Stephen Volk – THE PARTS OF ME

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On the writing of THE PARTS WE PLAY, his new collection of short stories from PS Publishing

So this is a blog about a book I don’t want to tell you anything about.

Why? Because it’s a collection, and I like stories in a collection to just creep up on you, unspoilt, unannounced and unfettered by preparatory drivel.

The other thing is this. It’s not a “themed” collection. Not deliberately themed anyway. So what do I have to say?

Some authors plan a collection like a symphony, or a play in twelve acts, and their voice is more or less the same throughout. The stories might all occur in basically the same world, at the same time and place, more or less.  Stand out example being Joel Lane, whose THE ANNIVERSARY OF NEVER I just read, and it’s outstanding. Or Paul Meloy’s ISLINGTON CROCODILES – brilliant.

But I’m not that kind of writer.

I love to write short stories that are in and of themselves, told with a voice that’s appropriate to that story and no other.

That’s part of the joy of it to me. Finding the way to tell each one, because each one speaks differently. You can’t tell a nasty satire about office politics (‘The Arse-Licker’) the same way as you would a Professor Challenger pastiche (‘The Shug Monkey’). 

Sometimes the characters tell you how. Sometimes the setting does. And sometimes they don’t. In such cases that elusive missing jigsaw piece means the kernel, however good, sits in your IDEAS folder for months, sometimes years.

Case in point: ‘Wrong’ (a story reprinted in this volume, originally written for THE 2ND SPECTRAL BOOK OF HORROR STORIES, ed. Mark Morris) was a story idea I had ages ago, based on something someone told me, and I knew there was a germ there I wanted to explore.  Damned if I knew whose point of view to tell it from, though. Then, when I had the notion to combine it with my memories of being an art student, it all clicked and I was able to write it, almost effortlessly.

But, my main point is, I like the variety in a collection. I don’t want them joined together, self-referencing or inter-related.

I like to have a Victorian ripping yarn butting up against a vicious tale of the unexpected, or a character study about trauma, then the palate-cleanser of another traditional or period tale before a modern ghost story, or something eerily Aickmanesque.

They all came about in different ways, after all – usually from different impulses. Sometimes born out of requests from editors for anthologies, which is always a great catalyst – and sometimes that way you come up with ideas you didn’t even know you had (such as ‘Bless’).

Each story has a story, of course – how they came about, and in the book I’ve appended Story Notes, for those who might be interested in such things. (I won’t be offended if you’re not. Why should you be?)

Oh, and in his introduction the amazing Nathan Ballingrud has penned a humbling analysis of what I am trying to do with my fiction. I couldn’t have wished for a more cogent and generous appraisal. (In fact, it knocked my socks off.) Amongst other things, to my astonishment, he says: “Stephen Volk is one of my favourite writers of fiction today – horror or otherwise.”

Wow.

So now I’m going to butt out, probably having said too much already. 

I guess the stories convey and betray me in their different, insidious ways. Showing facets of myself inevitably, as all authors do via their work, whether they intend to or not.

So maybe THE PARTS WE PLAY is not only the sum of its parts, but the sum of different parts of me, as well.

I hope you enjoy it.

 

Watch Stephen’s book trailer for THE PARTS WE PLAY 

 

Gary Fry’s awesome review of Ramsey Campbell’s THE SEARCHING DEAD

3D-The-Searching-DeadOver 25 years ago Campbell wrote a book called MIDNIGHT SUN, which he now, with typical humility, describes as a “honourable failure”. Would that the rest of us could pen such failures! I know I’m not alone in considering that novel a very fine contribution to the field of cosmic horror, but perhaps we should be happy that the author is never satisfied with his stuff and always aims higher.

In interviews around that time, Campbell claims that “maybe in another 20 years” he’ll have “another go” at scaling the peaks ascended by Lovecraft and Blackwood. Well, he’s done so already in several works–THE DARKEST PART OF THE WOODS (2003) and ‘The Last Revelation of Gla’aki’ (2013), both considerable successes – but when I heard that he’d chosen to write a trilogy of novels focusing exclusively on a Mythos theme, I grew more than a little excited.

And so here we have the first entry in what promises to be Campbell’s most ambitious project yet. I understand that these three books will focus on different stages of its narrator’s life, documenting the decades in which Campbell himself has lived and worked. This opening piece is set in the 1950s, in the author’s native Liverpool, and anyone who’s read a little about Campbell’s youth will realise that quite a bit of this (with significant exceptions; for instance, the narrator’s parents appear rather less fractious than Campbell’s own were) is autobiographical.

Campbell’s post-WWII Liverpool is packed with evocative details, from bomb-damaged downtown property to cinemas in the city centre, from adverts saturating high streets to daily life at a Catholic school. Scenes in which the narrator’s juvenile self attends classes, hangs out with friends, and negotiates an ever-perplexing adult world possess an air of fond nostalgia, something which feels quite new in Campbell’s work. Indeed, the tone of this book put me firmly in mind of King’s IT and other works of that stripe.

But it’s not only the minutiae of ’50s English city life under scrutiny here; Campbell also explores social developments of the era, with much reference to international conflicts, gender politics, the resilience of religion under attack by new sciences, Trade Unions, and much more. This novel, fundamentally the intimate tale of a boy entangled in the activities of his decidedly sinister schoolteacher, has a broader dimension which hints at all the cosmic material which will surely be explored in later volumes.

