Author Archives: cmsaunders

About cmsaunders

I write stuff. Pretty much any stuff. My dark fiction has appeared in Asphalt Jungle, Raw Nerve, Roadworks, Dark Valentine, Screams of Terror, Shallow Graves, Fantastic Horror, The Literary Hatchet, Gore and numerous anthologies. My first book, Into the Dragon's Lair – A Supernatural History of Wales was published back in 2003, and I've worked extensively in the freelance journalism industry, contributing features to numerous international publications including Fortean Times, Bizarre, Urban Ink, Loaded, Record Collector, Maxim, and a regular column to the Western Mail newspaper. I lived in China for over five years where I taught English during my search for enlightenment, before moving back to the UK in January 2013 to work as staff writer on Nuts magazine. Later, I was senior writer on Forever Sports magazine and associate editor at Coach magazine, before leaving to chance my arm in the world of pro freelance. In recent times I've devoted more time to dark fiction, my latest releases being Human Waste (Deviant Dolls Publications), Tethered (Terror Tract Publishing) and X4, my fourth anthology of short fiction. I also edit, copy write, proofread and ghost write, and drink far too much craft beer.

Retview #47 – The Grudge (2004)

Title: The Grudge

Year of Release: 2004

Director: Takashi Shimizu

Length: 91 mins

Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Bill Pullman, KaDee Strickland, Takako Fuji

First up, let’s address the big fuck off elephant in the room and put to bed any lingering speculation; this is the 2004 Hollywood remake of the 2002 J-Horror classic Ju-On: The Grudge, not the original (though both were written and directed by Takashi Shimizu). I was torn as to which version to write about for this series, this one winning on account of having Sarah Michelle Gellar in it who, when this first came out, was riding the crest of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-shaped wave. Yes, I’m that shallow. This project came at an interesting junction in her career as she was trying to capitalize on her Buffy fame but in serious danger of being typecast as a modern day scream queen after earlier roles in the teen classics I know What You Did Last Summer and Scream 2 (both 1997).

Hiring Shimizu for this project was a masterstroke, as the movie largely keeps it’s Japanese flavour. Being filmed in Tokyo and featuring several notable Japanese stars also helped. Yuya Ozeki, Takako Fuji and Takashi Matsuyama all appeared in the two Japanese films upon which this was based, reprising their roles as the doomed Saeki family. The movie is also notable for an appearance by Ted raimi, younger brother of Sam, one of the film’s producers and creator of the legendary Evil Dead series. This version of The Grudge distributed by Columbia Pictures was itself followed by two sequels in Grudge 2 (2006) and Grudge 3 (2009), the latter going straight-to-video, but has very little to do with The Grudge (2020) which is known in the trade as a sidequel, a totally different movie (with the same name) taking place concurrently with events in the original series. Is that clear? Good. Let’s move on.

Somewhat unusually, the movie is told in a non-linear fashion and features several storylines that end up converging. The first thing we see is expat college professor Peter Kirk (Pullman) jump out of a window to his death, which instantly draws the viewer in and makes them ask WTF is going on. It soon transpires that a local housewife, Kayako (Fuji), had fallen hopelessly in love with him and been murdered by her jealous husband as a result, along with their young son, Toshio. From here on in, Gellar steals the show as Karen Davis, an American expat living in Tokyo with her boyfriend (Behr) charged with filling in for another worker, Yoko, who seems to have neglected her duties in looking after dementia-suffering patient Emma. At the house, Karen encounters the ghost of Toshio sealed up in a wardrobe and witnesses Kayako’s spirit descending from the ceiling to claim Emma. All very unsettling. When the police arrive they find the bodies of the Williams family who had unwittingly moved into the cursed house in the attic, along with Kayako’s jawbone, and the family of vengeful ghosts set out to tear it up some more. Watch out for the infamous shower scene which is probably second only to the original Psycho (1960) in the all-time list of infamous shower scenes. Now, if you found the above synopsis confusing at all, critic Roger Ebert simplifies things massively in his scathing 1-star review, “There is a haunted house, and everybody who enters it will have unspeakable things happen to them.” There you are, then.

Despite this, and a few other negative reviews, The Grudge was a huge initial success. On its opening weekend alone, it grossed $39 million, becoming the first horror film since House on Haunted Hill (1999) to top the Halloween box office and, until the 2009 Friday the 13th remake, had the highest grossing opening weekend in history for a horror remake. On May 17, 2005, the unrated director’s cut was released on DVD. Notably, this version included several scenes that were cut (including one where Takeo drags Kayako’s body through the house whilst carrying a box cutter, implying this was the instrument he used to kill her) from the original in order to achieve a lower rating from the MPAA. Incidentally, this version of the film was used on the theatrical run in Japan, which only goes to show just how hardcore Japanese audiences are. If you are a fan of J-Horror you might appreciate this or this.

Trivia Corner:

Jason Behr and KaDee Strickland met on set and began dating due to their mutual interest in Japanese culture (which is why they accepted their roles in the film) eventually marrying two years later despite not sharing any scenes together in the film.


