Tuesday 20 December 2016

Christmas Ghosts

“There is probably a smell of roasted chesnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories – Ghost Stories, or more shame for us – round the Christmas fire.”
- Charles Dickens, Telling Winter Stories, 1859

Every year at about this time, I tend to turn my reading to ghost stories. Okay, who am I kidding? I read ghost stories all year round. But there’s something particularly nostalgic for me personally in sitting by the side of a log fire, glass of single malt in hand, reading a spooky old tale, particularly those set at Christmas.

The Christmas ghost story is something of a great British tradition, of course. Like most things related to Christmas traditions, they were really proliferated in the Victorian era – that Dickens fellow has a lot to answer for. After the success of A Christmas Carol, Dickens took to publishing festive ghost stories annually in the periodical All the Year Round, in which he included tales from contributors such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell. In 1898, American anglophile Henry James (whose less famous brother turns up in The Lazarus Gate, you may recall) wrote The Turn of the Screw – his own take on the Christmas Ghost Story, inspired in no small part by Dickens and Collins.

That doesn’t mean all the stories we equate with being good Christmas spook-fests are Victorian in origin though – many of my favourites were written in the Edwardian or even post-war periods. M R James – my favourite teller of ghostly tales – was a particular proponent of the Christmas ghosts tradition. He would write a new story each year, and read it to a select group of peers and students at King College, Cambridge, on Christmas Eve.

Anyhow, enough history. Over the last few years I’ve been collecting festive ghost and mystery stories to read over the Yuletide period. Here’s my pick of the bunch so far:

A Mystery in White

J. Jefferson Farjeon

I’ve been really quite taken by the British Library Crime Classics series. Published in a very nice little paperback format, they now produce a range of long-forgotten mystery thrillers from the golden era of crime, and have even started branching out into supernatural mysteries. A Mystery in White is one of their growing Christmas Mysteries range, and details the fortunes of a group of train passengers stranded in a snow drift while trying to get home for Christmas. When a man on the train dies under suspicious circumstances, a party of intrepid passengers hikes to get help, whereupon they stumble across a spooky old house, recently abandoned like the Marie Celeste. Strange things are afoot in the house, but luckily one of the party happens to be a psychical investigator…

Old Christmas

Washington Irving

“When I returned to the drawing-room, I found the company seated around the fire, listening to the parson, who was deeply ensconced in a high-backed oaken chair, the work of some cunning artificer of yore, which had been brought from the library for his particular accommodation. From this venerable piece of furniture, with which his shadowy figure and dark weazen face so admirably accorded, he was dealing forth strange accounts of popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country, with which he had become acquainted in the course of his antiquarian researches.”

Pre-dating the Victorian era, American writer Washington Irving wrote several spooky, winter tales, including this one set at Christmas-time. Although he’ll be forever associated with Halloween, thanks to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, it’s well worth giving his other work a read.

The Festival

H P Lovecraft

“It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind.”

In this typical story of madness, depravity and forbidden lore, Lovecraft’s narrator pays a Christmas visit to Kingsport, only to find that the locals at the church aren’t gearing up for a traditional Christian celebration, but something altogether darker. Generally thought of as Lovecraft’s first Cthulhu Mythos story, a fact that makes The Festival interesting in itself.

The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance

M R James

I’ve included this lesser-known tale because it’s the only Jamesian story to be actually set at Christmas-time. In truth, at this time of year I take out my collected editions of his stories and read them all, because he really is the master of the ‘pleasing terror’. This one is essentially a low-key tale of a man searching for his missing uncle in his old home-town, and features a memorable appearance from a creepy Punch & Judy show.

The Haunted House

Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, and others

No list of Christmas ghost stories would be complete without some work from that most famous Victorian writer, Charles Dickens. However, as everyone has read A Christmas Carol, or at least has seen the films a dozen times, I’ve gone for a more unusual pick. Opening at Christmas Eve, this portmanteau story by Dickens and five other hand-picked writers, follows the fortunes of visitors to a haunted house. These aren’t actually traditional ghost stories, but more tales of regret, injustice and fear, using ghosts as a device to put the unfortunate protagonists through the wringer.

Friday 16 December 2016

A Little Festive Spirit

As Christmas is right around the corner, I thought it'd be a good time to remind you of the free, festive Apollonian Casefiles short story I wrote last year. Entitled Hanlocke's Christmas Spirit, it's a very short black comedy detailing how a certain Ambrose Hanlocke, gentleman thief extraordinaire, came to be in our universe. I've now converted it into a .mobi format suitable for Kindles and other eReaders, so feel free to download it at your leisure.

Get it for eReaders here.

If you're happy to read it online, however, the original tale is still up on the Titan Publishing website.


Friday 9 December 2016

Night of the Long Knives

Well met, Centurion! It's time for some more of that Broken Legions rules content that y'all love so much. This time, I'm delving once more onto the cutting-room floor, bringing you advanced options for hand weapons, as well as shining a light on the [foolishly overlooked] Defensive Weapons special rule.

Find the file here.

Until next time: may all your dice roll 10s, and all your monsters be slain...

Sunday 27 November 2016

Shadows Lengthen: A Discussion of Grimdark Fantasy

KT Davies telling me off for suggesting
that Tolkien isn't all that dark.
On November 26th I took part in a fascinating panel at Sledge-Lit, about whether fantasy becoming darker has been good for the genre overall. The discussion inevitably focussed on the topic of ‘grimdark’ fantasy (by which we also mean science fiction and other spec-fic genres and sub-genres).
The following is cribbed from my notes on the panel. Thanks to fellow panellists KT Davies and Graham Edwards, and to moderator Freda Warrington for such an illuminating debate!

How would we define ‘Grimdark’, and is the label helpful.

The term ‘grimdark’ originated in the Warhammer 40k fandom, derived from the tagline ‘In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war’. It was tongue-in-cheek at the time, but has become more universally applied even retrospectively to dark, gritty spec fic (i.e. Game of Thrones). Consider me particularly amused when I saw online recently an assertion that grimdark only applies to fantasy, and not to SF. Mate, it started with SF!

Adam Roberts described it as fiction ‘where nobody is honourable and Might is Right’.

