Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Season's Greetings

Christmas has come around very quickly this year (although I say that every year - you'd think I'd be used to it by now!), and so I just have time to send some festive greetings to my fellow Lost Victorians, before retiring to eat lots of turkey and unwrap presents. 

I've been raiding the bookshelves for some festive reading, and have found two fine examples. First up is the ever-popular A Christmas Carol (in a fine Collector's Library edition, pictured). Next is the faux-Edwardian The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill, a book full of period atmosphere. A pair of beauties for any bibliophile, I'm sure you'll agree!

So, with the reading material sorted, I shall wish you all the compliments of the season. Cheers!

Friday, 6 December 2013

Dear Points of View...

As my followers on Twitter and Facebook will know, the BBC has recently taken the decision to axe the excellent TV drama ‘Ripper Street’ after just two series. The timing of the decision and the apparent reasons for it are a bit hard to swallow. That’s why I’ve hijacked the blog for a day to write an open letter to the BBC…

It’s not often that I feel compelled to email a TV company about the decision to axe particular shows. In most cases, I just figure that a show has run its course, and accept the decision. But in the case of Ripper Street, I just can’t believe that’s the case. Moving it from its Sunday night slot, and citing the ratings being won by ITV’s “I’m a Celebrity” as a main cause for concern smacks of short-sightedness.

Ripper Street is hands down my favourite show on TV at the moment. The writing is getting better and better, the production values are incredible, the cast is superb. Just when I thought it was ‘finding its groove’ I heard the news that it was being cancelled. It seems like it’s the victim of a scheduling mishap. Never has a show been more suited to Sunday night viewing – it’s certainly on a par with Poirot, Sherlock, Foyle’s War, et al, and should probably be treated as such, with a bit more respect. (I am, sadly, reminded of the similar – and excellent – Murder Rooms, which received the same treatment years ago).
Well, when you see it like this, how
could a quality drama hope to compete?
What guile. What mastery.

Let’s be charitable and say that someone at the Beeb has considered these things. But to me it's obvious that people watch less TV on a Monday night than on a Sunday, and nowadays most people record their favourite shows. I can't believe that all of the old 8 million viewers just stopped watching – many probably just record it.

Several options have been mooted by fans, such as to get BBC America to jointly fund and produce the show; move it back to Sundays; give it to BBC2 where perhaps it’ll find a more natural home; or even make a shorter series with longer episodes to avoid slicing the budget too much for a third season. I’ve seen messages of support, incidentally, from US fans who are eagerly awaiting ‘season two’, only to learn that it’ll be the last. Surely, at the very least, the hard-core fans (numbering in their millions still!) deserve to have the existing storylines wrapped up satisfactorily? Or at the very least a response to their concerns?

The axing of this show has basically produced a strength of feeling that I don’t remember seeing in recent history. Just search Twitter for #SaveRipperStreet, or check out the growing petition over at https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/reverse-the-bbc-s-decision-to-cancel-ripper-street (almost 3,000 signatures in 24 hours). The arguments seem to be that the BBC is a publicly funded channel, but is making a conscious decision to remove intelligent period drama in order to compete with dumbed-down pointless reality/celebrity fare. If the BBC is no longer interested in giving viewers genuine options, then what is it for?

As if to compound matters, this letter was originally posted to the Points of View message board, the address of which since found its way onto Twitter. All other Ripper Street boards had been closed, with a message pointing the one official ‘active’ board. Sadly, the moderators have now chosen to close that one too, this time with no explanation. What is going on BBC? Why don’t you want to listen to the people who pay for your programming?

The #SaveRipperStreet campaign is going well, and I’d love to think we could change the BBC’s mind, but with the lack of response so far, it seems that perhaps ratings rather than quality are the Beeb’s prime concern these days. A shame. 

EDIT: If you're on Twitter, then I also urge you to follow @saveripperst for the latest on the campaign.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

So, You Write Steampunk?

I’ve been meaning to blog on this topic for quite some time, but never got around to it. Ever since, in fact, I read an article by esteemed steampunk author G. D. Falksen, which began with this: “What is steampunk? In three short words, steampunk is Victorian science fiction.” Actually, it's not. At least, I don’t believe it is.

Author G. D. Falksen in full steampunk garb.
He wears it well!
And I was prompted to revisit this subject just the other day. Whilst talking to another writer, I tried to describe the novel I currently have in the works. I said: “It’s basically a Victorian thriller, with bits of science fiction and a twist of horror. I suppose you’d call it Victorian science fiction, like H. G. Wells.” And he said: “Oh, you mean steampunk?” 

This in itself didn’t bother me, because I really like steampunk (although I’ve always kind of disliked the fact that the steampunk movement has fully subsumed VSF in the niche genre consciousness). In fact, I’d normally have just shrugged and said: “Yeah. Kinda.” No, what bothered me was that the fellow sort of rolled his eyes, and derided my work by association. Because steampunk itself isn’t ‘respected’ outside of its own niche, and therefore he was implying that if I was a steampunk author, my work must be hackneyed and amateurish.

None of the above reflects my own opinion, I’d hasten to add. Good fiction, steampunk or not, is still good fiction. There is no room in this game for genre snobbery, despite what some professionals may have you believe. I own steampunk comics and graphic novels, games, object d’art and bits of fashion. It fits my obsession with the Victorian era like a glove. In short, I like steampunk, and I like VSF; I just don’t believe they are the same. Let me explain.

