SALEM RECOMMENDS: ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH by ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN

Here’s the scene:

I travel back in time and pay my younger self a visit. He’s 12 years old, his religion is Star Wars, he’s into Marvel Comics and he reads pretty much nothing but sci-fi. I tell him that one day, in his late 40s in fact, he’ll discover the joys of Russian prison literature, and you know what he does? He looks at me like I’ve got two heads and he laughs. Worse than that, he points and laughs.

But guess what. I was right and he was wrong. Russian prison literature rocks!

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the third RPL novel I’ve read in recent months. As the title suggests, it’s the story of one man and one single day in a Siberian gulag, starting with ‘reveille’ at 5am and ending with lights out. In between, we follow our protagonist Shukhov (as Ivan Denisovich is known) as he negotiates his way around prison protocol and the machinations of his fellow inmates. It is a brutal way of life, rendered more so by the matter-of-fact prose of the book. There is no room for self-pity or reflection here, because time stands still for no man in prison. If you get knocked down, you pick yourself up again and you carry on, otherwise you die. And that’s it.

After their meagre breakfast, Shukhov and his fellow ‘gang’ members – prisoners are organised into gangs – are sent out into the fierce Siberian winter to do building work at a power plant site. Before they leave their barracks, they are all hoping and praying that the temperature has fallen to -40 as that means they won’t have to go. But no such luck. It is, we are told only -27. ONLY! So off to work they go.

Every single of minute of every day of Shukhov’s sentence is spent seeking advantage; spending an extra minute or two somewhere warm, burying his tools so no one else will find them, cadging food from fellow prisoners. The endless quest for extra food forms a large part of the narrative. Shukhov acquires an extra 200g of bread, so he sews it into his mattress to keep it safe, saving it for later. The prisoners here count every last gram of food as it’s the difference between life and death.

Also, to be caught breaking prison rules means a spell in the cells. There, you only get one piece of bread per day and one bowl of porridge every three. The extreme cold in the cells means that a 10-day sentence will probably mean TB. A 14-day stretch will mean your end. As I said, brutal.

Despite his sentence being ‘only’ eight years, Shukhov knows he will never return home or see his family again. Authorities can add extra years onto your sentence, double it even, on nothing more than a whim. And if he ever does see freedom again he’ll be sent into exile. Shukhov’s crime? He was taken prisoner by the Germans during the war. That was it. In fact, most of the people in the Russian prison system were guilty of nothing more than coming into contact with foreigners. That was enough under Stalin’s rule to get you packed off to Siberia.

Solzhenitsyn himself was sentenced to 8 years in the gulag for – and I swear I’m not making this up – making insulting remarks about Stalin. He was released after Stalin’s death in 1953 and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was eventually published in 1963. It caused such a furore that the Russian authorities supressed his other works.

It’s a magnificently written book. Having the narrative unfold over a single day intensifies the sense of claustrophobia and frustration experienced by our protagonist as he scrabbles to make it from dawn until dark with his dignity intact. We are with him for every personal battle, every argument and every little victory. The knockout blow comes at the end with the realisation that Shukhov has to do all this again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. For years.

It really is powerful stuff.

INTERVIEW WITH MYSELF

Hi. I’m Rhydderch Wilson, the mortal counterpart of the immortal horror author Richard E. Rock. I was born in Newcastle in January 1971. By complete coincidence, Richard was born on the same day, in the same place and to the same parents. Incredible.

We are both writers. By day, I work as a commercial scriptwriter in the radio biz and contribute ideas to Viz Comic. By night, Richard writes about the dark side. His debut horror novel DEEP LEVEL was published last year by Darkstroke Books.

Rhydderch: So, when did your writing career officially begin?

Richard: Officially, in 2002 when I landed my scriptwriting job in the local commercial radio station.

Rhydderch: Did you have any experience as a scriptwriter prior to that?

