A message from The Sanctimonious Order of the Willing Sacrifice

We, The Sanctimonious Order of the Willing Sacrifice, must regrettably start this annual meeting by apologising, but once again, for the tenth year running, we have failed to secure a year king.

While there are of course be those who scoff at what some claim are our ‘out dated religious observances’ we feel obliged to point out that it is our belief the willing sacrifice of a year king at Yule has been bringing forth bounteous years of fortune, good weather, and good health for the people of Albion for thousands of years. It is our belief, therefore, that it is the dearth of Year kings, of which there have only been two this century, is the cause of recent hardships.

Extreme weather, floods, so called ‘climate change’, pandemics, wild fires, the steady decline of decent script writing in recent seasons of doctor who, Boris Johnson, the continued lack of spangles, can all be attributed to the lack of a viable and willing sacrifice at the Yule celebrations. Frankly the selfishness of people never ceases to astound us, and that the sun continues to be renewed for the coming year we can only put down to stubbornness on the part of Hydrogen.

Why no bright and handsome youth is willing to become the new year king each Yule we can only conclude is due to a general lack of moral foundation among the youth of today.

We are willing to except that there has also been something of a lack of bountiful bevies of buxom maidens willing to give up a year of there lives to serve as hand maidens to a year king. This we believe is because they all seem to prefer to spend a gap year in Thailand or Australia, having a wild time and engaging in the excessive hedonism of some of the so-called eastern religions. Rather than feeding grapes to a numbskull pretty boy in a smokey round house. This is also regrettable.  

There is also the unfortunate matter of the round house been caught up in the Thatcherism of the early 80’s and us been forced to sell it off as technically it was a council owned tenement. But we have procured a small flat above a chinses takeaway in Salisbury for the use of the Year King. We will admit it is a little under repaired, pokey, and if you dislike the smell of boiled rice you may need a good air freshener, but many would think it was an improvement on a wattle and daub round house with no central heating. Though the flat only has a three-bar electric fire and only two of the bars work.

The bounteous feast of fruit, meats and ale is still there for the year king of course. Admittedly due to fiscal constraints, through the day these are limited to a ‘meal deal’ from the local Tesco’s. Which is also why we generally can only supply 2 litre bottles of white lightening cider. But the thought is there and there is a duck at Easter, well Peking duck if you order the two for one special at Mr Hong’s down stairs.

But all this aside we still believe we offer a fabulous, one year only, limited time experience, for the volunteer year king, and Sharon who works in the chippy, while getting on in years, is still willing to peal grapes on a Wednesday afternoon, and wear the traditional ox skin loin coverings and nothing else… on warm summer days at least, the rest of the year she insists on wearing a dressing gown, but as she is the far side of seventy now and so we feel this may be a blessing to all.

She does however make a really good sweet nettle tea.

We are aware there has been some disgruntlement in the order this year, with suggestions from Mr Wallaby that given the continuing decline of the environment, and the way mars bars as smaller than they used to be, we should perhaps look into the possibility of an ‘unwilling’ sacrifice this year. Even going so far as to suggest ‘that Jones lad from two doors down, who broken my gnome with his football last month.’

We will state once again, an unwilling sacrifice does not placate the ancient ones. They also are a lot more work. They always squirm about on the alter, and that makes it difficult to cut out there still beating heart cleanly, and the authorities look down on that kind of thing.

It makes a right mess on the rug

Anywho, I will end the meeting here. If anyone knows of a likely lad willing to be a year king tell them to drop us a line at PO Box 1010, Dudley Salterton. Also, even if we cannot find a year king, bountiful bevies of buxom maidens are still also required, and given these days of equality a year queen ,, or indeed a year Queenking, or Kingqueen would we think be just as acceptable…

Yours ,, Earnest Wilberforce, Arch Druid of The Sanctimonious Order of the Willing Sacrifice, and treasurer… Royal Air Force Retired.         

HAPPY YULE to all…

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The Other Elves…

Lord of the Rings, was perhaps the greatest mythological whitewashing job ever undertaken. The works of Old Grandpapa Tolkien drew heavily on Nordic, Germanic and to a lesser extent Celtic mythology, though it changed a great deal in doing so. What he changed most however was undoubtedly Elves… Tolkien’s elves maybe aloof, they may consider themselves not entirely of the world, indeed, intent on leaving it, but they were undoubtedly one of the forces of good, despite a degree of apathy towards the rest of the world.

Post Tolkien, this view of elves has become prevalent in western culture. Aloof, noble born, distant, but by nature a force for good. An unsurprising turn of events, given Tolkien’s influence on the now several generations of fantasy writers that followed him, and the genre in general in all its forms from books to films and roleplaying games. The zeitgeist firmly places elves among the most noble and good…

Pre Tolkien, however, it was a different story. In the mythologies of north-western Europe ‘elves’ were not the kind of people you wanted to invite round for tea and cake. They were the reason people nailed iron horse shoes over doorways. Elves were not an aloof force of good, but malevolent creatures from another realm, who stole babies, led men astray in the woods, took prisoners, and care nothing for ‘lesser races’. Elves were nasty, malicious, creatures, enwrapped with glamour’s and magic’s to trap the unwary. They were beautiful, alien creatures, noble and immortal, to whom humanity were merely playthings for their vanity.