The Promotion Experiment

Like most hybrid or indie writers, the most difficult things for me is making sales. Writing is the easy part. They say you have to spend money to make money, so for the past three or four months I’ve been doing an experiment; instead of spending all my spare dosh on booze and kebabs (can’t go out in the midst of a global pandemic anyway) I decided to put all the money I make from writing during that period back into writing. Or more specifically, into marketing and promotion.

As you may be aware, there a hundreds of promo sites and services out there and most of them cost money. Bookbub is the undisputed king, which I wrote about before, but as far as the multitude of others are concerned, it’s hard to know which ones are truly worth the money and which aren’t. Hence this little experiment. There is little scientific basis behind it. I didn’t do a ton of research, I just looked around to see how much various promo sites cost and what people were saying about them, and tried a few. I’m going to be completely honest and transparent with my figures, so don’t laugh. Believe me, I’m well aware that some people out there sell more books me.

It’s a sad fact that one way to grab new readers is to get on your knees and beg them to read your work for free. Though it’s not really free for them, they’re still giving up their time and energy. Giving away free books is a controversial marketing technique in itself. Some writers feel it devalues the product, and makes things worse for everybody. If readers get used to being given free books, why would they ever bother buying another book again? I can see their point, but in my experience giving away freebies has been hugely beneficial. To clarify, I’m talking about free Kindle promos here, rather than permafrees or books given away on newsletter sign-up. For starters, people who would never normally read my books are given the opportunity to check them out, and if they like my stuff it might encourage them to pick up another of my books. They might even leave a review somewhere. Plus, an increase in downloads, free or otherwise, improves your author ranking and skews various algorithms in your favour, all of which adds to your visibility. For obvious reasons, if you’re going to run a free promo on one of your books you’re better off making it one of a series, or at least having a healthy back catalogue.

CONFESSION: I also write rip-roaringly, thigh-slappingly funny travel books under a super secret pseudonym. It’s difficult to promote something when you can’t put your own name to it, so because THAT GUY had a new release a while back (book 3 in a series), I thought I’d invest the lion’s share of my budget into giving him a little boost. The Fussy Librarian is one of the better-known services but they aren’t cheap, and some strategizing is required to make it worthwhile. The series is about China, so to capitalize on the Western media coverage I scheduled the promotion to run during Chinese New Year. I made the first book in the main series free, left book two up at normal price (1.99) and put book three up for pre-order at a reduced 0.99. Then I paid a whopping $48 for a spot on the FL site and in their ‘non-fiction’ newsletter blast, and waited to see what would happen.

By the way, spots in different FL newsletters have different prices, related to the amount of subscribers each one has. But if you’re a first-time user, you can input the code 10OFF at check-out to get $10 off the regular price, which for me knocked the fee down to $38. Not to put too fine a point on it, the results were incredible. On the day of the promotion, my book was downloaded 1016 times, and a further 258 times over the next few days. Okay, the pessimists might say that all I succeeded in doing was give away over £2500 worth of books. But if only 1% of those who downloaded it leaves a review or even just a rating (optimistic, I know) I’ll be more than happy. In addition, during the same time period the second book in the series sold a dozen copies and I picked up six pre-orders for the third.

Verdict: Hit

EreaderIQ have a list of requirements almost as long as your arm. Novellas and collections are ‘unlikely’ to be accepted, your books should have at least five reviews and should be free or deeply discounted. A place in their email blasting in the ‘horror’ category which, according to the site, reaches 9,500 subscribers, costs $10 (other categories have different rates). I put my recently reissued and revamped novel Sker House forward for this, which was duly accepted. The day of the listing it sold 9 copies, and the day after it sold another 3. Not bad. But because I had to discount the book so much, I made a slight loss on my investment.

Verdict: Partial Hit

Readfreely are less particular. $6 (gold level, again there are different options) buys your book a spot in their newsletter and promotion across their social media platforms. It’s difficult to quantify how big their reach is, but as they have less than 4,000 Twitter followers, which is a great indicator, I’m guessing it isn’t great. I put X4, my latest collection, forward for this one at it’s regular price of £1.99 (though I said it was being discounted from 3.99. Shoot me). X4 sold one solitary copy on the designated date, which sucks, but over the next few days sales of my other X books increased and I sold several of each, which may or may not be related. I’m not convinced either way.

Verdict: Miss

Because this is one of the most cost-effective options, I repeated the process with one of my pseudonym’s rip-roaringly, thigh-slappingly funny travel books. The results were similar.

Verdict: Miss

There are two connected sites, Freebooksy and Bargain Booksy. One is for free books, and the other, surprise surprise, is for bargain (reduced) books. I opted for the latter, and paid $25 to have X4 included in an email blast to 77,000 subscribers. On the day of promotion, X4 sold a dozen copies and, mirroring the pattern in the last promo, my other x books also benefitted from a sales bump and sold another dozen or so between them.