Richard: No. When I applied for the position I started paying close attention to the ads on the radio and I sussed out that there was a kind of language to them. Once I’d realised this, I thought, “I can do this!” In the interview I was given a genuine brief to work on. The script I came up with ended up actually being used, so they had to give me the job.

Rhydderch: Were you a keen reader as a child?

Richard: Yes. I was brought up in a house full of books and music and art. I come from a very creative background. My mother is also a published author.

Rhydderch: And what did you read when you were a kid?

Richard: I started off on comics, like most kids. In my day it was The Beano, Whizzer & Chips and so on. Then it was war comics and Marvel superheroes. I was six years old when the original Star Wars came out and the day I saw it was the day my imagination was born. I started devouring sci-fi books after that.

Rhydderch: And now?

Richard: Now I cast my net pretty wide. My favourite authors include Dylan Thomas, Stephen king, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Zadie Smith. I’ve been going through a bit of a Russian prison literature phase lately, so I’ve been reading Georgi Vladimov and Alexander Solhzenitsyn.

Rhydderch: What led to you writing horror?

Richard: I’m plagued my nightmares and anxiety dreams. After a particularly ferocious nightmare one night I woke up and thought, “Wow! That was amazing!” So I wrote the whole thing down before it had a chance to fade away, as dreams so often do. That nightmare formed the basis of DEEP LEVEL.

Rhydderch: So what’s DEEP LEVEL actually about?

Richard: It’s about four friends who discover a secret underground Vicrotian train network. They take it upon themselves to explore it and soon realise that some things are secret for a reason. It was inspired by a nightmare in which I was being pursued through dark tunnels by a silent, steamless, driverless Victorian steam engine. It was horrific. In another dream, I was being stalked by a demonic entity. If I let it get too close cobwebs would form over my eyes and I’d feel my life-force ebbing away.

Rhydderch: Is it strictly a book for horror fans?

Richard: Not at all. I’d like to think that it’s a horror novel for people who don’t necessarily read horror novels. When I was working on it, my number one concern was the characters. I put a lot of effort into them. I knew that if I could make the readers fall in love with the characters, they’d experience the horror through them. The reviews I’ve received so far have been overwhelmingly positive, so I think I succeeded.

Rhydderch: And what are you working on now?

Richard: My work in progress is a sci-fi horror about two shipwrecked refugees who wash up on a mysterious east African island where incredible experiments have been taking place. The only person who can save them is a lowly spaceport employee half a world away in the US. I’m currently at the editing stage.

Rhydderch: And what does the future hold?

Richard: I’m working on a trilogy of Victorian horror novels, the first one being a vampire story. I’ve also started making notes for a fantasy story for younger readers. They were all inspired by dreams.

Rhydderch: Why did you choose Richard E. Rock as your pen name?

Richard: As my immortal name, you mean? Well, as it came to me in a dream, you could say that it chose me. I was never going to publish under my mortal name of Rhydderch Wilson as it’s so difficult to spell. Richard E. Rock sounds like a horror author. Rhydderch just sounds like someone clearing their throat.

Rhydderch: What does the E stand for?

Richard: The dream didn’t fill in that particular piece of info, so it’s doesn’t stand for anything.

Rhydderch: Finally, if you could go back in time and give your younger self some advice, what would it be?  

Richard: Three things. One. If you know what you want to do when you grow up, concentrate on that one thing. If you don’t know, that’s okay. You’ve got plenty of time to figure it out. Two. If you want to be a writer, surround yourself with other writers. I really do believe that creativity begets creativity. And three, persevere. You WILL suffer setbacks. Everyone does. You just have to pick yourself up and soldier on. The ones who make it are the ones who didn’t quit.

Rhydderch: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.

Richard: No problem at all. I’m used to it.

DEEP LEVEL is available now from Amazon in ebook and paperback formats.

A DELVE INTO DEEP LEVEL

Greetings, friends.

Below you will find an excerpt from my debut horror novel DEEP LEVEL, which was published by darkstroke books 1st October 2020.

It is the story of four friends who stumble upon a secret Victorian underground network beneath the streets of London. They set out to explore it, only to discover that some things are kept secret for a reason.