Steampunk keyboard by the late
Richard 'Datamancer' Nagy, who very
sadly passed away in November 2013.
Steampunk is the fiction of Victorian futurism and ‘scientific romance’. It takes the excesses of the era, the zany inventions and patents, the Victorian predictions about where science could take us; and then it creates a fantastical alternative reality where all of these things actually happened. Steampunk doesn’t always follow a ‘real’ historical timeline, and its characters don’t always behave in the manner befitting a real Victorian. Quite often, the fiction is in a non-specific place, or even a fantastical land, allowing for the many American steampunk authors to ply their trade without alienating their fellows. Common to the stories are races other than humans (primarily the Fae/Faerie, although it varies), sentient robots made of brass and powered by steam, ray guns and bionic parts, advanced airships, overt magic and sorcery, and even dragons… it’s more urban fantasy than historical fiction. It takes the cool aesthetics of Jules Verne and asks "what if there was a world where this was commonplace, and it was the pinnacle of human advancement? What if technology had actually continued to develop, using steam power as its basis?"

Victorian science-fiction, however, could ostensibly be historical fiction. It has its basis in the factual Victorian world (usually Britain) that we all recognise from history books. The writer has to have done some research regarding people, places, events and language. It’s a facsimile of the fiction read by the Victorians themselves. The science fiction elements may be integral to the plot, but they are very much portrayed as otherworldly, unusual and somehow ‘infernal’. These elements may well take the form of alternate dimensions, steam-powered machines, Tesla-built death rays or time machines, but they are the singular exception to all the laws of the narrative, not the norms of the world. It is the fiction of H. G. Wells, whereupon normal, everyday people in a normal, everyday town are suddenly attacked by Martian war machines; or where a scientist surrounded by ordinary friends in an ordinary suburb of London suddenly perfects a time machine and goes on a fantastic journey through time.

They are the definitions I work with, and unashamedly so. Some people would argue that there’s no longer a distinction; that the two have become one in the collective imagination. And yet I’d say that the distinction is still an important one. Personally, although I love to read steampunk (and if you haven’t tried the Newbury & Hobbs series by my good friend George Mann, then you’re missing out), I don’t tend to write it. But I’d caveat all of this with the fact that the two can, and do, cross over. I’ve used a couple of steampunk aesthetic ‘tropes’ in my book, for no other reason than that it’s cool, and I remain unabashed at doing so!

I think the real point of this meandering blog isn’t just to ‘educate’ about these specific genres, but really to have a poke at genre snobbery. I see it again and again in the fiction world, and it’s not very nice! Writing cannot be bad because of the genre that it sits in; writing can only be good or bad due to the inspiration, skill and imagination of the writer. Writing off a book because it sits in the Young Adult section, or the Steampunk section, or even the Romance section is just a bit silly; if there’s a good story well told, then it’s worth looking beyond the [brass-plated] surface.

Got something to add? Want to get in touch about this or other aspects of my ramblings? Then come and join the discussion over on my Facebook page.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Urbanex: The Revenge

A very short post this time, purely as a follow-up to my earlier blog about urban exploration (or Urbanex) and its influence on my horror writing. I've been thinking a lot about 'abandoned places' and their unsettling nature just lately, partly because November 5th was the anniversary of the day that the Mary Celeste set sail for its ill-fated final voyage, which was a tale beloved of Arthur Conan Doyle, amongst others. I think the image of the hastily abandoned vessel (which sadly may have been a bit made up for dramatic license) strikes a chord with us all; the evidence left behind of everyday human existence (and, perhaps, suffering) is more unnerving than a mere empty house or dilapidated shipwreck.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is merely to share a link. The other day I was tweeted an article by my agent about the works of Dan Marbaix, and his photographs (and commitment to the cause) are truly inspiring. Check it out here. All I can (rather parsimoniously) say is, I'm rather happy that so many great photographers risk incarceration for this art form, so I don't have to!

Friday, 8 November 2013

Investigations Round London

Since the likes of Dickens and Mayhew forged the way in the early-mid 1800s, many social reformers, commentators and travel writers of the Victorian era took it upon themselves to go off the beaten track for their source material. ‘Unconventional guides’ to London were published fairly frequently, and many chose to focus on the more salubrious districts of the capital, in order to cast a light on the great social divide between rich and poor. The London guidebook gave way to the ‘social investigation’ book. Many people today have heard of Charles Booth’s great work in ‘Life and Labour in London, and the drawing of his famous poverty map. However, this blog is about those lesser known individuals, who so fearlessly braved the crime-infested streets of London’s slums in order to see for themselves the conditions of the poor, and document it so as to provide a catalyst for change.

When I’m writing about Victorian London, these books are probably more valuable to me than the fiction of the time, as they provide a wealth of real-life characters and situations to draw upon. And often, the truth is stranger than fiction!

