The Power Hour

As a freelance writer of over twenty years, I’ve produced hundreds of articles and features for a variety of magazines all over the world. And as a staffer on some of the biggest lifestyle magazines in the UK, I’ve produced hundreds more. I never missed a deadline. Not once. That’s a great source of pride for me. Some writers I’ve worked with, especially the younger Millennial-types, missed deadlines on a regular basis. It just wasn’t a big deal to them. Maybe it’s a generational thing but it’s important to understand that on a magazine, the writers are not gods. Sure, we are often the public face of the magazine and get most of the accolades, but in reality, we are very small cogs in very big machines. Writers are given deadlines for a reason. People further up the chain, like the section editor or sub editor, as well as the designers and the picture desk, are relying on you to file your copy on time so they can do their jobs and maintain their own schedule, all to ensure that the magazine goes out on time.

Now, it isn’t always easy to hit your deadlines, especially if you find yourself waiting on other people. Building a feature is rarely a case of just sitting down and writing it. If only. No, nine times out of ten, as your deadline looms ever-closer, you find yourself waiting for some random PR person to send you some information or hook up an interview, or maybe you’ve requested some expert opinion or analysis and the designated expert has been too busy to do what they said they would. Once, I waited all day to carry out a 15-minute phoner with tennis legend John McEnroe, who has something of a fiery reputation to say the least. I had one shot at it, and a deadline, so failure was not an option. When I asked what time my slot was scheduled for, I was told by his manager to just ‘stay by the phone.’ So that’s what I did. I went into the office early and stayed late. I didn’t even leave my desk for lunch. In true prima dona fashion, John McEnroe didn’t call. Well, he did, but instead of calling my office line he called my mobile at about 9pm when I was on the train home. I had to disembark before I lost my connection in a tunnel, and transcribe the entire interview long-hand in a cafe on Waterloo Station. He was lovely, by the way. And I made my deadline.

Sometimes, you can’t even blame other people. Maybe you’ve had a last-minute change of heart and decided to change the structure or approach the article from a different direction, or perhaps the photographer you commissioned is late submitting the images. There are so many variables, you have to be flexible. Stuff move around a lot on magazines. Things happen, and things fall through. At the last moment you might have to cut a feature by 30% to make room for a late advertorial that just came through, or on the other hand you might be asked to double your word count to fill some space after an ad gets dropped.

Anyway, one way to ensure you always hit your deadlines when the pressure is on is to have a daily ‘power hour.’

A power hour is when you eradicate all distractions – disconnect the internet, turn off your phone – and focus entirely on knocking out some words. You don’t stop to edit, you don’t check your email, you don’t cross-check that fact you think you might have just made up, you don’t even get a glass of water. You can do all of that later. For the entirety of that hour you sit at your desk and completely immerse yourself in the task at hand. Everything else, even the important stuff, can wait. It will still be there in an hour.

Pro tip: put on your headphones or ear buds; this is an almost universal way of communicating to everyone around you that you don’t want to be disturbed. You don’t even have to turn on the music.

The power hour is a concept I have carried with me throughout my career, and it’s got me out a lot of tight spots though it helps enormously to do any required reading or research beforehand. You can’t write if you have nothing to write about. In my experience they are generally most effective in the morning, as soon as possible after waking up. That’s when I have more energy and when I am most focused. Next time you have a deadline, or even if you don’t, maybe you should try it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Getting Naked

Vector Cartoon Character – Young Man in White Underpants

As anyone who knows me reasonably well will be aware, I write a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, and a lot of stuff in between. It varies, but until I started working on a trade magazine last year, around half my time (not including the time I spend researching, marketing, and submitting) was spent on articles for various magazines or websites on everything from Chinese media censoreship to chili pepper farming, or movie or book reviews or something, and the rest was spent writing short stories and novellas. Novels, not so much, because they take years and I don’t find the pay-off so satisfying, either emotionally or financially.

I’ve always found non-fiction both more profitable and easier to write. There’s a science to it. You get the green light from the commissioning editor, do the research, find an angle, familiarize yourself with the house style, and away you go. You become a small cog in a big machine, and all you have to do is your job. Your work appears under the masthead of whatever publication you are writing for, and most of the time readers don’t even know, or care, who actually wrote it. Your name is out there, and you are still eligible for criticism, but it’s not front and centre. It’s kinda like parading yourself around in front of a bunch of strangers wearing a uniform. This uniform is something people are familiar with, and used to. They have expectations of how someone wearing it should act, and how you should walk. If anyone has an issue with you, they’ll take it to your boss and you’ll probably never have to deal with it.