Such rich, detailed world-building lends the book intricacy and completeness. The narrator’s early life is depicted with merciless attention to the circumstances which mark his development from reticent child to teenage artist. It is here that I believe that Campbell’s autobiographical material becomes more prevalent, with memorably vivid passages concerning how it feels to start out as a writer: the nervousness when revealing new work, the transformative impact of latest literary enthusiasms, even the way writing fiction helps one to understand one’s own life and can even lend one courage (like Burt Lancaster, the star of the piece can never die).

I feel that this is perhaps the book’s most significant theme: the role of fiction, particularly from the 1950s and the ubiquity of cinema, in shaping the way people in the modern age think about themselves and their actions. Campbell’s young characters are constantly borrowing phrases from the films, structuring their lived experience with mimicked behaviours.

Indeed, the more fiction the narrator writes, the more he comes to think of himself and his friends as characters in a story – and so they are. His tales of an intrepid gang become entwined with the narrator’s retrospective account of his youth, to such a degree that the older incarnation inevitably wonders how much he’s recalling in accurate detail and how much he might be elaborating according to fictional conventions and how they patch up incomplete memory.

This is a deep (and yet unobtrusive) strand of the novel, but let me not suggest that the book welshes on its horror material. Campbell’s tale of a young boy becoming involved with the dark shenanigans of a guru-like adult has more than a hint of King’s REVIVAL about it, but while King focuses intertextually more on Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN (despite his prefatory reference to ‘The Great God Pan’), Campbell’s novel feels more firmly rooted in the world of Machen’s seedy suburban adventure.

Something is amiss at an elderly friend’s house. When this lady suffers a breakdown as a consequence of some species of meddling by the insidious schoolmaster, the narrator’s boyhood self must figure out why and what caused it. This leads him into a sequence of events whose underlying pungency and escalating dread peak in images of hallucinogenic weirdness (a scene in a cinema’s bathroom is particularly fine) and a tantalising vision of imminent cosmic terror.

The narrator, looking back from a hitherto undisclosed future time period, repeatedly claims that the world is over now, but this first novel hints at only a third of the reason how. Its concluding scenes, one of them set under a creepy old church, provide both a fitting ending to this low-key exercise in mounting unease and a mouthwatering taste of what’s surely to come.

Well, that’s the traditional horror narrative, right there. But as I hope I’ve made clear, THE SEARCHING DEAD is about so much more than dark frights. Campbell’s parallel depiction of his narrator’s sensitive youth, particularly the social and existential forces which make him what he’ll become (a reflexive adult author), is tender, true and (in a great many places) painful. Indeed, prior to the unsettling finale, the narrator witnesses something equally disturbing in his personal life, and the way this prompts his literary aspirations, even reorients his religious affiliations, feels both right and real.

It’s a powerful ending to a novel which looks set to become one third of Campbell’s masterpiece: a novel about who he is as a man and what he’s always striven to achieve as an author. Bring on BORN TO THE DARK, I say. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I relished every page of THE SEARCHING DEAD.

Check out more reviews on his website: www.gary-fry.com

 

Our new cinema imprint ELECTRIC DREAMHOUSE with Neil Snowdon

 

 

IMAGINE IF YOU WILL that the BFI had a disreputable cousin, a Northern Grindhouse with tastes a little 2016090209065782_300_255_1_0darker and stranger. With staff who love their movies with a passion that borders on religious zeal, who know you by name and welcome you in as they throw the doors open at midnight. Whose programming runs the gamut of worldwide genre film making, praising the strange, the unusual, the weird and forgotten.

Sounds good?

Then step inside the ELECTRIC DREAMHOUSE! A new cinema imprint from PS Publishing and Editor Neil Snowdon . . . Settle down and get comfortable as we raise the curtain on our ‘MIDNIGHT MOVIE MONOGRAPHS’—an ongoing series dedicated to outstanding genre titles that just don’t get the attention elsewhere.

Written by genre authors, film makers and some of the finest critical voices on the scene, bringing a unique perspective to films they love, these are not dry academic texts. They are passionate, incisive, and inspiring explorations that go deep, from writers who know and love the genre inside out. Expert—indeed award winning—practitioners in their field.

Intelligent, accessible film writing is part of what keeps the subject fresh, vital, alive. In recent years it seems to have fallen through the cracks a bit. It’s still there, but you have to go looking. Academic Film Studies and the ‘Cultural Elite’ have built linguistic walls of arid language around our favourite films, while Mainstream Media speak mostly in sound-bites and exclamation marks.

Film is a universal language. A synthesis of all the great Arts, with the ability to speak across boundaries of class, race and age to move us, inspire us, illuminate our deepest fears.

Film is Art with a capital A, but none of the social and cultural snobbery that implies. Film writing should be the same. Passionate. Incisive. Intelligent. Accessible. These are our watch words.

 Roll film

THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973) Directed by Douglas Hickox 

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theatre-of-blood-endsheetIt is notoriously difficult to mix Comedy and Horror. Rare are the examples where one element does not overpower the other: BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, EVIL DEAD 2 . . . ATTACK THE BLOCK? 