Verdict: Hit

The last, and most recent thing I tried was Amazon ads. I’m a complete novice at this. You need a flipping degree in economics and marketing just to work out which key words to use. Like most things it’s a case of trial and error. Basically, you set a daily budget, choose your settings, and are then billed per click. I set a budget of $5 per day for 5 consecutive days on my psuedonym’s latest release, which resulted in just five clicks at a total cost of about $3.40 and no sales. Then I ran a similar promo on X4 with a higher budget over a longer period of time and got similar results but for a bigger outlay (around $18). It was at this pint I realized I must either be doing something wrong or Amazon ads, like Facebook ads, were a complete waste of time. I hear stories about people making a killing from Amazon ads. I might try it again at some point in the future after I learn more about it but on this occasion, I think I’ll lay off them.

Verdict: Miss

So, all things considered, it was a mixed bag of results. I must admit that in the back of my mind I’d hoped all this effort would at least give my Amazon ranking a lasting boost. But the moment I stopped actively promoting, my sales virtually flatlined. Turns out worthwhile promotion of any kind is expensive, but if you don’t promote you don’t get any sales and you hemorrhage money anyway. There are, of course, reasonably effective ways of marketing your work for free using social media and cross-promotion, if you have the time and the energy. Maybe I’ll write another post about that at some point. In the meantime, I hope other indie writers, who may be as confused and bewildered as me, can get a few pointers from this post. It all boils down to doing your research, knowing your target market, and choosing the right places to invest based on your budget and readership.

I think.


Eyeless on Scare Street

A couple of months ago one of my short stories, Roach, about a cockroach farm in China (it’s a thing), appeared in the anthology Night Terrors 12 via Scare Street Publishing. I’m pleased to announce that as Scare Street continue their all-out assault on the world of horror fiction, this month sees the release of Night Terrors 14, which includes my creepfest Eyeless.

Eyeless is a gruesome little tale about an elderly gent who is moved into a care home where the residents receive visits from a mysterious supernatural entity after lights out. My intention with this was not just to write a straight-forward horror story, but also a dressed-up disquisition on life and the slow-death ageing process that we all have to endure, if we’re lucky.

Also in this volume you will find a realtor desperately tries to sell a haunted house before it consumes her body and soul, a young couple’s vacation at a campground takes an ominous turn when something menacing lurks nearby, and a haunting melody leads a curious girl to a bittersweet tale of love and loss. Because when night falls, a dance of death begins. And once the music ends, the only sounds you hear are your own screams of terror.

As always, Scare Street have assembled a killer cast of authors, including my old buddy and peerless sick, twisted bitch (she likes it when I call her that), Renee Miller, the full table of contents reading something like this:


1. Marshmallow Murderer by Melissa Gibbo
2. Organ Manipulator by Justin Boote
3. Camping with the Carnival by Jason E. Maddux
4. Serenade by Craig Crawford
5. Sold by Renee Miller
6. Gram’s Garden by J. L. Royce
7. The Gift that Keeps on Giving by Peter Kelly
8. The Womb by Edwin Callihan
9. Eyeless by C. M. Saunders
10. Dark Home by Simon Lee-Price
11. The Wooden Box by P. D. Williams
12. The Limb Farmer by Caleb Stephens
13. Ouroboros by Melissa Burkley
14. Crow’s Books by Ron Ripley

Night Terrors 14 is out now on paperback and ebook.


RetView #46 – Threads (1984)

Title: Threads

Year of Release: 1984

Director: Mick Jackson

Length: 112 mins

Starring: Karen Meaghr, Reece Dinsdale

If you grew up in the 1980’s, you inevitably grew up in the looming shadow of the Cold War and all the associated bullshit. The prospect of nuclear Armageddon was never far from anyone’s thoughts, the tragedy being that none of us even knew it at the time. That highly-strung, stressed-out climate, the antithesis (or the antidote) to eighties excess and extravagance, was just normal to us. We didn’t know anything different. When Frankie Goes to Hollywood hit the charts with Two Tribes and the news was full of Thatcher and Reagan having crisis meetings, not many of us could put the pieces together and grasp the true implications. Only in retrospect are we able to put things into context, and see that we were born into a world of fear and oppression. This acclaimed BBC film does a pretty good job of depicting your worst nightmare in that it shows, “The full horror of nuclear war and its aftermath.” In many ways it served as a British version of The Day After, which had been released the year before and was nominated for no less than seven BAFTA awards, winning four of them.

Jimmy (Dinsdale, perhaps best known for his role in the Brit comedy classic Home to Roost, which debuted the following year) is a working class lad living with his parents and trying to scrape a living in Sheffield. Nothing glamorous about that. All he wants is to build a life for him and his pregnant girlfriend, Ruth (Meaghr). But rising tensions in the Middle East trigger the apocalypse, and soon World War Three between the US and the Soviet Union erupts. Britain is caught in the crossfire, with places like Sheffield in particular being targets because of their industrial heritage.