Fiction, though, is a whole different ball game. Unless you write under a pseudonym, you are right there, front and centre. It’s your choice, but really you HAVE no choice. Self-promotion is everything, and there is nowhere to hide. Even if your fiction is published in a magazine, anthology or journal, its usually the names of the contributors prospective readers look for and whatever the publication is called becomes secondary. There is nothing to hide your modesty. That uniform has been removed and there you are in all your pale, quivering glory, stark bollock naked and waiting for people to throw tomatoes at you.

Some people like being in this state; vulnerable, exposed, there for the world to not only see, but judge and critique. Which is fine. Each to their own and all that. Most of us, however, are not so comfortable with it and we wish there was another way. But there isn’t. Every time we put our work out there, we effectively strip off and lay ourselves open for criticism. Not only that, we even bend over and invite a multitude of total strangers to shaft us and then walk away giggling to themselves.

Now, some people might love that naked body on display. Whether it’s male, female, fat, thin, black, white, whatever. But there may be some elements you, as an audience, might find less attractive. Maybe you’d like slimmer thighs, or fatter thighs. Maybe you dig tattoos and body art, maybe you don’t. Who knows? One of the greatest aspects of being human is that we don’t all like the same things. Life would be pretty damn boring if we did. Most rational people acknowledge that nobody is perfect and accept each other, warts and all.

But a small minority will be put off by the paleness of our skin, our wobbly bits, that weird mole on our left thigh, or even just by the fact that you’re naked. It’s easy for these people to make their disapproval known. We even egg them on. “Whaddya think? Tell me! Write it down and post it in a public forum to ensure that as many people as possible know how hard you think I suck!”

By that, I mean there’s a good chance they might take one fleeting glance at our exposed flabby bits then run off to leave a bad review on Amazon or Goodreads, or they might pause and take a real long, detailed look, and THEN run off and leave a bad review on Amazon or Goodreads.

We can all accept criticism. Or at least, we should be able to. It comes with the territory, and it’s all part of being a creative. Not everyone is going to like everything we do. We take the rough with the smooth and don’t expect blanket praise.

Still, some empathy would be nice. Ask yourself how you would feel if you were out there, naked, being ruthlessly judged by faceless critics who fire their wounding shots then duck back down behind the parapet where it’s nice and safe? I often wonder about these people who hide behind fake names and leave a trail of one and two star reviews in their wake. Does tearing people down make them feel better about themselves? Does it fill some void in their lives? Do they think they are doing some kind of public service?

Be honest, by all means. Tell us what you think. What you really think. But next time you leave someone a bad review, or even worse, drop a one-star rating without even explaining why, spare a thought for the amount of work that has gone into the book you just shat on. The time, the energy, the hope the writer has invested. It might not be to your liking, their naked body might be so damn ugly it makes you throw up in your mouth a little, but at least they have the balls to risk everything and put themselves out there. That alone has to be worth more than one star.

If you really want to see me naked, you can do so HERE.

RetView #70 – Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

Title: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

Year of Release: 1943

Director: Roy William Neil

Length: 72 mins

Starring: Ilona Massey, Patric Knowles, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Lon Chaney Jr

This is, by my reckoning, is the oldest offering thus far in the #RetView series, which is no bad thing. From the iconic opening scenes of a couple of graverobbers skulking through a cemetery at night during a storm and breaking into a tomb only to get attacked by a rogue werewolf, you just know you’re in for a treat. As the title suggests, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man was kind of a mash-up between two of cinema’s biggest stars of the time, a bit like a formative version of Alien vs Predator. Both Frankenstein’s monster and werewolves have been covered before here. Lots. And lots. But this is where it all started. Or, more precisely, ‘it’ started shortly before this because Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man acts as a combined sequel/spin-off to both The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and the Wolf Man (1941).

It was directed by Irish-born Roy William Neil, who became most famous for his work on the classic Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone made by Universal Studios. The plot follows the luckless werewolf Larry Talbot (Chaney Jr) who, now free of his earthly restraints thanks to those misguide graverobbers, keeps blacking out every time there is a full moon and doing unspeakable things to people, which are then invariably dubbed ‘animal attacks’ by the press, though of course certain figures know the score and are determined to avoid a public panic. One day, he wakes up in a hospital in Cardiff (which would be enough to make anyone question their life choices) prompting a discussion between a Cardiff police inspector and a colleague in Llanwelly which goes something like this:

“Have you got anything in your files on a man named Lawrence Talbot?”

“Of course! He lived here.”

“That’s alright, then. We’ve got him up ‘ere in our hospital.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want him in our hospital. He died four years ago.”