No consensus as to what it actually means (like Brexit. Grimdark means grimdark). Personal take: It’s a reaction to heroic idealism. Anything where the traditional fantasy binary of good and evil is sufficiently blurred, so we have lots of shades of grey, murder-death-kill, and protagonists who make questionable moral judgements, can be described as grimdark. Where everyone is a bit murky, you end up rooting for the least worst option.

Has fantasy always had dark elements, before Grimdark was even a thing?

It’s intrinsically linked! Fellow panellist Graham Edwards said that ‘a lot of fantasy is rooted in folklore, which can be VERY dark. Just think Hansel and Gretel. So is fantasy just inherently grim?’
We can see dark fantasy in lots of classic works, from books and films to comics. A Song of Ice and Fire is the obvious choice. Everything to ever feature in 2000AD, from Dredd and Slaine to Nemesis the Warlock and ABC Warriors. Many of the old Conan the Barbarian stories could be considered grimdark, even though they’re written in the pulp style. Conan himself is a reaver, thief, pillager. He commits some questionable acts, although we always see his as this noble savage whose moral compass is (allegedly) far straighter than the corrupt city-folk around him. And what about writing that is often viewed as separate from genre fic? Is Cormac McCarthy grimdark by the above definitions? Probably so!

Do writers/filmmakers use darkness/violence to make fantasy more accessible to a wider audience?

Would Game of Thrones be as popular on TV without all the beheadings (And sex?)? Is it exploitative, or a way to reach the mainstream audience? We’ve definitely seen this rise of more ‘mature’ programming in the last decade or so. Game of Thrones taps into the same vein of sex n’ violence as 300, Spartacus, Rome, The Walking Dead, etc. (Ian McShane called Game of Thrones ‘just a load of tits and dragons’ recently, and he probably has a point that those particular aspects have attracted the more casual viewer – but writing off grimdark fantasy as immature for the inclusion of those elements is dangerous, as it prevents discussion of the serious topics conveyed within).

Grimdark is sometimes called an ‘anti-Tolkien’ movement, which is probably why columnist Damien G Walter – a huge fan of Tolkien – dismisses it out of hand as fantasy written to appeal to adolescent boys. I think it’s pretty hard to see George R R Martin and Joe Abercrombie fitting into that camp. And if anyone gave my books to an under-16 I’d raise an eyebrow. Our ideals of heroic fantasy do come from Tolkien, who was virtually a Victorian. He puts those old-fashioned manners and mores, and an idealising of chivalric values, into his stories. But he completely glosses over the ethnic cleansing, and ideological reasons for the mass wars in his stories. Grimdark fiction goes deeper. It adds the grit. It shows the horrors of war, the horrible decisions that those so-called heroes have to make to secure victory. It’s on the battlefield at eye-level with Boromir, not taking a nostalgic view from the quill of a hobbit.

The crucial element is: do you glorify those horrors, or do you use the story to shine a light on them, and to comment on them? If the former, then it’s just gratuitous, and I’d wager that there’s a lot of it out there, which is why grimdark gets a bad rep.

Grit itself is becoming ubiquitous. Has it gone too far? How dark is too dark?

A quote from Lord Grimdark himself, Joe Abercrombie:

“But the dividing line between what is righteous and worthwhile, and what is wrongful and gratuitous, is so fuzzy as to be a blur, and will be in a totally different place… for every author and reader.  Often people have limitless capacity for savage ultraviolence but find a consensual sex scene, or indeed someone having a wee, just a bit too edgy for their sensibilities.  One person’s disgracefully titillating torture porn can be another’s searing examination of how far one might go to get the truth.  One person’s profanity is another’s hilarious and realistic dialogue. One person’s disheartening pessimism that threatens the heart of western civilisation is another’s thought provoking deconstruction of conventions.”
-- JA
Possibly we’re reaching a tipping point. The Walking Dead has started reporting falling viewing figures at a time that it’s pushing its darkest ever series. The first few episodes of series 7 have established that hope is lost – the series doesn’t have a reputation for heroic triumph, so a lot of people are tuning out probably because they don’t know if the ‘good guys’, such as they are, can actually win.

Real life has been looking very bleak this year. There’s a lot of pessimism and moral panic surrounding events in 2016 so far. Maybe viewers just don’t want to compound their misery with more misery. ‘Well, things are bad, but at least my favourite character is still alive… oh…’

This is where maybe Grimdark can go too far. Victory for the hero can be hard fought, and come at great cost, but there has to be victory nonetheless. When the outcome is universally bleak, perhaps we’re straying too far into the horror genre, and alienating the core audience.

Shameless selfie with old mate
and fellow grimdarker Gav Thorpe.

Has it been good for the genre?

I certainly hope so, because by some definitions I’m writing it!

Like any movement, grimdark fiction has explored previously untested avenues, and has provided a home for those lovers of darker, perhaps horror or ultraviolent fiction, who wouldn’t ordinarily have gone for fantasy and SF. Anything that brings more readers to the genre is a good thing.

So what is the next new thing that will reinvigorate fantasy further? Where can fantasy go next?

We might be seeing a trend towards more hopeful fiction again. BUT the Game of thrones TV show, and the revived popularity of the books, shows us that grit certainly isn’t dead.

Personally, I think mash-up fiction is gathering momentum. Adding horror to fantasy or SF often makes a property ‘grimdark’ while also providing a new twist. But why stop there? And look at what Marvel Studios are doing with their movies – the Marvel universe is really a science fiction one, but they’ll make a heist movie, a spy thriller, a buddy road-trip comedy… all in the same universe, all with those superhero/SF elements. I think we’ll see more of that. Grimdark fantasy has tended to be focused primarily on war and politics, but I wonder if we’ll start to see the grimdark sci-fi ghost story (Adam Christopher is doing a bit of this at the moment), the grimdark fantasy crime caper, and so on.

Further Reading

As I was compiling these notes, I found an excellent essay by Mark Lawrence on the subject of grimdark fantasy. Check it out here.

