Static Movement. What a great name for a publisher.
I popped over there for the first time yesterday after seeing a post over at Paul Brazill's Blog. As ever Paul's right on the button. He's highlighted this one-stop-shop for writers who enjoy working with a little darkness or a little fantasy.
Chris Bartholemew is offering us all the opportunity to become part of a number of very attractive anthologies. They look great on the outside and Paul says, in an editorial post, he wants them to look just as good within.
Of course it's not just looks that count. Content is vital. It's nice to see that from the names already listed, the publications will have a certain pedigree - go and check them out for yourself at:
Alternatively, follow the link in the list at the side of the page.
So what did I mean by a one-stop-shop.
CAUGHT BY DARKNESS is an anthology of dark tales.
CREEPY THINGS is looking for stories about insects. I can't help thinking Kafka, and that just means I'm not even going to try. Shouldn't stop you though.
GOTHIC WORLD is as described. Whether you're work is horror, fantasy or literary, there's an possible spot for you.
YARNS FOR OUR YOUTH want children's stories.
WERE - WHAT is a were-monster anthology. The mind boggles and the teeth start to grow. Whatever your biggest nightmares, I'm sure you can conjure up a monster of some kind. Imagine what you could do to your most hated teacher, for example.
THRILLER is an anthology aimed at young adults. It's a big market and the title is likely to do well.
BOUNTY HUNTERS is the one that has me thinking. Stories about Bounty Hunters, what else? It really gets the mind going. If I get to write something new, this is the one that's most likely to reel me in.
DUSTED - any genre and any thing. It urges you to look in your trunks for a tale you wrote a lone time ago, something you might have forgotten, something that might have grown arms and legs since you last saw it.
So you see, something for everyone.
Take a look, see what you think and then have a go. I'm sure you've got it in you.
On this one, I must start by declaring an element of self-interest, though I hope it will become clear that's not why I'm posting.
About two years ago I sat in a Glasgow hotel room with very good and very old friend Gareth. He's been in the music industry for so many years that he looks like a crotchet (though a very handsome one). He's told me tales of tours and bands that I can only soak up with envy and delight. 'There was that time I was in Russia with...".
Anyway, he told me that one of the most exciting bands around were looking for some help.
Morton Valence they're called. I checked them out. They're brilliant. I decided to get involved.
In effect what they were proposing was something new, collective ownership of an album. Reminded me of the independent music explosion that hit with punk and onwards in the times that indie meant something a little different than a just a style.
I liked the music. I had a few pounds spare and decided to help them get their album off the ground. I spent more pounds than I should have, but isn't that always the way.
With the support of fans, the band raised the money for their album 'Bob And Veronica Ride Again', and album of brilliant music and with a novella of the same name thrown in.
I've no expectation of making money and am simply happy to have been involved in such a maverick-minded enterprise.
Now they're trying something new with a number of other bands. The movement is called 'Storm the Charts' and it starts today, going on until the end of this week.
Basically, they want to rip the complacency out of the music download charts with a terrorist attack. Fans, friends and philistines alike are being asked to download some of the tunes of the bands involved. It would be great to see some of them up there making a name for themselves.
Here's how you do it.
You can go along to the link below and part with 79 pence:
A documentary isn't always going to be everybody's cup of tea, but I think the Cove has more all-round appeal than many.
It's the story of a real life 'Ocean's Eleven', a crew of committed and charismatic characters who take us along with them on their journey to expose the mass slaughter of dolphins in the Japanese coastal town of Taiji.
On this occasion our Frank Sinatra, our George Clooney, is Ric O'Barry.
In a previous life O'Barry was the man who was largely responsible for the growth of marine mammals being used for entertainment purposes. He was the trainer of Flipper or, to be more accurate given there were a number of them, Flippers.
He explains that things went wrong when Cathy, one of the Flipper dolphins, committed suicide in his arms. She did this by keeping her blow hole closed - unlike humans, he tells us, dolphins have to choose to breathe.