Being a proud Welshman, I have to voice my disappointment that none of these esteemed actors and actresses even attempted a Welsh accent. Everyone sounds like they’re from London. Anyway, there’s another full moon, which sends our mate Larry into a tizz again and he turns into something resembling a Yorkshire Terrier. Unable to live with the guilt, he thinks death is the only way to escape the werewolf curse. He meets a gypsy woman Maleva (Ouspenskaya) who advises him that the only way to stay dead is to confer with Dr. Frankenstein. The doctor himself is long dead but his equipment is in working condition, leading Talbot to team up with scientist Dr. Mannering (Knowles) and Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Massey). Talbot then embarks on a ludicrous attempt to have his life sucked from his body and transferred into that of Frankenstein’s monster (Lugosi) which leads to an almighty rumble, with Talbot in full terrier mode, at Frankenstein’s castle, all of which takes place amid a backdrop of rampaging, torch-carrying villagers hell-bent on sabotaging everything.

The authors of the exhaustive book Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films describe the initial reception to Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman film as “lukewarm,” with many writers and reviewers of the day treating it as a little more than a joke. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times stated that, “There’s only a little tussle at the end. And that only lasts but a moment. They are both washed away during same. Too bad. Not very horrible.” Kate Cameron of The New York Daily News gave the film two-and-a half stars, noting that, “The producers have spent time and money on the production and have gone to considerable trouble to give it the proper atmospheric touches.” Harrison’s Reports wrote: “For those devotees who like their horror pictures strong, this one will fill the bill … The action and the eerie atmosphere conforms to a familiar pattern, but it does not detract from the film’s horrendous nature.”

Elsewhere, Variety magazine said that Siodmak, “delivers a good job of fantastic writing to weave the necessary thriller ingredients into the piece” and Film Daily called it, “A horror feast in which devotees of the weird and the fantastic will gorge themselves to bursting.” A more contemporary piece written by Kim Newman for Empire magazine sums the whole thing up nicely in calling the film, “Silly, but enormous fun.”

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the first of what would become known as the “monster rally films” , was followed by other name-brand film monsters in crossovers such as House of Dracula (1945) before things reached peak absurdity with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein three years later. It is also credited (in particular by Kim Newman) with setting the precedent for future similarly-themed films like King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and even Freddy vs. Jason (2003).

GO HERE for more #RetView instalments.

Trivia Corner:

Universal’s original plan was to have Lon Chaney Jr. (who had played Frankenstein’s monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein) portray both the monster the Wolf Man. The plan was dropped due to concerns that the limited special effects available would not be sufficient. There were also concerns about the physical strain it would place on Chaney to play both parts.

Finders Keepers in Biters

Finders Keepers, my collab with Michael McCarty, is included in his latest collection…


They thrive in the shadows, hungry for blood, hungry for human flesh. BITERS, from 5-time Bram Stoker Finalist Michael McCarty, is a thrilling collection of 4 zombie stories and 4 vampire tales by a veteran author of over fifty books and numerous stories and works of nonfiction since the 1980s. Within these pages you will find excitingly original and macabre tales of biters of all sorts to make you shiver and even question your own sanity, featuring incredible special guest co-authors! Dare, if you will to enter the world of….BITERS!

Biters is available now on Black Bedsheet Books

RetView #69 – Deathdream (1974)

Title: Deathdream

Year of Release: 1974

Director: Bob Clark

Length: 88 mins

Starring: Richard Backus, John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Anya Ormsby

Also known as Dead of Night and, The Night Walker, Whispers, King of the Grave, Night Walk, The Veteran, and The Night Andy Came Home (possibly making it a frontrunner for some kind of award for the film with the most titles), this brooding, mid-seventies masterpiece produced and directed by Bob Clark (who later shot to fame with the immortal frat comedy Porky’s before being killed in traffic accident in 2007) was ‘inspired’ by the classic 1902 WW Jacobs short story The Monkey’s Paw. It tells the story of Andy Brooks (Backus), an American GI serving in Vietnam. When he is shot by a sniper and falls to the ground dying, he hears his mother’s voice reminding him he promised to come home. The family is informed of Andy’s death, but sometime later he turns up on their doorstep, still wearing his uniform. The family assume the death notice was a mistake, and are elated to have Andy back. However, he just doesn’t seem the same. Something is definitely off. He is withdrawn, grumpy and sullen, and has taken to hanging out in the local graveyard. The family put this weird behaviour down to PTSD (though they don’t refer to it as such as it wasn’t a widely acknowledged condition back in the seventies) and assume Andy will return to his normal self eventually. When the father Charles (Marley) mentions that they thought Andy had died he replies, “I did,” which should have been a massive clue. After a brief awkward silence, everyone assumes Andy was joking and bursts into fits of giggles. Of course, we the viewers know that Andy wasn’t joking.

