You might think that the longer the story, the harder it is to write. But that’s not always the case. When you have limited space, it can be quite a challenge fitting in a beginning, a middle, and an end, while simultaneously making sure the story says what you want it to say. Over the past couple of years, I’ve taken a liking to drabbles (100 word stories). Several have seen the light of day including Coming Around, Hitori Kakurenbo, Naughty Step and Louie’s Room. 101 Words puts a new spin on the drabble formula by, you guessed it, adding an extra word.
The idea for Sleepless came from this article I read a while back about an American teenager called Randy who stayed awake for over eleven days. Eleven days! That’s impressive enough, then I started thinking… what if Randy had a job? A very responsible job, where a lot of people’s safety and/or welfare depended on him? Things could get decidedly messy.
Check out Sleepless, and some other incredibly concise 101-word stories, HERE
My latest short story The Wailing is now live, and free to read, on the literary website twentytwotwentyeight, who you may remember published another of my stories, Those Left Behind, a while back. This is, I think, my tenth published short story of the year with a couple more scheduled to come before 2021 is out. That’s something of a landmark for me because I don’t think I’ve ever got into double figures before. Let’s call it a pandemic perk.
The Wailing is a re-working of a folk tale someone told me when I was living in China, so I can’t take complete credit for it. As far as I’m aware it’s a bona fide chunk of folklore and as we all know, folklore usually contains an element of truth.
I was working at a university campus in Xiangtan at the time, a beautiful place deep in the countryside of Hunan province which looks a lot like this:
The funny thing is, one night after I first heard this story I remember being in bed at night and hearing the sounds of a baby crying somewhere off in the distance. That was especially strange because as I said, I lived on a uni campus and there weren’t any babies there as far as I know. Weird.
Starring: Joshua Jackson, Rachael Taylor, Megumi Okina, David Denman, John Hensley, Maya Hazen
“From the executive producers of THE GRUDGE and THE RING,” the poster screams, in reference to Takashige Ichese and Roy Lee, who were indeed responsible for at least the US remakes of those movies (only Ichese was involved in the Japanese originals). And it shows. This film, a remake of a 2004 Japanese/Thai movie of the same name was just a little too eager to jump on the A-Horror bandwagon which was then running out of control and really could have gone awfully wrong. But it didn’t. Instead, despite some early mixed reviews, the US version of Shutter was a huge commercial success, grossing almost $48 million from a measly $8 million budget. That’s some achievement. And the numbers are justified. Though derivative at times, like a lot of Asian horror movies tend to be, Shutter is a truly exceptional piece of work.
Newlyweds Ben (Jackson) and Jane Shaw (Taylor) leave New York and head for a new life in Japan. Ben, a photographer, has lived there before. While driving through the countryside, Jane runs over a girl standing in the middle of the road and crashes their car into a tree. However, when they come to their senses and go looking for the body they find nothing, not so much as a drop of blood. After the emergency services come and clean up the mess, they try their best to put the whole sorry episode behind them. But from then on, all the pictures the couple take are ruined by some weird white mist. Ben’s assistant Seiko (Hazen) identifies the photographs as examples of spirit photography and introduces Jane to her ex-boyfriend who works on a spooky magazine. It turns out the paranormal is big in Japan. Who knew?
From there, things deteriorate further for the couple. The white mist begins to morph into what looks like a ghostly figure, Jane suffers nightmares, and Ben experiences physical pain in his shoulder, which he attributes to the car crash, that makes him a virtual hunchback. Both feel the ominous sensation of being stalked. Matters come to a head when Jane has a close encounter with the ghost. There are many kinds of supernatural entities in Japanese mythology and folklore, which we in the West group together as ‘ghosts’ for our convenience. This particular kind of ‘ghost,’ which has died a violent death or is motivated by revenge or sorrow, is known as Yurei. Jane learns that the yurei’s name was Megumi Tanaka (Okina). Furthermore, as with a lot of married couples, it turns out Ben and Jane have a few secrets from one another. Ben knew Megumi from when he worked in Japan. Intimately. When confronted, Ben admits being in a relationship with her but claims he broke it off when Megumi became too clingy, doing a runner with the help of his ex-pat friends Adam (Hensley) and Bruno (Denman). In despair, Migumi commits suicide. Hence the rather pissed-off yurei. She first targets Adam and Bruno, for reasons which become crystal clear later on, then goes after Ben and Jane who run back to New York. Little do they know, their nightmare isn’t over and the small matter of 6,500 miles isn’t going to put a damper on Migumi’s pity party. There’s one more sting in the tail. Several, actually. And at the very end, we see the real cause of that phantom pain in Ben’s shoulder. That scene alone cements Shutter’s place in the RetView series.