From that moment he became the advocate for dolphins wherever they may need help. And boy, do the dolphins in Taiji need it.
Every year, a flotilla of fishing boats makes trips out to sea and waits for the dolphins to pass by. It traps them by creating a wall of sound in the water as they bang on large poles with hammers. Dolphins are hugely sensitive to noise and head in the opposite direction - straight into the trap of the bay.
Once trapped, people from around the world come along to select those that will look good doing someraults and bouncing on their tails for our entertainment. Each dolphin sells for $150,000 and is worth millions to a dolphinarium.
The rest are left. They're not worth so much. They could easily be releseased, but their fate is already determined.
Each year 23,000 of them will be taken to the cove of the title and killed for their meat. That's what the film is trying to expose. Funnily enough, those involved aren't keen to make things easy.
The film has something of the atmosphere of a thriller about it. We hear the risks are very serious indeed. There have been murders of activists in the past. The fisherman involved are hugely protective of the Cove where the slaughter takes place every year between September and March. No cameras are allowed near, police follow the filmmaker and O'Barry wherever he goes and interview him regularly.
O'Barry seems genuinely concerned for his safety.
He's not a wimp though, he's a seasoned campaigner. He's been arrested countless times and he's prepared to do things that most of us wouldn't even contemplate. He has courage pouring out of his saddened eye-balls.
The team he assembles involves a film crew, divers, experts in special effects work, those with military experience and those who've organised festivals.
The effects of heat-sensitive photography and of night vision cameras are visually stunning. They give it the feel of tension that you might expect from a horror movie. I' d love to see a narrative film done using the some of the things I saw here.
The shots of dolphins in the wild are also stunning. How beautiful they are when in there natural surroundings.
We look into the Whaling commission's activity, the potential of mercury poisoning in the meat, the history of dolphinaria and the roots of the protest movement.
As the crew move into action we have a strong sense of the dangers they face. It's not a comfortable watch.
In the end, we see their success. I don't mind revealing it as we know it's coming.
The sea in the cove is turned bright red. The butchers stand in boats and stab at the dolphins with spears as they flip and jump in the water until they die. It's a grim a picture as you can imagine. Pure horror and yet the sea itself has a strange beauty (or maybe that's only to a sicko like me).
As the credits rolled by I was raging. Raging at the world for letting this happen, at the fishermen, at the human race.
I want other people to watch it too. I want some of them to rage with me. I want it to stop.
Of course, I'd been manipulated a little bit by the film, but I didn't really care. I found its generally one-sided view of the world quite refreshing.
In the west we eat cows and pigs and fish and god knows what, our politicians are as corrupt as the next, we drive when we don't' need to and fill beautiful bays with oil that destroy entire eco-systems, but it doesn't mean I have to agree with the Taiji slaughter. I care about all of the things mentioned, agree that I don't do enough. I can see the point of view of the cynics and the ambivalent. I still want the dolphin killings to stop.
I want you to read this blog page, to get out the movie and watch it with friends. I want you to talk about it together and draw your own conclusions. I want you to think. Thinking's good. Thinking makes things better and worse, but it engages us with bigger things than ourselves. It'll make you think about oil, food, entertainment and consideration of others. That has to be a good thing.
I wish I could say that everything is in hand for the big day, but every time a box is ticked, there’s another needing attention.
Nowadays, free from all stimulants other than coffee, there’s little point me going out on the town in the traditional stag night fashion. I’d pretty much decided that I wasn’t going to bother.
Then along came my friend John, an architect and a gentleman, and arranged a day out at the Edinburgh Film Festival instead. It’s great to have friends like that.
He’d booked us in to see a bit of British film history in the form of Gumshoe and the contemporary American movie Winter’s Bone.
Gumshoe is a tale of Scouse-noir set in Liverpool and London and made back in 1971.
Albert Finney plays the main character (Eddie Ginley) a bingo caller who lives in the fantasy world of hardboiled detectives, of books and films and who thinks he’s Humphrey Bogart.