In short, elves were right bastards… Akin to giants, sea monsters, goblins, and if you were lucky they may only have killed you…

There has been some regress over the years, not all portrayals of elves in fantasy have leaned heavily into Tolkien, but his quasi-medieval quasi-dark-age fantasy so often reflected in RPG culture remains the most prevalent version of elves we find in fiction, as well as settings. Which is ironic when you consider so much of Tolkien’s Middle-earth is based on Nordic, Germanic and Celtic mythology. It is one of the reasons I have found myself reading less fantasy over the years, despite being part of the original DnD generation and reading so much of it in my teenage years. Indeed when I first started writing, many many years before I finally wrote a novel, my earliest attempts were all in the fantasy genre, though I never wrote elves, I just didn’t trust them… The stories I wrote of Kasslan, Jesslar d’Ora, Hardoc de’Brinyak, (all old DnD characters of mine) leaned more in to David Gemmell’s style of heroic fantasy than Papa Tolkien’s.

Luckily for the world, those early attempts at being a novelist are lost in the darkest recesses of a file box somewhere… I have though occasionally delved into the dark and considered trying to write a dark age fantasy, seeped deeply in the blood of those original sources, the mythologies of northern Europe, and dark age cultures. It’s a rich dark bloody vain, that has seldom been truly tapped. Bernard Cornwall has written of early iron age Britain and captured some of that dark essence, as have others, but seldom, if ever, do writers dig down deep into the myths and started a fresh. However, there is one problem with trying to write a true dark-age mythological fantasy, in order to really do that, and wade deep into the dark waters of those myths, you need to have studied them to the kind of depth and understanding that Tolkien had, before he went off and changed things… And frankly that kind of depth of knowledge does not come easily, and seldom alongside the talent needed to write fiction. I may arguably have the latter of those attributes, I know I don’t have the former…

No what it would take is someone who is not only a supremely talent writer, but who has spent a fair proportion of there professional life immersed in the dark ages and it’s mythologies. Someone who has lectured on the subject and knows it to the kind of level Tolkien did…

Which brings me rather neatly, in my meandering way, to Mat McCall, the same Mat McCall who’s excellent Martian steampunk novels I reviewed earlier this year. Aside his love of a cog-wheeled top hat, Mat’s other great love (aside Nicky) is dark age mythology. So some time before he wrote his Martian odyssey, he started writing dark age fantasy. A dark age fantasy that has finally come into the light, in the form of Annis: The Goddess of Sorrows.

The world of Annis is brutal, dark and rich. The title character is a witch, feared and despised for her half blood nature. Rightly feared in many ways. Mysterious and unearthly she is also a tragic figure, a product of her parentage. As well as the only real hope for a remote ancient fortress, about to be besieged by dark forces, only half remembered by the human tribes who hold it.

That may sound a fairly run of the mill set up for a fantasy novel. This however is not run of the mill fantasy. It is dark and rich in Celtic, Germanic and Nordic mythology brought to life. The story weaves between characters on all sides. And on all sides there are villains and heroes, who are often one and the same. There are touches of Rome here as well with Corvus, once a general who defeated the Alban’s and other tribes, who has returned some years after his victories, for reasons even he can not understand. There’s giants and werewolf warriors, Fomoire (which are celtic sea deamons lead by their monstrous god king Balor) and elves, but not the elves of Tolkien, these are Sidhe Fea, Daoine… A dark race who hold humanity in contempt.

McCall manages to draw you in as a reader to all his characters, be they human or otherwise. there is no black and white here, but shades of grey. The Humans are no more saintly than the elves. For example on ancient seer of one of the tribes carries a ritual drum about with him, the skin of which was flayed from the back of a druid and still bares the druids tattoo’s… The ‘evil’ alliance between the Fomoire and the Sidhe when you read parts of this novel form their perspective is no more ‘evil’ than the human side. These once were their lands, taken from them, which they seek to reclaim… Both sides kill and slaughter with equal abandon. While the internal politics on both sides is dark and deadly.

It is perhaps this darkness, and what could have been a bleak novel in the hands of another writer, that so highlights the bright moments within the novel. The shifting perspectives are clever in that both sides may be brutal at times, but there is love and compassion there too. As I read I found myself shifting perspectives as well. The hero’s and villains are one and the same. You find yourself caring for each of them, no matter who or what they are, which is testament to the quality and strength of the writing. Gemmell at his best could do that, Abercrombie too, but most writers don’t quite pull that off, McCall does.

The exception, that perhaps proves the rule, is Annis herself, from and of whom we only get the strangely off putting view point of her thoughts. Off putting in a good way. She seems to glide through the novel, never speaking, never interacting directly in the narrative. her thoughts strange, alien, and complex. A wonderful counterpoint to the dark, grim brutality around her. She seems not quite of the world, which is exactly how she should feel.

This whole novel is beautifully written, hard to put down, and as dark and brutal as the age it is set in… This is the kind of fantasy we need more of, luckily for us, there is more to come from Annis’s world.