Wednesday 16 November 2016

A Tour of the Apollonian Club

The cab drew to a halt outside the clubhouse, which occupied a prime location on the corner of Pall Mall and St. James’s Square. This had long been the centre of both power and club life in London, housing not only this famous institution, but also the Reform Club, and the Athenaeum amongst others. I was but a stone’s throw from a royal residence, and the war office to boot. I gazed up at the imposing white walls of the Apollonian, which seemed to glow as they were hit by a few weak rays of evening light that somehow found the strength to permeate the dark grey clouds. The shaft of sunlight glinted from the golden bow brandished by the statue of Apollo above the entrance, before vanishing again, returning the vista to dreary grey gloom. […] I stepped between the Portland stone columns of the classically styled frontage and onto the tiled porch. The rain dripped from the brim of my hat and ran down my neck. I had been out of the hansom for but a moment, and was already half-soaked. Yet the grand old building was welcoming, and the weather could not dampen my spirits. All those years ago, when I had harboured ambitions of becoming a man of letters, I dreamt of following in the footsteps of those proud members of the Apollonian; Tennyson, Thackeray, Scott—even Dickens was said to have been an occasional visitor. Once on the threshold that had been trod by such great men, under the great glass lanterns that flickered above me, I was relieved to see the warm glow of lights and fires within the clubhouse itself, and a servant of the club opening the door to meet me.
– The Lazarus Gate

Your esteemed author in Clubland.
In The Apollonian Casefiles, the eponymous club is almost as much of a character as John Hardwick and the other agents of Apollo Lycea. A noble building, housing the great secrets of the empire, and providing a home-from-home for some of the greatest luminaries of Victorian Britain.

I’ve always had a bit of a fascination for ‘clubland’. There’s something reassuringly old-fashioned about the idea of this private retreat for gentlemen – a well-stocked library and a glass of port; a game of cards and a bedroom for those times when home life is just too trying. Of course, as a confirmed pleb, I’d never have made it past the front door, but a chap can dream, eh?

The Apollonian itself isn’t a real club. I know, I know, sorry to shatter your illusions. As most real clubs are home to the rich and powerful to this day, and are all privately owned, it’s rather dicey to set a novel about secret agencies and political manoeuvring in one of them. However, I took inspiration from not one, not two, but three clubs for the Apollonian, and so I thought it’d be fun to reveal which, and what for…

The Athenaeum

It’s kind of an obvious place to start. The Athenaeum is the inspiration for the name and outward appearance of the Apollonian (with the exception being that the Apollonian has an extra storey). It is an elite club, with a reputation for intellectuality, deep respectability and episcopacy. Both Athena and Apollo have Lycean counterparts in ancient history, so the lore aspect worked, too – symbolised by the statues outside. The description of the entrance hall and grand staircase are close to the Athenaeum. Finally, the Athenaeum is renowned for its library, one of the finest in clubland – however, although I stole that bit of lore for the Apollonian, the physical description of the library is actually closer to the Reform Club’s, below.

The Reform Club

The Reform Club is one of the less secretive of the old gentlemen’s clubs, and has been used in fiction many times – most notably as Phileas Fogg’s club in Around the Worldin 80 Days. It was a great political retreat of the liberal-minded, and attracted those great politicians who supported the Reform Act, such as Brunei, Palmerston and, later, Gladstone.

The Reform Club provided the inspiration not just for the layout of the Apollonian’s library, but also for the skills of its chef, whose fantastic cuisine was the especial favourite of Ambrose Hanlocke. The Reform Club’s chef, Alexis Soyer, was a bit of a Victorian Jamie Oliver, pioneering a mission to improve provisions for British troops serving abroad. The Reform’s actual dining room, on the other hand, was in my mind when picturing the large boardroom of the Apollonian; its dark panelling and long table seemed fitting for those important meetings of secret agents and world leaders alike. It was also one of the first clubs to have private bedrooms for its members – a trait referred to often in the Apollonian Casefiles, when agents of the Crown are forced to seek sanctuary in the club’s hallowed halls.

The Carlton Club

The Reform Club in the foreground, with
bitter rival the Carlton Club behind it.
Despite the Athenaeum’s formidable reputation as housing London’s movers and shakers, it was not actually the centre of the political world in clubland. That honour belonged to the Carlton Club, its neighbour the Reform Club, and Brooks’s. The Carlton Club is probably the most famous of all political establishments, and its influence was tremendous. The club was said to have fulfilled many of the functions now performed by the Conservative Central Office. Indeed, When Disraeli joined the Tory Party, one of his first tasks was to secure membership – the rest, as they say, is history. Gladstone was already a member at that time. When the Tory membership discovered that Gladstone had accepted the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Aberdeen’s (gasp) coalition government, it was suggested that the venerable politician be pitched out of an upper window in the direction of the (more liberal) Reform Club.

The Carlton Club was hit by a German bomb in WWII (several members of the Conservative cabinet narrowly escaped, prompting one Labour politician to quip ‘the Devil looks after his own’), and had to move to St James’s Street. There’s now an office block on the site, which isn’t quite in keeping with the rest of the row.

The Location

The Apollonian Club is located on the corner of St, James’s Square and Pall Mall, opposite the Reform Club. There are actually three separate buildings on that site, which back onto Norfolk House – today, one is the office of an investment bank, and the other a noted dealership in old masters. In the novels, however, this is one large building, with a Portland stone façade. Sir Toby’s office is situated in one of the upper corners. From this fictional location, he can look out across the park at St. James’s Square, but if he looks left he can also see the Carlton Club. In reality, this view would not be possible, because there’s a building in the way of the park, but I won’t tell anyone if you won’t. Behind all those venerable old buildings are private gardens and enclosed back yards, which we can imagine provide access for secret visitors to the club.

Honourable Mention

I must shout out to the Army & Navy Club, which is mentioned several times. It is first lampooned by Ambrose Hanlocke, when he refers to the ‘Rag & Famish’ – an old nickname for the club based on its notoriously meagre food (the actual Rag and Famish was a squalid gaming house off Cranbourne Alley). Jim Denny is a member there, and later John Hardwick joins too, when he becomes too jaded to continue socialising at the Apollonian.

Friday 4 November 2016

Send Forth the Auxilia!