The idea for the book came to me in a nightmare in which I was being pursued through endless tunnels by a silent, steamless, driverless engine. In another part of the dream I was being hunted by a dark presence with long, spindly limbs and growing eyes. If I let it get too close cobwebs would form over my eyes and I would feel my life force ebbing away.

I woke up excited and thought, “Wow! That would make an AMAZING story!” so I wrote it all down before it faded away, as dreams so often do. And thus, my career as a horror writer was born.

What you are about to read is from chapter one. Rosalind, Syeeda and Ffion have met up at a local cafe to await Rich, who will be picking them up to take them exploring. Enjoy.

***

It began early one morning and ended later that same day. It was a November morning, cold and dark, and the wind carried a touch of the Arctic. The buildings loomed black and erect like tombstones against the sky, which was a deep cosmic-blue and star-sprinkled.

            The lifelessness of Gunnersbury Lane was broken by the huffing and puffing of a lone woman, engaged in a peculiar sort of non-run; arms moving rapidly, legs not so much.

            Ffion was late, as usual. You’re like a bloody train, her friends would say. You’ll be late for your own funeral. She wondered what cheeky remarks awaited her in the cafe where two of them were waiting.

            It was the shock of bright red hair through the window that first snared Syeeda’s gaze. “Aha! Head’s up,” she said as a rosy-cheeked Ffion slinked in through the door. “The human matchstick has finally arrived!”

            “What was it today then?” asked Rosalind, looking back over her shoulder. “Leaves on the line? Wrong kind of snow?”

            “Shuddup,” said Ffion with a sheepish grin.

            The windows were streaked with condensation as the warm air inside collided with the cold morning frost without. The place smelled of tea and beans.

            “Alright, Jase?” asked Ffion of the man in the apron behind the counter. “How about a cuppa then? I’m bloody knobbled.”

            “ANYTHING ELSE, LOVE?” boomed Jason. He did not do quiet.

            Ffion looked back at her friends. Rosalind had a bacon buttie in front of her and Syeeda was getting stuck into a plate of beans on toast. No butter. She felt a pang in her belly.

            “Have whatever you want, Fee,” said Rosalind. “It’s on me.”

            “Full English, please, Jase.”

            “THAT’S MY GIRL!” Jason bellowed. From behind his steamed-up glasses he ogled Ffion up and down with longing eyes. He had nursed a thing for her since she’d arrived in this particular corner of London (with small child in tow) from the south Wales town where she’d grown up. Unfortunately for him, she had relocated to be with her boyfriend. That was two years and another baby ago.

            “HAVE A SEAT THEN, MY DARLING, AND I’LL BRING IT OVER TO YOU!” He hauled his tall, gangly frame off to the kitchen where he proceeded to yell something at an understrapper.

            Ffion pulled up a chair and, as she sat down, she gave Rosalind’s hand a little squeeze. “Thanks, Roz,” she said.

            “That’s alright,” replied Rosalind. “God knows how long we’re going to be down there for, so you’ve got to get some fuel in you.”

            “Well, I hope it’s not going to be too long. Greg’s mam’s coming over later and she said she’d treat us to a Harvester.”

            “Can I come?” asked Syeeda.

            “No. Bugger off,” chuckled Ffion.

            “Charming.”

            “So what’s the German for breakfast?” Rosalind asked Syeeda.

            “Frühstuck.”

            “And beans on toast?”

            “Um. Bean is Bohne so beans must be Bohnen. I don’t know what toast is but bread is Brot.”

            “Still at it then?” said Ffion. 

            “You’re certainly starting to sound more German,” said Rosalind.

            “Yeah. I sussed out that in Germany they say their R’s in the back of the throat.”

            It was a few weeks spent hiking in the Stubai Alps in Austria with her sister the previous summer that had inspired Syeeda to start learning the lingo. She already spoke two languages and she liked the idea of being truly multilingual. 

            “So are you still planning on going back?”