Also, the elves, are not the elves of Tolkien, they are those other elves… The ones we knew to fear. Now where can I find a horse shoe…

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Nostradamus Poe

This blog is many things, most of them literary. Occasionally it touches on important subjects like depression, traction engine’s (though this is a new development and will probably be a passing phase), life in general, racism, sexism, other ism’s, and once in a while, partly because I have a degree in politics, philosophy and economics, it even does politics.

What it doesn’t do as a rule is Politics with a capital P. Which is to say while I might comment on something in broad strokes I try to keep general politics off to one side. This is a conscious choice, because I grew up in a time when the mere fact someone’s views directly opposed your on a subject merely meant you had a difference of opinion. You could discus that difference of opinion in a civilised way. You did not need to burn them at the stake… Everybody had a right to be wrong, and people often were. But you could talk to the other side, and you did not need to chose sides to start with.

The choosing of sides has always been my problem with politics. For example, I agree with a lot of the principals of the labour party, but not all of them. I agree with some of the principals of traditional conservatism, though notably fewer. I agree with rather a lot of Green political thinking, but I fine the naivety of some green party manifesto policies frankly irritating. I am in fact that worst possible (from the prospective of political parties) of all political thinkers, an informed independent… As such I am willing to hold a discourse on most subjects and even occasionally adjust my views on a subject if the ‘other side’ put forward points that validate their views over my own.* Which in this day an age seems to make me something of a unicorn politically… But I also respect other peoples right to hold a different opinion to my own, and have friends on multiple sides of the political divide, I don’t even hold anyone’s views on Brexit against them, provided they don’t try to ram them down my throat, sure I think it was a mistake and we were better off in Europe than out of it, but not everyone who voted leave did so for bad reasons, and just because we disagree on that or any subject** doesn’t mean I won’t stand you a pint and talk of other things.

*bigots, racists, sexists and homophobes not withstanding. They can all just go fuck themselves.

**except the above and people who think the second Highlander movie was alright, they can also go fornicate with themselves.

So in essence I try to keep big P politics off my non-political blog, and talk of other things. As such in light of recent events, lets do that and talk about a story by Edgar Alan Poe, The Masque of the Red Death, A story that has the distinction of been one of the three anyone can generally remember…

It isn’t actually my favourite Poe story. That’s ‘The Tell Tale Heart’… Which is about as perfect a short story as it possible to write in my opinion. You could disagree, I’d stand you a pint and discuses it’s virtues against say ‘The Murders on the Rue Morgue’ any time. You’d be wrong to think Rue Morgue is better than tell tale heart, but I’ll happily let you explain why you think your right…

But to get back to The Masque of the Red, its a story that seems remarkably prescient today, in an almost Nostradamus fashion. It is the story of prince Prospero, a rich and powerful aristocrat, in a kingdom consumed by a terrible plague. The red death. This plague ravages all the lands, the dead lay unburied in the streets, the suffering in the kingdom is terrible.

Prospero and his court however, are indifferent to the suffering of the common folk. ‘Let the plague burn through them, there will always be more poor after all’. So they lock themselves away in a walled abbey. But as they are soon bored, the prince orders entertainment for his guests, the nobles and wealthy of the land, the powerful and influential… A great masque ball is planned. ‘let us be entertained…’

So the great masque ball begins. The wealthy, the noble, the powerful. Those who hold themselves above the common herd, party… while beyond the walls of their abbey, the pour suffer grieve and die…

Now, as I say, I don’t generally do politics here. So I am not going to point out the masque of the Red Death has a certain satirical echo of this week in British politics. I shall instead let you draw your own conclusions as to why this Edgar Alan Poe story was brought to my mind today.

In the end of course, The Masque of the Red death ends badly for Prince Prospero. He and his noble elite guests come to a messy end when a red robed figure with a mask of a decaying corpse walks though the abbey. This figure it turns out is the personification of the red death and all the party goers fall victim to the plague…

Shame that…

As I don’t do big P politics here I am not going to any statements about parties that may, or may not, but lets face it almost certainly were, held in 10 downing street last Christmas. But I will say that certain politicians who make such a point of proclaiming their credentials as literary scholars should perhaps have spent a little more time reading Poe…

Then perhaps they would have considered what became of Prince Prospero and his cronies, when they partied while those they considered ‘beneath them’ suffered…

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Books of the year

It may be slightly early, as there is a fair chance I’ll read a couple more before the end of the year, but now seems as good a time as any to do my annual Passing Place Blog Books Of The Year Awards. An event that has never been annual previously, as I have never done it before, carries very little prestige, and no prize money… It also don’t have a particular order, but does include all the books I have reviewed on the blog this year as well as honourable mentions for all the books I personally have failed to write this year… So lets start there, as its mildly embarrassing.

At the start of the year, indeed the very first blog of 2021, I presented a list of things to come, the three books I hoped to write and publish this year…

Well, that didn’t happen… However by way of an up date , two of the three, A squid on the Shoulder and the Lexicromicon are written. They are currently sat in my editor, the wonderful C G Hatton’s inbox till she can get to them. So with luck both will be out by April 2022 at the latest, in time for the first big convention of the year, on the off chance the world decides not to end between now and then.