Montagu Williams QC, from a sketch in 
Vanity Fair, 1879. Quite the dapper gent!
In particular, I happened across a brilliant example of these guidebooks recently, in the form of ‘Round London’, by the wonderfully named Montagu Williams QC. Mr Williams was, as you’ll have gathered, a judge who: ‘devoted himself heart and soul and with all the masterful energy which characterised him to the acquirement of a perfect knowledge of the neighbourhoods and of the people among who his work lay.’ In other words, he wanted to understand the people who were regularly dragged before him in the dock, and therefore set out to spend as much time amongst them as possible.

In the first few pages of the volume entitled ‘Down East’, we learn of the practise of hiring gaudy hats for ladies, who in the East End would not feel right without wearing an oversized bonnet. We learn of an undertaker who made a fortune during an outbreak of scarlet fever, but then spent it all in the gin-palace around the corner and drunk himself into an early grave. The man’s shop was taken over by a low-rent amusement company, who pawned the coffins and velvet drapes and replaced them with gruesome waxworks of Jack the Rippers victims, no more than a year after their deaths, and within walking distance of the sites!

Williams’ book casts a light on subjects that aren’t easily accessible to the casual researcher. It gives us a very critical first-hand account of those Victorian staples that we’ve all heard of – the match girls, poor hospitals, street entertainers, East End crime (listed under a chapter comedically entitled ‘Burglarious Bill’, in which he talks to a ‘cracksman’ about how to spot the easiest safes to break into), the old Whitechapel Jewish quarter and the racial tensions therein, and the sinister opium dens situated in notorious slums. He visits prisons, and talks to some of the very men he sent down; he visits hospitals and reports on the terrible sights he finds amongst the poorest patients. Some of it makes for grim reading, other parts are laced with humour (Williams later became a playwright). It’s all grist for the mill of the writer.

My favourite anecdote in this particular book involves Williams and his friends, after dining at the ‘Ship and Turtle’ visiting Leman Street police station (familiar to viewers of BBC One’s Ripper Street) to pick up a police escort. Their objective was to visit a Chinese opium den on the infamous Ratcliff Highway, but only after a pub crawl around the worst parts of the East End, whereupon the police officers were offered several drinks, and invited to join in the dancing with some bawdy women. When they reached the opium den, the officers paved the way, and then Williams and his friends (judges and barristers all) lay upon the divans as instructed, where ‘he proceeded to offer each of us the calumet of peace […] We were to accept the pipes, take one or two whiffs, and then put them down again. That, we were assured, would suffice to satisfy the laws of hospitality.’ Williams did, however, ask for his opium to be rolled in a cigarette rather than a communal pipe, as befitted a gentleman.

Thankfully, Williams was ‘happy to add that no unpleasant consequences resulted. The cigarette had a very soothing effect, but it neither drugged me nor made me ill.” Yes, a high court judge had a smoke of crack, but claimed he wasn’t high. Imagine the newspaper reports were that to be published today!

Sadly, the story ends badly for some residents of Ratcliff Highway. As Williams and his friends left the opium den, they heard a hue and cry, and were thrust into the middle of a panicked crowd. Apparently some ‘Chinamen’ had been robbed in a nearby pub, and had become embroiled in a fight. When a mob of Englishmen set upon them, the Chinese men (possibly members of a notorious East End gang) drew knives and fought their way to freedom, indiscriminately stabbing men and women in the process. Williams happened across a dead body first hand. Grim stuff!

And yet, he continued his journey ‘Round London’. Without his intrepid spirit, and that of men like him, we wouldn’t have such colourful records of life in the Victorian era. Raise your glass to Mr. Montagu Williams QC. Gawd bless ’im.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Mapping Victorian London

I 're-tweeted' this link earlier today (no mean feat for a nineteenth century chap, I can assure you), but felt it was well worth posting on the blog so that like-minded souls could find it more easily.

The National Library of Scotland's map department has taken some high-res scans of the London Ordnance Survey maps 1893-6 (over 500 maps, in fact), stitched them all together and superimposed them onto modern digital maps. If you like maps, and like history, you'll love this!


It can be a little tricky to navigate via the article, so the direct link is here

What you end up with a searchable map of London in the mid 1890s, with functionality very similar to Google maps. A bit like this:

Which is rather marvellous for people like me who love maps! 

For now, enjoy exploring Victorian London. I'm going back in! (I wonder when they'll do the time-travelling Streetview version...?)

Thursday, 19 September 2013

From the pages of Punch, or the London Chiavari, November 1871


THE Report of the Dialectical Society on Spiritualism has been derided by many critics and others, who either believe, or at least seriously entertain, MR. DARWIN'S theory of the Descent of Man. The Darwinists, indeed, generally despise the Spiritualists.

I, who am both a Spiritualist and a Darwinist, see no reason at all why they should. On the contrary, I see very much reason why they should not. Darwinism and Spiritualism, Sir, rightly regarded, illustrate and confirm each other. Darwinists, who hold the derivation of mankind from the Marine Ascidian, intermediately through the Anthropoid Apes, argue that if, as asserted by Spiritualists, disembodied human spirits exist, disembodied simious spirits should also exist. There ought to be spirits of apes and monkeys. Well, I say, so there are. The undignified and absurd nature of some spiritual communications is often alleged as proving their unreality. These communications proceed from the spirits of deceased apes.

