Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Ghosts on Film

As it’s that spooky time of year – the time when, weirdly, I’m at my most productive due to the naturally atmospheric environs in which I’m writing – I’ve taken to watching lots of horror movies. Now, I love horror films, but I also hate them. Why? Because they’re so often hackneyed, low-budget, jump-scare-laden bore-fests that every time I rent a new movie it feels a bit like Russian roulette. Or, worse, eating a bag of Revels.

So every time my dear lady wife gets annoyed that I’ve made her sit through yet another stinker, I instead turn to the classics – those scary movies that are proven winners. They’re not all oldies, but they all have common elements: they value atmosphere over CG high-jinks, and storytelling over gore.

As Hallowe’en fast approaches, I give you my top 5 spooky movies (with the emphasis on spooky, as opposed to horror). Do check them out – you won’t be disappointed.

The Woman in Black (1989)

“Oo, that one with Harry Potter in it?” I hear you cry. Nope (although I don’t actually mind that verison – see below). Written by Nigel Kneale, the talent behind Quatermass, this was ITV’s answer to the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, and what an answer it was. Dripping with atmosphere, this TV movie remains one of my favourite creepy tales on screen – I saw it as a nipper, and ‘That Scene’, which many people who watched it first time around remember all too well, gave me nightmares for some time to come.

Even though this is a fairly faithful adaptation of the book (which I love), rumour has it that Susan Hill wasn’t happy with some of the minor changes, and blocked its release on DVD in the UK. It’s now pretty hard to get hold of, although you can find it on YouTube of all places.

The Haunting (1963)

Dr. John Markway (the late, great Richard Johnson), an anthropologist with an interest in psychic phenomena, takes two specially selected women to Hill House, a reportedly haunted mansion. Eleanor (Julie Harris), a lonely, eccentric woman with a supernatural event in her past, and the bold Theodora (Claire Bloom), who has ESP, join John and the mansion’s heir, cynical Luke (Russ Tamblyn). They are immediately overwhelmed by strange sounds and events, and Eleanor comes to believe the house is alive and speaking directly to her.

This is another movie that spawned a terrible remake (starring Catherine Zeta Jones and Owen Wilson), but the original stands the test of time, in no part due to phenomenal cinematography and sturdy performances. You won’t find any ghost special effects here – but you’ll be spooked nonetheless.

Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)

In my view the best of the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas (just pipping The Signalman), and the quintessential M R James adaptation, ‘Whistle’ is carried by a bravura performance by Michael Hordern. He’s almost alone in the hour-long production, and hardly has any coherent lines, and yet he manages to convey perfectly the character of the bumbling old antiquarian on a busman’s holiday to the seaside, unleashing dark forces. His portrayal of a rational man forced to confront the supernatural is simply brilliant, and his decent into madness more terrifying than even the thing that follows him relentlessly across a deserted beach.

It Follows (2014)

Speaking of things following relentlessly, It Follows undoubtedly takes some cues from M R James, with shades of Oh, Whistle and perhaps the Haunting of Abbot Thomas in the evil antagonist. The idea of a personal haunting, in this case passed on through intercourse, hunting down the current bearer of the curse is an interesting one. The film does not shy away from presenting the whole gamut of moral dilemmas one might face in that situation, and once the curse is unleashed the onslaught is inexorable. This movie is not only genuinely frightening, but clever, too. It sets its own internal ‘rules’ for the entity at the heart of the action, and never once breaks those rules, which allows the protagonists to plan accordingly. A rare thing in horror movies.

Session 9 (2001)

“Hello… Gordon…”

Perhaps an odd one for the list, this film for me defies classification. Is it a psychological horror film? A ghost story? A mystery? I have no idea, but it’s almost impossible to watch without being forced into a perpetual state of tension. Seriously, it’s exhausting. And the plot isn’t really wrapped up either, so you carry that tension around for days, trying to work out what was going on, and feeling unnerved by it. Pretty successful, I’d say.

The movie was shot in the now-demolished Danvers StateAsylum, and follows the exploits of a work crew hired to strip all the asbestos out of the building. What can be creepier than a huge, deserted asylum? Nothing, that’s what.

Honourable Mentions

The following movies (and one three-part TV series, as it happens, but it’s brilliant so you’ll have to forgive me) almost made the list, and have made this year’s watch-list. If you like the ones above, you may well get a kick out of these, too.

Night of the Demon (1957): A brilliantly staged telling of the M R James classic ‘Casting the runes’, this is a slow, thoughtful tale of black magic and demonology. It hasn’t aged quite as well as the others presented above, hence it makes the footnotes.

Midwinter of the Spirit (2015): A three-part exorcism TV drama written by the modern master of the genre, Stephen Volk? Oh, go on then. Seriously, it’s a crime this was never commissioned for a second series.

The Borderlands (2013): Even though I hate found footage movies, I loved this. Ultra-low-budget, with elements of folk-horror, this film has one of the most mind-bending twists in recent memory.

The Canal (2015): This is an effective, low-budget British horror film. Ostensibly a psychological horror, there’s an element of the unreliable narrator here, a bit like Session 9, that keeps you guessing even after you think you’ve guessed it!

The Woman in Black (2012): Not a faithful retelling, and full of jump-scares ripped straight from J-Horror, this is nonetheless an incredibly atmospheric movie, thanks largely to its cinematography and soundtrack. The haunted house is brilliantly done; the protagonist less so.