But perhaps no film gets it so spectacularly right as THEATRE OF BLOOD. And perhaps no actor has ever embodied the twin masks of Comedy and Tragedy so perfectly as Vincent Price in what is, arguably, his finest role. A perfectly pitched, deliciously arch slice of Gothic Grand Guignol, with a supporting cast that reads like a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of British character actors, THEATRE OF BLOOD is “Sublime . . . a perfect marriage of genuinely gut-wrenching gore and moments of quite hysterical comedy.”—Reece Shearsmith

MARTIN (1977) Directed by George A. Romero 

martin-covermartin-endsheetIn 1968, George A. Romero changed the face of Horror cinema with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. But it would be a decade before he caught lightning in a bottle again. Romero spent those 10 years honing his craft on a series of documentaries and low budget features that would culminate in the global phenomenon of DAWN OF THE DEAD in 1978.

But MARTIN, made immediately beforehand, in 1977, is his unsung Masterpiece. 
Mature, controlled, and devastatingly effective, MARTIN is one of the most astonishing character studies ever committed to film. The tale of an alienated young man who may, or may not, be a vampire (a stunning performance by John Amplas); it is, by turns, disturbing, shocking, and heartbreaking. 
“One of the finest American films of the 1970’s.” —James Marriot.

Ever mischievous, Ramsey Campbell delights us with his LIMMER

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Ramsey Campbell (left) and PS Pete Crowther

Ever mischievous, Ramsey Campbell has delighted his fans—and certainly the team here at PS Towers—by regaling them with a staggering ability to limmer (or whatever the verb might be for producing small five-line rhymes designed to amuse and promote groans). Able to create these mini poem-ettes at the drop of a hat (or even a cleaver), it didn’t take much to persuade him to fill an entire book and, furthermore, for us to approach the equally prolific Pete Von Sholly to come up with some illustrations to boot.


 

Let me hope this collection of folly

Jenny and Ramsey Campbell
Jenny and Ramsey Campbell

Leaves the reader less saddened than jolly.

It might well be a mess

If it weren’t for PS

And the equally great Pete Von Sholly.

As you’ll very soon see when you look,

All the names of the tales have been took.

If not knowing the titles

Should nibble your vitals,

There’s a list at the end of the book.

(But see how many you can guess!)

– Ramsey Campbell


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Pete Von Sholly

It seems I must write a preamble,

And so to the challenge I scramble.

Herewith celebrating

The fun illustrating

This history of horrors by Campbell.

– Pete Von Sholly


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RAMSEY CAMPBELL’S LIMERICKS OF THE ALARMING AND PHANTASMAL ILLUSTRATED BY PETE VON SHOLLY.

Due to be published September 2016!

Keith Miller shares his vision of a fallen angel

 

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When literary and detective agent George Zacharias finds a fallen angel on a Cairo street, his first thought is profit. Zacharias and his sidekick, Tomo, hide the angel as they try to figure out who she is and where she came from. However, they soon find themselves pursued by sinister forces.

Terrified, the hapless detectives flee with their catch, first to the city’s seedy underbelly, then into the desert, where they take refuge in a hidden monastery. There is no escape from their pursuer, however, for he is Lucien Yaldabaoth, the prince of darkness. As Zacharias slowly pieces together the angel’s story and uncovers Yaldabaoth’s nefarious purposes, he realizes there is more at stake than he had imagined.

Read the first chapter on Keith’s website.


 

“Written in a terse, noir style, the evocative mix of the mundane and the fabulous has a dreamlike quality.”

Publisher’s Weekly

“Miller is a true sorcerer . . . This novel will hold you under a fantastic spell.”

Christopher Barzak

“A quirky, mysterious, lovely and slightly dark detective novel.”

Amazon Vine

 “A masterful fusion of literary modes and the mark of a great talent. Miller wields his pen like no one else.”

Simon Strantzas


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Keith Miller

In 1999, after three years in southern Sudan, my wife and I moved to Egypt. Soon after we arrived, I picked up E. M. Forster’s Alexandria: A History and a Guide, which has been called the best guidebook ever written. It deftly melds the mythology and history of the city with modern-day landmarks. In the opening pages, Forster gives a brief synopsis of the Gnostic cosmogony, discussing the demiurge and Sophia, the last of the fallen angels. Reading his overview, I had a vision of a fallen angel on a Cairo sidewalk, and knew I would write her story one day.

Seven years later, the notion of a literary and detective agent came to me, and dovetailed with the earlier vision of the fallen angel. In the meantime, I’d discovered the Nag Hammadi texts and had delved deeper into Gnosticism, and realized I could fruitfully bring that knowledge to bear on the tale of Sophia and my blundering detective, George Zacharias. The book was started in Beni Suef in Upper Egypt, completed in Madison, Wisconsin, and polished in Ventura, California.