Messages are often received at "circles" purporting to come from BACON, FRANKLIN, BYRON, or some other departed personage of genius or intellect, which they are far from being examples of, being, on the contrary, nonsense or twaddle. In these cases the spirit of an Orang-outang, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, or some other description of jackanapes, actuated by the imitative instinct characteristic of the monkey tribes, personates the poet, philosopher, or man of science, and mimics his utterances with imperfection corresponding to that which we see exhibited, in playing the part of humanity, by a performing monkey. The Ape-spirit imitates human speech, being in a state of Darwinian development, which is as possible for a monkey in the spheres as in this world. The levitation of MR. HOME and others, the transference of that gentleman in and out of a drawing-room window seventy feet from the ground, the transportation of Mediums through the air and the walls or ceiling of a room, the dancing of tables, the picking of pockets, and all the rest of the ludicrous incidents common at stances, are the monkeys' tricks of tricksy spirits, the spirits of monkeys.

Having said thus much, Sir, shall I be asked to prove it? Not by you. You are up to the philosophy of the times. Proof, you know, is now an anachronism in science. We are to accept MR. DARWIN'S theory, provisionally, because it is the best we have to account for facts. Mine, I am sure, has an equal claim to acceptance. It is the best out, and it squares with his. The Descent of Man is no reason against his Destiny, and his Destiny does not disprove his Descent; on the contrary is, as I have asserted, that is, shown, associated with evidences which prove it. Therefore don't tell me that I am an ass, and that Darwinism and Spiritualism, respectively, are but opposite poles of scientific and superstitious credulity. Write me down whatever you may, I subscribe myself

Yours truly,


P.S. Of course there are also spirits of Marine Ascidians. Why not? Did not BLAKE (till lately pictor ignotus) once actually paint from life (spirit-life) the Ghost of a Flea?

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged

A short and quite impromptu blog today, featuring another departure from the realms of horror and Victoriana. As part of their build-up to the Space Marines release, today sees the release of my latest short story for the Black Library, a 1,000-word slice of Warhammer 40,000 goodness.

Entitled 'Judgement', this story was penned when I was still part of Games Workshop's studio team, and is the missing link of the story of the Doom Legion, a minor Codex chapter of the galaxy's favourite warriors. For those in the know, the Doom Legion feature in both the Space Marines codex, and Codex: Chaos Space Marines  but why? Many eagle-eyed fans have been asking that question since the release of the Chaos Space Marines book. This is the tale of how half of the chapter turned to darkness, and how the other half cope with the eternal shame of their heresy.

Although Warhammer 40,000 fiction is almost in a former life for me, it still remains close to my heart, and you'll be seeing more in the future. The grim, dark future.

You can buy Judgement here in ebook format.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Dial M for MacGuffin

Today (August 13th) sees the birthday of Alfred Hitchcock, the twentieth century’s Master of Suspense. He was, however, born in the nineteenth century, and this makes him fair fodder for this blog.

From Biography.comBorn in London on August 13, 1899, Alfred Hitchcock worked for a short time in engineering before entering the film industry in 1920. He left for Hollywood in 1939, where his first American film, Rebecca, won an Academy Award for best picture. Hitchcock created more than 50 films, including the classics Rear Window, The 39 Steps and Psycho. Nicknamed the "Master of Suspense," Hitchcock received the AFI's Life Achievement Award in 1979. He died in 1980. 

Speaking of that award, the master of suspense proved that he was also the master of speeches when picking it up:

It’s worth a blog post just to commemorate the life and works of this great man, largely because he’s responsible for so many of the things that have shaped my love of mystery and suspense over the years. As a young child I read Robert Arthur’s TheThree Investigators series over and over, and when I was old enough to watch the real deal I started with The Birds. This film probably, more than any other, instilled in me a love of film-making beyond the popcorn summer blockbusters that most kids my age preferred. I was even a fan of the rather odd 80s revival of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents on TV. I was probably too young to watch a horror anthology series at that time, but that show (along with Tales of the Unexpected and Hammer House of Horror) kindled my life-long love of horror and suspense.

Today, I’d place Vertigo in my top three movies of all time, with The Birds, Rear Window and Psycho all taking a place in the top ten. Hitchcock was a master of the art of storytelling through cinema, and his suspenseful plots and artful direction put him right up there with Wilkie Collins, Raymond Chandler and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in my eyes.

So, without further ado, I raise my glass to Alfred Hitchcock; 114 years old today, and still the master of suspense. Happy birthday, old chap.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Children Shouldn't Be Dead Things

Yesterday I was perusing Twitter, and came across a series of photographs by the rather wonderful Joshua Hoffine, who creates horrific scenes with the touch of an artist. The photos that grabbed my attention can be found in this Huffington Post article, and in them he uses his own children to create horror stills, for no other reason than that adding children to horror is really scary!

He's right you know. There's something just truly creepy about the use of children - in particular 'child ghosts' or 'demon children' in horror stories. Think of all the movies that have played on this theme over the years: Village of the Damned, Children of the Corn, The Dark Water, Ju-on: The Grudge, The Orphanage, The Exorcist (kind of), Poltergeist, and more recently 'Mama' (see the trailer below, if you don't fancy sleeping tonight).

