Archive for May, 2010

New project, financial services and strange buildings

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on May 28, 2010 by Esther Sherman

Now that ‘The Sea Cure’ has been sent out to dance, I am moving on, to distract myself from wondering if my poor zombie hooker will manage to pick someone (something?) up.

I started a new short story today, provisionally titled ‘The Under Writing’, just over 1000 words so far, skeleton done, which is the hardest part for me and is the reason why I haven’t written very many stories so far. I like to have the whole thing mapped out before I start it properly, as I’ve got a very short attention span when writing, and like to be able to skip to a more interesting bit when I get bored.  Writing stories longhand when I was a teenager was always a chore, as I’d start, get bored, leave a few blank pages, then start a more exciting bit, then go back later and try to join them up, which resulted in annoyingly uneven plots. I’m far too lazy to rewrite longhand as copying out huge chunks is frustrating.  If it wasn’t for computers, I’d never get anything finished.

Despite the title, it’s not about my job. Really.

An ex-colleague of mine once helped to clear out some old offices at the company we both worked at, and found loads of ancient personnel files from the 70s. These included old passport photos, and these were so interesting that he decided to keep them and stuck them on a board.  He showed these to me and they were fascinating – not just for the typically hilarious 70s hairstyles, glasses frames and shirt collars but because every single one of them looked like either a serial killer, child molester or cult member.  They were actually travelling salesmen (there was one woman, and she looked like Rose West) of financial products, mainly mortgages and endowments, so not far off.  This, combined with the enormous tomes of old rules and guidelines for legacy products opened up decades before, got me thinking about how any really old company, even one with a fresh modern name and rebrand can have archaic mechanics working behind the scenes and skeletons in its closets.  When a current colleague asked me if we could ‘make a customer iller’ as we were trying to win the business, that was the final piece of the puzzle.

My answer, by the way, was ‘If you like, we could send him an envelope of anthrax, but I don’t think it would be legal.’

Lawyers get a bad rap (remember Wolfram & Hart and The Devil’s Advocate), but financial services?  I remember one tv advert for an insurance company where they’d made the interesting choice of portraying a patient having blood drawn, then the syringe morphed into a pen, which a person then used to sign their name.  I wonder if I was the only one who thought that this wasn’t perhaps the best idea to plant in customers’ heads.

At my current company, we have a series of recent print ads hanging in our offices in which several pensioners threaten violence towards their IFAs unless our company is considered for a quote.

Brighton’s Unusual Buildings

© Copyright Simon Carey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Because I need to stop talking about financial services, before I spoil my story completely, this is a picture of a derelict building near to my house.  I don’t know what it was before it was vacated (before I moved to Brighton so at least ten years ago), and the pictures you can see on the windows are really quite creepy.  There were travellers staying on the surrounding wastegrounds, but they were evicted a couple of years ago and a big fence erected, and workmen started clearing the building.  After a while though, the workmen disappeared, and caravans arrived again, though the big fence is still there and the gate looks like it is securely locked, so it’s a mystery how the travellers got them in.

If anyone knows about unusual buildings in Brighton, I’d be interested to find out about 18 Marlborough Street. You can find it on google streetview at postcode BN1 3EE.  It has four tinted, stained glass windows with card suits on them, two stained glass doors onto a central balcony with a cocktail glass on one and a pentagram on the other and ornate embossed wooden main and garage doors.  From google earth it looks like it has a glass roof over the centre of the building.  I’d like to think it’s the headquarters of some cult or a location for filming satanic porn films.  Maybe Caroline Lucas MP would know, apparently she lives in the same street.


Stories Which Scare Me

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2010 by Esther Sherman

‘The Sea Cure’ is pretty much finished, though I’m waiting for some more feedback before I send it off anywhere.

Stories Which Scare Me: Part One

I thought it might be an interesting exercise to look back over stories which have scared me throughout my life, and have a think about why.  I’ll try to keep these free of major spoilers, though where pivotal plot points were the main scare, these may be unavoidable.

So, my first story is ‘Nule’, by Jan Mark, which I read in the puffin books collection ‘Nothing to Be Afraid Of’.