Shutter packs a lot into its 83 mins (90 mins unrated cut) running time. True, it features many of the classic triggers and tropes we’ve come to expect from Asian (and in particular, Japanese) horror movies; unrequited love, revenge, folklore, technology gone bad, and wraps them all together in a slick little bundle ripe to be consumed by Western audiences. It works. I think the reason Shutter was no negatively received by critics is the fact that it came so soon after Hollywood remakes of The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water, Pulse and others. In 2008 alone, Shutter arrived arm-in-arm with a slew of comparable efforts such as The Eye, Mirrors, The Echo and One Missed Call. By then, the backlash was beginning, and Shutter perhaps fell victim to that. In the cold light of day (or even better, in the dead of night) Shutter is essential viewing.
Shutter does a great job of picking up actors better known for their comic ability and brought them kicking and screaming over to the dark side. Joshua Jackson made his name as Charlie Conway in the Mighty Ducks trilogy, while David Denman is best known for playing Roy Anderson, Pam Beesly’s fiancé (before she got together with Jim Halpert) in the US version of The Office.
You can find my short story Eeva in Part 1 of the third Books of Horror Community Anthology. Books of Horror is one of the biggest and best-established horror-centric Facebook groups around, and it’s always a good place for readers and writers to hang out and get to know each other. If you take a glance at the tables of contents in this two-book set it’s like a who’s who of horror fiction, and I’m very proud to be included.
The Books of Horror Community Anthology Volume 3, Part 1 is out now.
Funny thing, time. And not funny ha-ha. It’s the one commodity you can’t buy, yet is by far the most valuable. And anyone who says that money can’t buy you love has obviously never been to Bangkok. It’s often said that a dying millionaire will gladly give up all his riches in exchange for just a few more minutes of life. Since I’ve never died or been a millionaire I can’t vouch for it’s veracity, but it certainly sounds plausible. The vast majority of people don’t want to die, and do anything to avoid it. That’s why you read about murder victims being stabbed 130 times or something. I’d wager the person doing the stabbing didn’t want to wield their blade that many times, either. Imagine how exhausting stabbing someone 130 times must be. I need a sit down after chopping up a chilli pepper. The stabber would probably much prefer the victim keel over and drop dead with a soft, world-weary sigh after one strike the way they do in movies, but that rarely (if ever) happens. I once saw someone get stabbed at a football match. It just pissed him off.
It grates on me when I see people complain that they’d love to write something, but just haven’t got the time. Not enough that I’d want to stab them 130 times. But close. The reason is, we all have shit going on. Day jobs, night jobs, kids, pets, hobbies, demanding relationships, drug addictions, all of which we balance with the countless other responsibilities that come with being grown up. However, the harsh truth is that we always find time for the things we really value. Things we really enjoy doing. Things we can’t live without.
We all have the same 24-hours in a day. You, me, Stephen King, Lady Ga Ga. The only difference is what we do with those hours. Most writers seem to be ‘morning people.’ I know, right? The mere thought is enough to make most people’s blood turn to ice. The aforementioned Sai King is a shining example; his routine involves getting up early, going for a walk, getting the bulk of his writing done before midday, then slacking off as the day grinds on to its inevitable conclusion.
One of my most productive times as a writer was in my early twenties when I worked full-time at a local packing factory. It was my job to put the little bar codes on boxes of pills. Hundreds of boxes a shift. Thousands. You probably know the score. Your supervisor sets you a target of 15,000. You bust your balls to hit it, and when you finally achieve as much, they simply raise the target to 15,500. this, I’m told, is management.