The turning point comes when Andy brutally strangles the family pet in front of a bunch of terrified kids. Something guaranteed to stop any party in its tracks. Whilst drowning his sorrows at a bar, Charles discusses his son’s problems with a doctor friend. During an impromptu check up at his office, the doctor is unable to detect a heartbeat or pulse. Before he can say, “By jove, I am unable to detect a heartbeat or pulse!” Andy swiftly kills him, and uses a syringe to inject some of the doctor’s blood into his arm suggesting that Andy has been turned into some kind of vampire that needs the blood of others for sustenance. Things come to a head when Andy goes to a drive-in with some friends, feasts on his date, and is revealed to be the monster he has become. He is chased off and returns home one more time for a final showdown with his father, which doesn’t go as expected. The climax sees him return to a grave he’d dug himself. Poignantly, in some versions, the final scene shows his mother then telling police, “Andy’s home. Some boys never come home.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. You can make a case for looking at Deathdream from any number of angles and drawing any number of conclusions. It focuses heavily on the often fractious relationship between father and son and the role of the doting mother (played here by Academy Award-nominated Lynn Carlin) who will always protect her offspring no matter what he does. Yep, even if he turns into a murderous bastard. This sparks yet more questions. Did he always have these tendencies or did the army bring them out? The analogies are easy to see, as is the obvious refrain of being careful what you wish for. What I found most interesting is the role the Vietnam War plays in the film, which could have been any war, really. At its core, Deathdream is a study of the human psyche and what the trauma of war can do to it, not to mention the common military practice of making monsters out of men. This, I suppose, is necessary in order to make them effective soldiers. But what happens when they are sent home and expected to fit seamlessly back into society? It has long been suggested that historically, not enough has been done to help ex-servicemen and women assimilate and mental health issues are often seen as signs of weakness completely at odds with the macho environment they just left. Deathdream, I think, shows us what happens when ‘monsters’ come home.

These themes are explored further in an exhaustive contemporary review on which says, “Although effective as a flat-out horror film, Deathdream was also one of the first films to be critical of the Vietnam War, focusing on the lingering effects of the conflict on soldiers returning to America. The stress disorders and drug addiction that many veterans experienced are alluded to, but more importantly, this film is filled with sense that the war has changed not only Andy, but the entire country.” Taking a more pragmatic approach, Glenn Erickson of DVD Talk wrote, “The reason Deathdream works is its superior dramatic staging. The actors are excellent, especially John Marley and Lynn Carlin.”

Deathdream seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance in recent years, accumulating an 83% positive rating on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes and being spoken about at length (and favourably) on influential sites like Macabre Daily, Wicked Horror and Dead Central, whose only complaint was that there was, “Too much horror in one film.”

Trivia Corner:

Richard Backus was cast as Andy because he was able to create a ‘silent stare of intense hatred’ on demand for the casting agent, the creepy facial expression coming into play frequently during filming. Christopher Walken, who ironically went on to make his name in Vietnam flick The Deer Hunter, was also considered for the role.

The Best X2 Review in the World EVER!

Today I’d like to share with you one of the most comprehensive, insightful, and generally awesome reviews I’ve ever had for X2: Another collection of Horror on Amazon or anywhere else. Thank you, fluffyredfox, whoever you are!

I have really enjoyed this collection and note that it is number 2, so I will definitely be looking up the first in the series, along with the other novels that CMS has written; I really love the way they write.

Little Dead Girl:
Jeff has been seeing a ghost, not the sheet over the head kind or the spooky howling type.

There is a real sense of tongue in cheek in the writing and I love it, however in amongst that humour is the sad, lonely life of Jeff and the haunting little ghostie and her sad tale.

The build up in this story is amazing and the ending so knocked the socks off me, I was not expecting THAT.

An utterly brilliant way to start a group of short stories.

Is a tiny little antique shop in Portsmouth, run by the Needham family for generations, always just getting by on tourists income but shunned by the locals who have wild rumours and stories of murder and Satanism. However now it is in the hands of the last Needhams, Neil and he is as quiet and introverted as is possible.

Spread across four stories the Curiosities shop is a wonderment of a time gone by and in the small storage area the walls are still painted with the magic rituals used by his Grandfather.

Again the humour is snort out loud in this story but tinged with sadness. When an old man comes in one day looking for a certain book he gets more of a bargain than he hoped for.

Rosie loves her son Mark and her nightly routine of counting all his drunken paces from front door, to kitchen to bedroom come to an abrupt halt one night.

This tiny little story really gave me the shivers, well played CMS.

The Night Visitor:
Brian won’t hurt you, he just wants to watch you sleep and maybe move a few things around in your house – ok freaked out!