Deciding to set up as a Private Eye, he’s duped into taking a case of an unspecified nature.
The dialogue is sharp and sparklingly funny. Throughout the whole episode the actors ham things up as if they’ve no future in the celluloid world. It looks as though it’s done on a budget that’s tighter than a docker’s fist; on a couple of occasions where the cast practically burst into laughter, they either couldn’t afford a retake or didn’t see the need.
Took me back to a land of glass pint milk bottles, route-master buses, plaster falling from the walls of the London underground, a time when you could smoke where you wanted and when those scratchy blankets kept you warm instead of duvets.
It’s good fun, a land of farce and tribute. A fine way to spend a couple of hours.
And then the main event.
In recent months I’ve been reading a lot of gritty work. Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill and Scott Wolven. In many ways that helped prepare me for the movie ‘Winter’s Bone’.
I’m guessing that it’s what might be termed Hillbilly noir. Whatever it is, it certainly lit my Molatov.
Ree Jolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a teenage girl with a problem. As if looking after her mute mother and young brother and sister on a budget smaller than Frears had to work with on Gumshoe wasn’t difficult enough, her father is due to appear in court in a few days time. Nobody’s seen him for a while and if he doesn’t show he loses the bond he lay down against his freedom, a bond that consists of the family home.
Immediately the clock is ticking and she sets about trying to find him.
Her world is that of the Ozark Mountains and that’s just another problem. People there live by a very strong code. It’s a land of violence, family feud, secrecy, testosterone, drugs and guns. People live in shacks and cabins surrounded contrast – the beauty of nature and the garbage of the human race.
In such an environment, nobody seems willing to help. Every which way she turns she puts herself into danger. At these points the menace is palpable. The women are almost as frightening and intimidating as the men and, when she finally gets her beating, it’s the women that do it as if anything else would have been unacceptable.
As time moves on and she gets nowhere fast, desperate measures are called for. After accepting food from her neighbours she is also offered the opportunity of off-loading her little brother on them for them to bring them up as if he were their own. She’d do anything to avoid that and tries to enlist in the army for the signing on fee and even returns to see the granddaddy of the hill to try and get some answers – his chest is bigger than a barrel and his face is as hard as bonfire toffee. I wouldn’t have the guts to go there if you fed me a whole string of sausages and a barrel of tripe.
Ree’s a tough cookie though. She’s not going to stop at anything to find what she needs to find. A woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do even if she has to die trying.
In the end it’s family that comes to her rescue. Teardrop, earlier an adversarial uncle, rescues her from ole granddaddy and takes her under his wing – it may well smell bad under there and he may well spend his life high on speed, but blood is thicker than water.
They still have a hell of a long way to go to solve their conundrum and the as the plot twists and turns my knuckles got whiter and whiter. If I had any nails to chew on, I’d have bitten them off by the end.
Filmed on location and without the use of manufactured sets, there is a strongly authentic feel to it all. It’s open and beautiful like the land itself and claustrophobic and dark like the community.
It’s not only the location that creates such a strong impression of Missouri. The cast are a mixture of actors and people from the area and the time spent getting to know the ins and outs of mountain life has clearly paid off.
Jennifer Lawrence and director Debra Grannik were there to introduce the film, and Grannik took questions afterwards.
She explained that she was drawn to the book immediately and had optioned it before it was published. It was the confined setting, the race against the clock and the strong female lead that attracted her.
It was also the ‘and’ factor. All of the people standing as obstacles between Ree and the truth are capable of great violence ‘and’ later on are able to display kindness and compassion. We see the counterpoint to the brutality in the innocence of the children, the rearing of baby animals and the banjo picking of the music. Like the shooting and gutting of squirrels, life is simply what it is.
I believe the book (by Daniel Woodrell) is superb and, having seen the film, I’m definitely going to look it out.
My stag day has been wonderful.
John, I can’t thank you enough. May I have another one next year?
Inspired by some Twitter chat, I’ve recently read back to back books about fighting.