One of the great pleasures I had while working on this book was the discovery of Gustav Davidson’s A Dictionary of Angels: Including the Fallen Angels, an immensely rich and comprehensively researched text. I knew little about angels and their hierarchies when I started out, and Davidson’s book provided the background I needed to create a solid structure. I’ll leave off with the following passage from Davidson’s alluring introduction:

“Without committing myself religiously I could conceive of the possibility of there being, in dimensions and worlds other than our own, powers and intelligences outside our present apprehension, and in this sense angels are not to be ruled out as a part of reality—always remembering that we create what we believe. Indeed, I am prepared to say that if enough of us believe in angels, then angels exist…”


 

Keith Miller
Keith Miller

Keith Miller was born in Tanzania, and has spent most of his life in East and North Africa. He is the author of two other novels, THE BOOK OF FLYING and THE BOOK ON FIRE , as well as a translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s THE ILLUMINATIONS.

He is married to writer Sofia Samatar. They have two children. Visit his website at millerworlds.com.

 

 

Steve Erikson gives some intriguing insight to his lovable sociopaths, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach

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THE FIENDS OF NIGHTMARIA #6
THE FIENDS OF NIGHTMARIA #6

The problem I always had with writing horror is that I could never take it seriously.  Sure, there are reasons to fear all kinds of things in this world, like baby carriages with spikes on their wheel hubs, and all manner of online political discourse besides.

And there’s always the dread of future terrors around the next corner, but when it comes down to it, the imminent risk of being trampled by shoppers buying ¾ inch wood screws at a weekend hardware blow-out sale just isn’t worth losing too much sleep over.  So, to that end, I do my best to mitigate the existential nightmare of a world that, let’s face it, beats fictional horror hands down.  Mitigate exactly how, you might ask?

Well now, glad you asked.  It’s a fine line between hysteria and despair and for the sake of this off-the-cuff thesis, let’s call that line ‘absurdity.’  It’s got one toe in reality and another in disbelief, and eight other toes dipped into other smellier stuff that maybe we’ll get to, but probably not.  The point is, when the choice is to laugh or cry, I’ll choose the laugh every time.

But then, what do I know?  There’s some serious topics out there, churning up all kinds of stuff, people taking offense on all sides.  It’s a veritable sea of wounded sensibilities in which we all seem to be perpetually drowning.  Every now and then, being a writer and all, I come up for the occasional gasp, and there’s no telling what comes out.  This is what makes being a writer just one mind-blowing extravaganza of ineluctable wonder and delight after another.  Of course, the question that haunts us the most when coming from inquisitive fans and whatnot, is also the question we take the most delight in answering: where do all those ideas come from?  Well, fine, at last, here’s the answer:

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The Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach.  Six are done and dusted.  Three more to go.  Usually, when I sit down to crank one of these out, I have no idea where it’s going to go, or who it’s going to involve beyond our noble necromancers and their well-adjusted man-servant, Emancipor Reese.  Word by word, line by line and page by page the world inhabits itself, the story stumbles into view, and away we go. 

But maybe that sounds easier than it is, and it might even be disingenuous.  So let me try again.  Before I begin writing I wind up this little dancing toy that marches in erratic circles through the pools of fresh chicken blood* on my desk, and from the foot-print patterns come inklings of a future plot, a nefarious unveiling of intent, a scatterling scribble delivered by the hunched and hooded spirits hiding in the gloom of the netherworld (with whom I converse daily).

So much for process.  Now we’ll talk about content.

Sociopathy gets such a bad rap.  You know, all those jaw-dropping revelations from dead-eyed bankers, the breathtaking audacity of lying politicians with all that blood on their hands, the appalling boldness of hedge investors and life insurance salesmen, chainsaw-wielding tree-pruners and soulless technocrats, guys in pick-ups trying to drive up your tailpipe, and all those people who don’t like Frank Sinatra.  In fact, it’s pretty much one long ongoing list of heartless, tasteless bastardity these days (a list to which I add whenever I can, in cursive style).

So it occurred to me (I’m retconning here, bear with me), all these sociopaths (the real ones here in the real world) need some proper heroes in fiction.  I mean, apart from all the comic book super-heroes, secret agents, cops and billionaire sociopaths already filling up our Entertainment Universe.  That’s right, proper sociopaths, brazenly blasé about their utter indifference to the feelings or fate of anyone else.  The kind of heroes who don’t give a fuck about shooting every single one of the ‘bad’ guy’s henchmen on minimum wage, or trashing an entire city, buildings toppling down everywhere crushing people into mangled pulp.  Oh, and lots of explosions making bystanders permanently deaf and suffering a lifetime of concussive symptoms from a traumatized brain.

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Proper heroes, then, for the proper sociopaths of our world.  You know, in the interest of originality, and finding the biggest audience possible which will earn me enough money to properly decorate my evil lair.

Bauchelain is terribly misunderstood, a fate common to sociopaths and, indeed, necromancers and demonologists the world over.  After all, if the goal of every man, woman and child, is the singular pursuit of personal happiness at the expense of everyone else, then conjuring into your camp a handful of demons seems reasonable to get a step up on the competition.  Or, as with Korbal Broach’s more traditional necromancy, the raising of dead people or at least their bodies which the departed souls don’t need anymore anyway (recycle, reuse, yet more virtues!), seems ultimately sensible.