At its best the job was fraught with difficulty, like when the bar codes won’t go on exactly as they should, or they were blurry or something. And at its best, when everything was going well, the work was mind-numbingly boring. I was alone a lot, meaning that I had hours and hours every day to think about what I was going to write about when my shift ended. I’d run through endless scenarios in my head, putting my characters through all kinds of shit and filling in ever conceivable plot hole. It helped pass the time. When I finally got home I could easily knock out 1500 words or more in an hour or two before going to bed. No messing around. No hesitation marks. No gazing off into space waiting for the perfect word to pop into my head.
Later, when I left the factory and writing became my actual job, and I could spend all day writing if I wanted to, I just didn’t. You know what it’s like; you get wrapped up in a juicy news story or disappear down some rabbit hole or other and everything else fades into the background. Recently, I wasted almost half a day reading about Biffy Clyro b-sides and CD bonus tracks. I don’t even fucking like Biffy Clyro. Who does? They haunt that horrid middle ground between indie and rock without ever fully committing either way, trying to be all things to all people and only succeeding in being nothing much to anyone. So yeah, as my deadline looms ominously closer I procrastinate and generally do anything except write. And it’s not just me. I’ve worked with dozens of writers, and we’re all the fucking same. Well, most of us. There’s always that one guy who does everything on time, and perfectly. Don’t we all hate that dude? The rest of us just watch the clock tick down until, when we can put it off no longer, we start writing. At least that’s my modus operandi. And guess what? I never miss a deadline.
The point I’m trying to make is you can achieve anything you want if you put your mind to it. You just have to put your mind to it. I don’t want to look back at a life of wasted time and missed opportunities, being all bitter and resentful. If only I’d done that, or this, if only I’d found the time. Don’t wait until it’s too late, and don’t you dare point fingers and blame other people for your own shortcomings. Take control of your life, take responsibility, and most importantly, figure out what’s important to you and then spend as much time as is humanly possible doing it. If your thing is horror, immersive yourself in it. Read books, watch movies, explore abandoned mental hospitals, sit in graveyards at midnight. Hell, tie yourself to a chair and force yourself to watch the Star Wars Christmas special from 1978 on repeat if you have to. Trust me, it’s probably the most horrible thing you will ever experience. Savour the dread and soak in the blood.
It doesn’t even need to be good horror. If you’re a writer, for example, you can learn just as much from reading a terrible book as you can from reading a classic. You just learn from the other end. You learn what NOT to do. What’s deemed ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ is subjective, anyway. Have you seen Death Ship from 1980? About the tourists whose cruise ship sinks and are then picked up by a WWII-era German prison ship controlled by a mysterious dark force? No? I’m not surprised. Not many people have. TV Guide called the movie “ludicrous” and gave it a one-star rating. Me, I loved it. Fuck the TV Guide. What’s not to love? Shipwrecks, Nazi zombies, Richard Crenna from the Rambo films. And if all that wasn’t enough, look at that poster!
I advise you to seek it out immediately while you still can, before a rogue terrorist cell nukes the internet or something and you won’t be able to stream it or order it from Amazon. All this calls to mind a depressing yet entirely accurate line from Iron Maiden’s classic tune The Clairvoyant, “Isn’t it strange that as soon as you’re born you’re dying?”
Like I said, it’s a funny thing, time. And not funny ha-ha. We should make the most of it because as someone much smarter than me said, ‘time we enjoy is not time wasted.’ Or something. And if you’re reading this I am 100% sure you’d enjoy Death Ship. By the way, you can read about more hidden cinematic gems, both old and new, in my RetView series.
I’m happy to report that my short story Hell-bent is included in the anthology Terror Unleashed 2 on Skywatcher Press, a new publisher specializing in, “Horror, thrillers, mystery and suspense, science-fiction, fantasy, and anything else that falls to the dark side.”
Hell-bent is about two friends, Leon and Gabriel, who go looking for war memorabilia in a forest in Belgium which saw some of the most fierce fighting in World War Two. They find an artefact, and then shit gets weird.
What they find is an old rotting gas mask, which ‘takes over’ anybody who puts it on and fills them with all the fury and bloodlust of a demented soldier hell-bent on revenge and destruction. Whilst this may sound terrifying, it might actually turn out beneficial for one of the boys who has a very dark family background.