            “Yeah. We’re looking at maybe next summer.”

            “And how is Jas?”

            “Great, actually. Up to her eyes in work but that’s how she likes it.”

            As Syeeda was talking, Ffion was fishing her mobile phone out of her bag. She placed it on the table in front of her and swiped the screen. Rosalind cleared her throat. Ffion looked up to see Rosalind’s eyes dart down to the phone and then back up to meet hers.

            “Oh yeah. Sorry. Forgot.” Ffion put her phone back in her bag.

            “She did that to me too,” Syeeda sighed.

            Rosalind ran a hand through her short, greying hair. “Have I told you my theory about why the zombie is the bogeyman for the modern age?” she asked, addressing both of her friends.

            “And this has what to do with mobiles?” asked Syeeda with an arched eyebrow.

            “You’ll see,” Rosalind smirked. “In America in the fifties, it was all flying saucers and aliens. That’s because their biggest fear at that time was the threat of Soviet invasion. So the whole flying saucers thing was a metaphor for invasion. In the eighties it was all body-horror movies, like The Thing and The Fly, because of AIDS. The corruption of the body. Go back about fifteen years or so and that’s when the so-called torture-porn movies started coming out, because America was stomping across the Middle East renditioning people and waterboarding them.”

            Ffion was transfixed. Where was Roz going with all this?

            “In Japan it was Godzilla and other assorted giant mutated monsters, because of the fear of radiation after the atomic bombs. But the bogeyman for today is the zombie. Everywhere you look, there’s zombies; Walking Dead, World War Z, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. You can go and have zombie experiences where actors in make-up will chase you around, for god’s sake. And why? Because of these.”

            She pulled her mobile phone out of her pocket and held it up.

            Ffion and Syeeda looked at each other blankly.

            “Okaaay,” Syeeda eventually said. She sounded unconvinced.

            “Yep. Every single day, everywhere you go, all you see are people plodding along, stupefied, phones in hand, not looking where they’re going, mouths hanging open, only half aware. And what do they all look like?”

            “Zombies,” said Syeeda and Ffion in unison.

            Smugly, Rosalind slipped her mobile back into her pocket.

            “But you’ve got a mobile.” Ffion couldn’t help but point it out.

            “Yes, but mine’s not a smartphone,” replied Rosalind. “It’s not internet-enabled and I certainly don’t plod around staring at it when my attention should be on what I’m doing. Not that there’s going to be much of a signal where we’re going today.”

            “Or any signal at all, for that matter,” added Ffion.

            “I would literally die without my phone,” Syeeda stated firmly.

            It was at moments like this that Rosalind usually called Syeeda out on her use of the word ‘literally’, but it was still early and right now she simply couldn’t be bothered.

            “I have to say,” said Ffion to Rosalind, “I never had you down as the type to go poking around in old tunnels full of rats. I thought you were too posh for all that.”

            “Oh, thanks a bunch!” Rosalind gasped, genuinely offended. “Posh indeed!”

             Syeeda laughed. Basically, Ffion thought that anyone who had a degree was posh.

            “And what about you, Syd?” asked Ffion. “I thought you were supposed to be out on a date today.”

            “Well, I was,” Syeeda replied with a curl of the lip, “but I called it off. To be honest, I’d rather be hanging out with you guys, even if it is in some grotty old subway.”

            “Aw, bless you,” said Rosalind.

            “Yeah, cheers, Syd,” Ffion said with a smile. “So, how’s work going?”

            “S’alright,” Syeeda replied with a lazy shrug. “Been on wars this week.”

            “What are wars?” Ffion asked.

            “Work available reports.”

            “Some of the work jargon you come out with absolutely blows my mind,” said Rosalind. “My favourite one is the warm hand-off.”

            “What the hell’s a warm hand-off?” Ffion spluttered.

            “Transferring a live call to a specialist,” replied Syeeda.

            Rosalind shook her head. “I can’t get over the fact that instead of just calling it ‘transferring a call to a specialist’, they called it a ‘warm hand-off’. Jesus.”