If there’s any character in the mix with questionable outlook, surely it must be Emancipor Reese, our heroes’ man-servant.  Everyone knows that the imbibing of mind-altering concoctions is symptomatic of pathetic escapism (sort’ve like Star Wars, only less damaging in the long term).  But, as with any seminal work of fiction, one needs a character of dubious virtue upon which the audience can happily level their contempt.  I mean, weakness is a weakness, isn’t it?  And all us flawless folk find that distasteful, don’t we?  I know I do.

Available to order
 Available to order here

There, content covered.  Man, this essay writing stuff is easy.

Fiends of Nightmaria is the latest installment in the Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach.  It follows on from the universally popular Crack’d Pot Trail.  Among other things, it introduces the Party of Five, the finest adventure party the world of RPG’ing has ever seen.  I’m not sure how they stumbled into the story or how they ever got out of your basement, but there it is.

As someone once said somewhere, every great tale of fiction derives from a single, seemingly innocuous idea (‘There’s this big white whale, see?  And this one-legged captain, and and and and…’, but I shouldn’t be quoting Melville’s pitch to his publisher here, as when put down on paper it sounds a little breathless and kinda childish).

The modest idea that gave birth to Fiends of Nightmaria is, well, actually, I can’t remember, to be honest.  Proving just how innocuous it was.  No wait!  I remember now.  I was thinking about all those gaming sessions when one of the players equips him or herself with a ten-foot pole and fifty feet of rope.  Which they carry everywhere.  I remember thinking: what if I wrote a story about a ten-foot pole and fifty feet of rope?  Why, that’s genius! (I don’t have to be modest in my own head, you know.  You’re not.  I mean, who is and more to the point, what the hell’s wrong with them?)

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Hmm, I think I lost the ten-foot pole in the editing stage, just another tragic casualty on the cutting room floor.  But that fifty feet of rope, well, a star in the making!  I’m sure we’ll see it again.

I probably shouldn’t have exposed for all to see the track of my genius.  Now everybody will be doing the same and I’ll be smothered by all the copycats who, it turns out, can do it better than me anyway.  This is why honesty is evil.

And to finish with an aside that might spark your thinky meats, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach are probably the most honest characters I’ve ever written.

Oh shit, the toy’s wound down, the blood’s all coagulated and flies are gathering.  Time to cart out this corpse and send it down the Chute of Internet.

Cheers

SE

* no chickens were harmed in the writing of this essay.       

Ramsey Campbell’s forthcoming title – THE SEARCHING DEAD

Ramsey Campbell

For some years, I pestered my good friend (and PS Publishing mainstay) Ramsey Campbell to write a novella, knowing that it would be at least the equal of NEEDING GHOSTS, which he wrote a quarter century ago for Legend. The result (THE LAST REVELATION OF GLA’AKI) was even more wonderful than I had dared hope for. So I persuaded him to try his hand at a trilogy.

The manuscript hit my inbox just a year ago and we’ll be launching the finished book (along with other remarkable volumes) at the British Fantasy Convention next month in Scarborough. Here’s a sample:

“We were well used to digging up the countryside as soon as we stopped anywhere, and to start with that place looked like more of the same, just a field in the middle of nowhere much. There were a few bits of a big old building of some kind or other, but you could hardly tell which bits had been part of it and which were just lumps of rock. One of us thought it might have been a church, because he dug up something he said was a gargoyle, only it was a lot uglier than any gargoyle I’ve ever seen on any church. It didn’t have hands or a face, just a lot of stuff like grubs where they ought to have been. The lad who found it chucked it in the middle of the field and said he wished he could have buried it. And I’ll tell you now, I wished I’d dug somewhere else than I did. Because when I stuck my spade in I felt I’d woken something up. Something that wanted us dead, that was waiting for someone like us… Like the gargoyle, only bigger. Bigger than a man as well, but I somehow knew it used to be one. And I was right, it was coming to the surface underneath me, seeping up like the water in the trenches could under your feet. It got hold of my hands, and it felt like meat somebody had tried to keep cold but it had gone off, too soft is what I’m saying…”


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There are some things in life that are simply too good to miss. This is one of them—THE SEARCHING DEAD, Volume 1 of THE THREE BIRTHS OF DAOLOTH. I envy you for the journey you are about to take. Kind of!

Coming (crawling?) soon from PS.

Pete Crowther

Matthew Hughes discusses his new novel A WIZARD’S HENCHMAN

Matthew Hughes, the mastermind behind the Archonate universe, spills the beans about A Wizard’s Henchman. The universe of Archonate features in the majority of Matt’s fantasy fiction – an interstellar civilization whose
scientific foundations are about to be overturned by the dawn of an age of magic.

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For quite a few years now, I’ve been imagining a far-future civilization called the Ten Thousand Worlds, which occupies an arm of the galaxy known as The Spray. The time I’ve been writing about is just before the universe suddenly and arbitrarily shifts from a basis of rational cause-and-effect to a new regime based on magic. When that happens, technological civilization will collapse and the age of The Dying Earth will dawn, with its grim thaumaturges, haunted ruins, and louche decadence.

Whether they live on grand old, long-settled worlds or strange little planets in odd corners, virtually none of The Spray’s multitude of inhabitants knows that disaster impends. A handful do, and they are preparing for the great change.