I also started a side project that got a little derailed , The Elf Kings Thingy, for the literally couple of people who have asked me about it, yes I plan to pick it back up in the new year and continue the series…

However moving on from my own literary triumphs’ of 2021… ahum… On to the Books of the year and want an ecliptic year of wonderfulness it has been.

The award for book most likely to contain a steampunk story but didn’t… goes to Harvey Duckman volume 7. The one with the steampunk girl on the cover. Another wonderful collection of stories from the Harvey Duckman writers, which contained among others a story by me set in the Passing Place universe. I’m rather fond of it. It also marked the 50th Harvey writer to join the ever growing stable.

The award for book Book I’d read the year before but forgot to review at the time, goes to The Oddatsea, a Hopeless Maine novella, written by Keith Etherington and illustrated by the every marvellous Tom Brown.

The award for book I didn’t write a full blog post about but did review…. goes to Kate Bauchreal’s Tangled Fortunes, the third in the simcavalier novels of near future cyber crime, which was a great read as were the previous novels, all of which are now collected in a single volume ‘Hacked’

The award for the best pure scifi novel I’ve read this year, like every year… goes to C G Hatton’s Defying Winter the third of the Thieves Guild Origins novels another wonderful instalment in her Thieves Guild universe and if I have not convinced you to give them a read by now frankly you’re a lost cause

The award for book most likely to contain a story about a dragon but doesn’t…. goes to Harvey Duckman Volume 8. the one with the dragon on the cover, which contains Mandrake a steampunk , urban fantasy story written by me, which I should have clearly written for volume 7, but what you going to do (its also quite possible going to become part of a novel, but that’s another story) and as usual a whole bunch of other stories by an eclectic bunch of new writers.

The award for most initiative book of the year… goes to Mat McCall’s The Dandelion Farmer, because it just does. Maybe I am a sucker for Victorian Martian colonists, airships and automatons written by way of journal entries, dairies and the occasional officious report. But if you want something very different to your average run of the mill novel this is it.

The award for most fun you can have on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon with a hot cup of tea on the side and a book in your hand… goes to Ben Sawyer’s debut novel Holly Trinity and the Ghost of York because of all the books I’ve read this year this was the most singular fun I had reading. Which is up against some particularly stiff compertion this year.

The award for best use of tentacles, and art, and words (but mostly tentacles) in a graphic novel… goes to Hopeless Maine Optimist’s by Tom and Nimue Brown. Which was just a joy as ever, the penultimate book in the series and I can not wait for the final instalment.

Best sequel, that’s even better than the first book and that’s saying something, of the year… goes to that Man McCall again and The Hourglass Sea. Which starts where the first book left of and just gets better, stranger, and more engrossing

The nepotistic award for a book I wrote five years ago but have finally released in hard back and I am just happy about this so will keep mentioning it… goes to me and the 5th anniversary release of Passing Place in hardback, with updated none litigious version.

The aware for best book I bought at random after a convention because the writer seemed like a nice bloke… goes to Keith Healing’s The Burnt Watcher, and what a delightfully dark with the occasional slither of yellow read that was..

Finally the award for book I bought months ago and finally got around to reading… goes to Nimue Brown’s Intelligent Designing for Amateurs.. Druid in traction engines and Friday Bob , is all I have to say…

Somehow, mainly by putting on of mine in the list, I managed to review 12 books this year, one for each month… Its been a good one, book wise, which considering very little else has been this year is good. I’ve read far more than I reviewed, as ever. As I only review indie books as a rule. Neil Gaimen doesn’t need me to flog his books…

I don’t really have a book of the year, but if someone was to twist my arm it would be Ben Sawyers Holly Trinity novel just because its the one that I think I needed most at the time, and made me smile when I needed something to do so ( as I said , its been a year, October and early November felt like a year all on their lonesome…) But in all honesty I recommend everything in this list.

Here’s hoping for another great year of books to come. Keep reading everyone, and keep writing.

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Illuminating observations of the perils of an indiscreet life…

For reasons, that have never been explained to me, at Pudsey (the small town between Leeds and Bradford and somewhat merged into both these days), in the large park behind the swimming pool, just up past the aviary, this is, and has been since my childhood and probably before, a old traction engine.

Not a working one, I should explain, it’s fire box has long been welded shut, the many levers disconnected from such interesting things as breaks and gear boxes. The wheel doesn’t turn the cumbersome front axil. The great steam whistle to warn people ahead that this great lumbering beast of the industrial revolution is ponderous heading towards them has long been detach. But then the great lumbering beast hasn’t moved for over fifty years or more.