After an unremarkable opening sequence, despite its heavy use of stock footage the middle section of the film is gritty, fast-moving and harrowing, mirroring what (I imagine) it would be like if anything like this ever befell us in real life. On seeing a mushroom cloud in the distance, one of Jimmy’s colleagues looks up says, and in a tone filled with equal parts wonder and resignation, “They’ve done it.” Amidst the ensuing carnage, East and West trade blows in a seismic race to destroy each other and we are witness to widespread devastation, confusion, and blind panic, all summed up in a scene where we see a woman pissing herself in the street, which nicely demonstrates her newfound “who cares now?” attitude.

The scale of the carnage means that simply waiting for the emergency services to restore order is out of the question, chaos ensues, and it is up to those left in the wreckage to find ways to survive. For me, this is where the movie really comes into its own. Most of the population is dying slowly as a result of radiation poisoning, the power grid is down, and dwindling food stocks are controlled by a decimated central government typified by one official who says, “What’s the point of wasting food on people who are going to die anyway?”

The hangry masses are soon deposited in detention camps, Jimmy goes looking for Ruth and promptly disappears, while Ruth herself teams up with one of Jimmy’s old workmates and chows down on a dead sheep they find in the rubble. We never see Jimmy again. Instead, for the rest of the film we are left wondering what might have happened to him, this crude but effective plot device giving the viewer some insight into the uncertainty Ruth must be feeling. Months pass, Ruth has her baby, and the country struggles to achieve some sense of normality amid the misery and destruction. There is something to be said about the strength and resilience of the human spirit, yet there can be no escaping the futility to it all. The prize for survival is another day of hardship and despair.

Raw, powerful, and thought-provoking, Threads is a snapshot both of how things used to be and how things could have been, illustrating the latent fear that permeated society and, by extension, popular culture, in the heady eighties. This is grim in the extreme, but war is never glamorous or pretty and Threads does an excellent job of conveying that harsh reality. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw hailed it as a “masterpiece,” going on to say that, “It wasn’t until I saw Threads that I found something on screen that could make me break out in a cold, shivering sweat,” while Sam Troy of Empire gave the film a perfect score, stating that it, “Teaches an unforgettable lesson in true horror.”

Trivia Corner

As part of their preparation, writer Barry Hines and director Mick Jackson travelled extensively throughout the UK and US consulting leading doctors, scientists and psychologists gathering intel to help them recreate the most realistic depiction of nuclear war possible. At one point Hines visited a Home Office training centre for ‘official survivors’ which, he said, showed just, “how disorganised [post-war reconstruction] would be.”


If You’ve Ever Eaten Toad…

People often ask me why I don’t write more love stories. I’ve tried it once or twice and people still died, which is probably down to my intensely nihilistic interpretation of love. It’s supposed to hurt, right? It’s supposed to be destructive, or else it isn’t real. Right? Anyway, when people start dying I get confused about whether it’s a love story or a horror story. This particular effort, however, is (or was) my dirty little secret. A love story where nobody gets killed. Who would’ve thunk it? I was so embarrassed by it that I refused to put my name to it for years, and how it came about is a story in itself.

I wrote the first draft back in 2011 or so when I was an English teacher in Xiangtan, China. One day, one of my students asked to see me after class. I agreed, thinking she had a test and wanted some advice or a pep talk or something. But nope, she wanted to tell me about something happening in her life which would change it forever, and made me promise to share her story when she was ‘gone.’

She was ‘gone’ barely a few weeks later, packed off against her wishes to marry a doctor in Germany who had the financial ability to give her family a good life. I never saw or heard from her again. Her story was equal parts touching, sad, and tragic, and I hope I did it justice. At least I kept my promise to her.

The student’s story makes up the core of If You’ve Ever eaten Toad, You Would Know, which is told from her perspective, but the title comes from something the girlfriend I had around the same time told me. This is another sad story, so get ready.

When she was growing up in rural China her family were very poor. She said she knew when times were especially hard, because that was when her mother made chicken soup. Not so bad, you might think. Only years later did she realize the chicken soup wasn’t made from chicken, but from toads her parents caught in the countryside around their house. Even then, most of the meat went to her elder brother, boys being traditionally more valued than girls on account of their higher earning potential.

The title became a multi-layered metaphor for enduring hardships, sacrificing your own hopes and dreams to appease others, and making the best of things. Having eaten a lot of toad myself, both metaphorically and literally, I can tell you it really does taste a bit like chicken. If you’ve ever eaten toad, you would know.

One of the editors at new online lit mag The Quiet Reader called commented the story is, “A lovely insider’s look at Chinese culture loaded with detail and nuance.”

That was nice to hear.

If You’ve Ever Eaten Toad, You Would Know, is available to read FREE in Issue 3 (May 2021) of The Quiet Reader now.


Roach on Scare Street!

Roach, my ‘creature feature’ short story, is included in the new anthology, Night Terrors Volume 12 on Scare Street Publishing.