It’s been a joy and I’d recommend you do the same. If you’ve read these, try a couple of others. If you haven’t, you’re in for a real treat.
DONKEY PUNCH by RAY BANKS
Confession out of the way first. I had no idea what a Donkey Punch is. I hoped I’d find out somewhere in the book, but if it was there, I missed it. Tried Google. They know fine what it is. And now, so do I. If you want to know yourself, go take a look.
The novel is written as a first person narrative and in the present tense. Cal Innes tells the story as he lives through it, and he’s a wonderful narrator. He has a simple style, yet he’s not a simple guy.
Given another life, it’s difficult to know what Cal might have made of himself.
Perhaps the way he’s ended up is inevitable. I decided to avoid ‘boxing' puns but somehow have got stuck with a few ‘boxing stable’ ones instead and when I get stuck with something I just have to share it. Cal Innes is a man who would always look a gift horse in the mouth. He’s also the horse that bolted as well as being the man trying to lock the door behind himself.
Where he goes, things happen.
He’s suspicious, judges people by the way they look through his own bruise coloured spectacles. And he gets things wrong. Problem is, he can’t help acting on instinct. Wrong instinct, wrong act, a pile of mess to be sorted.
Cal, finished at last with his probation officer, is working for his mate Paulo at a boxing club. Paulo is hot on the chances of one of his boys, Liam. Cal’s job is to take Liam to a major tournament in LA and chaperone him. At the same time he’s supposed to be taking a holiday, but Cal and peace and quiet don’t mix easily.
Liam on the other hand might just have escaped Cal’s fate. He is disciplined, cool-headed (most of the time) and one hell of a fighter. Nothing seems to matter to him outside of the tournament and turning pro and that’s something Cal doesn’t fully understand.
While Liam goes about his work, Cal spends his time in bars. He drinks heavily in spite of himself, pops painkillers like Smarties and through a fuzzy head meets up with people he might do better to avoid.
We move through a world of corruption, bribery, hookers, low-life, helplessness and confusion. All of this is punctuated by finely written boxing scenes. Everyone you’d want in a boxing book is here from the corner guy, the heavy-duty promoter, the ex-fighters, the coaches and the crazies.
It does everything you might like it to and more.
The twists and turns are gripping, the plot moves on from hook to hook and you come to like Cal and Liam more and more as you go on.
Banks avoids many things. He avoids being dull. Avoids the obvious. Doesn’t slow things down with back-story. Doesn’t over-ellaborate. Leaves Cal to do the work, and it’s a superb job he does of that too.
THE LONGSHOT by KATIE KITAMURA
Towards the end of last year, a story of mine was published in a volume of ‘The Reader’. The other piece of fiction in that issue was by Vanessa Hemingway, granddaughter of the great man himself.
On the back of ‘The Longshot’ Tom McCarthy says ‘Hemingway’s returned to life – and this time, he’s a woman’.
Now steady on Tom, I thought when I read that. Let’s not get too carried away.
Thing is, he didn’t.
It’s an extra-ordinary debut. Quite astonishing.
Like many a book on the fighting world, the ring and the gym is simply the setting to explore character and relationships, more specifically relationships between men.
The Longshot is not only in Hemingway territory, but in the world of John Ford and Howard Hawkes, only here the only woman to get a look in is completely ignored –there’s no way our fighter Cal (who knew?) is going to be distracted by anything.
Trainer Riley drives Cal to Mexico. They’ve been together since Riley discovered him as a wrestler. There’s something of father and son in their relationship – they’re hard men with caged emotions, they have little to say to each other or to anyone else, yet there is a tenderness that is touching and hard to miss.
Here’s a little example:
“Cal Shivered. Riley was already yanking his duffel bag open and pulling out a hoodie. He threw it over Cal’s shoulders. Cal nodded thanks. They kept moving. Riley reached a hand over and pulled the hoodie close. Cal pushed his arms through and zipped it up. They turned the corner and followed the signs for the dressing rooms.”