Rejoice, fans of Broken Legions, for today I bring you not one, not two, but three new Auxilia for your battles! Now you can hire the Wandering Druid, the Nazarene Missionary, and the Herodian Magician and his fearsome Golem.

These new hired swords were left on the cutting-room floor during the editing process, and as I'm not sure there's a natural home for them elsewhere, I figured I'd let them loose upon you here, for free!

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Ghosts on Film

As it’s that spooky time of year – the time when, weirdly, I’m at my most productive due to the naturally atmospheric environs in which I’m writing – I’ve taken to watching lots of horror movies. Now, I love horror films, but I also hate them. Why? Because they’re so often hackneyed, low-budget, jump-scare-laden bore-fests that every time I rent a new movie it feels a bit like Russian roulette. Or, worse, eating a bag of Revels.

So every time my dear lady wife gets annoyed that I’ve made her sit through yet another stinker, I instead turn to the classics – those scary movies that are proven winners. They’re not all oldies, but they all have common elements: they value atmosphere over CG high-jinks, and storytelling over gore.

As Hallowe’en fast approaches, I give you my top 5 spooky movies (with the emphasis on spooky, as opposed to horror). Do check them out – you won’t be disappointed.

The Woman in Black (1989)

“Oo, that one with Harry Potter in it?” I hear you cry. Nope (although I don’t actually mind that verison – see below). Written by Nigel Kneale, the talent behind Quatermass, this was ITV’s answer to the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, and what an answer it was. Dripping with atmosphere, this TV movie remains one of my favourite creepy tales on screen – I saw it as a nipper, and ‘That Scene’, which many people who watched it first time around remember all too well, gave me nightmares for some time to come.

Even though this is a fairly faithful adaptation of the book (which I love), rumour has it that Susan Hill wasn’t happy with some of the minor changes, and blocked its release on DVD in the UK. It’s now pretty hard to get hold of, although you can find it on YouTube of all places.

The Haunting (1963)

Dr. John Markway (the late, great Richard Johnson), an anthropologist with an interest in psychic phenomena, takes two specially selected women to Hill House, a reportedly haunted mansion. Eleanor (Julie Harris), a lonely, eccentric woman with a supernatural event in her past, and the bold Theodora (Claire Bloom), who has ESP, join John and the mansion’s heir, cynical Luke (Russ Tamblyn). They are immediately overwhelmed by strange sounds and events, and Eleanor comes to believe the house is alive and speaking directly to her.

This is another movie that spawned a terrible remake (starring Catherine Zeta Jones and Owen Wilson), but the original stands the test of time, in no part due to phenomenal cinematography and sturdy performances. You won’t find any ghost special effects here – but you’ll be spooked nonetheless.

Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)

In my view the best of the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas (just pipping The Signalman), and the quintessential M R James adaptation, ‘Whistle’ is carried by a bravura performance by Michael Hordern. He’s almost alone in the hour-long production, and hardly has any coherent lines, and yet he manages to convey perfectly the character of the bumbling old antiquarian on a busman’s holiday to the seaside, unleashing dark forces. His portrayal of a rational man forced to confront the supernatural is simply brilliant, and his decent into madness more terrifying than even the thing that follows him relentlessly across a deserted beach.

It Follows (2014)

Speaking of things following relentlessly, It Follows undoubtedly takes some cues from M R James, with shades of Oh, Whistle and perhaps the Treasure of Abbot Thomas in the evil antagonist. The idea of a personal haunting, in this case passed on through intercourse, hunting down the current bearer of the curse is an interesting one. The film does not shy away from presenting the whole gamut of moral dilemmas one might face in that situation, and once the curse is unleashed the onslaught is inexorable. This movie is not only genuinely frightening, but clever, too. It sets its own internal ‘rules’ for the entity at the heart of the action, and never once breaks those rules, which allows the protagonists to plan accordingly. A rare thing in horror movies.

Session 9 (2001)

“Hello… Gordon…”

Perhaps an odd one for the list, this film for me defies classification. Is it a psychological horror film? A ghost story? A mystery? I have no idea, but it’s almost impossible to watch without being forced into a perpetual state of tension. Seriously, it’s exhausting. And the plot isn’t really wrapped up either, so you carry that tension around for days, trying to work out what was going on, and feeling unnerved by it. Pretty successful, I’d say.

The movie was shot in the now-demolished Danvers StateAsylum, and follows the exploits of a work crew hired to strip all the asbestos out of the building. What can be creepier than a huge, deserted asylum? Nothing, that’s what.

Honourable Mentions

The following movies (and one three-part TV series, as it happens, but it’s brilliant so you’ll have to forgive me) almost made the list, and have made this year’s watch-list. If you like the ones above, you may well get a kick out of these, too.

Night of the Demon (1957): A brilliantly staged telling of the M R James classic ‘Casting the runes’, this is a slow, thoughtful tale of black magic and demonology. It hasn’t aged quite as well as the others presented above, hence it makes the footnotes.

Midwinter of the Spirit (2015): A three-part exorcism TV drama written by the modern master of the genre, Stephen Volk? Oh, go on then. Seriously, it’s a crime this was never commissioned for a second series.

The Borderlands (2013): Even though I hate found footage movies, I loved this. Ultra-low-budget, with elements of folk-horror, this film has one of the most mind-bending twists in recent memory.

The Canal (2015): This is an effective, low-budget British horror film. Ostensibly a psychological horror, there’s an element of the unreliable narrator here, a bit like Session 9, that keeps you guessing even after you think you’ve guessed it!

The Woman in Black (2012): Not a faithful retelling, and full of jump-scares ripped straight from J-Horror, this is nonetheless an incredibly atmospheric movie, thanks largely to its cinematography and soundtrack. The haunted house is brilliantly done; the protagonist less so.

The Conjuring 2 (2016): I had a bit of a soft spot for the first Conjuring movie, and I think this recent sequel actually tops it/ James Wan uses his now-familiar bag of tricks again here, but he seems to have mastered his art in this offering. If you can forgive the bending of history here (the real-life Enfield Haunting was never quite like this!), then you’re in for quite the ride, I should also mention here the recent Enfield Haunting TV series, which was also brilliant, but very much a different experience.