Here’s the ToC:

1. Cross Words by Peter Cronsberry
2. Hybrid by Justin Boote
3. Pipe Dreams by William Sterling
4. “For My Next Trick…” by Bryan Clark
5. Blood Debt by Susan E. Rogers
6. Smudge the Head by Kyle Winkler
7. See Me by Charles Welch
8. Half Larva, Will Travel by Andrey Pissantchev
9. Just We Two by Shell St. James
10. Caustic Whispers by Zach Friday
11. Roach by C. M. Saunders
12. Unarmed by Warren Benedetto
13. Gwen Speaks by Ron Ripley

I wrote the first draft of Roach in the autumn of 2019 when I was teaching at a college in Guangzhou, southern China. There are a lot of cockroaches in Guangzhou. The nucleus of the idea came from a news item I read about Chinese cockroach farms.

I ended up doing a ton of research and writing an article for Fortean Times magazine about it. fascinating stuff. These farms breed millions and millions of the little critters, the official line being that they are used in Chinese medicine. As a bi-product, they can also be used in waste disposal and even as a food source. Who knows? The whole thing, like most things in China, is shrouded in secrecy. This has led to speculation that these genetically modified insect armies could be weaponised, though probably not in the way described in the story.

As if cockroaches weren’t scary enough, right?

Night Terrors Vol 12 is out now on ebook and paperback.


Retview #45 – The Beast Must Die! (1974)

RetView #45

Title: The Beast Must Die

Year of Release: 1974

Director: Paul Annett

Length: 89 mins

Starring: Anton Diffring, Calvin Lockhart, Marlene Clark, Charles Gray, Peter Cushing

As regular readers of the world-renowned Retview series will know, I’m a sucker for a good werewolf movie. Or even a bad one. You could say werewolves are my favourite mythical supernatural beastie, as evidenced by previous instalments covering An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, Dog Soldiers, and Hound of the Baskervilles. Okay, spoiler alert, that last one turned out to be more of a massive painted dog than a werewolf, but the viewer doesn’t know that until right at the very end when Sherlock Holmes helpfully breaks it all down. Ironically, Peter Cushing, the actor who played Holmes in that classic pops up again here in a role so fitting that it could have been (and perhaps was) written especially for him. Even before the opening credits kick in, the brief is laid bare with a bold voiceover proclaiming, “This film is a detective story in which you are the detective. The question is not, ‘Who is the murderer?’ but, ‘Who is the werewolf?’

Dum, dum, DUM!

And we’re off. Millionaire Tom Newcliffe (Lockhart) has invited an eclectic bunch of acquaintances including an artist, a famous pianist, an archaeologist and a diplomat to his mansion in rural England, every inch of which has been placed under surveillance by a high-tech security system featuring CCTV, motion-detectors and all manner of other (then) advanced technological wizardry. In time, Newcliffe and his wife (Clark) reveal to the group that one of their collected number is a werewolf, and the reason for the soiree is to find out who it is and then kill it, hence the title.

And so the fun begins.

All manner of lycanthropic lore is then called upon in a concerted attempt to uncover the beast in question, from using the wolfsbane flower to silver bullets. Needless to say a few suspects get eaten along the way, along with someone’s dog, when the werewolf goes on the rampage and starts steadily reducing the list of suspects. In fact, it probably can’t believe it’s luck. As intimated earlier, it is then up to the viewer to solve the mystery and unmask the beast.

Like Dr Terror’s House of Horrors almost a decade before, the Beast Must Die was made by Amicus Studios, a production company based at Shepperton Studios which flourished between 1962 and 1977, and came near the end of their reign. This was an era when horror movies were just beginning to come into their own, and many studios tried to be innovative and push the boundaries in a variety of ways. This particular effort was marketed as a horror mystery, and challenged the viewer to uncover the identity of the werewolf by picking up clues along the way and distinguishing them from the multitude of red herrings typical of 1970s cinema.

Conversely, near the climax there is a 30-second semi-interactive ‘werewolf break’ where viewers are encouraged to put their momney where their mouths are and name their suspect, which you can see would provoke some discourse between viewers. Though it also heavily features elements drawn from elsewhere, The Beast Must Die is based on the short story ‘There shall be No Darkness’ by American sci-fi writer James Blish, which was published in the pulp magazine thrilling Wonder Stories.

Despite a campy, seventies feel exasperated by a soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place in Shaft and some gloriously hammed-up acting, since it’s release, The Beast Must Die has enjoyed several re-issues, most notably in 2006, and garnered some generally favourable contemporary reviews mostly along the lines of, “Absolute Cushing classic,” and “Cracking little horror film that deserves a wider audience,” all of which which make it the very epitomization of a cult classic. An alternate version of the film omitting the ‘werewolf break,’ of which Annett was reportedly never a fan (he blamed the whole thing on producer Milton Subotsky), was later released under the title Black Werewolf (which rather gives a lot away) and you can watch the full movie, including the controversial ‘werewolf break,’ RIGHT HERE.

GO HERE for more RetView entries.