It was Riley who packed the duffel bag; he’s thought of everything. He gets to act without being asked. Laconic Cal doesn’t need to speak. They put on the hoodie as it they’re Siamese twins. And they keep moving forward to meet their fate.
Cal was doing well as a fighter until the day he met the machine that is Rivera. We know Rivera is hot because the desk clerk at their hotel tells us so at the beginning.
Right from the off then, we know Cal has a hell of a fight on his hands.
It turns out it’s a rematch. Cal is the only fighter Rivera didn’t beat within the distance. He’s been on the skids since, but hasn’t been in finer shape for years.
Everything looks good until Riley watches men from Rivera’s gym and his sparring partners work for the press. They’re awesome. The next generation is bigger and better. Only Rivera can outdo them, but even he will bow out to them in the end.
This is the point where Riley knows his fighter can’t win. It’s about the same time that Cal realises the same.
Even so, the fight is arranged and they don’t know any other way.
Everything builds towards the fight, yet there is more to the book than that.
When Cal and Rivera eventually do get into the ring, it’s spectacular writing. My heart was pumping in overdrive for the last fifteen pages or so and when I finished I sat trying to keep my head together. I was in a public place, see, and I didn’t want to spill my emotions all over the people around me. Had I been alone I might have cried. I’d certainly have had to get up and move around so pumped with adrenaline Kitamura had me. What a fantastic way to end a story – how often do we get to feel like that when the covers close.
I just kept picking it up and looking at it in disbelief.
That's what I got when Naomi Johnson got in touch with me to tell me that my story had won the 'Watery Grave Invitational Contest' over at the Drowning Machine.
I'd looked at the pedigree of last year's winners and the names on the list for this year and wasn't too hopeful.
I was pleased as punch just to be invited.
I'd like to thank Naomi and all her expert judges for all their time and effort.
What winning means to me is difficult to express. In writing as well as in life I go through great highs and lows. Sometimes everything's groovy and others it's dark as an oil-spill out there.
That especially applies to my stories as, to me, I think they distill my essence into a few thousand words or so. There are times when my writing flows like maple syrup and others when it's more like cement. I vacillate between thinking I'm hot stuff to believing I'm a crazed lune. The truth is most likely right between the two, but I've never been a half-measures kind of guy.
Winning, then, means that for now I know that for 'Beat On The Brat' I hit something just right, that there are people in the world who agree with my positive self. It validates what I do and, in some ways, who I am. That's really important.
When I was putting together the Rue Bella with brother Geoff, we had a letter from John Martin, the legend from Black Sparrow Press. 'Literature needs more people like you' he told us. We were made up.
Literature needs more people like Naomi and her team. Those who encourage, put out the word, make the effort and offer incentives are the life blood for the writer at my level and, without a 'my level', there's less likely to be the levels above.
Heartfelt thanks to all who took part and who helped out in any way. Thanks also to the clown who made balloon animals for my girls a short while ago for putting pictures into my head.
Literature also needs more people like Jason Duke and Paul D Brazill. Jason put out a bounty on us all, $100 dollars if he reeled in any class, $50 for next best. Great of him to share - like he says, when he has it, it's there to be used, when he doesn't I hope we can repay him in a small way.
Paul put up the stories on his blog and we can all enjoy the finalists there at:
I didn't win this one. Hell, I didn't even get into the final 8. Of course I'm gutted, but I'm pleased for all those that made it and wish them luck at the next stage. Check them out. I'm certainly going to.
In her note from the editor, Katherine Tomlinson sets the ball rolling nicely.
"Welcome to the first issue of Dark Valentine Magazine, where dark fiction rules. There are 19 dark dreams spilled across these pages, every one of them a nightmare you’ll find hard to shake—every one of them a journey to a place that might not let you leave. But you have to go there, don’t you? Because you…need to know what’s at the end of the road."