This strange little story just got weirder and freakier. The humour flipping to horror/sadness/gore is clearly a signature of CMS and what a brilliant talent to have, it catches you off guard every time.

Hero of the Day:
Nathan gets his 5mins of fame after diving into a burning house to try and save a baby.

This story gripped me from the start and I rushed through to the end only to be slapped in the face by the author. Fantastically written, no humour here only shock and horror. The last line is the killer blow.

Embracing Solitude:
Rick is finishing up his latest novel and on a whim decides to brave the long drive home to his doting wife, having shut himself up in a caravan for 10 weeks he was ready for some home loving.

The tragic destination was an unusual turn up in this collection so far, whilst horrific and heartfelt it was not in keeping with the current feel of the book; but still immensely well written.

Treat Night:
Stuarts love for his wife Valerie is almost obsessive, but not just in a young love kind of way, there is an undertone of something more sinister.

A meal out at their favourite restaurant soon turns sour when she goes missing, as Stuart is frantic in trying to find her no-one else apparently is, the ending was sort of half a surprise for me but not unexpected.

Whilst no humour in this story the building terror is easily conveyed from Stuart to the reader as CMS has built such a rounded view of their life.

Handsome Jack:
Rhys and Mark, childhood buddies, are having a drink in a (supposed) haunted pub. Fired up earlier in the night by the Landlord, when something does go bump in the night things start to get a little hairy.

With furniture flying and scratching noises going on what friend wouldn’t run screaming for the door! The last line is fabulous!

Tiny Little Vampires (flash version):
Lewis was having a bad few days with mosquitoes. CMS does an amazing job of describing the itchy feeling, the resulting skin trauma and that nauseating buzz sound to the point where I was feeling like I needed to swat something.

Not sure I would go as far as Lewis though, yuck. Another totally brilliant short story with a gory ending.

Tito and Jimmy are trying to work out what happened as they look upon a motorcycle accident but also what they are going to do with the pile of mush that was once a human.

As part of the “freelance” local Brazilian ambulance service they can decide to where to take the body for what price, not to mention for what use!

When something/one starts a tap, tapping in the back of the ambulance poor old Jimmy must have a peek back there. It seems that “Roadkill” as Tito has christened him belonged to a gang whose motto was “live forever” and he appears to be trying to do so.

The gore is so prolific that it became comedic for me, although I am weird. The exchanges between Tito and Jimmy in their disbelief and solution to this problem were also gigglesome.

X2: Another Collection of Horror is available now, along with my other X books.

MyDarkside(dot)com @ Phantasmagoria

MyDarkside(dot)com, quite possibly one of the most brutal short stories I have ever written, is included in issue 22 (Spring 2023) of Phantasmagoria magazine, lovingly edited, as always, by the irrepressible Trevor Kennedy.

The bumper 290-page issue also includes features on the finale of the much-loved Supernatural series and the movie Audrey Rose, an interview with Paul Tremblay, the usual mix of artwork and reviews, and fiction by Graham Masterton & Karolina Mogielska, David A Riley, Marion Pitman and Josh Strnad, to name but a few, so I am in some pretty esteemed company! I am especially delighted to share an issue with Rev Lionel Fanthorpe of Fortean TV fame.

MyDarkside(dot)com was jointly inspired by our obsession with the internet and the rise of the found footage movie genre. When I first started submitting it for publication, I stylised the title as the name of a website with an actual dot (.), instead of (dot), and the ‘www’ at the front. I thought I was being original, but soon found out why nobody else was doing it when a very nice editor pointed out that naming your story after a fictitious website was a one-way ticket into people’s junk mail folders. Fudge. At least it explained the lack of responses. As a writer you expect a certain percentage of rejections. It comes with the job. But to hear nothing at all, from anyone, for a couple of years, was a bit weird. Never mind. We live and learn, and the story found a suitable home in the end.

You can find the issue for sale on Phantasmagoria’s stonking new website, which is packed full of great content and special offers.

Miss it at your peril.

RetView #68 – The Birds (1963)

Title: The Birds

Year of Release: 1963

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Length: 119 mins

Starring: Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright

Few films can legitimately lay claim to being bona fide classics, though most of The Birds’ accolades came after the fact. In 2016 it was deemed to be culturally, historically or aesthetically significant enough to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the US Library of Congress. By then it had also won the Horror Hall of Fame award (1991) and been voted the seventh-scariest movie of all time by a poll carried out on the British public by Channel 5 (2006). The film has been tremendously influential, having been referenced by filmmakers Guillermo del Toro and John Carpenter, among others and on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes it has a 95% rating, the critics consensus stating; “Proving once again that build-up is the key to suspense, Hitchcock successfully turned birds into some of the most terrifying villains in horror history.”