I had fun with this story. I can usually point to something, a news item or an event, that provides the seed from which a story grows. But as far as I remember, Hell-bent is one of those that seemed to come from nothing. At least nothing I’m aware of. As macabre as it may be, war memorabilia is big business. People want to own a piece of history, so mass-produced reproductions just won’t cut it. Instead, they buy and sell knives and other weapons, spent cartridges, helmets, military badges and insignia, everyday items used by soldiers, literally anything you can imagine because there’s a story attached to everything.
My novella Tethered has been picking up some stonking reviews recently, like this one by E.B. Lundsford. By the way, you should check out her website if you know what’s good for you.
This is what she said:
“I wasn’t really sure what to expect with this book, but I’ve read some of the author’s short stories and really enjoyed them, so I decided to give it a shot. Boy, am I glad that I did! This novella blew me away. It was unique, the storytelling was good, the characters were interesting, and the twist ending was great.
A reporter stumbles across a young woman’s blog while researching for his next article and becomes hooked. He is fascinated by the girl and the rituals she posts about. When she goes missing, he decides to try and find her. To quote the book, “This wasn’t about sex. That would make it trite and cliched. It was about reaching out and taking a chance. Shining a light in a world of darkness and making a difference.”
I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but the ending was superb. “It’s quite simple, really. You see, people are gullible. They see what they want to see, and believe what they want to believe. It would be a sin not to take advantage of such… stupidity.”
I can’t recommend this book enough. I look forward to reading more of Mr. Saunders work”
Every year when Halloween comes around, I wish I’d written a Halloween story. Obviously, it’s too late by then, so last year I surpassed even my own pre-planning capabilities and wrote one in January. Kaboom. That also gave me a few months to sell the fucker.
The story I came up with is called Misshapes & Rejects, and in a nutshell it’s about pumpkins. Not pumpkins in nutshells, that would just be weird. I’ve always thought there was something creepy about the treatment pumpkins get around Halloween. All the cutting and carving and stuff. I also wanted to make a bit of a point about isolation and anti-social behaviour, and like a perfect storm all these elements came together. It happened quickly, too. Once I had the germ of the idea, the story followed quickly and was finished in a single sitting. That feat isn’t as impressive as it might sound, in its entirety Misshapes & Rejects is less than 1000 words.
When I finish a story, I routinely go through it three, four, even five or six times, endlessly tweaking, polishing and modifying until there is nothing left to tweak, polish or modify. However, Misshapes & Rejects didn’t need much heavy lifting. Sometimes, you just know you’ve nailed it. It was accepted by the first place I submitted it too, a Halloween-themed anthology due to be released on [name redacted, like in the movies].
Then things got messy.
The would-be publisher refused to pay any contributors then eventually pulled the book from sale, but not before they pocketed funds they’d raised through crowd funding and pre-orders. Big scene. Long story short, the publishing rights on Missahpes & Rejects quickly reverted back to me and the dance began again.
Luckily, it soon found a new home, in the book Handmade Horror Stories put together by Frost Zone Press, the lovely people who just last year published my story Alone, Or… , and edited by the supremely talented MM MacLeod..
As the marketing material says, “Handmade Horror Stories is an anthology of art and craft-themed short horror fiction. From quiet horrors to chilling nightmares, these tales give new meaning to being creative.”
I’m pleased to announce that my short story Harberry Close is included in the anthology Railroad Tales on Midnight Street Press.
Table of Contents:
THE TRACKS THROUGH THE FOREST John Kiste
AWAYDAYS Allen Ashley
THE HOOSAC TUNNEL LEGACY Norm Vigeant
RAILWAY MUTTON CURRY Nidheesh Samant
THE NUMBER NINE James E. Coplin
GHOST-WALKER Andrew Darlington
SPARROW’S FLIGHT Nancy Brewka-Clark
HARBERRY CLOSE C. M. Saunders
GEISTERBAHNHOF Saoirse Ni Chiaragáin
THE ANNIVERSARY David Penn
ACROSS THE VALE Catherine Pugh
WHERE THE TRAIN STOPS Susan York
THE NIBBLER Gayle Fidler
SHORT PLATFORM Gary Couzens
WILSHIRE STATION Caitlin Marceau
AND YOU HEARD THE RATTLING DEATH TRAIN Simon Bestwick
NOT ALL TRAINS CRASH Steven Pirie
BALLYSHANNON JUNCTION Jim Mountfield
CABOOSE Andrew Hook
THE TRACKS Michael Gore
THE DEVIL RIDES THE NIGHT TRAIN Curtis James McConnell
THE PIER STATION George Jacobs
THE SAMOVAR A. J. Lewis
Between 2013 and 2017 I lived in London. I was working long hours and commuting for up to four or five hours a day, so I didn’t have much time to write fiction. I think of Harberry Close as a good representation of my ‘London period,’ along with Vicar on the Underground and maybe Subject #270374. I don’t think its much of a surprise that two of those stories feature public transport prominently and the other is about an overworked and under-appreciated journalist who goes mental and decapitates his boss.