Tuesday 4 October 2016

The Alternate Realities Blog Tour

The Alternate Realities Blog Tour has come to an end, and so it's time for the customary roundup of all the posts on the tour, and where to find 'em!

The Perfect Scary Scene

Top Tips and When to Ignore Them

Making Vampires Scary

The Devil's In the [Period] Detail

Love Bites: My Favourite Vampire Stories

And finally:

As if that's not enough, don't forget that you can read an exclusive tie-in short story, The House of the Dead, over at the Barnes and Noble Sci-Fi Blog.

The Iscariot Sanction, book 2 in the Apollonian Casefiles, is available now from all good bookstores.

Tuesday 20 September 2016

Publication Day: The Iscariot Sanction

Exciting news! The Iscariot Sanction is out today, in all good bookstores. A prequel to The Lazarus Gate, this book tells the story of the Othersiders, and how they became so delightfully wicked.

Amazon Link

Waterstones Link

Titan Publishing Link

If you buy it, read it, love it, please do pop over to Amazon or Goodreads and leave a review, however short. It really does make a difference.

And don't forget to check out the Alternate Realities Blog Tour!

And if that's not enough to whet your appetite, try a short extract. I spoil you guys, I really do...


‘Everything is ready as you requested, sir,’ said Mrs. Bailey. She sounded weary. She had been working all day to dress the drawing room for Sir Arthur Furnival’s latest soirée. Velvet drapes ran floor to ceiling, gathered double like something from the Lyceum stage, while long tables were adorned with black cloths and silver candlesticks were dotted about the room, supporting a hundred candles.
‘Splendid!’ Sir Arthur replied. ‘That will be all for now, Mrs. Bailey. My thanks again for working so hard at such short notice.’
The middle-aged woman made a small curtsey and left the room. Sir Arthur continued fiddling with his cravat, when finally he saw in the mirror his valet enter the room.
‘Ah, Jenkins, there you are. Be a good fellow and help with this cravat. It really is proving quite irksome today.’
Jenkins looked grave, and strode forward with a letter in his hand. ‘I’m terribly sorry, sir,’ he said, ‘but I think preparations might have to wait. This just came for you.’
Sir Arthur took the letter, and knew instantly what it was. The wax seal on the envelope was imprinted with a cameo of Apollo, and that could mean only one thing. He tore it open while Jenkins adjusted the cravat. Within moments he looked quite dapper again, but his spirits were somewhat deflated.
‘I think you had better send apologies to my guests, Jenkins,’ said Sir Arthur. ‘I simply can’t conduct a séance the day before an assignment.’
‘Of course, sir. It does so take it out of you at the best of times, if you don’t mind me saying.’
‘Oh, don’t fuss, Jenkins,’ Sir Arthur chided. But his valet was right. Sir Arthur’s powers as a medium were celebrated amongst London’s intelligentsia, but it was a dangerous path that he trod. And a lonely one at that—beyond the séances and club meetings, he was shunned by society, as were all his kind. And normal folk were right to do so, for since the Awakening the path of the psychic had proven to be fraught with danger. How he longed for those days when he’d simply been the awkward boy with ‘unusual’ talents. It had been frightening at the time, but at least then the world had been ordinary. Who would not crave a little of the ordinary in these troubled times? But what was done was done. He tried to push such thoughts aside, and focus on the here and now. ‘By the way, Jenkins,’ he said at last, ‘did you enquire as to who my assistant might be this time?’ Over the years, Jenkins had almost become as much a member of Apollo Lycea as Sir Arthur himself, and his inside track with the club’s messengers and servants proved most useful.
‘Yes sir,’ and again Jenkins looked most serious. ‘It is Miss Hardwick, sir.’
Sir Arthur sighed, and sat down in his favourite armchair to read the letter more carefully. ‘After the last time, I’m surprised the old goat lets his daughter anywhere near me. Although it was she who damn near got me killed.’
‘And saved your life, sir,’ Jenkins reminded his master, helpfully.
‘Yes, that too,’ Sir Arthur muttered. He looked up at his valet, a sense of foreboding creeping over him. ‘I need to prepare myself. Send word to the guests first; tell Mrs. Bailey she is excused for the evening, and give her my apologies. In fact, best not mention that the séance is cancelled; the poor woman has worked very hard today. And then prepare my case.’
‘Very good, sir. You’ll be needing etherium, I take it? How much shall I pack?’
Sir Arthur’s eyes blazed for an instant before he replied, coolly, ‘If they’re sending me out with Lillian Hardwick, you’d best pack it all.’

Monday 19 September 2016

A Bit of Barbaric Splendour

When I was writing Broken Legions for Osprey, the Barbarian warband lists were ultimately condensed in the editing process to a single list. However, two lists were playtested - the Western Tribes and the Germanic tribes - each with fewer options, but more flavour.

A few people have expressed interest in playing the original version of these lists, allowing them to theme their collections a little more strongly. The Germanic Tribes list also has a different warband special rule from the one that made the final cut.

These rules are mostly balanced, and were tested in the initial round of playtesting, but they aren't the final version. Therefore I wouldn't like to say that they're 100% perfect! However, if you do want to have a go with these rules, do let me know how it goes.

If nothing else, I figured it'd be of interest to see what ends up on the cutting-room floor during the design process. Enjoy!

Download the Rules here!

Friday 16 September 2016

Alternate Realities

I've been in the thick of work for some considerable time, and regular visitors may have noticed more than a few games design posts from me of late. Fear not, fans of Victoriana and the Apollonian Casefiles: for The Iscariot Sanction is almost upon us!

Released on Tuesday 20th Deptember, the second book in the series is a prequel to The Lazarus Gate, and is a dark tale of the Otherside. To celebrate its release, I'll be doing a week-long blog tour, and there'll be at least one other little surprise along the way. I'll keep you posted here and on my Facebook page of course, but for now, here's the tour schedule.

Thursday 15 September 2016

Broken Legions: Design Notes

**An edited version of this article originally appeared in the September 2016 edition of Wargames Illustrated. Produced here by kind permission.