Trivia Corner:

Due to the miniscule production budget, the ‘werewolf’ was played by a German Shepherd kitted out in shaggy dark fur to give it a larger, more ‘otherworldly’ look.


X4 – Review

This could be my favourite review ever, so I copied it from Goodreads to share with you. Thanks, Bruce!

Getting this out of the way. I know C.M. Saunders can tell a good story. The X Omnibus is my bookcase. That’s a sign I’ve really loved what he wrote. He made the top 10 of books read last year from the GoodReads account. This is now volume #4 of stories which cover the mindscape of possibilities where individuals meet the weird/strange/terrifying. One is very short, and the others are short story length which you can catch in those brief moments the world allows you to think.

To help you understand how the stories run, think of this visual:

Two fireflies flitting around a central core, which is the story itself. One firefly is the character with who they are and their thought processes, as in how they think. The other firefly is the landscape they are connected to, the matte painting they become involved in. You get to know the character and landscape and it becomes a fun process in how they both mix together. Though it’s on the verge of the fantastic, something resembling an X File, it becomes a natural mix. And he offers an Afterword to tell you something of the background of the stories, good reader/writer connections. Good stories here.

Bruce Blanchard, March 4th 2020

You can find the original review HERE.

X4 is out now. 

X4


Bruce Blogs #3 – My Top 10 Live Recordings

Any Springsteen aficionado will tell you that his official studio output only tells half the story. The Boss has been touring for over 45 years and played many thousands of shows, most of which have been meticulously logged and recorded by his fervent fanbase. Make no mistake, venturing into Springsteen live recording land is a daunting prospect, and no place for the faint-hearted. For that reason, I’ve decided to make this list to help you navigate. This isn’t supposed to be a definitive list of the best Springsteen live recordings available, because I haven’t heard them all. Instead, think of it as my personal Top 10. Like any list, it’s subjective, but hopefully it will give you a starting point.

Five or six years ago, this would’ve been a list of bootlegs. But then The Boss, or more likely one of his management team, saw a huge opportunity and started selling professionally-produced and packaged live concert recordings on a variety of formats virtually as and when they happen. This had the simultaneous effect of virtually wiping out the bootleggers overnight and creating another considerable revenue stream in one fell swoop. They are even opening up the archives and releasing classic concerts remastered and, where necessary, restored. Genius. It’s a winner for me, because now I instantly download bunches of MP3 files which cost less than £8 for over three hours of music instead of paying £60-plus for a bootleg which sounded like it had been recorded in the back of a van and took seven months to arrive by post. You can check out the existing archive of live recordings HERE.

  1. Brooklyn, New York, April 25th 2016

Let’s start proceedings with a show from The 2016 River tour, and I think the first I ever acquired from the (then) new-fangled Springsteen Live Archive site when it first went up. Having listened to so many sketchy boots over the years I was dubious at first, but blown away by the sound and overall production quality. During this leg of the tour, Bruce and the E Street band were playing the seminal River album (which Bruce refers to here as his ‘coming of age’ record) in its entirety from start to finish, with a few hits and deep cuts tacked onto the end. A bit predictable perhaps, even though many of the tracks are arranged differently and extended far beyond their studio limitations, and Bruce himself evidently soon got bored and started mixing things up. This show is notable for being the last with that rigid format. Oh, and a primo Prince tribute in the form of a storming version of Purple Rain.

  1. The Schottenstein Centre, Ohio, 31st July 2005

One from leftfield. Devils & Dust was a weird tour. The stripped-down album had a lot in common with its predecessors Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, but the tour, mostly played in intimate theatres, was something else entirely. It was virtually a one-man show, apart from a few guest appearances, with Bruce re-imagining songs from his expansive backlist and playing every instrument needed to bring them to life. Some were almost changed beyond recognition (Reason to Believe) while other interpretations veered off into experimental territory. As a spectacle, it was okay. I understand the need to shake things up from time to time. But as a document, the Devils & Dust tour is little more than a WTF side-note. When the distortion fed into the recordings that surfaced afterwards, it was sometimes difficult to tell what was deliberate and what wasn’t. Still, this effort, with its rarities in the form of Lift me Up (never played before) Cynthia, and a trio of Tunnel of Love tracks (One Step Up, When You’re Alone and Valentine’s Day) is well worth looking up.

  1. First Union Centre, Philadelphia, September 20th 1999

I could’ve picked any show from the Reunion tour, especially the first half, as most were epic and the setlists didn’t alter much. The E Streeters were just glad to be back, and the crowds fed off the energy. I settled on this one, released on bootleg as Backstreets of Philadelphia (Polar Bear Records) for the simple reason that I was in the crowd that night, so it has a special kind of resonance with me. It’s a long way from south Wales to Philadelphia. Plus, the Boss opened with Candy’s Room, which he doesn’t do often, if ever. In fact, the entire set was heavily reliant on material from Darkness on the Edge of Town, with five of the first dozen tracks lifted from that album, which I personally consider his best. On this tour, the newly-reformed and re-focused E Street Band were at the top of their game and they absolutely kille dit every night.