The story is a very short, simple one, concerning a family who move into an old house, which among several antique features, has a newel post at the bottom of the stairs – a tall ornate post which supports the banisters, with a large ball on top.  Libby, the daughter, puts a medieval hat on the post and jokes that it’s a person, like a ‘Lady Nule Post’.  Somehow, it amasses other accoutrements, such as a dress and shoes, and members of the family start mistaking it for a real person in the dark of the hallway. Martin, the younger son, finds it disturbing, and then one night he wakes to hear creaks on the stairs and gets up to find out what’s going on…

Not much really happens in the story, there’s no gore or confrontation, but the suggestion of what is happening at night, of an inanimate object given life by imaginings – of that horrible, round smooth face! – gave me terrible nightmares.  As a short-sighted child for whom the world was a bit of a blur, I was always seeing something scary in ordinary things – a dressing-gown on the back of the door as a vampire, etc – and the idea that they could come to life and come after you was terrifying.  There is one illustration – of Nule herself, and it’s very creepy, reminiscent of the faceless man in Sapphire & Steel.

It also harks back to E. Nesbit’s ‘Man-size in Marble’, a classic chiller which I was recently pleased to see referenced in the programme for Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s ‘Ghost Stories’, which you can read here.

I hadn’t read ‘Nule’ since I was a child, so managed to work out what it was called, and got a copy of the book for £2.75 from amazon, and it’s just as creepy.  The other stories are also very good, but none of them stuck in my mind quite like ‘Nule’.

Finishing line

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on May 18, 2010 by Esther Sherman

First draft of ‘The Sea Cure’ is now finished, at just under 5,000 words. I am fairly satisfied with it, but it definitely needs some re-writing in places before it can be submitted anywhere. I am wondering whether to submit it for the British Fantasy Society short story competition, which closes at the end of the month, which would mean waiting until September and the BFS FantasyCon (which I am planning to attend) to find out the winners.  Alternatively, I could submit it to Black Static, PostScripts and other publications to see if they are interested.  As this is my first proper short story, I’m weighing up which would be preferable, if it’s good enough. Suggestions would be most welcome, as would volunteer readers.

Finishing it means that I am now free to read horror again, as I wanted to stay away from anything which might influence me.  I have my eye on two Ellen Datlow anthologies in my bookcase, Lovecraft Unbound and volume 1 (last year’s) of Best Horror of the Year.  I recently read and enjoyed volume 2 of Best Horror of the Year (which I will review at a later date), and I liked many of Datlow’s previous anthologies. I think she’s a wonderful editor with a knack for finding original and thought-provoking stories.

Once my editing is complete, I will return to a previous story-in-progress, unless a new idea appeals more.

Quiet as a Nun, Gantz and a nice cup of tea

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2010 by Esther Sherman

My writing has progressed steadily, and I’ve managed another 1400 words on my story since Sunday, which isn’t too bad, since I’ve been at work every day and was at the gym until 9 last night. More flesh goes on its bones every day, and soon I will be able to pretty it up and send it out to work, like an undead hooker.

I’d been thinking about buying a new teapot, as the only one I’ve got is a tiny leopard-print 2-cup one, which, while cute, hardly seems worth filling.  I considered buying a red Le Creuset 6-cup pot, but yesterday I was in one of Reigate’s finest charity shops – they really are good, it must be something about being slap bang in the centre of Tory country (their MP is Crispin Blunt, which just sounds like a joke name to me), Middle England gives away a lot of good stuff – and spotted a very pretty tea-set, including teapot, cups and saucers, cake plate, sugar bowl and milk jug, for only £12.  Much cheaper than Le Creuset!  So I went back today and snapped it up. On doing a little research on the internet into the manufacturer and the pattern (it’s Adderley Royal China Cornflower) it turns out the teapot alone is going for over £100, so I’ve done rather well. It makes a lovely cup of tea as well, though I have to make sure Malcolm doesn’t knock it off the coffee-table when making his grand entrance every evening. The silly cat thinks that leaping onto the table and skidding along the length of it until he comes to a stop is the best way of getting attention.  Unfortunately, it works, and so he does it several times a night.

So let’s hope this beauty doesn’t end up in pieces.

Manga for today: Gantz

I’m trying to stay away from reading any horror at the moment, until my story’s finished, so I’ve taken the opportunity to catch up on the last few volumes of Gantz and 20th Century Boys (more on the latter title later in the week).