All this praise is remarkable considering that the movie was panned by several notable critics on its release. Writing for the New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann called it, “the worst thriller of his [Hitchcock’s] that I can remember,” while Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the famous director, “Was once widely quoted as saying he hated actors. After his 1960 ‘Psycho’ and now ‘The Birds,’ it must be fairly obvious that he has extended his abhorrence to the whole human race.”

On the surface the plot is simple enough, but the real beauty is hidden in the complicated interplay between the primary characters. The movie opens in a San Francisco pet shop, where carefree socialite Melanie Daniels (Hedren) encounters Mitch (Taylor) who is looking to buy some lovebirds for his sister’s birthday. For some bizarre reason she pretends to work there, and Mitch plays along, though he recognizes her from a previous court appearance. When the jig is up, Melanie asks how he knows her name, to which he replies, “A little birdie told me.” Brilliant.

At around 29-minutes, after being attacked by a legitimate angry bird, Melanie holds a cotton ball against her wound. The way her hand and forearm are positioned makes the appearance of a bird, with a ring on her finger forming the eye. Tippi Hedren later confirmed this, and said that Hitchcock had instructed her to insert subtle hints about the upcoming bird attack throughout the film.When Mitch leaves, Melanie buys the lovebirds and follows him all the way to Bodega Bay where he’s visiting his parents, only to give him the birds and tell him that she loathes him, none of which is remotely weird, apparently, even in the sixties.

Things get spicy when Melanie meets Mitch’s previous love interest, a schoolteacher called Annie (Pleshette) and his overbearing mother (Cartwright) who doesn’t think anyone is good enough for her son. Shades of Psycho there. Amidst all this simmering tension, it’s almost a relief when some birds go rogue and start dive bombing people to death. We never really find out why, though Hitchcock later said in an interview that the birds rise up against the humans as punishment for taking nature for granted. The only context we are given in the film is a radio report heard near the end which indicates the Bodega Bay attack is not an isolated incident and the problem is so bad that the military might be forced to intervene.

What many modern viewers may not pick up on are the hidden implications in the plot and nods to popular culture. The Birds was made shortly after Chinese leader Mao Zedong ordered all the sparrows in the country to be killed as part of the ‘four pests’ campaign during the Great Leap Forward because they ‘ate too much grain.’ Starting in 1958, hundreds of millions of birds were killed causing an unmitigated environmental disaster known as the Great Famine (1959-61) which ultimately led to the deaths of an estimated 45-million people. Too late Mao realized that he sparrows didn’t just eat grain, they were also nature’s pest control, and without them locusts and other insects were allowed to run riot decimating crops and disrupting the area’s fragile ecosystem. With this fresh in the news at the time, the insinuation was that though calling in the military to kill the birds might solve the immediate problem (angry birds) it would spark a similar chain of events in America which could lead to the downfall of Western civilisation. It is assumed that the movie does not finish with the usual THE END graphic, because Hitchcock wanted to give the impression of continuing, unending terror.

The Birds was loosely based on the story of the same name by Daphne du Maurier which appeared in her 1952 collection The Apple Tree. Coincidentally enough, on August 18th 1961, as Hitchcock was developing the movie, there was a mass bird attack on the seaside town of Capitola, which was substituted for Bodega Bay in the movie. It was an early purveyor of the much-overlooked genre known as ‘eco horror’ which usually feature animals or nature striking back and taking their revenge on humans. Other examples include Jaws (1975), Cujo (1983), Lake Placid (1999), Black Water (2007) and even Doomwatch (1972). Hedren was 33 years old at the time of filming (and ironically had a five-year old daughter called Melanie, as in Melanie Griffith. It’s unclear whether Hitchcock deliberately gave her character the same name) but was listed as being 28 in the press release because 33 was considered too old for a starlet to be making her big screen debut. Over the years numerous salacious rumours have come to light regarding Hitchcock’s treatment of her, the situation itself providing the storyline for a HBO movie called The Girl (2012) in which Hedren was played by Sienna Miller.

Trivia Corner:

When audiences left the U.K. premiere at the Odeon, Leicester Square, London, they were greeted by the sound of screeching and flapping birds from loudspeakers hidden in the trees to scare them further.

So Long Astoria @ Twenty!

“My favourite thing to do was run away.”

– Richard Hell

I can’t remember how I first discovered The Ataris, though it was probably through their cover of Boys of Summer, which was on heavy rotation on MTV at the time. I loved the original, but the cover was spiky, energetic, and had a harder edge. This was at the height of my pop punk phase, so I decided to take a punt and buy the album. That meant a trip to HMV in Cardiff, which was where you had to go to get anything cool if you lived in the south Wales valleys twenty years ago. That, or Spillers Records, which is still there and now the oldest independent record store in the world.