Until now, I’ve written only about the handful and I’ve always taken the overarching story just to the point where the cataclysm is about to break upon the Ten Thousand Worlds. In A Wizard’s Henchman, for the first time, I go all the way.

So the story starts out as hardboiled space opera and transmutes into dark fantasy, from a universe of intelligent space ships to a realm of dragons and demons.

I’ll be interested to see how it’s received.                                   Matthew Hughes

Click here to read an excerpt of A Wizard’s Henchman, and be sure to check out Matt’s website! You can order an unsigned jacketed hardcover from our website, a signed numbered edition limited to 100 copies is also available.

 

FSCN0582Matt writes both fantasy and suspense fiction. To keep the two genres separate, he uses his full name, Matthew Hughes, for fantasy, and Matt Hughes for crime.

He’s won the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award, and has been shortlisted for the Aurora, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, Endeavour, A.E. Van Vogt, and Derringer Awards.

Even STRANGERER things from Matt ‘n’ Ross Duffer!

Got a call from Tim a week or so ago suggesting that I should check out STRANGER THINGS on NetFlix. Tim is rarely wrong, so Nicky and I watched the whole thing (eight episodes) over two evenings and I must say we thoroughly enjoyed it.

So I checked out the producers/writers/directors (a truly talented dynamic duo in the shape of twins Ross and Matt Duffer) and who’d have thought—while they were at film school they started out with an 18-minute adaptation of my story, ‘Eater’ which originally appeared in the rightly revered Cemetery Dance magazine (as well as being filmed on two other occasions).

Anyway, I recommend it to you without reservation and for those interested in seeing where the Duffer Brothers started out, click here to watch Eater.

 

Heading for the Long Grasses

Long, long ago in a world simpler by far—and before I became (relatively speaking) the seasoned giddy gadabout you see in Convention bookrooms and on panels etc—I began making occasional trips to London there to drool over the metal comicbook spinners in Dark They Were And Golden-Eyed (“a pound for just one comic? Geddouda heyar!”) and browse Forbidden Planet’s and Murder One’s stuffed-full shelves of imported American paperbacks. Oh, the pure joy!

ComicShops

It was here, particularly in FPthat I repeatedly discovered rare and unknown gems loosely collected within our own much-loved World of the Fantastical . . . brightly coloured paperbacks that promised fun, excitement and even the occasional scare. Lin Carter’s Adult Fantasy series for Ballantine and Del Rey (where I discovered Clark Ashton Smith had written far more than the half-dozen tales with which I was familiar), which included in their line-up the likes of Hope Mirlees’s LUD IN THE MIST, David Lindsay’s A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS, Hannes Bok, James Branch Cabell and many many more. They were truly magical times. On one such visit—on several, actually, but this one I just knew was extra special—a single cover leapt right out at me. I loved the picture, a young woman knelt on a grassy sward with a big tent in the distance and above which a flying man with angelic blond hair floated, his right arm extended silently asking her to visit. ‘It’s summer,’ the back cover proclaimed . . .

The circus is coming to town. And in the shadows of the gaily painted wagons lurks an ancient and evil creature whose inhuman lusts will shatter forever the peace of a small Kansas community.

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Sure, a neato neato cover if only for the brightness and colour if for nothing else. But here was the first time I discovered the power of The Blurb, those little sound-bites devised and constructed to make us throw caution (and penury) to the winds and slap our coins on the counter in smiley-faced abandon. “Here,” we trill, “I shall have this. Nay, storekeeper, I need this. The kids can starve, the bank can foreclose and we’ll forego petrol in the car but this. Simply. Can. Not. Be. Passed. By.” And here was just such an example of the veritas of that last little outburst (for which, alas, I make no apology). For not only did the back go on to announce from no less a luminary than Harlan Ellison How good is this book? It is breathtakingly good, but, courtesy of Gregory Benford, the front cheered volubly Not since Bradbury has a fantasy author so captured the dark heart of Midwestern America. Heh, that was it folks. I was stumped, Driven dumbstruck. Breathless.

That book was the late great Tom Reamy’s BLIND VOICES

Tom struck down by a heart attack in 1977, aged 42—I have shirts older than that (you’ve seen me wearing ‘em, right?)—with just this one superb novel and a blistering collection to his credit. For, yessir, BLIND VOICES really is superb. Sure, it has the almost indefinable poetically purple prose that we forever link with Ray B., but there’s a strange darkness to it that’ll haunt you right from the first sentence in the first paragraph on the first page.

And now we’ve got the book here at PS, with totally off-the-wall splendid artwork from the one-of-a-kind Chris Roberts. Folks, it just don’t get any better’n this one and we’ve got another one just as good to soak up those few coppers you threw back into your pants pocket amidst the trouser-lint—but we’ll get to that in just a moment. No, first things first.

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We may have more to tell you about regarding Tom but for now, read—or re-read—this celebration of words and language and the magic of friends and summertime. Go sit out in the garden with a nice cold beer and turn the page. Here now:

It was a time of pause, a time between planting and harvest when the air was heavy, humming with its own slow, warm music. Amber fields of ripe wheat, level as skating rinks, stretched to the flat horizon and waited for the combines that crawled like painted-metal insects from Texas to the Dakotas. Dusty roads lined with telephone poles made, with ruled precision, right-angle turns at section lines separating the wheat from green fields of young maize.