I still can’t make up my mind about Gantz, which follows the exploits of an infantile, breast-obsessed teenager, who gets hit by a train and finds himself in a mysterious room, from which he and other dead people are sent out, equipped with hi-tech suits and weapons, to battle a series of increasingly surreal and devastating aliens. On one hand, the main character is a stupid sex-mad emo and all the female characters are a parade of walking mammary glands, but the creation of Gantz itself (a giant black sphere which issues the weapons and alien targets and scores them sarcastically in leet-speak after each mission), the peculiar assortment of aliens (see the ‘onion alien’ above) and strange in-jokes (Sadako herself shows up in the room as one of the ‘dead’ people and fights alongside them), and the tongue-in-cheek author’s notes from Hiroya Oku which conclude some volumes (for example, focusing on his invention of realistic motion effects for giant breasts in manga) compel me to keep reading.

The anime adaptation, which I haven’t seen yet, started early in the manga’s run and so the plot diverged considerably, apparently to its detriment, and a live-action version will be coming out soon. Here’s the teaser trailer, which I think looks a bit rubbish, personally:

Let’s hope they add a lot of CGI aliens, pneumatic breasts and ultraviolence.  Because without all those things, frankly, it won’t be a patch on the manga.  Oh, and if you fancy reading it after this rather confused review, we’re including all volumes so far in our big book giveaway, no payment needed, just give us a shout with your address.

Armchair Thriller: Quiet as a Nun

This week we watched another of these serial chillers from the 70s, this one a six-part adaptation of a novel by Antonia Fraser. While it had the scariest moments of the Armchair Thrillers we’ve seen so far, the rest did not live up to it.  TV presenter Jemima Shore visits the convent school she attended as a child, to investigate the recent death by hysterical starvation of an old friend who had become a nun there.  This is complicated by a missing will (standard thriller trope), appearances of the malevolent Black Nun (with huge debts to The Woman in Black) and a charismatic but sinister lefty activist type (late 70s scaremongering about wealth-distribution).  Throw in the fact that her boyfriend is a pompous married MP, all the nuns seem at least a little deranged and there are some precocious stage-school kids from central casting (including a chubby little Patsy Kensit) as the pupils (cue unnecessary scenes discussing the ‘scrumminess’ of the convent food) and it sounds like fun.  Unfortunately it’s a bit stretched for 6 episodes, and the end is disappointing… But here’s the best bit:

As they say on Crimewatch, don’t have nightmares…

Casual anti-genre bias – a bit of a rant

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on May 9, 2010 by Esther Sherman

Progress on my Istanbul-set short story has been held up somewhat, what with all the hoo-hah about the general election, Brighton Fringe events and a birthday party.  I managed to get another 500 words out on Thursday, but have switched to working on a rather shorter idea I’ve had floating around for a while, a change being as good as a rest, and have managed about 1100 on that so far.  Shouldn’t take me more than a few days to finish, and it’s a fun one to write.

Have been playing Nier for a few days, which has turned out to be a very enjoyable RPG.  After Final Fantasy XIII it’s nice to be back in a more traditional game, with towns, quests and people to talk to. The characters are interesting twists on the archetype, with a foul-mouthed buxom psychopath and a sarcastic talking book as your main companions.  The scriptwriters have done very well, poking fun at many of the RPG cliches and including injokes aplenty.  Reminiscent of Zelda at times in its gameplay, the graphics aren’t the best the next-gen consoles have to offer, but the soundtrack is brilliant.

I promised a rant in my last post, so here goes…

Back at the beginning of April, I read an article in the Review section of the Weekend Guardian, which talked about after-school creative writing workshops and the author’s recent experiences helping to run these. It infuriated me.

The article is here

While I was pleased that people are bothering to hold these workshops (and it is a charity), as anything that encourages children and teenagers to write and use their imagination is a good thing, I was upset by the casual anti-genre bias demonstrated by Tim Pears both in the article and as described in the classes.

An excerpt: ‘At first, it seeemed, all the pupils wanted to write sci-fi thrillers, historical fantasy, ghostly tales. Some did so expertly. As time passed, however, more and more of them gained the confidence to describe their world, short pieces like shafts of light illuminating hidden, deeply felt experience.’