Kind of like weed, So Long Astoria was my gateway album, and for the next couple of years I feverishly set about collecting everything the Ataris had ever put out. I still do, though they’ve lapsed into a funk over the past few years and apart from the odd single, live recording and demo, haven’t released anything new since 2007, though they’ve been threatening a new album for a couple of years now. They’ve never been the most settled outfit, with lots of label and line-up changes, the only constant being singer/songwriter/guitarist Kris Roe.

So Long Astoria, which like all the best albums, is a snapshot in time. Whenever I play it, I am magically transported back to the summer of 2003. It was a special time. My first book had just come out to modest success, I’d left my factory job, which I’d held for almost a decade, and was on the verge of moving to Southampton to study journalism at uni. I’d been writing diligently for eight or nine years by that point, and the hard work was finally beginning to pay dividends. I was also trying to extricate myself from a very bruising three-year relationship that had turned decidedly toxic. In short, my whole world had been turned on its head. Whereas before, it was a world of drudgery and stifled dreams, now it was one of unlimited possibilities.

Looking back, that period felt a lot like a dream. Mostly, I felt a sense of freedom I’d never experienced before. I also felt lucky, and proud that my hard work was finally paying off. I was also slightly terrified. Change is always terrifying, especially when everything changes at the same time. It seemed like every day I had to make potentially life-changing decisions, and I was afraid of fucking things up. There was excitement for my new life, and a duty to navigate my ship responsibly, but there was also a yearning for the past, where my existence was more structured and conventional. I’d spent most of my life trying to break out of a box and when I finally managed it, I had no idea what to do next.

The group of songs on So Long Astoria all fit a certain mould. They are full of optimism, yet many are also tinged with sorrow or regret. It’s an album of new beginnings and second chances. It’s looking forward, but glancing behind with a plaintive, wistful gaze. That fits with the overall context of the album’s release, as it was the band’s major label debut (for Columbia Records) after spending their early career on smaller labels like Kung Fu and Fat Wreck Chords. The mood is encapsulated in the title, a reference to the classic eighties flick The Goonies which is set in a place called Astoria. Roe has said the album’s overall theme was inspired by the book Go Now by Richard Hell (who was a member of several notable punk bands including the Neon Boys, Television and The Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders) which alluded to the concept that memories are better than life itself. “I wanted this record to portray, that life is only as good as the memories we make,” Roe later explained, echoing the lyrics in the title track that kicks off the album.

The theme of escaping small town life and somehow making it big is carried onto the next song, Takeoffs and Landings, which is about the dissolution of a relationship and probably my favourite cut on the album. That and many other songs like Summer of ’79 and All you Can Ever Learn is What You already Know maintain the tempo and call to mind vintage Bouncing Souls or Sum 41. But they aren’t all spiky pop punk rockers. There is depth here, too. My Reply is about a hospitalized fan close to death and Unopened Letter to the World is an ode to American poet Emily Dickinson.

One of the key tracks is first single In this Diary, which was released on 11 February 2003 and later featured in teen heist comedy The Perfect Score. The below verse is pretty typical of the lyrical content:

I guess when it comes down to it
Being grown up isn’t half as fun as growing up
These are the best days of our lives
The only thing that matters is just following your heart
And eventually you’ll finally get it right

Some versions have a selection of bonus tracks on the end of the standard 13-track release. The pick of these for me is a remake of I Won’t Spend Another Night Alone, a song from the album Blue skies, Broken Hearts… Next 12 Exits, but A Beautiful Mistake, which came out as a b-side in some territories, and the cover of Rock n’ Roll High School by the Ramones are also worth checking out.

So Long Astoria was released on 4 March 2003 and was certified gold in America, selling over 700,000 copies. It sold 33,000 in its first week, debuting at number 24 on the Billboard 200. and charted at a slightly less impressive number 92 in the UK. I was hoping we’d get one of those deluxe 16-disc boxed set reissues, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. It wouldn’t really be necessary as the demos and live recordings from the era are available on the band’s Bandcamp page. After all this time, the album’s impact remains undimmed, especially among pop punk aficionados. The album was included at number 25 on Rock Sound’s 51 Most Essential Pop Punk Albums of All Time list. They later ranked it at number 97 on the list of best albums in their lifetime, and as recently as 2017 it was voted number 30 in Kerrang! Magazine’s list of Greatest Pop Punk Albums of all Time, the entry saying:

“While his powers have waned, Kris Roe’s skill with three chords and the truth was once second to virtually no-one. The Ataris’ So Long, Astoria is solid-gold evidence of that fact while their cover of Don Henley’s Boys Of Summer remains as good as (dare we say, even better than) the original.”