Instead of its original intended purpose it has been a climbing frame, and well of possibilities the imagination of children can draw upon for decades. Or at least it was, there is I suspect a fair chance it has long been removed, but it was certain still there when my own children were young enough to clamber all over it and pretend there were driving this mechanical dinosaur. Which is certainly what I did when I was a child. For when I was a child it was a magical thing, impossibly huge and built like a literal tank, only more solidly. Say what you like about the 19th century, when they built a machine they built it to last…

When enmeshed with my childhood imagination that traction became many things as I stood in it cab after clambering up into it. It was the great engine of a land pirate, the scourge of the highways, a lumbering lunar rover transforming the surface mars (yes I know, the moon and mars are separate celestial bodies, I was a child, the rules of logic don’t apply.) In my mind it wasn’t quite as lumbering as it probably was in its working days, except when I used it to singlehandedly save the day when the dinosaurs came back… It was, in short, many things and all of them that special kind of wonderful only a child can imagine, or someone who has been a child and can articulate that sense of endless possibilities and joy without consequence…

Which brings me to that rather ponderously evocative title for this blog, which are words I did not write myself, but borrowed from a chapter in an extraordinary work of fiction by the ever delightful and talented Nimue Brown, who most certainly can articulate the endless possibilities and joy without consequences of a child’s imagination. The Child in question is called Temperance who is been raised by her Granny in the small rural and eminently civilised English town Bromstone, on the unremarkable middling class Baker Street. Temperance’s view of the world and everything in it is a delight, and reminds me of that old traction engine in Pudsey park and all the things it inspired. But then there is something about traction engines. While the novel in which Temperance plays a major role is called with equally ponderous delight, Intelligent Designing for Amateurs.

There is much more than just Temperance’s exuberance in Intelligent Designing for Amateurs, there is indeed a host of characters, from a socialite archaeologist with a serious problem with suitors, an inventor bereft of inspiration but determined to find it, Temperance’s Granny Alice, who may once have been called Anne and spent the years of her youth on the Spanish main. A dog faced boy with a serious rodent problem, the owner of a biscuit factory who has a novel approach to issues of labour. Occasional protests, a mild riot or two, Oh and druids, who own a traction engine…. because why would there not be?

Events, of a mildly calamitous nature, are set in motion when the socialite archaeologist is directed to a small Welsh field and unearths the pieces of Pair Dadeni, which as I am sure you know your Welsh mythology, is otherwise known as The Cauldron of Rebirth. At which point she gets her neighbour Charlie, the budding inventor short of inspiration, to put it back together. Then there is a mildly embarrassing incident when Temperance putting a dead cat in it…

At which point the biscuit factory owner hits upon a way to solve his labour problem’s by ’employing’ the recently deceased… Or possibly the formerly deceased… About this point things start to get somewhat odd and uncanny for Temperance and the inhabitants of Baker Street…

Did I mention the druids in the traction engine?

Under the pen nib of a less skilled writer this could all have devolved into farce quite quickly. Instead despite the strangeness of the characters (who are regardless all perfectly realised) the ecliptic mix of complex elements that is the plot (which regardless of what should be incredulity hangs together perfectly) this is a joyous romp. The novel is something between out and out steampunk, a comedy of manners, political and religious satire, and the kind of pure invention you get when children clamber on board a static traction engine. It put me in mind of Robert Rankin at his wildest, with a touch of Pratchett grounded reality in the unreal thrown in. It is in short just a joy to read. So you should do that.

You should also seek out a traction engine, even a static one in a park, clamber aboard it, throw in some imaginary coal, and have wild adventures… And if your not sure how to do that, ask a child.

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A touch of yellow…

Those who have followed my blog previously will know that aside from the odd post about writing in general, book reviews, talking about my own work, and the occasional pondering on the inner workings of the universe, mental health and wittering on, I have written rather a lot about the old tentacle hugger of Providence, Rhode island and not always kindly, it has to be said…

Indeed, I have written a whole book on the writings of HP Lovecraft, a bluffers guide to his stories if you will, that I was hoping to release this year, but thanks to some minor inconvenience (the global pandemic) it has been tied down with my editor slightly longer than envisaged…

Lovecraft, like many a writer before him and since, was something of a magpie when it came to borrowing from other writers. I can’t really blame him for that, I am something of a magpie myself, almost every writer is. Oh we call them influences, but what we really mean is ‘that’s a good idea, I’m nicking that’. He also liked to reference, to a greater or lesser extent, the work of other writers in his own, usually with there permission if they were contemporary’s. In some cases he even went so far as to write them into a story… then kill them off… but all in good fun, for the most part…

One of the unintended results of his being a literary magpie is some aspects of the ‘Cthulhu mythos’ which are generally associated in these latter days with Lovecraft first and foremost, were actually shiny trinkets he ‘acquired’ for his nest. The most famous example of which is arguably the play, ‘The King in Yellow’ which originally appears in the a book of short stories of the same name by Robert w Chambers in 1895. Lovecraft ‘borrowed’ a lot from the king in yellow, and was certainly influenced by Chambers style and fiction in general. The play, is portrayed as a piece of occult literature, mentioned in the same breath as the Necronomicon in Lovecraft’s ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,

And strange moons circle through the skies,

But stranger still is

Lost Carcosa.