The Conjuring 2 (2016): I had a bit of a soft spot for the first Conjuring movie, and I think this recent sequel actually tops it/ James Wan uses his now-familiar bag of tricks again here, but he seems to have mastered his art in this offering. If you can forgive the bending of history here (the real-life Enfield Haunting was never quite like this!), then you’re in for quite the ride, I should also mention here the recent Enfield Haunting TV series, which was also brilliant, but very much a different experience.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Alternate Realities Blog Tour

The Alternate Realities Blog Tour has come to an end, and so it's time for the customary roundup of all the posts on the tour, and where to find 'em!

The Perfect Scary Scene

Top Tips and When to Ignore Them

Making Vampires Scary

The Devil's In the [Period] Detail

Love Bites: My Favourite Vampire Stories

And finally:

As if that's not enough, don't forget that you can read an exclusive tie-in short story, The House of the Dead, over at the Barnes and Noble Sci-Fi Blog.

The Iscariot Sanction, book 2 in the Apollonian Casefiles, is available now from all good bookstores.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Publication Day: The Iscariot Sanction

Exciting news! The Iscariot Sanction is out today, in all good bookstores. A prequel to The Lazarus Gate, this book tells the story of the Othersiders, and how they became so delightfully wicked.

Amazon Link

Waterstones Link

Titan Publishing Link

If you buy it, read it, love it, please do pop over to Amazon or Goodreads and leave a review, however short. It really does make a difference.

And don't forget to check out the Alternate Realities Blog Tour!

And if that's not enough to whet your appetite, try a short extract. I spoil you guys, I really do...


‘Everything is ready as you requested, sir,’ said Mrs. Bailey. She sounded weary. She had been working all day to dress the drawing room for Sir Arthur Furnival’s latest soirée. Velvet drapes ran floor to ceiling, gathered double like something from the Lyceum stage, while long tables were adorned with black cloths and silver candlesticks were dotted about the room, supporting a hundred candles.
‘Splendid!’ Sir Arthur replied. ‘That will be all for now, Mrs. Bailey. My thanks again for working so hard at such short notice.’
The middle-aged woman made a small curtsey and left the room. Sir Arthur continued fiddling with his cravat, when finally he saw in the mirror his valet enter the room.
‘Ah, Jenkins, there you are. Be a good fellow and help with this cravat. It really is proving quite irksome today.’
Jenkins looked grave, and strode forward with a letter in his hand. ‘I’m terribly sorry, sir,’ he said, ‘but I think preparations might have to wait. This just came for you.’
Sir Arthur took the letter, and knew instantly what it was. The wax seal on the envelope was imprinted with a cameo of Apollo, and that could mean only one thing. He tore it open while Jenkins adjusted the cravat. Within moments he looked quite dapper again, but his spirits were somewhat deflated.
‘I think you had better send apologies to my guests, Jenkins,’ said Sir Arthur. ‘I simply can’t conduct a séance the day before an assignment.’
‘Of course, sir. It does so take it out of you at the best of times, if you don’t mind me saying.’
‘Oh, don’t fuss, Jenkins,’ Sir Arthur chided. But his valet was right. Sir Arthur’s powers as a medium were celebrated amongst London’s intelligentsia, but it was a dangerous path that he trod. And a lonely one at that—beyond the séances and club meetings, he was shunned by society, as were all his kind. And normal folk were right to do so, for since the Awakening the path of the psychic had proven to be fraught with danger. How he longed for those days when he’d simply been the awkward boy with ‘unusual’ talents. It had been frightening at the time, but at least then the world had been ordinary. Who would not crave a little of the ordinary in these troubled times? But what was done was done. He tried to push such thoughts aside, and focus on the here and now. ‘By the way, Jenkins,’ he said at last, ‘did you enquire as to who my assistant might be this time?’ Over the years, Jenkins had almost become as much a member of Apollo Lycea as Sir Arthur himself, and his inside track with the club’s messengers and servants proved most useful.
‘Yes sir,’ and again Jenkins looked most serious. ‘It is Miss Hardwick, sir.’
Sir Arthur sighed, and sat down in his favourite armchair to read the letter more carefully. ‘After the last time, I’m surprised the old goat lets his daughter anywhere near me. Although it was she who damn near got me killed.’
‘And saved your life, sir,’ Jenkins reminded his master, helpfully.
‘Yes, that too,’ Sir Arthur muttered. He looked up at his valet, a sense of foreboding creeping over him. ‘I need to prepare myself. Send word to the guests first; tell Mrs. Bailey she is excused for the evening, and give her my apologies. In fact, best not mention that the séance is cancelled; the poor woman has worked very hard today. And then prepare my case.’
‘Very good, sir. You’ll be needing etherium, I take it? How much shall I pack?’
Sir Arthur’s eyes blazed for an instant before he replied, coolly, ‘If they’re sending me out with Lillian Hardwick, you’d best pack it all.’

Monday, 19 September 2016

A Bit of Barbaric Splendour

When I was writing Broken Legions for Osprey, the Barbarian warband lists were ultimately condensed in the editing process to a single list. However, two lists were playtested - the Western Tribes and the Germanic tribes - each with fewer options, but more flavour.

A few people have expressed interest in playing the original version of these lists, allowing them to theme their collections a little more strongly. The Germanic Tribes list also has a different warband special rule from the one that made the final cut.

These rules are mostly balanced, and were tested in the initial round of playtesting, but they aren't the final version. Therefore I wouldn't like to say that they're 100% perfect! However, if you do want to have a go with these rules, do let me know how it goes.

If nothing else, I figured it'd be of interest to see what ends up on the cutting-room floor during the design process. Enjoy!

Download the Rules here!