Though I've only managed to take a couple of journeys with them so far, it's clear already that although there is a core theme working here, that 'dark dreams' element, we are in for a rich, varied and well written collection where everyone is going to find many more than one piece to their liking.
I was also immediately struck by the quality of the illustrations. It's like a two for one deal. Not only are you going to be royally entertained by the writers, the artists are going to move parts inside you that you may even have forgotten existed. They work together almost as a fusion, complementing each other wonderfully and existing in symbiosis.
With an issue like this to get the ball rolling, you just know this is going take off.
Go take a look.
Next mention must go to the Crimefactory. In their new incarnation, their third issue has just hit the wire. It's yours to download in three different formats, so there's no real excuse not to go along and pick it up:
It boasts new fiction from Dennis Taffoya, Jedidiah Ayres, Greg Bardsley, Kieran Shea, Sandra Seamans and Daniel O'Shea. I'm not familiar with all of those names and for me that's part of the beauty of the exploration.
Crimefactory made a mark with two powerful and gritty issues to re-launch and there's every reason to expect that they'll continue from strengh to strength. At it's heart there's a hardboiled/noir core, but they'll also work with other genres as long as they're written well.
I wrote a short while ago about my five years of running a small press magazine. It's a hell of a job collating, creating, distrubuting and advertising, but I always got a kick from it that had more power than one from three donkeys and a wooden leg.
It's wonderful to offer a platform to writing talent, whether it be established or just emerging. It's also wonderful that, through the hard work of people at places such as Dark Valentine and Crimefactory, there are homes for writers and readers alike to find occasional shelter and to get a hell of a buzz from when they come out.
An Englishman living abroad. That's how I feel at the moment. Strictly speaking, that is what I am, ten years now living north of the border.
My nationality has never really been important to me. I like to think of myself as British, I guess, though can't get away from my Englishness (even if I take my Irish mother's genes into account).
I've never really been that good at supporting the English in sport either. I tend to go for the team I like the characters of and, all too often, that's the 'opposition'.
With the world cup looming, I'm now experiencing that 'Anyone but England' thing whenever the subject of football is broached. I become a little defensive, feel prickly, pissed off and dejected. I don't' know why exactly, but it brings out the patriot in me. I guess it's difficult to have to realise that all the people I know here who seem to accept me most of the time seem to dislike intensely the country within which I formed my ideas, that multi-cultural, multi-faceted and multi-layered place that is home. They don't seem to understand how I could possibly be offended by anti-English comments or sentiments, even if it's passed off as 'only the media' or 'only the players'.
But hey, it's a game. I'm not going to take it all that seriously anymore. No point.
Decided that I might, for the sake of argument, put together a first 11 of grit/thriller/crime writers for us Angleterrians to see how we might fare.
Lee Child--Edgar Wallace--Derek Raymond--Ted Lewis
Kate Atkinson-R J Ellory--Agatha Christie-Tony Price
----------John Le Carre------Raymond Chandler-------
And as a sub, does the leg work for so many of us over at his blog, 'You Would Say That, Wouldn't You' Paul D Brazill. He'd never stop grafting for the team and who knows, in a few years he might be one of the shoe-ins for a place.
OK, I know about Chandler, but he was here for long enough, and if you were the coach you really would have to poach a few from somewhere.
I was a little disappointed when I thought about it. So many of the British writers I really enjoy are Scottish and a fair few Irish (because of my general ignorance I'd have to google the Welsh as all I can come up with is Dylan Thomas and he's a totally different sport altogether).
If the Scots were in the World Cup (writers) I'd say we'd be lucky to get a draw and that Rankin, Guthrie, Buchan, Conan Doyle, Moore (not Bobby), Banks (not Gordon) and Banks (not Gordon either), Fitzgerald, MacBride etc etc would have a fair chance of getting to the final.
That is unless they met the Americans in the early rounds.
England play the USA on Saturday.