            “I think it’s amazing, I do,” Ffion beamed. “Any jobs going?”

            “Back-end access is another one,” Syeeda continued, ignoring Ffion’s question. “You’ll often hear someone asking someone else if they have back-end access.”

            “So what does that one mean?” laughed Rosalind.

            “If you have database access.”

            “Working in your place sounds like a Carry On film.”

            “A what?” Syeeda asked.

            “Never mind.”

            “Have you got any more stories for me to read then, Syd, is it or what?” asked Ffion.

            In her spare time, Syeeda wrote and illustrated short stories, which she circulated amongst her friends before putting them into a box and then forgetting about them. Ffion was her biggest fan.

            “Almost. I’m working on one now about the boy who invented the spitball.”

            Ffion’s face lit up. “The boy who invented the spitball? Brilliant. I don’t know how you come up with this stuff. What’s it called?”

            “Charles Lippincott Ball.”

            “You’re wasted in the civil service, Syd,” said Rosalind. “You should be a writer.”

            Syeeda said nothing.

            “How’s work with you then, Fee?” asked Rosalind, picking up the slack of the conversation.

            “You won’t believe what happened yesterday,” she scowled. “Some woman came in with her two kids, bought them tickets and some popcorn and stuff and then left them there to watch a film. When she came back later there was no sign of them – they’d buggered off early – and she went ballistic. Started blaming us. Went up the wall, mun!”

            “So she was using the cinema as a cheap babysitter, basically,” said Rosalind.

            “Not that bloody cheap, but yeah. She was really kicking off, so we had to call security on her.”

            “How old were they?”

            “Security?”

            “No. The kids. Did she find them?”

            “About ten or twelve, I reckon. And I dunno. Security told her if she didn’t calm down, they’d call the police on her and she’d probably get nicked for neglect as well as threatening behaviour or whatever.”

            “What film was it?” asked Syeeda.

            “Does that really matter?” Rosalind asked with a wry smile.

            “It matters to me.”

            “Last Jedi,” said Ffion.

            Syeeda rolled her eyes. “No wonder they left early.”

            “Mmm,” Ffion agreed.

            “HERE YOU GO, MY PRECIOUS!” boomed Jason as he placed a steaming-hot full English breakfast in front of Ffion. “I’VE THROWN A COUPLE OF BLACK PUDDINGS ON THERE AS WELL FOR YOU! ON THE ‘OUSE!”

            “Aw, cheers, Jase,” said Ffion, giving him a little wink. “You’re a star, you are.” She was well aware of his feelings for her and could have played him like an Xbox, but she wasn’t that kind of person.

            She had started dating her first husband at the age of twenty, back in 2008. Or, as Ffion was someone who measured time by movies, when Iron Man, Kung Fu Panda and Twilight were on release. They were married four years after that, in 2012 (The Avengers, Skyfall), and welcomed their first and only child together, Iwan, a year later (Despicable Me 2, Frozen). In 2014 (Guardians of the Galaxy, Maleficent) Ffion discovered that her husband was “doing the dirty” on her. The following year (The Force Awakens, Minions) she left her boy with her mam for a week and went on holiday with her Carmarthen friends to Portugal and met her current boyfriend, Greg. Actually, she did more than just meet him, and in 2016 (Rogue One, Deadpool) she gave birth to her second son, Geraint. By this time, she had jacked in her job in Carmarthen and joined Greg in Acton so that they could all be a family together, and so far, so good.

            “So,” she said, “what time’s Rich picking us up?”

***

DEEP LEVEL is available now from Amazon in ebook and paperback formats.

REVIEW: THE FANTASTIC FOUR (1994) – THE UNRELEASED ROGER CORMAN VERSION

Watch this film twice and you’ll get two very different experiences.

See it the first time as a casual viewer and you’ll behold a low-budget movie with wobbly sets, cheap costumes, dodgy FX and hammy performances.