Excerpt form the play ‘The King in Yellow’ in the story of the same name ~ Robert W Chambers

Before chastising old tentacle hugger for his literary magpieing, it is also of passing note that Chamber was something of a magpie himself, and ‘borrowed’ the king in yellow himself and entity named Hastur from ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’ by Ambrose Bierce, and Carcosa itself come to that. Though in fairness to Chambers, all he really borrowed in this case was the names. His Hastur is not ‘a god of shepards’ as he is in Ambrose’s story. Besides, as I say, writers, we are all magpies… Which brings me to the reason I am writing this clearly fascinating and insightful piece (hey, you have read this far) A book I picked up because I have bumped into the author (Keith Healing) a couple of times at conventions and he is a likable chap, who is also something of a literary magpie in this grand tradition.. and so I was curious. And also because of the aging leather fob on my keyring…

I made myself that keyfob some years ago on a whim (I hope) as carved into the leather is ‘the yellow sign’ of Hastur… I made myself a wallet at the same time, which had an elder sign craved into it. This was a joke, of sorts. An invitation to disaster, and the means to repel it…

I didn’t say it was a funny joke…

Also, that wallet has long since been thrown away after it started to disintegrate after a few years, yet the yellow sign keyfob is still there. I occasionally wonder, in the darkness on the night, while staring up at the faces in the ceiling, if I should be worried by this… but shuffling merrily along.

The Burnt Watcher, by Keith Healing is a strangely involving novel, it draws you in to a strange disturbing world some half a millennium or more after a great calamity has struck mankind. The nature of that calamity is never really explained, but then it need not be. Told as it is in first person by the title character his understanding of what happened five hundred year before is all you have to go with, and he doesn’t know. All you can do is take implication for the after effects. London, Birmingham and other great city’s of our own age are now ‘the glass’. Hell holes no one wanders into. Less towns and city’s are no less dangerous. Something in stone causes ‘the fear’ and ‘the fear’ haunts ever aspect of life.

What ‘the fear’ really is, well that’s in part is ingrained into the very fabric of this novel. My suspicions changed several times as I read, my first assumption was the fear was caused by radiation form a nuclear war, hence the major city’s are now ‘the glass’. It is an assumption that would explain much of how and why this strange dystopian world came into been, except it doesn’t explain everything. And the further into the novel you go the less that assumption explains. There is something else, something at the heart of things, something insidious. An insidiousness that is their in the writing, the way the tale is told, layers been stripped back and revealed careful, so if you are making assumptions those assumptions are fed carefully before they are revealed to be wrong…

I have theories of course, the novel and its author, invite the reader to have theories, by explaining little of what has happened to the world, he is inviting you to make your own connections. To guess what ‘the fear’ really is and where and how it arose. Perhaps the great physic screaming of billions of souls as the calamity struck and so many died managed to draw something through the dimension, something that has always been there, but fed by the cataclysm is strong enough, and insidious enough to effect the real world… Meh, its a theory, I suspect I will have to read the next book to find out… I suspect I will be doing that shortly. As I said it is a strangely involving novel, but strange and involving in a good way, and hard to put down…

There is also a hint or three of the colour yellow, mention of a king, and ‘strange is the night where black stars rise…’

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Five years of Passing Place

Five years ago my personal favourite of my novels, and the one I will grudgingly admit to being most proud of Passing Place was release. I say grudgingly because all my novels are little slithers of my soul and, excepting my children, the things of which I am most proud. Picking a favourite is akin to picking a favourite child, something that in the case of my children I would never do as I love them both equally. Luckily in the case of my novels however picking a favourite it is somewhat of a more reasonable undertaking. I love them all, but of all of them the greatest slither of my soul is contained within the pages of Passing Place. It is, in short , the book I always wanted to write.

I should perhaps explain that last statement. When I say I always wanted to write it, that doesn’t mean I always knew what it was going to be, or anything so grandiose. What I mean is I always wanted to write something different, something unique, something that drew on everything that excited me as a reader, a watcher and a listener. I wanted to write something both epic and personal, that explored complex themes and yet could touch people on an emotional level. I wanted to write something that readers could identify with and yet at the same time be encouraged to think about, something that asked questions and did not entirely answer them all. Which is a long winded way of saying I wanted to write the kind of book I love to read.

I would like to think that statement applies to everything I write, but I just think Passing Place does that better than the rest. The Hannibal novels are pulpy satire, Maybe is a straight forward steampunk adventure novel, and as for my contemporary novel Cider Lane, well ‘it’s complicated’ as the saying goes. They all have things to say, they all will touch readers in different ways, but Passing Place is the closest to the kind of novel’s I dreamed about writing thirty five years ago when I was still a kid, hammering away at my dads cheap typewriter and using ridiculous amounts of Tipex to erase my mistakes…

This is why, if I am asked, as happens form time to time at conventions, which of my books I would recommend to a new reader ‘Passing Place’ inevitably is the answer I give.

Which brings me to here, five years after it release, which is something of a epoch as the novel itself took me five years to write (though in that five years I wrote cider lane and much of what became the first Hannibal novel and the first few chapters of what later became Maybe). For much of the five years since I have been playing about with idea’s for a sequel without ever really nailing down what it was going to be, the main problem being that the first novel tells the whole of the main characters story. While he would be in any sequel (not that one is required), he could never be it’s focus. So the sequel never got started, until that is I finally realised what it was going to be when I was working on a side project to do with the 5th anniversary. A side project that harkens back to those childhood dreams I had of being a writer.