I wrote about the origins of Harberry Close, which was first published in Dark Harvest, in more detail here. Thanks to Trevor Denyer for giving it a new lease of life!
The story is told in flashback form when, in 19th Century Switzerland, Baron Victor Frankenstein (Cushing) is on trial for murder and confesses his story to a visiting priest. The film then cuts to a newly-orphend 15-year old Victor who hires a private tutor, Dr. Paul Krempe (Urqhuart), to teach him science. Together, the pair start a sequence of experiments geared toward bringing dead animals back to life. The experiments are successful, but when his cousin Elizabeth (Court) moves in and Frankenstein suggests making a ‘perfect’ human being from scavenged body parts, Krempe opts out. However, he is brought back into the fold when the monster (Lee, who was awarded the role primarily due to his 6’5” frame and his modest £8-a day fee), now equipped with a damaged (ie defective) brain, escapes into the nearby woods and kills a blind man. What a blind man is doing in the woods by himself is anyone’s guess, but anyway…
Realizing it is out of control, Krempke shoots the monster and the men bury it in the woods. However, as soon as Krempke departs, Frankenstein digs it up again and reanimates it. The rotten bastard. Back at the house, his maid Justine, with whom he has been having an affair, reveals she is pregnant and threatens to expose his grisly experiments unless he marries her. This doesn’t sit too well with the rampaging Victor, and he quickly has the monster dispatch her which is what lands him in jail. The visiting priest doesn’t believe his story. Krempke and Elizabeth, who are now happily shacked up together, refuse to corroborate it, presumably in an attempt to stop the same thing happening again, and ***SPOILER ALERT*** Victor is led away to the guillotine.
The film was an immediate smash hit for Hammer, it’s comparatively low budget contributing heavily to its financial success as there were comparatively fewer costs to offset. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, who adapted Mary Shelley’s book for the screen, was so anxious to keep costs down he didn’t write in scenes of villagers storming the castle as seen in other Frankenstein films, “Because we couldn’t afford it.” The ploy worked. The movie was produced on a budget of just £65,000, and some sources estimate the film recouped at least 70 times that figure. For many years, it held the distinction of being the most profitable movie to be produced in England by a British studio and has always been much-loved by the public, which is reflected in various contemporary reviews and its Rotten Tomatoes rating which currently sits at a respectable 77% from 3,815 ratings. However, it was given a luke-warm reception upon it’s original release, a review in the New York Times dismissing it as a “Routine horror film,” and the Tribune of London calling it, “Depressing and degrading.”
A quick word on the fate of Hammer Productions; the company effectively ceased production in the mid-1980’s. But that wasn’t the end of the story. In May 2007 the company name, along with its entire library of some 295 movies, was bought by a consortium headed by Dutch media tycoon John de Mol which vowed to, “Take it back into production and develop its global potential.” True to it’s manifesto, the company financed a return to the fold in the form of contemporary horror Beyond the Rave (2008). That isn’t a typo, by the way. It really is a horror movie about a rave. That was followed by a steady stream of offerings including Wake Wood (2011) and, more recently, The Lodge (2019), which proved a surprise hit. In September 2019, hammer signed a worldwide distribution deal with StudioCanal for its catalogue, so after some uncertain times, the future is looking bright.
Although Hammer’s two great stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee had appeared in several pictures before, including Hamlet (1948) and Moulin Rouge (1952), their long-lasting friendship was cemented on the set of Curse of Frankenstein when Lee stormed into Cushing’s dressing room saying, “I’ve got no lines!” To which Cushing allegedly responded, “You’re lucky, have you read the script?”