Watch it a second time having read up on it – or, better still, having seen Marty Langford and Mark Sikes’ excellent documentary Doomed! – and you’ll enjoy an heroic effort by a dedicated cast and crew to bring a beloved comic book to life on a pitiful budget and against an impossible deadline.

This is the legend that is the unreleased Roger Corman production of Marvel Comics’ The Fantastic Four, and it’s one of those rare movies in which the story that unfolded off the screen is even more bizarre and fantastical than the one that occurs on it.

In the mid-1980s the movie rights to Marvel’s Fantastic Four property were bought by Neue Constantin Film. Fast forward to the early-90s and there was still no sign of production commencing – and the clock was ticking. If Neue Constantin didn’t begin principal photography within ten years, the rights would revert to Marvel and they could auction them off again.

Enter legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures.

If anyone in Hollywood could turn a SFX movie around on a tight budget and in limited time, it was him. With the now unbelievably paltry sum of $2 million to play with, he assembled a cast and crew and got to work.

The movie was completed in 1994 but was never released. And, unbeknown by the aforementioned cast and crew, it was never intended to be.

We view superhero movies now through the prism of mega-budget Marvel Studios productions – epic running times, huge casts, vast concepts, astounding FX – which makes watching this version of the Fantastic Four a bit of an eye-popping experience.

The sets are small and claustrophobic, the FX basic and seen sparingly, the tone lurches uncomfortably from dramatic to just plain silly. At one point, my girlfriend asked me if we were watching a Mel Brooks movie. Jay Underwood, as the hot-headed Johnny Storm/Human Torch overdoes it so much he actually comes across as being a bit demented. Dr Doom spends so much time with his hands up in the air that you begin to suspect his gloves are too big and will fall off if he lowers them. In the all-action finale, Johnny Storm shouts “Flame on!” and basically turns into a cartoon. He then has a fist fight with a laser beam in a scene that I swear they cribbed from one of those old Max Fleischer Superman animations.

But after learning how the cast and crew, faced with producing a superhero spectacular with almost no money, put their hearts and souls into the production in order to make the very best movie possible, one can’t help but admire the end result.

In its favour, this is the only Fantastic Four adaption that even attempts to remain true to its comic book origins. We get to see vile villain Dr Doom ranting and raving in the throne room of his Latverian castle. We see the Fantasti-Car taking off from the roof of the Baxter Building. We see Rebecca Staab in her Invisible Girl costume. In all fairness, Ms Staab does bear a remarkable resemblance to the original comic book character.

Also, the matte paintings may be unconvincing but they are undoubtedly spectacular. The musical score is great. Alex Hyde-White is stoic and heroic as team leader Mr Fantastic. But best of all, the undisputed star of the show, is the team’s rocky mascot, The Thing. The costume guys, even with their tiny budget, did a great job on bringing him to life. His face is expressive enough for the actor behind the mask to give a nuanced performance, and as viewers we can’t help but punch a fist in the air every time he growls, “It’s clobberin’ time!”

But despite all it had going for it the movie was shelved and that was that. No one toiling away on it had any inkling that this was its intended fate all along. Neue Constantin Film were basically pulling a fast one so they could hang onto the movie rights a little longer and put out a big budget version further on down the line, when they were ready.

So the cast and crew were shafted good and proper, with nothing to show for all their hard work and tireless efforts. It’s not rare for Hollywood to throw out movies that come with shady behind-the-scenes tales of double dealing and underhandedness, but rarely are they as tragic and, yes, as downright nasty as this one.

In the documentary Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four, a chap involved in the making of the film expresses his joy that someone somewhere managed to sneak a copy of it out, so that it could find its way into the hands of the very fans it was intended for. I too feel a debt of gratitude to that mysterious hero, because I love this movie, and without him or her I never would have got to see it. So, thank you, whoever you are.

NB. For further reading, I can heartily recommend tracking down a copy of the October 1993 issue of Film Threat magazine, which treats us to a behind-the-scenes peak at the movie in production, when the cast and crew were still under the impression they were making a film that would be seen in theatres. As I said, tragic.