Perhaps not unusually, when I dreamed of writing my own books, I dreamed of holding them in my hand. And while I read, and still read, mostly paperbacks, there has always been something special about hardbacks. A hard back is the most real of realities. the most solid of things. At least if you’re a bibliophile at any rate. My book shelves are stacked with paperbacks but the books of my favourite authors I have in hardback. It’s just a thing… And sure perhaps I am weird like that, but then I’m a writer, the ship of normal sailed away years ago…

But in any regard, I publish my books through amazon and while I would prefer to publish them in other ways as I am not a huge fan of the all consuming global nexus, they remain for now the best option, because while making a stand against them would be all very well and good, amazon effectively is the marketplace. However up until recently you could only publish via amazon in two ways, on kindle or in paperback. there were options to publish hardback versions through third parties but all of these had their own hurdles to jump and issues with supply (purchasing third party books on amazon tends to be a pest as well).

Then, earlier this year, Amazon announced they were going to start publishing hardbacks. Frankly at that point not typesetting and releasing a hardback versions of my books would have seemed insane. It was after all a childhood dream come true, even if the only hardback version ever purchased was my own copy…

Of course, it is never as simple as that, and I am never going to not make things more complex than they need to be. If I was going to put out a hardback version of any book, I wanted the first to be Passing Place for all those reasons I started with. But as it was the fifth anniversary, I wanted to do more.

Despite being my favourite, Passing place is also the least successful of my novels. Not least this is because it doesn’t fit neatly on any genre shelf… which makes it difficult to market. It is however the best reviewed, which is to say it gets the best reviews, if not the most numerous. Readers like it, love it in many cases, frequently try to bully me into writing a sequel in other cases. I have in fact never had a bad review for Passing Place. So while it has never set the world on fire, it smoulders nicely. As such I thought if I was going to do a 5th anniversary, hardback release, I ask someone to write an introduction, which American author Joseph Carrabis, who had recently read the novel and praised its virtues in a frankly overwhelming review, kindly agreed to write for me.

There were other things I wanted to do as well. One of the niggling issues with Passing place was my own naivety when I first publish it. The text falls somewhat foul of the ‘fair and reasonable usage’ rules on copyright. Only a little foul, a tad over the legal line, but I quote rather too much of the lyrics of one particular song which has a fairly central part to play in the novel. the fifth anniversary seemed like a good time to revisit this issue and resolve it. But this took a while as I needed to write the lyrics for a fictional song form a fictional rock opera, that would retain the impact of the original.

That may not sound like a huge mountain to climb, but it was larger than you might imagine…

But eventually I managed to climb the mountain, typeset a hardback edition in a larger font format for a larger book. with all those minor changes. Then of course I needed to do the same with the paperback and kindle editions…

The little project took a while.

But, it is done, the hardback I expect no one to buy, of my least successful, but most beloved book is available to all. As are the paperback and kindle editions… It would be remiss of me not to mention this…

And importantly to me, and no one else one suspects, I will very soon, as soon as the copy I ordered arrives, be able to realise a childhood dream, and hold a Hardback written by Mark Hayes in my hand. Now that will be a fine day, amidst a year that has been woefully sort of fine days…

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Sailing on an Hourglass Sea

Not too long ago I reviewed Mat MaCall’s The Dandelion Farmer. I was I think now perhaps a little too gushing in my praise of the novel, the first of a trilogy of which the second The Hourglass Sea is the subject of this review.

The problem with the review of The Dandelion Farmer (the short version posted on amazon is above, the long version from the blog is here.) is very simple. Once you have said something is ‘a tour-de-force’ written with ‘mastery’ and ‘a wonderful read’ it leaves you with no where to go when you discover to your chagrin the sequel is even better…

If there was one flaw in the first book it was a problem inherent with the style in which the novels are written, because it is all in the form of excerpts form diary, official reports, memoirs, the overlap between different POV characters views of events occasionally led to you viewing one set of events several times, without necessary adding a great deal to the story. While I addressed this to an extent in my long review here, it wasn’t a major flaw. There was just one or two places where it was a tad over done. As flaws go however its was a minor one, and one that did not detract form the splendour of the novel. It just could have been even better, but I felt at the time that was a little like saying a masterpiece like the Mona Lisa could have been even better if only Leonardo had made her smile even more enigmatic… Which is to say you can not improve on a master piece it is already a master piece, and even the flaws are part of what make it so…

Then I read The Hourglass Sea.

Everything I loved about The Dandelion Farmer is in here and more. The Characters evolve, the steampunk, Victorian era, colonial mars grows in your imagination, the deeper plot becomes, well deeper more complex, strange and engrossing. The epic quality to it all, the grand scale, the intricate details of character and place. It’s all there.

Not to mention the most fascinating, and my favourite, characters from the first book, Aelita the catholic raised native Martian, and Adam Franklin the man who isn’t, are very much centre stage once more, driving the narrative with their own portions of the story. Which is not to detract form the other characters who are all wonderfully realised creations in their own right.