Broken Legions came about as one of those fairly rare gigs in the life of a games designer. A company (in this case, Osprey) already had an idea for a game they wanted to print, and approached me to see if I was interested. The pitch was evocative enough to grab me, but broad enough to give me the freedom that I need to get the creative juices flowing. In a nutshell, it was: “We want a game about fantasy Romans, set in a quasi-historical alt-history setting, with monsters and mythology. Oh, and we’d quite like some campaign rules please.”

With a brief like that, how could I refuse?

Step One – the Concept

Whenever I design games, even historical ones, I tend not to start with history books. (“We can tell, you hack”. Oi, no heckling from the back row please…). Broken Legions was no exception. History is important when you come to write the detail of the thing, but what you need for the initial plan is some kind of hook. And not just a hook that appeals to a niche market (in this case, people who like skirmish games and who also like Roman miniatures), but to the widest audience possible. I look to movies, comic books, novels – pop culture. For Broken Legions, which from the start was meant to have a hefty twist of myth and magic, I looked to those awesome matinee movies with Ray Harryhausen special effects, swords-and-sandals epics, TV shows about Grecian warrior princesses, and children’s books about mythology and ancient monsters. This approach led me to come up with the core concept: Broken Legions is a game primarily about legendary heroes leading small bands of followers to glory in battle. Their quest is to search the dark places of the world, beyond the fringes of the Roman Empire, and locate artefacts of great magical power. By collecting – or destroying – these artefacts, they can secure power and position for their nations (or even families) for centuries to come.

From that concept, I had a good think about the type of rules I wanted. How many miniatures should there be per side? How granular should the rules mechanics be? Should monsters be part of a warband, or an AI-controlled force of nature? Should there be Argonauts? Okay, that last one was a no-brainer. Of course there should be Argonauts. However, they’re not quite as you know them, instead being a cult descended from the original crew, who are opposed to the Romans several hundred years later.

Granularity vs Simplicity

The core concept of a game informs every decision I make for the rest of the process. I write the top bullet points up on a whiteboard, in fact, next to my desk, so I don’t get tempted to stray too far from the design aesthetic. Here’s the 5-point list I came up with for Broken Legions:

1.      It’s all about Heroes!
2.      Warbands are small, so mechanics are detailed.
3.      Gods are fickle, powerful, and omnipresent.
4.      Monsters cannot be controlled, and will ruin your day.
5.      Warbands should offer a variety of archetypes.

Those top two points are at the top for a reason – when I wrote the core mechanics, they were the bits that dictated the level of granularity in the rules. I started testing out a game in which an elite force might only contain five or six models, and a similarly pointed ‘horde’ force might be only twelve strong. With so few models, you can afford to delve into detail a bit more, because you’re less likely to forget who’s who in a warband made up of characterful individuals. Broken Legions isn’t a game where you roll a bucketload of dice and take models off by the handful; it’s a game where every individual counts. The order in which you move your models can be vital to your strategy. Combat is an involved process, with your stats, spells, and weapons racking up a variety of modifiers, positive and negative. It can actually be tricky for basic warriors to land a decisive blow, and so you have to carefully outmanoeuvre your opponents to get a decisive charge or outnumbering bonus, otherwise you risk getting bogged down in protracted single combats. This can be a bad thing indeed, because you need those warriors free to claim objectives and search ancient treasure hoards. Essentially, there’s a whiff of an RPG about the mechanics, which really appealed to me, as RPGs are all about heroism and larger-than-life figures.

To increase the granularity of the rules, and produce a wider spread of results, I opted for a D10 system rather than my usual favoured D6s, so that even a lowly Barbarian Warrior can land a blow on a Demigod (however unlikely it might be). The basic mechanic involves either a Rest or a Contest. A Test means you roll a D10, add the relevant characteristic (such as Accuracy for shooting, or Agility for jumping over things), and aim for a 10 or more to succeed. You can stack modifiers in your favour to make these rolls easier. A Contest, on the other hand, is when models each roll a D10 and add or subtract and relevant modifiers, aiming simply to beat their foe’s score – this is particularly common in melee, or when engaging in a battle of wills against an enemy priest.

Mighty Heroes

The heroes themselves come in three flavours: Mighty warriors, spellcasters, and sneaky spies. Each of these guys have their place—strong warriors are needed to lead their men fearlessly into battle; Druids and priests can have a major effect on the game with well-timed miracles; spies can steal back the initiative from your opponent (a pretty vital mechanic), or stop enemy heroes from performing pesky Heroic Actions (anything from singling out an enemy model for a hail of arrows, or beseeching the gods for aid).

And what about those gods? Remember I said they were fickle? Well, your heroes can bend the knee and pray to the gods for help, but there’s a chance the capricious pantheon will smite him verily for being a big wimp and calling on them too often. Likewise, whenever a priest performs a miracle, he must roll an extra dice. If he’s successful, and scores a 10 on the bonus die, he becomes reinvigorated by the energy of his patron deity. If he fails to perform the miracle, however, and also rolls a 1 on the die… you guessed it, he gets smote! (Or should that be smitten? I can never remember).

Menacing Monsters

In the end, I decided that monsters (most of them, at least) can’t be controlled by the players, but instead are “Wandering Monsters” with a simple three-step AI system. Generally, they’re encountered in specific scenarios (although in the demo game we played at Wargames Illustrated HQ, we had a Minotaur “spawning” from an objective. Hilarity ensued).

Monsters are really, really tough, and pretty quick to boot. There was always a risk that they could become a marginal part of the game – with players running around trying to claim objectives and kill each other, monsters needed to be able to catch up with the flow of play so as not to become sidelined. Thankfully, due to the modest proportions of the average gaming area, the speed of the monsters, and the fact that they activate before the players’ models, this is rarely the case. Players generally find that they have to deal with the monsters before they get eaten, which is easier said than done!