Even if we'd nicked Chandler we'd be facing Thompson, Cain (P), Cain (J M), Hammett, Ellroy, Block, Pelecanos, Hiaasen, Price, Kaminsky, Connelly, Lansdale, Bunker, Pollock, Poe, Mosley, Bunker, Burke, Leonard, Jones...it gets embarrassing fairly quickly and without much need for thought. They have guts, flair, overview and durability. More than a Brazil, more a Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina hybrid.
Looks like it were down to writers, we'd be slaughtered, blown away, chopped up into little pieces and fed to the lions.
Good job it's down to the football then, and even with the round ball, I have a suspicion we might go down to the USA. Never mind. At least we'd be spared the sight of John Terry throttling his mates with an enormous lump of gold.
The review is for a children's book called 'The Tilting House' by Tom Llewellyn.
I have spent my adult working life as a primary school teacher and have been on the lookout for new books for many years. I've also put many a child through their paces by asking them to write about a book they've just read. It's not an easy job as any of you who have tried will understand.
Thing is, I've rarely seen the two things put together - review space for children, by children - outside of an individual school or classroom. Maybe the Drowning Machine is about to set a new trend.
Reviews of books for children by adults are about as valid as any other kind (ie if you're lucky enough to find a couple of reviewers with whom you usually agree, you're doing OK), but surely we miss some of the magic or the fresh eyes a youngster can offer the task. Let's see more of this 'children reviewing things for themselves' approach elsewhere, please. Class teachers out there, maybe you could take the initiative and set up a blog of your own.
I took my three children to see Alice In Wonderland yesterday and they loved the experience of being scared (or should that be scarred?) within the safe environment offered by the cinema. It was only a shame I don't have three knees so that I could fit them on at once. I mention it because 'The Tilting House' seems likely to have sections that work in overlap or in parallel with it every once in a while. I'll certainly be getting hold of a copy soon to read to my own and reckon that if you check it out at the link above, there's more than a small chance that you'll be doing the same.
I was following a strand of recommendations on Twitter recently and placed a number of orders on the strength of them. Word on the Tweet was that Harry Crews is someone not to be missed and, up until recently, I'd missed him to the point of not recognising the name.
To redress the balance, I went looking for his stuff on the web and found that he's got a huge number of titles under his belt. It was looking good - if it came off, there would be enough material to keep me busy for months.
A couple of his books recently dropped through the letter box and I decided to start with Scar Lover.
It's a title that whets the appetite and I was pretty excited about what I was about to discover.
So what did I find?
The main character is Pete. He's had a hard life, what with vegetablising his brother in an accident with a hammer and killing his parents in a car accident. He carries his guilt around like it's a rucksack full of bricks. He's also carrying round a whole heap of anger. Life experience has turned him into a rebellious, short-tempered man who has a contradictory need to give time to those whose lives take place under shrouds of darkness. I guess that makes him either a good bad guy or a good bad guy.
Either way, we meet him as he's passing a hauntingly beautiful girl (Sarah) on his way to work. They get into conversation. Her mother has cancer, has lost her breasts to tumours, and news of this makes Pete want to stay and help and to run in equal measure. In the end, he's cornered by a dinner invitation that he just can't refuse.
His colleague, a Rasta named George, talks to him in riddles. In the baking heat, it would be enough to drive anyone crazy. George knows all about Pete because of Mr Winekoff who stays in the same boarding house as Pete and was witness to a drunken outpouring one evening where Pete spilled his guts. Mr Winekoff is an octogenarian health freak with a loose tongue - his long walks take him around the neighbourhood and into contact with everyone we're about to meet.
Pissed with Winekoff he throws him down the stairs and into an alligator pit, then later seeks him out for his help.
As time moves on Pete is irresistibly drawn from one nightmare situation to another and into living with Sarah and her family. When her father dies, the plot thickens and the relationships tangle further.
The book doesn't work for me. In spite of enjoying some of the set pieces and the way Pete is sucked into places he'd rather avoid like water emptying from a bath, it never really got going. It might be that I've become too familiar with taught, lean texts over the past few months, reading nothing but crime and little that didn't have a powerful momentum. With Scar Lover, I felt I spent a lot of time running on the spot.