Farmers stood at the edges of the fields, broke off fat heads of wheat and rolled the kernels between their fingers, squinting at the flat blue sky. The farmers’ wives, finished with the dinner dishes, paused before going back into the hot kitchens to begin a long afternoon of cooking, doing it all again for supper. They sat on the front porches in the shade, trying to catch a nonexistent movement of air. They spread apart the collars of their dresses and fanned their necks with cardboard fans printed with a color picture of the bleeding heart of Jesus on one side and an advertisement for the Redwine Funeral Home on the other.


Then the farmers turned their attention from the sky to the road. Their wives stopped fanning and leaned forward in their chairs. Children paused in their chores and their play and shaded eyes with hands. They looked at each other and grinned, feeling excitement tightening in their chests like clock springs.


In that long-ago summer afternoon in southern Kansas, when the warm air lay like a weight, unmoving and stifling, six horse-drawn circus wagons moved ponderously on the dusty road.


A two-horse team pulled each wagon, their heads drooping slightly, their shod hoofs dragging a bit before lifting to take another plodding step. The six drivers dozed in the heavy dusty air, holding the reins lightly, letting the horses choose their own pace. The wagons creaked and groaned as they swayed; rattled and jolted when the wooden, iron-rimmed wheels bounced in chugholes.


The wagons were a little shabby, their once-bright paint doubly dimmed from sun and dust. The sides of the wagons promised miracles with gilt curlicues and wonders with gingerbread flourishes. Shaking and rattling and squeaking, the wagons were a gallery of marvels, a panorama of astonishments.


The drivers reined in the horses and the line of caravans creaked to a halt when they met the black Model-T Ford arriving in a billow of dust from the opposite direction. The car pulled off the road into the shallow ditch filled with the red, yellow, orange, brown, black, and purple of Indian paintbrush, black-eyed Susan, and Russian thistle.


The man who stepped from the car was nattily dressed in a dark gray pin-striped double-breasted suit and a pearl-gray fedora. Louis Ortiz was thirty-two, handsome in a swarthy way, carefully cultivating his more imagined than real resemblance to Rudolph Valentino. A smile hovered over his full lips, ready to alight, but his eyes were as cold as steel balls.


Louis looked into the glowing eyes painted on the lead wagon, and they looked back at him, fiercely, beneath a brow cleft almost in two by a widow’s peak spearing down from varnished black hair. The mouth was thin and stern and uncompromising. Louis shifted his eyes to the second wagon, to the portrait painted there; the portrait of a pale and beautiful young boy, a gilt corona painted around his white curls, his white-robed arms uplifted, his face beatific and rapturous.


The smile almost alighted on his lips.

He walked to the rear of the first wagon and propped his foot on the step, wiping the dust from his black patent leather shoe with a white handkerchief. The caravan door opened and a man stepped out. He was an older version of his portrait. His hair was not so sleek nor so black, his face not so smooth nor firm, but his lips were just as uncompromising. He wore a black satin robe and carpet slippers, like some Oriental alchemist. He waved his hand petulantly before his face to clear away the floating dust and looked inquiringly at Louis.


Louis flipped the dust from his handkerchief and folded it into his breast pocket. “We’re all set,” he said with no trace of the Latin accent his appearance would suggest. “The posters are up with the merchants. I rented the vacant lot and got a permit from the sheriff.”


He looked up at the older man, squinting in the sun, and the smile settled softly. “There’s only one thing that might be a problem.”


The other man raised an eyebrow.


“The movie house,” Louis continued, “will be showing their first talking picture tonight. It’s the main topic of conversation in town.”


The older man grimaced. “There’s always one petty annoyance after another. It would be very pleasant if this movie palace were to burn to the ground.”


“It needn’t be that drastic.”


“Perhaps you’re right,” he sighed. “The unpleasant bumpkins might blame us. This trip has been extremely wearisome. We should head back east where the towns are closer together.”


Louis’s mouth twitched slightly and the other man frowned. “I’m sure you will think of something, Louis. You’re a very clever man.“


Louis grinned and made a slight bow with his head.


“How much further to this prairie metropolis?”


“Hawley,” Louis answered. “About ten miles. There’s a little place two miles ahead called Miller’s Corners. You can rest and water the horses there. Hawley’s eight miles beyond that.”


The man shrugged with massive indifference. Louis returned to the car, still smiling slightly. The man stood in the doorway of the caravan watching the car turn around to chug and rattle back the way it came. He grimaced at the fresh cloud of dust and went back inside, closing the door. The wagons began to move.

He opened a door in the partition dividing the wagon in half and stopped, leaning against the door frame. He looked for a moment at the pale, naked boy lying on the bunk, and then sat on the edge beside him. The boy looked much like his portrait, though he was older and perspiration wet his strained face. His white curls were matted and the pillow under them was damp. His eyes moved nervously behind his closed lids.


The man put his hand on the boy’s stomach and leaned over him. “Angel,” he said softly. “My own beautiful angel.” His hand moved up the boy’s body until it lay lightly on his cheek. “Shall we begin again? There is still so much to do.”


The boy’s ruby eyes opened, but they did not focus.