SALEM RECOMMENDS: FAITHFUL RUSLAN by GEORGI VLADIMOV

By the end of the 1930s, Russian leader Joseph Stalin, in his ever blackening state of paranoia, had imprisoned over twelve million people in his notorious “corrective-labour camps”. A vast majority of these people were, of course, completely innocent. When the war ended, these numbers were swollen further when he imprisoned all returning Soviet POWs. Their crime? Coming into contact with foreigners.

In 1956, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Kruschev, began the process that would see eight million of these prisoners released. A consequence of this was that a vast number of prison guards suddenly found themselves unemployed, and so did their guard dogs.

The Ruslan of the title of this book is one such guard dog. Instead of being shot by his master, which was the fate that befell most of the retiring dogs, he is left to fend for himself, convinced that it is only a matter of time before normality is resumed and he is called back into service.

Georgi Vladimov completed this book, considered to be his masterpiece, in 1974. When this particular edition was published in 1981 it was still banned in his homeland. However, a manuscript was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in West Germany in 1975. It is told from the point of view of the hound in question, with the human characters rarely even named. Instead they are labelled; The Master, The Shabby Man, The Instructor. But Disney this ain’t, as this is a brutal, uncompromising and tragic story.

Ruslan’s years of training and service have left him incapable of adjusting to life beyond the prison fences and watchtowers. Taught never to accept food from anyone but his master, he is forced to hunt in the nearby forests, despite being lucky enough to stumble upon a new home. But even here he finds no peace as he views the owner of said home as a prisoner who requires guarding.

Also, every day he makes a pilgrimage to the local train station to await the arrival of a trainload of new prisoners. This train, of course, never comes.

Days after finishing Faithful Ruslan, it is still on my mind. Vladimov’s writing is impeccable, and he succeeds in communicating the pain and heartache of our lost hero without ever resorting to sentimentality. Ruslan never suffers, he simply endures. It’s a deeply affecting work and is probably one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. I don’t think I’ll ever look at a dog the same way again.

REVIEW: THE HAUNTING OF MARGAM CASTLE

I don’t usually put horror movies in my basket when shopping in my local Sainsburys, but on this particular occasion I felt compelled to make an exception. The reason for this is that Margam Castle is just a few miles up the road from where I live. I’ve been there many times and I know it well, so I was intrigued.

But before we proceed, be warned, this review contains spoilers.

Margam Castle is a magnificent and imposing building built between 1830 and 1840 in Port Talbot, south Wales. It has a reputation for being haunted and was featured in the TV series Most Haunted. Ghost hunts are regularly held there, although I’ve never attended one.

The boast on the DVD cover read, “Based on a true story.” Needless to say, I was somewhat sceptical, and as it turned out my scepticism was entirely justified. I’m pretty sure that if a team of American parapsychologists had died horribly in Margam Castle, it might have warranted a mention in the local news.

I watched it with my girlfriend and the next day she confessed that it had given her nightmares. I only wish I could say the same as it really wasn’t very good. Despite having a location to die for (see what I did there?) it all fell a bit flat. There was not much of a story to speak of, most of the characters were rather uninteresting and pretty much all the horror movie tropes were crammed in there…

Superstitious locals? Check.

Messages in the bathroom mirror? Check.

Creepy little girl? Check.

As the film progressed it sank into silliness and there were moments where we were just laughing at it. Researcher being dragged into a computer monitor, anyone? Also, many of the performances were very wobbly to say the least. However, it wasn’t all bad. There was just enough creepy atmos, a few effective jump scares and a certain trashy enjoyability. Also, there were a few cast members worthy of mention.

As historian Hugh Morgan, veteran actor Derren Nesbitt was excellent. His presence alone actually elevated the quality of the whole film, in my opinion. And there were some notable cameos too. First up was Garrick Hagon, best known for his role as Bigg in the original Star Wars. Also present were Jane Merrow, Judy Matheson and Caroline Munro, all of whom previously appeared in Hammer horror movies. The appearance of Bond Girl Munro was also notable for another reason. A few years ago I was lucky enough to meet her at a geek convention that took place at…Margam Castle.

