The trees and shrubs were loaded with the slow green bullets of spring; but there was still the dead perfume of ash in the air.’ There’s also humor: ‘She was an ideal wife for a general; she would have driven a pacifist off to war.’

A love story and a page-turning novel about spies and the dying days of an empire.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The story of a story

Stories don’t occur in a vacuum. They may begin with an idea, then some gestation is often necessary for the back-brain to formulate a storyline and create suitable characters. I’m always telling new writers never to throw away work, it can always be rejuvenated; the idea may be sound, but maybe the execution or timing are wrong. My story published in BTAP, ‘Don’t Drink and Drive’ is a case in point.

Intent on extrapolating the drink driving laws of the time, I wrote the first draft in 1972, one of several science fiction stories I put into a collection that failed to find a publisher. Undaunted, I sent it out as an individual tale, and, due to its content, targeted Penthouse and Mayfair. It was rejected, the comments from Mayfair on January 22, 1973 stating, ‘I regret that it is not for me because it pretty nearly covers all the sub-conscious male fears there are.’ I was quite pleased with that, even if it was a rejection! I’d evoked a response from a reader…

I guess life got in the way, because the next target magazine was not approached until 1976. This went to Men Only and was accepted by letter of commission dated October 26, 1976 for the sum of 90GBP, which was a quite a bit of money in those days: ‘We do have a lot of fiction in stock at the moment, so I cannot give you any idea when the story will appear.’ By 1980 it still hadn’t appeared, along with another Men Only acceptance entitled ‘Legacy’, so they both ended up in some kind of limbo and never emerged and naturally I never got paid.

Inevitably, since that time, things have moved on. Originally, the radio announcement was about the ‘latest Concord disaster’ and the reigning monarch was Charles. Maybe I was a little impatient after four years of waiting: in 1980 I was aware of impending changes to the breathalyzer tests and pointed this out to Men Only’s editor, suggesting revisions before publication, but didn’t get a reply.

Considerable gestation time ensued for this story; that is, it gathered dust in a drawer: it wasn’t even on a computer disc, it was that old!

Finally, in 2008, at last having successfully had three novels published, I started putting together a collection of sci-fi/horror/ghost tales – many of them published – and revisited ‘Don’t Drink and Drive’. And the truth is that in UK it’s presently 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood; for a dystopian future, I guess it should be even lower than I suggest, maybe even 20mg – if allowed at all! I imagine zero tolerance isn’t too far off, in fact.

That’s roughly 30 years of gestation time. So I’m very pleased that David Cranmer liked it enough for his webzine. It was always a favorite of mine and now, after so long, it has found a readership.

So: never throw that story away. Never give up. And check your facts. Oh, and don’t drink and drive…