Something for Everyone

When I was designing the warbands, I wanted to make sure that there were plenty of options to suit not just a gamer’s preferred style of play, but also the hobbyist’s preferred type of model. The faction present in the game cater for a variety of aesthetics. There are three flavours of Roman (vanilla, gladiator surprise and, erm, priesty ripple), Barbarians (all of which draw from a single list, but that’s something I’d like to expand on later), Egyptians, Argonauts (obviously), Parthians, and Dacians. Each of these warbands has been given a fantasy twist based on the setting. For example, the Barbarians get Wulfkind (werewolves); the Egyptians get Eternal Warriors (mummies); Dacians get Ghouls and Strigoi, and so on. If you want to play the game as a straight historical skirmish, you don’t have to include these elements at all. If you want to play only mythological battles, you can go heavy on those elements. Likewise, depending on the warband you choose, you could go heavy on ranged weapons, or cavalry, or chariots. You could take lots of cheap troops, or a few elite troops. You can tool up your basic warriors with all the wargear under the sun. You can purchase extra miracles for your priests to dominate the foe through magical means. The lists are flexible enough to cater for pretty much any style of play.

The other way to add spice to the warbands is through the inclusion of “Auxilia”, or swords for hire. There’s a list of nine in the book (and I’d like to write more), from the mighty Cyclops to the fully customisable Demigod (you can choose his/her skills, blessings and weaponry based on the deity of your choice). You can have a Centaur riding alongside your Parthian Cataphracts, or a vampiric Daughter of Lamia skulking amidst your Celtic warrior warband. Whatever takes your fancy!

During campaign play, you need to pay Auxilia an upkeep in points after every game in order to retain their services. If you start to do badly and don’t earn enough points to pay them off, they up sticks and leave your warband. Such is the downside of dealing with mercenaries, especially ones that aren’t human.

Hitting the Campaign Trail

One of the things that the guys at Osprey specifically wanted from me was a campaign system, ‘a bit like Legends of the Old West’ (there’s a blast from the past, eh?). So, how to go about it?

In a campaign, you start off with a small warband, and earn a number of points at the end of each game based on your performance. The more points you earn, the more warriors, Auxilia and/or wargear you can buy for your force. You’ll need to pay your Auxilias’ retainers from this total, so gathering a mercenary-heavy force can prove very costly, if powerful.

Models also gain experience, allowing them to boost their characteristics (making those all-important Tests easier), gain special rules, or even seek out artefacts of power, like magical swords and blessed amulets. Lowly warriors can become fully fledged heroes, proving that the gods really can smile on the brave. Of course, on the flipside of that, models that are taken out of action during a game might suffer serious injury or a bad case of death, leaving you with a shortfall to fill before your next game.

If my previous efforts are anything to go by, players really get into the spirit of things during the campaign turn (aka the ‘post-game sequence’), goading their enemies as they make those injury rolls, and celebrating the discovery of arcane treasure as though they’d actually found the real-life Golden Fleece.

There you have it – that pretty much sums up my approach to Broken Legions. I’ve tried to be as permissive as possible with regard to what models people can take, drawing upon as many different archetypes and ancient nations that I could feasibly fit into this one book. Hopefully the rules themselves will provide adequate grit for the competitive players amongst you, and be simple enough to learn for the casual gamer. There’s a lot going on in this one book, and the constraints of physical pages and deadlines have meant that I still have other ideas bubbling away for this setting. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to realise those ideas in the future.

Broken Legions is out now, available from all good bookshops, or direct from Osprey Publishing here

If you like the artwork previews in this blog, check out some other work by the wonderfully talented Alan Lathwell here (he was also the illustrator of my Sleepy Hollow book).

Tuesday 9 August 2016

Issue the Sanction...

Today I received a big box of samples from Titan Books, containing copies of The Iscariot Sanction - the second book in the Lazarus Gate series (these days branded as The Apollonian Casefiles).

The book is due out on September 20th, and you can pre-order it in paperback or on Kindle here, among other places.

I shouldn't say too much about this one just yet, but I will say that it was immensely fun to write, and I think it's better than The Lazarus Gate. There, I said it. The Iscariot Sanction is a prequel to LG, and set on the Otherside, just for maximum head-tripping. This means we get to learn a bit (a lot) about why the Othersiders' world is so terrible, why they felt the need to build the Lazarus Gate in the first place, and what terrible foes Apollo Lycea must face on a daily basis.

The cool thing about this book (I think) is that it can be read before The Lazarus Gate without spoiling too much, but if you read it afterwards you get that Eureka moment when you realise just what some of the 'baddies' were up to...

Anyway, more on that at a later date. For now, know that you have just over a month to finish reading Lazarus in time for this shiny new release...

Friday 18 March 2016

Cover Reveal: The Iscariot Sanction

Absolutely delighted to reveal the cover of The Iscariot Sanction today. This is the second book in the Apollonian Casefiles, which began with The Lazarus Gate.

From the Titan Blog:

In an alternate reality, the world is in peril. The sky burns with a supernatural fire, demonic entities run amok in the streets, and in the north of England, sinister beings plot to claim a part of the Empire for their own. Young Apollo Lycea agent Lillian Hardwick, and her Majestic partner Sir Arthur Furnival, are sent to expose this plot. To complete their mission they must overcome foes both mundane and supernatural, uncover a Royal conspiracy, and unlock the secret of the Iscariot Sanction. And yet what they find in the industrial cities and windswept moors of the north is a danger unlike anything they have faced before; a threat that will leave them—and the Empire—changed forever.

As you may guess from that blurb, this is not a direct sequel to The Lazarus Gate (that is coming, believe me), but rather a prequel, which rounds off the stories of all our principal players. This is a tale of the Otherside, and it's the most action-packed and visceral story I've ever told - that red cover is no accident. There will be blood...

The Iscariot Sanction is expected to hit book stores this October, although you can pre-order now!

Wednesday 27 January 2016

It's a Wargaming Marvel, by Jove!

Not content with announcing my work on the Walking Dead tabletop miniatures game last week, I can today announce my part in another big-name licensed game.

Knight Models are releasing the Marvel Universe Miniature Game, and I'm very proud to say I had a hand in it.

I've been collecting Marvel comics since I was seven years old, and playing miniatures games since aged 15, so this really is the culmination of two lifelong hobbies. I really can't believe it's taken so long for a Marvel game to get made, and I'm very proud to be a part of the team.

Unlike the Batman Miniature Game (or BMG), where I came on board purely for the English translation background writing and editing, I was able to see the Marvel game develop right from the start, helping out here and there to polish up the rules. Gustavo Cuadrado is the designer, and he's done a fantastic job. Hopefully the native English edition will do the game justice.