  1. Olympic Stadium, Helsinki, Finland, 31st July 2012. Released on Vigorous Records as The Finnish Finish

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Lauded as the night ‘the myth became reality’ this show is included not only on the basis that it is Bruce’s longest gig to date (well over four hours, not including the five-track mini acoustic set he performed in the afternoon) but because the set-list fucking rocks. Kicking off with a cover of Rockin’ all Over the World, we are treated to a riotous opening section culminating with the ’78 intro version of Prove it all Night. Deep cuts like Be True, Loose Ends and Back in Your Arms also make rare appearances, sitting well alongside material from then then-current Wrecking Ball album. There was just something special about that night, which Bruce himself alludes to before We Are Alive. That’s one of the truly great things about Bruce gigs; the spontaneity. Literaly anything can happen, at any time. No disrespect to Helsinki, but if this was contrived at all, he would have undoubtedly chosen to play his longest ever show at a more prestigious venue, maybe in London, Milan or New York. That’s worthy of another tip of the hat.

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  1. Berlin Night, 19th April 1996

The Boss didn’t tour the Nebraska album. The closest he came was performing nightly mini-acoustic sets as part of the main show on 1984-85 Born in the USA tour. Taking the stage alone must be a daunting experience, especially for an artist so accustomed to having a full backing band behind him, but Bruce rose to the occasion. Of course he did. This show, partially broadcast on the radio in some countries before being released in its entirety by famed bootleg label Crystal Cat, is perhaps the pick of the Tom Joad shows. Less experimental and more folksy than the Devils & Dust recordings, as you would expect, the setlist is dominated by tracks from the ‘solo acoustic’ albums. However, Bruce still manages to throw a few spanners in the works, as he always does, stripping down Murder Incorporated, Bobby Jean and Adam Raised a Cain, to name but a few. He also deserves some kudos for trying to speak German.

  1. The Spectrum, Philadelphia, September 17th 1984

This might be sacrilegious to some fans, but the Born in the USA tour is probably my least favourite. Most of his concerts are timeless. You could listen to one from 1976 and another from 2016 and have difficulty telling which is which. But the Born in the USA shows (like the album) are instantly recognisable as a product of their era. All elevated keyboards swirling around vast stadiums and tinny production values, they couldn’t be more eighties if you wedged them into a pastel-coloured tank top with shoulder pads . It doesn’t help that not much quality material emerged from that tour, with most examples being audience recordings taken on those old cassette recorders. This show, the penultimate night of a mammoth six-date residency at the Spectrum, is a rare exception. It was released on bootleg as Tramps Like Us, and then in a remixed form as Perfection At Last. It’s not quite perfect, but it’s not far off. Opener Born in the USA segueing into Out in the Streets is simply breathtaking.

  1. Hammersmith Odeon ‘75

And now we’re going back. Way back. The Hammersmith Odeon now goes by the less auspicious name the Eventim Apollo, but this still stands as one of Springsteen’s legendary gigs. This is the sound of a band captured just as they are hitting their stride. After a low-key Thunder Road, you can feel the bristling intensity during the intro to Tenth Avenue Freeze Out. Shows from this era were generally shorter, barely scraping the two-hour mark, because more often than not the band would play two a night. Boasting definitive versions of It’s Backstreets and Jungleland along with a killer 17-minute rendition of Kitty’s Back (featuring an improv section and a few bars of Van Morrison’s Moondance) this gig was so good it became one of the few to be granted a long-overdue official release.

  1. Coliseum Night (29 December 1980)

Before the pomp and extravagance of the Born in the USA tour, many would argue that Bruce & the E Street Band peaked on the 1980/81 River tour. The shows in general were more geared toward blasting out a succession of 3-minute crowd pleasers (as was the album) than the more indulgent focus of past tours. No 17-minute versions of Kitty’s Back here. Of those currently in circulation, most people would probably choose the famous NYE bootleg, recorded a couple of nights later at the same venue (these shows collectively make up a significant proportion of the Live 1975/85 box set), but a combination of the quality of recording and a slightly superior set-list takes this one for me. Over the span of a 37-song performance Bruce expertly moves the audience through the gears, from openers Night and Out in the Street to the sombre Factory and Independence Day a few songs later. It’s like being on an emotional rollercoaster.

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  1. Washington, 26th September 2016

Despite the band missing some big hitters in Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, the second half of the River tour of 2016 is probably my favourite run of Bruce shows ever. I love the way the band sounds, and the quality of the recordings on these later sets is incredible. Listening to them is like having Bruce and the E Street Band perform in your living room. Most stateside shows kicked off with a jaw-dropping 13-minute orchestral version of New York City Serenade and generally favoured older material, mostly taken from the first two albums, giving the whole thing a glorious retro summer vibe. Some of those tracks, in particular Kitty’s Back and Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street? feature a lot of lyrics and chord changes. They must be a nightmare to play live, which would explain Bruce’s apparent reluctance to do so over the years. Why set yourself up for failure? The 34 track set list performed here also borrows heavily from Born in the USA (six tracks), and throws up the odd surprise like Because the Night, Trapped and Secret Garden. Sublime.