There are lots of theories about exactly why we find children in horror settings so scary, and it makes for fascinating reading. There's something subversive and challenging to our psyche to see the innocent as a façade for evil, or the 'safe' becoming the horrific in one fell swoop. I kind of think that, in the same way that we naturally find crimes against children abhorrent, our minds rail against the idea of 'evil' or 'frightening' children. When we see it played out on the silver screen or in a book, our brains reject the notion, and generates an almost instant phobia of the thing we're seeing. You've probably noticed recently that zombie movies have started to include zombie children - zombies just aren't scary any more, but zombie children instil that sense of revulsion that cinema-goers had when they first saw Night of the Living Dead.

This isn't meant to be an in-depth blog post (I've linked to one of those above); more a random musing. As I'm currently writing a horror book, I've been looking at creative ways to use the 'supernatural child' trope in my own work. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, you can see the results for yourselves.

Sleep tight. Don't let the bed bugs bite.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Curious Mystery of the Haunted Mansion

With my first book of Victorian mystery and science fiction in the hands of publishers and agents across the realm, I've been working on all sorts of side projects whilst I await that magnificent, rare gem that is the Acceptance Letter. Regular visitors to my Facebook page will know that I've recently turned in a short Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and I'm currently working on some more science fiction short stories for the Black Library.

However, a good friend recently gave me the idea of writing a second novel; not only to submit to agents to help get the ball rolling a bit faster, but also to practise the craft of novel-writing, exploring different genres and plot structures. I've taken his advice. You see, I'd already started the second book in my Victorian series - I have a plot that I'm very happy with, and a first chapter that's quite well polished. But until book one has been snapped up by a publisher, book two seems a rather distant prospect. With that in mind, I've decided to embrace this 'modern day' era, which has so often been a source of confusion to me as a time-travelling 19th century gent: I'm going to write a contemporary horror novel.

Today has been the first day of plotting and research, and my head is already swimming with ideas. But the thing that's really got the creative juices flowing is the research about locations. The websites I've uncovered today about the phenomenon of Urban Exploration have been immensely illuminating. All of the pictures attached to this post are from genuine urban explorations.

The pictures of abandoned, creepy old houses, asylums, factories and prisons that these intrepid (and sometimes daft) explorers have taken is the stuff of dreams (or nightmares) for a writer. It's astonishing just how many derelict mansions and such like are scattered around the British Isles; some of them are in a very sorry state, but others are probably worthy of a field trip to fill in the all-important details of my story.

Of course, I'll probably have to find someone willing to come on a jaunt to an abandoned and potentially haunted house, but I'm sure there'll be no shortage of volunteers. a Victorian such as myself has no shortage of companions with the requisite resolve and stiff upper lip!

I'm not sure whether the creepy old place in my story is going to be a residential or public building, or even if it'll be a real or imagined place; but you can be damned it'll have a dark history, a sinister secret, and at least one inhabitant who isn't of this earth. While the location is key to making the tale scary, the biggest challenge I'll be facing is how to make the traditional haunted house horror story surprising. Watch this space!

Monday, 17 June 2013

Inspiration for the Time-travelling Writer

Following up on last week's blog about Victorian reference material, I thought it'd be well worth looking at the fiction that has inspired me to write in the nineteenth-century idiom too. As I tend to devour nineteenth century novels, some of the books on this 'Top Five' list are also among my favourite books of all time, but that's for another day!

The books that follow are the ones that have most inspired me to write. They were either produced in the Victorian/Edwardian eras, or are set in those eras. They contain information, conflicts, characters, themes and/or atmosphere that continue to feed my passion for all things Victorian, and influence my writing style. There are other, more important works of the period, and others that I love more than the ones on this list; but without these five, my writing would be very different.

Without further ado, here's the top five:

1. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
M. R. James

'Whilst the girl stood still, half smiling, with her hands clasped over her heart, the boy, a thin shape, with black hair and ragged clothing, raised his arms in the air with an appearance of menace and of unappeasable hunger and longing. The moon shone upon his almost transparent hands, and Stephen saw that the nails were fearfully long and that the light shone through them. As he stood with his arms thus raised, he disclosed a terrifying spectacle.’

It's well documented that M. R. James is one of my favourite writers; it's not Victorian, but it might as well be given its style. This collection comes top of my inspirational texts due to its subtle yet effective use of the supernatural. I subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea that terror feels more terrifying if you first make the mundane world a real, living place. James lulled his readers (or listeners, really, as his stories were intended to be read aloud) into a false sense of security, by telling tales of crusty old academics studying crusty old books in musty old libraries. And then BANG! A completely inexplicable, sanity-blasting ghost appears, and turns the world upside down. The sense of isolation usually suffered by James' poor protagonists is somehow shared by the reader - there is no help available, and if there were, it probably wouldn't do any good.

2. The Woman in Black
Susan Hill

 'For a long time, I did not move from the dark, wood-panelled hall. I wanted company, and I had none, lights and warmth and a strong drink inside me, I needed reassurance. But, more than anything else, I needed an explanation. It is remarkable how powerful a force simple curiosity can be. I had never realised that before now. In spite of my intense fear and sense of shock, I was consumed with the desire to find out exactly who it was that I had seen, and how, I could not rest until I had settled the business, for all that, while out there, I had not dared to stay and make any investigations.'