The scope of these novels just expands, the second book taking you further into the history of Colonial Mars and mysteries that surround its former inhabitants. The scale is epic views through the microcosm of the individual, which make sit all the more engaging as a narrative. It’s engrossing and draws you further in as the story progresses, even more so than in the original novel.

What isn’t there are the minor flaw I choose to ignore in the first novel. While POV’s in the excerpts still over lap, as indeed they should, it has been kept to a minimum, allowing the greater narrative to flow more easily, and avoid those occasional bits in the first novel where they got a little stifled. Which as I say was the smallest of flaws in that first novel, even if I ignored it at the time due to how much I loved it. Every novel has flaws, 20’000 leagues under the sea has too many passages about fish, war of the worlds is dry to the point of arid at times, Wuthering Heights gets a tad flouncy around the edges. There is an Inuit Saga in the middle of Passing Place… Perfection in a masterpiece is a slightly more enigmatic smile than the most enigmatic smile ever known.

With The Hourglass Sea, Mat MaCall has managed to take his masterpiece and make the smile even more enigmatic…

Was I a little too gushing in my praise of the first novel, perhaps, but only when views with hindsight. The first book was a masterpiece, the second is just better still… I can not wait for the third

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Returning to the Passing Place

One of the odd questions one gets asked when one is stood around at an event by a display of books you have written is ‘which would you recommend?’ I have strong feelings for all my novels, for a variety of reasons in each case, I suspect every writer does. So clearly I would recommend them all.

That said, occasionally people refine the question a little and ask something along the lines of ‘If I was to read one of them which would you recommend most. To that I have an answer, its always the same answer, and I suspect no matter how much I love everything else I have written or will go on to write it will remain the answer. Because if there is one book that is the absolute soul of me as a writer, it is Passing Place.

Cider Lane is the novel I wrote to prove to myself as much as anyone that I could write a novel. The Hannibal novels, Maybe, all the short stories in anthology’s like the Harvey Duckman books or my own little anthologies were more or less written for fun, and the joy of the thing. But Passing place is the book I always wanted to write. The book, more specifically the kind of book, I dreamed about writing when I was a teenager back in the dim, distant, big hair and dark eyeliner days of 1980’s. It’s the kind of book I wanted to write in my twenties, and toyed with in my thirties, and finally, over the course of five years I wrote in my mid forties, with noticeably less hair and even less eyeliner…

It took five years, though in the course of that five years I wrote and published another novel and started two more. But still from the first version of the first chapter to finally going in to print Esqwith’s Piano bar and grill, the Passing Place was more or less where my ide spent its time.

I often say novels are slithers of a writers souls, because I am pretentious at times, but to me this remains true. A writer, if they are doing it properly, puts a lot of themselves into their novels. Every novel… But Passing place is the novel that took the majority of mine.

Ironically of course, it is also probably my least successful novel, because its very hard to Pidgeon hole into a specific genre. However of late it has received some frankly stunning reviews. Which is to say the reviews stun me… Not least because they are reviews from my peers

That last review from American author Joseph Carrabis is the short version of a review which frankly astounded me when I read the full one. Its on his blog (which is always a good read aside this review) here.

All of this frankly unexpected love for Passing Place coincided with the 5th anniversary of the novel being published.

It also marks the point, five years after the first novel, that I have finally got to the point where I have the sequel firmly planned. I was missing something vital from the next book that has stopped me writing it until now, that being the central character (though I wasn’t aware that was what was missing I just knew something wasn’t there yet…) So it took five years to write the first novel, five more to figure out how to write the second , and it will probably take me five years to write it, around ever other project I have going on.

But finally, for those few who have been waiting, I am returning to the Passing Place, to Richard the Piano Player, Greyman, Jolene, Lyall, Sonny, Morn and the cat… Something red is coming…. Another slither of my soul…

This is something I though some people might want to know…

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The Craft…

Just to get the obvious apology out of the way, sorry, this post is not about the 1996 cult classic teenage witchcraft movie, it is instead about the craft of writing. Though that said there is a line that can be draw between Neve Campbell and Robin Tunney et all throwing around spells while struggling with teen angst and a whole subgenre of YA protagonists/antagonists, and writers in general over the last 25 years. Stephanie Meyer for example probably snuck off to watch the movie at some point despite her Mormon roots a decade before Twilight became a thing… But lets not drift off topic…

Actually this post is about the craft of writing, as it NaNoWriMo, though I am not participating in the annual challenge for the first time in several years due to family matters, but I feel obliged to offer a little encouragement to those who are as they get towards the gristle of the month, and a little advice to authors in general, by way of a few of my favourite quotes on the craft itself.

Enjoy…

Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip ~ Elmore Leonard

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass ~ Anton Chekhov

The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer ~ Billy Wilder

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you ~ Ray Bradbury

Literature was not born the day when a boy crying ‘wolf, wolf’ came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels; literature was born on the day when a boy came crying ‘wolf, wolf’ and there was no wolf behind him ~ Vladimir Nabokov

I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide ~ Harper Lee

And finally, in light of all that, my favourite quote of all.

I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite ~ G K Chesterton

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