  1. Capitol Theatre, Passaic, NJ

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The one and only. Released on various bootlegs, most famously as Piece de Resistance, this is a near-perfect recording of the second in a trilogy of triumphant shows running from 19-21 September at the Capitol Theatre, New Jersey, again on the Darkness tour. For many years, this was considered the king of bootlegs. The show has recently been given the archive treatment so it’s now available in better sound quality. During my ‘research’ for this articles, I listened seven or eight Darkness shows virtually back-to-back, and apart from varying sound quality (dependent on sources) there is very little to choose between them. I very nearly went for perennial favourite Winterland recorded in San Francisco a few months later, but this one takes top spot firstly due to the near-mythical status it has deservedly earned in the intervening years, and on the strength of a scorching Incident on 57th Street, which surprisingly enough wasn’t played too often on this tour. It comes at the expense of Streets of Fire, but everything has a price. The only thing I dislike about this show is the inclusion of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Why. WTF? It was September.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might appreciate my previous Boss blogs about my experiences following the Boss around the world and a more detailed account of my first Bruce gig.


Retview #44 – Predator (1987)

Title: Predator

Year of Release: 1987

Director: John McTiernan

Length: 107 mins

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke, Richard Chaves

The story goes that after Rocky IV came out, a joke circulated around Hollywood that since Sly Stallone had levelled all earthly opponents, he would have to fight an alien if a fifth film were to be made. In the event, he fought Tommy Morrison instead, but screenwriters Jim and John Thomas took some inspiration from the joke and wrote a screenplay around it. When the latest instalment in the franchise, unimaginatively called THE Predator, dropped in 2018, it did so to a chorus of disapproval and a slew of negative reviews. Much like the first instalment, which was labelled “Grisly and dull” by the New York Times. Ouch. Not to be outdone, the LA Times wrote that it was, “Arguably one of the emptiest, most derivative scripts ever made as a major studio movie.” Double ouch. Also like the first instalment THE Predator was still a… wait for it… monster hit. The main criticism of the franchise as a whole are the thin plots, papered over with explosions and witty one-liners. Therefore, you might be wondering why Predator merits inclusion in this series. Well, because it’s fucking brilliant. That’s why.

Admittedly the plot, what there is of one, is as weak as wet tissue paper. Dutch, a US Army Special Forces Major Dutch (Schwarzenegger) and his team, which includes Dillon (Weathers who, ironically, had just played Apollo Creed in Rocky IV), a former CIA agent who has a lot to hide, are charged with the task of rescuing an official being held hostage by some insurgents in some generic Central American setting. However, when they arrive they find a crashed helicopter and a bunch of skinned corpses, which kinda sets alarm bells rining. After a textbook firefight with some bad guys, the mission is revealed to be a set-up and Dillon’s deception is laid bare. But that’s just the start of their problems. Before they can make it to their extraction point, they realize that something in the jungle is stalking them. Yep, it’s the predator, a vicious, war-mongering alien entity with dreads that hunts people (and, apparently, other species of alien) for sport.

The first Predator movie not only laid the foundations for three sequels, but also a spin-off franchise (Alien v Predator) and a torrent of comics, novels, videogames, action figures and even theme park attractions creating a multi-billion dollar cottage industry. That’s something most movie franchises can only aspire to. Though they flatter to deceive at times and benefit from bigger budgets and better tech, the truth is none of the other entries in the Predator franchise ever reached the dizzy heights of the 1987 original. Arriving just as Schwarzenegger was riding high on show-stealing performances in the likes of Terminator, Commando and Raw Deal, Predator was very much a feather in his cap. He got to run around in the jungle with some mates covered in mud sporting unfeasibly large weapons and even larger biceps. What was not to like?

One thing I found interesting about Predator is the way it gives the alien interlopers some depth of character, whereas most movies of this type are content to just paint them as bad guys and be done with it. We even get a glimpse of their motivations. Granted, these motivations don’t amount to much, they hunt for ‘sport,’ but it’s a start. No doubt all the eighties bombast was a recipe for success, as Predator raked in almost $100 million at the Box Office against a modest $15 million budget. It also made a lasting impression, earning an 87% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes compared to a score of just 34% for the 2018 instalment, and as recently as 2015 it was named fourth in a Rolling Stone reader’s poll to ascertain the best action movies of all time. All of which is worthy acclaim.

GO HERE for more RetView entries.

Trivia Corner:

Action star Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally cast as the Predator, the idea being to match his martial arts skills with Schwarzenegger’s muscle, but he wasn’t happy being crammed into the suit all the time and constantly complained about it. The part eventually went to Kevin Peter Hall who stood over seven feet tall. He died of AIDS in 1991 at the age of just 35.


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