They are not wrong. Of all the album’s I have ever listened to, So Long Astoria is one I cherish most, and probably always will. If you’ve never heard it, go treat yourself.

RetView #67 – Xtro (1983)

Title: Xtro

Year of Release: 1983

Director: Harry Bromley Davenport

Length: 81 mins

Starring: Bernice Stegers, Philip Sayer, Simon Nash, Maryam d’Abo, Danny Brainin

If you watch a thousand sci-fi horror movies, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything else as bizarre and downright weird as this one. Tony (played with unsettling aplomb by a 10-year old Simon Nash who later wound up in Birds of a Feather) is a disturbed little boy badly affected by the sudden disappearance of his father three years earlier who he claims was taken by a bright light, the implication being that he was abducted by aliens. His mother (Stegers) and her new lover (Brainin), unwilling to accept the alien abduction theory, assume that he simply ran off. As you can probably imagine, everything is sent onto a tailspin when he reappears announcing ominously “I’m back.”

Truth be told, daddy (Sam Philips, played by Philip Sayer, who also appeared in The Hunger with David Bowie before tragically died of cancer just a few years later at the age of just 42) makes one heck of an entrance, bursting out of a woman’s horrifically distended belly fully-formed and chewing through an umbilical cord. All things considered, he makes a decent go of fitting back into the family, seemingly oblivious to the friction he causes, but his plans go somewhat awry when Tony finds him chowing down on his pet snake’s eggs. This isn’t long after the poor kid walks in on his mum bumping uglies with someone who wasn’t his dad, but he seems far more traumatised by this most recent event. And things only get weirder from there. When he makes amends with poor, traumatized Tony, Sam also sucks his blood, vampire-like, in the process passing on some rather impressive special powers which Tony uses to bring his toys to life. He then sends these toys, which are now magically life-size, to brutally murder an elderly neighbour who, upon finding Harry the pet snake in her salad, crushes it with a hammer and delivers it back in a plastic bag. He also sets them on Analise, the French au pair (d’Abo, who would go on to be a Bond girl in 1987’s The Living Daylights) and her boyfriend. In fact, Tony becomes increasingly belligerent as the movie progresses and is a right little twat by the end, when all the main characters converge at the holiday cottage where the initial disappearance occurred.

Upon its home video release in 1983, the film was subject of a prosecution case in relation to obscenity laws, and consequently got caught up in the whole ‘video nasty’ furore. Surprisingly, it had actually been passed uncut by the BBFC with a well-deserved ’18’ certificate. Several different endings were made, and which one you get depends on which version you see. A pair of sequels followed, Xtro II: The Second Encounter (1991) and Xtro 3: Watch the Skies (1995), neither of which bore any relation to the characters in the original. According to Wikipedia, in 2011, director Bromley-Davenport confirmed that a fourth instalment was in the works but 11 years on it is yet to be delivered, which maybe isn’t such a bad thing.

Writing for Starburst magazine, Alan Jones suggested that stegers had been ‘horribly mis-cast’ but went on to state that the special effects were “minor miracles of ingenuity” for their low budget and admired the movie for “trying so earnestly to resuscitate low budget exploitation sf/horror films in this country.” Variety found the film “too silly and underdeveloped in story values to expand beyond diehard fans” and that “Harry B Davenport builds little suspense and no thrills in a film devoid of stuntwork or action scenes. It’s just another “check out that makeup” exercise, consisting of brief scenes and poor continuity.”

Critic Roger Ebert absolutely panned the film, awarding it 1 of 4 stars, saying, “Most exploitation movies are bad, but not necessarily painful to watch. They may be incompetent, they may be predictable, they may be badly acted or awkwardly directed, but at some level the filmmakers are enjoying themselves and at least trying to entertain an audience. ‘Xtro’ is an exception, a completely depressing, nihilistic film, an exercise in sadness. It’s movies like this that give movies a bad name.”

Retrospectively, TV Guide went one better (or worse) in ‘awarding’ the film 0 of 4 stars, calling it, “A vile exercise in grotesque special effects” and “An excuse to parade all manner of perversities across the screen,” further stating that, “Not only is this disgusting, it lacks anything that remotely resembles suspense.”

Easy to see, then, how it warranted three sequels.

Trivia Corner:

Despite never having met him, Queen guitarist Brian May was so affected by Swansea-born actor Philip Sayer’s premature death that he wrote the song Just One Life, which appeared on his 1992 solo album Back to the Light, in his honour.

Previous RetView entries can be found HERE.

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