A fairly modern book, set in a fictional part of Edwardian England, this classic ghost story features my three favourite Gothic story elements: superstitious villagers, a claustrophobic old house, and a terrifying phantom. It's a story of an evil that cannot be destroyed, and of a terrible revenge enacted from beyond the grave. The most famous of Hill's ghost stories, it's written quite accurately in the period style, and draws from Wilkie Collins and M. R. James as inspiration. The Woman in Black is arguably the most successful attempt to capture the spirit (no pun intended) of the old-fashioned ghost stories, and is a masterclass in atmosphere. The stark beauty of the North in winter; the fog-shrouded causeway; the sinister sense of oppression of Eel Marsh House; and the isolated village of Crythin Gifford are all incredibly well realised. The plot is surprisingly simple, and the book very short, but the lasting effect it has on the reader is profound. If you've only seen the Daniel Radcliffe movie, then you're doing the book a disservice.

3. Dracula
Bram Stoker

No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be.’

I've covered Bram Stoker's classic tale in a previous post, so I won't revisit old ground. Needless to say, it blends documentary level details about language, people, places and technology with a rip-roaring story of supernatural terror. The action-oriented style and historical record contained in this book make it essential reading for anyone who wants to capture the spirit of Victorian horror in their writing.

4. The List of Seven
Mark Frost

'Show a man a target he can strike back against, and you lend him a footing. 
Attack him with inexplicable night sounds, will-o'-the-wisps, macabre scarecrows by the sides of train tracks, incite the stuff of his own nightmares, and the suggestive vagueness of it alone could send him reeling into lunacy.'

Not a classic, by any stretch. This is a pulp mystery set in Victorian England, written by Mark Frost (of Twin Peaks fame), and drawing very much on Sherlock Holmes for its inspiration. It's full of inaccuracies and OTT villains. So why include it in a very exclusive top five? Well, quite frankly, it showed me that writing in a nineteenth century setting didn't have to be all serious and stuffy. It's a rollicking good read, with some creepy bits and some very silly bits. Most importantly, it's the book that actually inspired me to put pen to paper and write my first novel. It gave me the 'I can do that!' moment; and, as every writer knows, that moment is truly priceless. I owe a surprising amount to this pulp paperback, and I couldn't leave it off the list in good conscience.

5. The Hound of the Baskervilles
Arthur Conan Doyle

"He said that there were no traces upon the ground round the body. He did not observe any, but I did - some little distance off, but fresh and clear."
  "A man's or a woman's?"
  Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered: "Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"

A haunting, wind-blasted landscape. A drug-taking savant as the hero. An evil antagonist and an ancient family curse. This is the story that introduces most modern readers to Sherlock Holmes, and is still one of the very best adventures of the great detective. It demonstrates that the supernatural isn't always as scary as man's capacity for cruelty, and represents a masterclass in writing the classic mystery story.

The Runners Up: A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens); The House on the Borderlands (William Hope Hodgson); The Dark Water (David Pirie); Frankenstein (Mary Shelley); Short Stories, 1895-1926 (Walter de la Mare).

That's it for another blog. In the future I'm going to talk more generally about my favourite books of all time (three of which made this list). If you think I've missed anything off this list, or if there's some inspirational texts you think I should check out, then do let me know!

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Encyclopaedia Victoriana

A bit more of a 'factual' post this time. I've been asked quite a lot recently about various facets of Victorian history and my methods for researching the stuff that I write about. Often, it boils down to questions like 'Where did you find the information on that village?' Or 'Was he a real person?' Or even 'So, if I was in Victorian London, how exactly would I send a telegram, and how much would it cost?

The secret is that I spend an awful lot of time in bookshops, and I own an awful lot of books (including many antique or out of print editions). This blog, then, is about reference material; I present to you my top 5 reference books on the 19th century. If I had to give up all my books but five, these are the ones I couldn't be without, as I use them almost every day!

1. Baedeker's Great Britain, 1890.
(reproduced by Old House Books, 2003)
The iconic travel guide to Britain in 1890, written with the English-speaking foreign traveller in mind, but now the ultimate guide for the time-traveller. This has a great introduction on British customs, etiquette and the prices of things, as well as a town-by-town guide to Britain itself. Best read alongside the Guide to London for probably the most exhaustive travel guide to Britain ever written.

2. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew
(Daniel Pool; Touchstone 1993)
This is a lovely little book, focussing on everyday life in England from 1800 to around 1860. Full of facts and figures about everything from the hierarchy of English peers through to the social rules of the country house visit, and supported by quotes from period literature.

3. Victorian London: The Life of a City 1840-1870
(Liza Picard; W&N 2005)
Simply the most engaging, well-researched and well-written guide to life in Victorian London ever written. There, I said it. It's third on the list only because its scope is quite focussed, making its use limited to the Big Smoke in mid-Victorian times. Thankfully, that suits me down to the ground.

4. Enquire Within Upon Everything 1890
(reproduced by Old House Books, 2003)
First published by Houlston & Sons of Paternoster Square, this book is the essential guide to, well, everything in the Victorian era. It sold over a million copies, which was unprecedented for its time, and was added to annually to cover more and more diverse topics. The Victorian householder would use this little manual to learn the rules of backgammon, prepare tonics, operate a barometer, treat the bite of a viper, or observe the correct etiquette at a dinner party.