I’m wondering what was wrong with the ‘expert writers’ of sci-fi thrillers, historical fantasy and ghostly tales in the first place.  Why should children not be encouraged to continue writing genre fiction if they have a talent and an enthusiasm for it? It would seem that this is casual championing of ‘literary’ fiction, where real experience and authenticity are valued above imagination.

Another excerpt: ‘Previous experience has shown us that workshops have been particularly effective, and the writing produced has been particularly moving, where they have helped students to “value” their memories and histories. This sentiment accorded with my own ideas about creative writing, and hopes for the group. In practice, however, it was not so easy. Engaging with and writing about their own lives and the world around them was, I suspect, somewhat counter-intuitive for teenagers, for many of whom home life and home town are dull, the very world to be escaped from as soon as possible.’

So escapism is to be denigrated as inferior to realism. They must ‘value’ their memories and experiences, even if these are of no interest to anyone else.  Oh great, they are going to churn out the next generation of misery memoirs, unpublished Mr Pooters and kitchen sink melodramas.  How is this helping them if they want to become successful writers? I understand that drawing on personal experience can help to draw believable characters, but belittling genre fiction to make this point should be unnecessary.  Also, if these teenagers are looking to fiction as a way to escape from their dull or unpleasant daily lives, why drag the dull and unpleasant into their means of escape so they can dwell on it further?

The article concludes by mentioning that the students created and published an anthology of their work at the end of the course.  I wonder how many genre pieces were allowed into this, or whether it was full of dull, worthy, ‘acceptable’ pieces as sanctioned by the aims of the class? I don’t wish to upset any of the students involved, but if I was in a class like this now, I would be asking some very tough questions of the organisers.  When at school, I was lucky enough to receive encouragement for my (almost all genre) short stories, and my teachers were kind enough to put up with my ridiculous fantasy epics, suggesting similar books I might like, some non-genre with similar themes, asking questions about my unbelievable characters and plot-holes and generally increasing my desire to continue writing, and reading. If I had been encouraged to write about real life, involving as it did my parents’ failing marriage and financial trouble, I might just have given up there and then.

Tim Pears began his article by discussing the ‘cultural divide’ between those who grow up with books in the house, and those without, and how these creative writing classes can diminish this divide by fostering creativity.  I think the main aim of the charity is laudable, but I fear that these classes, if run like the ones Mr Pears was involved in were, may hinder just as much as help.

It is well known that many teenagers stop reading, or read less when they reach adulthood, and I think that this may have something to do with accepted adult attitudes to genre fiction (as demonstrated in this article). Many fantastic YA books are genre, and as people get older, they may want to read more of the same.  But it’s generally seen as embarrassing and childish to still be reading horror, sci-fi or fantasy as an adult (unless it’s Harry Potter and then it’s seen as a news-worthy fad), and the books pushed on us instead are the Booker shortlist, which may well have literary plaudits, but are often just plain dull. And if books are dull, they get cast aside, and the reader is less likely to pick up another, especially if they aren’t a particularly fast reader. This attitude permeates the media. It peeves me that Horns by Joe Hill, who isn’t an unknown by any means, received a tiny, but glowing, review in the sidebar ‘genre’ column shared with two other books, whereas a pedestrian review of the latest literary darling’s book will routinely get half a page to itself.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many literary novels which I love, and I can appreciate that many people enjoy (if enjoy’s the right word) the short stories of Lorrie Moore, and the like, where a banal conversation between an unhappily married couple can speak volumes about human experience, but I don’t think it’s helpful to teenagers to push this as superior or more valid than the writing they enjoy. The mention that some of these teenagers were writing their genre fiction ‘expertly’ particularly worries me. If the world has been denied the next Iain M Banks, James Herbert or Tanith Lee because of the meddling elitism of a creative writing class then we as readers and fans are much worse off.

Glad I’ve got that out.

In a lighter vein, I was lucky enough to spot a beautiful framed print of a James Jean painting for sale in the Windmill pub for £80, so it had to be mine! In spite of having read many volumes of Fables I didn’t realise he was the same artist until I googled him later. I think you’ll agree it’s lovely, and they have several others available, so I recommend taking a look and snapping them up…

I don’t like lifts.