Now come on now—you gotta buy it, right?

Just like I had to, all those years—almost forty of ’em—ago, when I had a lighter spring in my step: you, too, looks to me like. And that wasn’t the only time I done got snared. This next time I want to talk about wasn’t so much both blurb and cover art (the latter of which I like to think figures high on the agenda here at PS Towers—and it’s all down to Nicky who works feverishly in that area) as pretty much just blurb by its-own-self.

This book appeared in 1984 as a hardcover (which I missed), and then as a paperback the following year from the old and much-loved Pan Books, home for Herbert Van Thal’s PAN BOOK OF HORROR SERIES and the marvellous GHOST BOOKs edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith. So it was the paperback I saw.

ceremonies ted klein uk paperback

It was a rather curious affair insomuch as the blurb I referred to occupied almost two thirds of the front cover. And the rest of that cover merely pictured a girl with her eyes closed in a prayer of some kind, her face painted and her hair on fire.

On the back of the book was a fulsome breakdown of the actual story (kicked off with: The tree was dead. But crouched amid its branches something lived; something old far [sic] than humankind. Something that breathed, schemed, felt itself dying and, dying, lived on. It was outside nature, and alone. Its time would come . . .), rounded off with a nice quote from Publishers Weekly who had this to say: Impossible to put down. Klein has put himself in the first rank of fantasy-horror writers.

Absolutely true, in every regard.

But the clincher was a lyrical waxing from Stephen King that reads thus: Wonderful, exciting and suspenseful, full of tension and a sense of deep brooding mystery . . . the most exciting novel in my field to come along since Straub’s GHOST STORY.

And you know what, he may even have undersold it.

And in this instance, not only did Steve secure a sale of the book for Ted—royalties are royalties, folks, so scoff ye not (look after the pennies and the pounds—or dollars look after themselves)—but he secured that sale despite what can only be considered pedestrian and lackluster art. So I bought it and, that night, I started reading.

The forest was ablaze. From horizon to horizon stretched a wall of smoke and flame, staining the night sky red and blotting out the stars. Vegetation shriveled and was instantly consumed; great trees toppled shrieking toward the earth, dying gods before an angry gale, and the sound of their destruction was like the roaring of a thousand winds.

For seven days the fire raged, unimpeded and unquenchable. No one was there to stop it; no one had seen it start, save the scattered tribes of Mengos and Unamis who had fled in terror from their homes. Among them there were some who said that, on the evening of the blaze, they’d seen a star fall from the sky and crash amid the woods. Others claimed that lightning was the cause, or a queer red liquid bubbling from the ground.

Perhaps none of them were right.

Let it, therefore, rest at this: the events recorded here began as one day they would end—

In mystery.

And, sure enough, they do.

I’m not going to extract any more from the novel’s 500-plus pages but here’s Ted’s up-to-the-minute Foreword specially written for this edition.

It has often been said . . .

But why am I resorting, in the very first line, to a voice so vague and passive? Because the observation that follows seems to have been credited, if the web is any guide, to nearly a dozen distinguished names, from Da Vinci to Auden.

Well, then, to repeat: It has often been said that a work of art is never finished, merely abandoned. And while I’m not sure I’d proclaim this book a work of art, it was most definitely abandoned—in fact, a little sooner than I’d have liked. I was late—characteristically late, some might say—in delivering the manuscript; and weeks or months after that, I missed the publisher’s deadline for turning in the proofs. I remember literally scribbling last-minute changes to the final pages as I rode the elevator up to the Viking offices. (Still, when I recall that I was also editing Twilight Zone magazine at the time, I’m a bit amazed I ever managed to complete the book at all.)

On top of other problems, likely as a result of the delays I caused, the hardcover edition was never properly proofread. So in sending the book out into the world a second time, after more than 30 years, I’ve tried to correct what strikes me now as some clumsy writing here and there, as well as a few mistakes and inconsistencies. Though I doubt anyone but me would notice the changes, I’m a lot happier with the present version.

One thing I haven’t attempted to do, however, is to update it. The Ceremonies was first published in 1984, but the story it grew from was written at the start of the ’70s. The book is set, therefore, in a pre-cell-phone, pre-Internet world, and the places it describes are considerably different today, if certainly no better. Attitudes have changed about what’s dangerous (cigarettes, suntans); so have salaries, food prices, and rent. You might even say that the past is a foreign country . . . although I believe that, too, has been said before. Imagine, no laptops! No e-books! I invite you to return to that strange, vanished world.

I’ve bought many books on Steve King’s recommendation, his voice whispering determinedly in my ear as I stand in the bookstore thinking should I or shouldn’t I? And, inevitably, he whispers give it a try, Pete. Don’t be scared. Just give it a try. And I think, with surely no more than one or maybe two occasions—though I couldn’t actually name them (and wouldn’t even if I could)—I have not regretted them. Indeed, more—much more—to the point, I’ve purchased many books that it’s fair to say I would not have purchased otherwise.

THE CEREMONIES is a gloriously intense book, and reading it is akin to breathlessly searching for some sign of something familiar—something not hostile. Well, you’re not going to find it so you just might as well get started. It’s getting dark out there and you got a long way to go before morning.

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