5. Bradshaw's Illustrated Handbook to London & Its Environs 1862
(George Bradshaw; reproduced by Conway Books, 2012)
This is the book recently made famous by Michael Portillo in his Great Railway Journeys TV series. As a result of the show's success, Old House have published two facsimile versions of the book - one a standard hardcover, and one a plush leatherbound edition. Both offer the determined rail traveller an unparalleled companion around Britain. Used in conjunction with the Baedeker, this book provides a fascinating insight into the development of late-Victorian Britain.

And the Runners Up...
As I own over a hundred books on the subject, I couldn't leave it at five... Books that narrowly missed the final cut include: Baedeker's London & Its Environs 1900 (reproduced by Old House Books); Telling Dildrams & Talking Whiff-whaff (Mr. Holloway, 1839; reproduced by Old House Books, 2012); Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (reprinted by BiblioBazaar, 2010); Life in Victorian Britain (Michael Paterson; Robinson 2008); A History of Everyday Things in England (Marjorie & CHB Quennell; out of print); The Complete History of Jack the Ripper (Philip Sugden; Robinson 1994); A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Eric Partridge, out of print).

Sunday, 26 May 2013

For the Blood is the Life

There was one great tomb more lordly than all the rest; 
huge it was, and nobly proportioned. On it was but one word:


116 years ago today (May 26th), Bram Stoker unleashed his masterwork upon an unsuspecting Victorian society. Dracula is one of my all-time favourite books; a cliché perhaps, given my love of the nineteenth century and chilling tales, but it’s an unashamed pleasure. Like the critics back in 1897, I think Dracula is note-perfect in its execution, and a wonderful example of the late-Victorian novel.

It’s strange to think, from a modern perspective, that Dracula was itself homage to an earlier style of writing. Stoker took inspiration from writers such as Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto, 1764) and John Polidori (The Vampyre, 1819), to create a masterpiece of Gothic fiction. The pop culture part of my brain says it’s the Victorian equivalent of the movie Tombstone (the one with Kurt Russell), which takes probably all the best western archetypes and squashes them into something better than the sum of its parts. But I digress (again).

What I love about this book (aside from the fact that it’s still pretty creepy, and has one of the best baddies ever, and is everything that Twilight isn’t, thank Christ), is that it truly is a product of its age. The narrative hearkens back to an earlier style, but the story couldn’t be set before the late-Victorian period. Telegrams are integral to the plot in a way that the diary entries and letters of early epistolary writing could never be, lending urgency to a second-hand piece of information. The book features up-to-date (for 1897) medical procedures and psychiatric knowledge. It features social commentary from a perspective of ‘progressive’ Victorian morals (Lucy is punished for being so wanton and silly; her father is never around because he’s forever taking late night walks into town… ahem; and Mina is the true object of love for Harker and Dracula, because she’s a modern woman, a thinking woman, and a model of what Stoker saw as the future). It has subtle references to sexuality and secret desires (and the consequences thereof if you take the blood disease readings of the book to their obvious conclusion).

The rather lovely Barnes & Noble
leatherbound classic edition.
But for all of these subtexts, I think Dracula stands the test of time because it’s a genuinely good read. Sure, it shows its age in the language and characterisation, but nowhere near as much as early Victorian fiction like Dickens and Wilkie Collins. This book was written near the close of the Victorian age, and as such features modern language and, more importantly, modern ideas that might surprise today's reader. As the anniversary of its publication draws near, that lovely leatherbound edition is calling to me, like a wolf on the shore of a Whitby beach. The weather might be warming up outside, but the book never fails to transport me to a stormy winter’s night in 1897, when the doomed ship Demeter washes ashore, bringing with it a hellish cargo…

If you’ve never read Dracula, you’re missing out!

Monday, 13 May 2013

The Gender Agenda

Just lately I've decided to embrace social media a little more. Partly, I've known for ages that the only way to really make friends and influence people any more is through this Internet-thingy, and partly, my dear lady wife has bullied me into it. “Stop being so Victorian,” she said. “Embrace 2013,” she said. A stranded time traveller such as myself can barely get to grips with wireless telephones and ovens powered by electricity, so you’d think she’d go easy on me.

Anyway, the real reason for blogging today is that I have decided to begin my second novel. (Yes, I know the first one isn't out yet, and I'm aware I'm being uncharacteristically optimistic; but I'm confident. And the second one is going to be even better than the first. Hash tag Ego, as the kids might say).

I made some firm decisions about the imaginatively titled Book Two a long time ago. The first was that the lead character was going to be [gasp] a woman. The second was that she was going to be an exceptional woman in the Victorian era – so exceptional, in fact, that she would have to be labelled as ‘the Other’ by those of a philosophical bent (Yes, I've read a lot of Angela Carter, and yes, it has inspired me considerably in the writing of Book Two). The third was that she would have to go through some pretty extreme ordeals in order to realise that there’s more to life than just being accepted in a man’s world, even in the 1870s. Now, this is going to be a sci-fi/horror mash-up, so I can pull some unconventional levers to make my point, but that doesn't take away from one simple fact: what I'm doing is a bit unusual, especially for a man.