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on May 5, 2010 by Esther Sherman

Malcolm decided that 1300 words was enough writing for today and insisted on replacing my laptop, purring like a tractor. Yet again, there’s probably a bit too mach padding which will be dispensed of later, but the extra work will be worth it once I slim it down..

Recent viewing:

Armchair Thriller: The Girl Who Walked Quickly

Another four-part serial from the 80s, tackling the peculiar tale of a bright, neurotic university student (played by Denis Lawson) brainwashed by an unspecified ‘anti-government’ terrorist group into blowing up lifts in the London underground – by turning his phobia of lifts into a hatred and anger towards them.  He is befriended by a female terrorist who is annoyed that her superiors didn’t issue any warnings, and they go on the run, all the while chased by his girlfriend and tutor who want to help him, and also the police, for the obvious reason.  Unusual, tense and gripping, despite the dated setting and cheap production.

Now, Supernatural. I do love those Winchester boys and this Valentine’s Day episode is rumoured to be nasty!

Tomorrow will be a day for voting, attending a show at the Brighton Festival (And The Devil Will Drag You Under) and then hiding behind the couch with a bottle of wine as the results come in…

Later this week – my rant regarding a particularly annoying example of casual anti-genre bias from the Guardian Review from a few weeks back… I will get angry…

A story started, and various reviews

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2010 by Esther Sherman

I have made a start! 1200 words today, most of which will be culled at some point, but my bones are there. I could compare it to a literary equivalent of Kim’s Game, as my setting will be Istanbul, so I am having to dredge my memory for every sight, sound and smell I have kept stored for nearly 20 years.

Since Friday, I have consumed the following:

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

A charming little mystery, perhaps a trifle too arch.  Ten-year-old Flavia de Luce eperiments on her sisters and investigates strange occurrences in their village with the aid of her extensive chemistry set, one part Wednesday Addams and one part Harriet the Spy. A quick read, and enjoyable, but I don’t quite buy the 1950s setting and a few turns of phrase are either anachronistic or unEnglish (is that a word?). The author has also written a book irreverently suggesting that Sherlock Holmes was a woman, which could be worth a look, but also sounds like the kind of thing I’d be tempted to punt across the room.

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Really enjoyed this classic from 1952, a gripping portrait of a psychopathic deputy sheriff who has most of a small town fooled by his facade of dull homilies (like Ned Flanders, who is really the devil, of course).  The new film version should be out soon, although it’s already being slated for its brutal violence, which at least indicates it’s to some degree faithful to the book.  Sorry, Casey Affleck, but I couldn’t help picturing Gary Cole as I read this, he may be too old now, but he would have played this perfectly. Oh American Gothic, why were you cancelled?

Black Static 16

Hooray for full colour!  It only further enhances the quality of this literary horror periodical.  Four diverse, thought-provoking short stories (including Lynda Rucker’s haunting ‘The Moon Will Look Strange’), columns by authors including Christopher Fowler and Stephen Volk and an interview with Sarah Pinborough.  Not a page wasted.  I’m looking forward to the next issue which will include the winners of the Campaign for Real Fear.

Armchair Thriller: Rachel in Danger

TV serial from the 80s, which we picked up after seeing creepy clips from the story ‘Quiet as a Nun’.  This four-part story, however, concerns a little girl visiting her father, who she hasn’t seen for years, unaware of the fact that he’s been murdered and his identity assumed by an assassin plotting a hit on a politician. It could have been ruined if the child actor had been badly cast, but fortunately, she’s a strange and likeable girl.

Armchair Thriller: Dog’s Ransom

Peculiar six-part story, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, which at times plays like Life on Mars, complete with dodgy coppers spouting casual racism.  A young Cambridge-educated policeman decides to investigate a case of dognapping, against the derision of his colleagues, with unexpected consequences to his career and relationship.  Unpredictable and quite nasty in places, but worth a watch.

The House of the Devil

Retro babysitter horror film, scary and tense up to the last 20 minutes, when it all became a bit rushed and the plot started to fall apart.  I really liked the early-80s setting, the set and soundtrack were very well-chosen, it was nice to see Mary Woronov and Tom Noonan again and the heroine was likeable.  Shame about the ending, then.

Also, Iron Man 2 at the IMAX and much meat at Bodean’s BBQ in Soho, neither of which need a review apart from one word: awesome.