Full details here.

Monday 18 January 2016

We Are the Walking Dead!

I have alluded several times in the past few months that I’ve been working on ‘secret projects’. Well, it was all true, and one of them is no longer secret. It is with great pleasure that I can announce my latest games design venture…

Yes, you read that right. Mantic Games, in association with Skybound, are publishing The Walking Dead tabletop miniatures game. Subtitled All Out War, this is a skirmish game based on the Walking Dead comics series, pitting your favourite heroes and villains against each other while trying to avoid gettin’ bit by Walkers.

I’m very, very proud of this game – it’s one of the slickest, most dynamic rules sets I’ve ever produced, and it’s been a long time in the making (and I’ve been sworn to secrecy the whole time).

Lots of details and previews are already emerging on the Mantic Blog, with more to follow very soon. Expect to see this game launching via Kickstarter in the next couple of months!

Fantasy Casting Call: The Lazarus Gate

I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while, and ended up doing it on social media, so I figured I’d summarize here. One question I’ve been asked a surprising number of times since The Lazarus Gate came out is whether I had any actors in mind to play all the principle roles while I was writing. Sort of ‘If you got a film deal and could cast anyone, who would it be?’

I said in an interview that I did indeed have some ideas, and that actually having actors in certain roles in my head helps with keeping the dialogue consistent. You could always sit back and think, ‘How would so-and-so say that?’

However, at the time of the interview, the book was very new out, and so I didn’t like to say exactly who I had in mind. Simply put, visualising characters in a book is a very personal thing, that varies from reader to reader, and I didn’t want to thrust my own choices into the minds of anyone who hadn’t yet read the book. If you don’t want to be influenced thus, click away now!

Time has passed, and so I thought it’d be rather fun to list my inspiration for the ‘fantasy casting’. Some of these weren’t first choices, but have since become synonymous in my mind with particular characters. I’ve also had a few suggestions via Facebook, and I’ll round up the best of the fan choices at the end.

Without further ado…

Jonny Lee Miller as John Hardwick.
A difficult choice, this. I think his performance in Elementary swung it for me. John Hardwick was never in my mind as a pretty Hollywood star. JLM has got a good, well-travelled look about him these days, and is lithe and wiry due to his hobby as an ultra-distance runner, so he could easily match the physical description.

My second choice for this role was Andrew Lincoln of The Walking Dead fame.

Patrick Stewart as Lazarus
Keeping this a spoiler-free zone, just in case. I think Sir Pat needs no qualifiers!

Tuppence Middleton as Lillian
Lillian (again, no spoilers) has been a surprise fan-favourite in The Lazarus Gate, and, I can reveal, plays a much (much!) larger part in the second book. Tuppence Middleton is a rising star and versatile actress, she’s already got several period dramas to her name, and has proved with Sense8 that she has the action ability too.

My original choice here, and the actress I actually had in mind while writing Lillian’s scenes, was MyAnna Buring from Ripper Street (with dye-job).

Bertie Carvel as Archie McGrath
A cheeky cameo from a rising star, playing our dashing young surgeon McGrath. As soon as I saw Carvel in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I pegged him as Archie – a role that had hitherto been uncast in my mind.

John Noble as Sir Toby Fitzwilliam
Not my original choice, but a friend’s suggestion (actually, he was mooted as Lazarus). Indeed, the late Ian Richardson was firmly in my mind while writing Sir Toby, but having long since passed, John Noble is, I feel, a worthy candidate.

Daniel Dae Kim as The Artist, Tsun Pen
A really tricky one to cast. The Artist is of mixed Eastern race, and while Dae Kim is Korean, he is a standout due to his versatile acting credentials, age, star power, and physique. He recently took to the stage in The King and I, to rave reviews, and really looked the part in that, too. Love this guy, although I confess some special effects would be required – if anyone knows an actual actor from the Far East who is stunningly handsome, fluent in English and almost seven feet tall, let me know! 

Dan Stevens as Captain James Denny
When I was writing, I had Jude Law in mind for this role, as he was in the first Sherlock Holmes move with RDJ. I have to admit, however, that he is just too old these days (even though he has an annoyingly youthful look about him), and so I looked elsewhere for my young, dashing soldier. Dan Stevens is an actor so versatile I also had him down for Ambrose Hanlocke, but in the end I think he’s my true-hearted hero (and, if the fates align, a major player in the future saga).

Oona Chaplin as Rosanna
I was determined not to whitewash any characters in this book/imaginary film (especially as there’s not much in the way of diversity in a book about upper-crust Englishmen). I couldn’t decide who I’d cast in the role of Rosanna while I was writing the book (it was finished almost two years ago, don’t forget!), although I did have a picture of Salma Hayek on my mood board. All that changed when I saw Oona Chaplin in Game of Thrones, and I think she’d be perfect as the strong gypsy princess.

Aidan Turner as Ambrose Hanlocke
Everyone’s favourite bounder, the roguish Ambrose Hanlocke has many facets. He can be charming and suave one minute, scathing with his barbed wit the next, then moaning like a petulant child before retiring to a low-rent inn to carouse with the locals. I first thought of Tom Hiddleston for the role, but after seeing Aidan Turner’s very different roles recently in Poldark and And Then There Were None, I knew I’d found my Ambrose.

The Supporting Cast
My mood board had a few familiar faces pinned to it, although not all roles were cast. Sam Neill as William Melville of the Special Irish Branch was a no-brainer. The role of Larry Ecclestone was written especially for Jerome Flynn. Lord Cherleten was Alan Rickman, and due to the very sad news this week, there is no way on Earth I’d recast that part – he will always be the devilish peer in my head. I never cast William James, but Lazarus Gate fan James Cook suggested on Facebook that Jeff Bridges would make a great old American philosopher, and I agree!

Fan Suggestions
Other suggestions so far have included David Tennant as Ambrose (I can see that), Peter Wingfield as John Hardwick, Eddie Redmayne as Archie McGrath, and Amy Acker for Lillian.

What do you think? Who did you see in your mind’s eye when you read the book? Drop me a line below or over on Facebook and let me know!