I'm not saying it hasn't been done before (It has). I'm not even saying that I'm treating the subject with an entirely original bent. It’s probably even been done in the same genre for all I know. But when you look at all the [ugh!] genre fiction out there in the world, it’s amazing how much of it is focused on male-centric stories. Now, as you may be aware, I travelled to this time from 1888, and women there had a rum time of it, I can tell you. But it seems that, in the stories circulating today, we haven’t moved on terribly much. Even women writers often write about male characters if they want to break into niche genres (Harry Potter, anyone? And that horrid Twilight thingy – the one with the anonymous girl living vicariously through the eyes of an ageing sexual predator… I mean, vampire – god, I wish vampires were scary again. Ahem). I might just be writing Jane Eyre with added ultraviolence, rather than high art, but it’s still not going to be terribly ‘mainstream’ in its themes and characters. I'm not exactly a champion of feminism, but I do find that curious.

Possibly the point of the blog, other than just being food for thought and rambling musings, is that I'm already finding it really difficult. Understanding the theory behind female character development doesn't mean I understand how to write a ‘real’ woman. Anyone got any tips? Because, to be honest, I can’t imagine a trickier thing to write than an entire novel from the point of view of a nonconformist female, kicking ass and taking names, and not even bothering to be all masculine in the process.

Coming full circle, I was inspired to write this blog by an article I found doing the rounds on Twitter. It’s about the rather patriarchal viewpoint offered by geek culture tropes in the media. It’s a lot more succinct than my offerings, but I'm a product of my time. It even made me slap my forehead and exclaim ‘Ripley! Of course!’ (I'm calling that a Ripley Moment from now on). I heartily recommend you check it out. Unless you think a woman’s place is in the kitchen, of course, in which case you probably shouldn't.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

A Warning to the Curious Editor

It may come as some surprise that my favourite writer of chilling tales did not produce his most famous works in the Victorian period at all, but rather in the Edwardian era. Montague Rhodes James was certainly a Victorian, however, and his tales encapsulate the greatest motifs of his age, and spin them into something extraordinary, which to my mind gave birth to the 'modern' ghost story.

I will revisit M. R. James' work in future blog posts, but for now I want to talk about a new-ish edition of his collected works that I recently acquired. This book is called Curious Warnings, the 150th anniversary edition of James' collected tales.

This is a beautiful book; a real treasure. Chunky, leather bound, with black flocked page edges, nice paper and binding; everything, in fact, that a print nerd like me loves. The editor, Stephen Jones, has taken two unusual steps when compiling this book, which really brings me to my point.

The first thing he's done, and the most welcome, is to make the prose easier to read by the judicious use of typesetting. James' work notoriously includes lengthy extracts of poems, journals, letters, newspaper articles, religious tracts and so on, which can be quite confusing when they're presented as continuous blocks of run-on text. It seems like such an obvious thing to do, that it's surprising no-one's thought of it before. Simply by indenting the extracts and choosing a nice typeface, it suddenly becomes easier for the brain to follow the story (the exception is the story 'Martin's Close', which uses a horrible typewriter font for several pages, but that's just personal taste).

But now comes the nub. Stephen Jones has also edited the language of the book  no cutting of words nor re-ordering of the manuscript  but he has re-punctuated throughout, so that old-fashioned spellings of words like 'to-day' are corrected. In his foreword, he's quite unclear as to exactly how far he's gone. Indeed, without reading two editions side by side, I doubt the layman would notice. (So far I've spotted a considerable number of new paragraph breaks, and some dodgy dialogue punctuation). But for me, loving the past as much as I do, I can't help but think that the work has lost something in translation, a certain charm of its time. The editor says it was purely to make the work 'more accessible to a modern audience', but I don't get that. You'd be no more or less likely to buy this handsome book because you knew there was old-fashioned punctuation within, would you? If you find the language impenetrable, then a few hyphens won't help.

No; as an editor, I accept that language is constantly evolving, but I also believe that words as painted by the masters are sacrosanct. Removing hyphens from M. R. James is only a slightly smaller crime than modernising Shakespeare (it's been done, a lot, but I believe it only serves to create a curio rather than a work of art, as the beats and flow are replaced by another's efforts). I think the language that you choose to write in, even if it's just an older form of our own, should stay as the author intended it. If anyone picked up something of mine to read in 150 years time (I can dream, right), I think I'd be posthumously offended if an editor had taken the red pen to it whilst I lay spinning in my grave (hey, it's 150 years in the future, it'll probably be all txt-speak and that. Dope.)

But still, after all that, I'm glad I own it. It's one of the nicest books in my collection, and the stories within are still my favourite ghost stories ever written. If you've never read M. R. James, then I seriously recommend them in any form. For the traditionalists, try this one (lovely little hardback). Those less fearful of the hidden dangers of toying with ancient manuscripts should give Stephen Jones' edited version a go...


Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Sins of the Father

With work continuing apace on my Victorian projects, I've barely had a moment to put together a blog post recently. However, I did have a short story published over at Black Library shortly before Christmas.

Like Father, Like Son is a wintry Warhammer tale, more melancholia than traditional sword & sorcery. What was challenging about this piece was that it had a 1,000-word limit, which makes it really tricky to wring any kind of character development, emotional impact or plot twist out of the story. Hopefully you'll think that I managed at least one of the three.

A great experience, and I'm really proud to report that my second 1,000-word piece has been accepted by the Black Library, too. Expect to see that later this year.