The set pieces might work, but many of the points are laboured. Back story is repeated a few too many times for my liking (I prefer one reference to an incident), though this may be style chosen by Crews to show Pete's compulsion to look into the darkness.
George, our Rasta, speaks in a Jamaican patois which I found really tough to enjoy. It's an accent I love to hear, but to see it written out on the page isn't something I found at all pleasing.
The characters are also very extreme, physically and in terms of their thoughts and actions. Caricatures might be a better word for them. I like a little more subtlety than this, a little more for me to get my teeth into, something where I have to do a bit of the work myself.
I also felt there was a whiff of pretension following me around as I read it. I wonder if there was something I was supposed to be learning about the world as I was turning the pages. Mr Cruise might be hinting that he is saying something important; either I'm too stupid to get it or the emperor is still wearing bugger all no matter which angle you look from .
There were things to like about Scar Lover, but not really enough of them.
Given the number of recommendations I've seen and the great reviews that are around and about, I wouldn't want to put you off entirely. This is, after all, just one man's opinion.
I'll put my other purchase away for a while. Come back to it afresh. See if Mr Crews can win me over with other work. Maybe I'll take it all back one day in the future, eat some humble pie, who knows.
Judging by the photos I've seen, I wouldn't want to piss Harry off too much - I reckon he could take me with one hand tied behind his back even though he's in his seventies .
Over the last six months I’ve written about a lot of horrible things. The ideas have turned over in my head until they’ve all but come to life. I hope that when people read them in me stories they, too, have felt that it’s as if the events were real. In my imagination I’ve had characters run people over with trains, assault old ladies, use guns, set fire to human beings, use blow torches as weapons, break fingers, hang folk upside down and chop off body parts. You name it and I’ve probably considered letting someone do it. You may have even read some of theses deeds in publications, here on the blog or linked up to other sites.
I’ve read a lot of books, too. Dark and heavy tales, serious noir, work I’ve admired and enjoyed yet work with crazier shit than I have going on. Some of the fiction’s even left me worrying about my own state of mind it’s been that disturbing (and that good).
So how am I going to feel when a man, a real life guy, takes to the streets with a couple of guns and shoots the life from 12 people and leaves others fighting to keep breathing. Do I revel in the pain he’s caused? Admire his cruelty? Obsessively watch all the news I can and hope I can borrow a few tips for my characters?
To all of the above the answer is no.
I hope you knew that before I spelled it out.
I’m saddened by it - for the people in Cumbria who are left behind with their grief, for those in pain and for the people who are mopping up the mess. I offer my sympathy to them all even though I know none of them.
What I am curious about is motive. I guess that many of us are. What led this guy to commit these atrocities then take his own life on Boot Hill is a story that’s yet to be told. It’s what I want to know. It’s that piece of the jigsaw that fires me up as a crime-writer.
We’re all different. Our wiring is different, our cultures and experiences walk us along different paths and we react to situations in a huge variety of ways.
I love the idea of twin studies, for example, that demonstrate the influence of society upon character, mental health and achievement. They suggest that if you were swapped at birth and experienced a completely different set of circumstances you’d end up with a similar root profile but a very different as a very different person.
And there’s the rub. Put us in a different place, throw a pile of rocks at us and who knows how we’d have ended up?
Just what made Derrick Bird go out on his misguided murder mission, his Whitehaven wipe-out, we’ll never really know, but it’s through works of fiction and my imagination that I feel I can get to understand a little of what goes on within the heads of others. Perhaps it’s what keeps me sane.
I’m not going to stop writing about horrible things and horrible people because of events like yesterdays. On the contrary, it’s things like that which drive my efforts to understand with a greater sense of purpose. I hope that by taking myself and my readers into the unknown that I help a little with the stuff that bother us.
And just for the record, Derek Bird is no relation and the fact that he was known as ‘Birdy’ is just a little bit too twisted even for me to get my head around.