But the real star of the film is the location itself. Margam Castle simply oozes creepiness, and in all fairness it is beautifully shot. The cinematographer does a great job of capturing the scale and eeriness of it. For this reason it worked better for me as an interesting curio rather than as a horror movie, so I’ll be hanging onto this DVD and very possibly watching it again in the near future.

THE NIGHT I SPENT WITH CAPTAIN AMERICA

Following on from my stint on Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, I remained on the books of Casting Collective, an agency that supplies extras for movies. I never expected to hear from them again, but I did, and they were giving nothing away about whatever production it was they wanted me for.

As I am over 6′ tall, they said they wanted me to play a soldier. I knew that Steven Spielberg was shooting War Horse in the UK at the time, so I did wonder if it might be that. However, a friend of mine went to have his costume fitting a few days ahead of me, and he dropped me a line to say that it was in fact…CAPTAIN AMERICA!

I nearly fainted. I’m a pretty big Marvel nerd so the thought of playing an (admittedly tiny) part in the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe was mind blowing. As it transpired, the part turned out to be even tinier than I imagined.

When I went for the costume fitting I discovered that I was going to be filling the boots of a Hydra Infantryman, one of the bad guys. The good thing about this was that the uniform I’d be wearing was amazing. The bad thing about it was that my face would not be visible. But you know what? I didn’t care. I was going to be in Captain America! Playing one of the Hydra Infantry! That was enough for me.

They originally told me to clear my diary for two weeks. That then became a week. In the end, they only used me for one night. But I spent that one night in the company of a bunch of guys playing Hydra soldiers (some of whom I knew), a bunch of guys playing prisoners of war (who I’d get to push around) and none other that director Joe Johnston and star Chris Evans!

If you’re a Star Wars fan, the name Joe Johnston carries some weight. That dude did incredible concept art for the original trilogy. Dude, he designed Slave 1, Boba Fett’s spaceship, so I was excited just to be breathing the same air as him! Chris Evans I was only familiar with from the Fantastic Four movies, but I thought he aced his role as Johnny Storm and I could easily see him nailing the part of Steve Rogers/Captain America.

Filming was taking place in an old MOD base in Monmouthshire, Wales, which was standing in for a WWII POW camp. The night before, they had filmed a big action sequence with lots of explosions etc. I was gutted to have missed out on that. On the night I was there they were filming the sequence where Cap is sneaking into the camp to bust out the prisoners.

Despite the fact that all I did was stand around carrying a huge gun, or pace up and down with a huge gun, it was still hard going. The uniform was uncomfortable, my boots were too small and the gun was very very heavy. I had a retro-futuristic belt fastened around my waist with an ammo belt running from that to the gun. Everything was screwed together so I couldn’t put the gun down all night. But still, I didn’t care. I was on the Captain America film set!

So, I spent a cold and drizzly night guarding a POW camp as groups of prisoners were marched in and out, and as Chris Evans snuck past me time after time after time. I will say this though, the catering was excellent!

I saw the movie with my parents when it was released. One of the very few times in the last twenty years they’d been to the cinema. We all enjoyed it, despite not being able to spot me as my face was obscured by the costume.

But the important thing here is not that I spent just one night with Captain America, it’s that I was there at all. Full stop. It’s that I was standing in front of the camera when Joe Johnston yelled “Action!”. It’s that I saw Chris Evans in his special chair marked ‘Chris Evans’. It’s that I actually am a tiny, microscopically small, completely unidentifiable part of the MCU.

And the best part? Hasbro released a Hydra Armored Soldier action figure, so I now have an action of figure of myself! Okay, so there were lots of us strapping six-footers playing Hydra soldiers, but nobody’s gonna steal my thunder here. I have an action figure of myself!

How many people get to say that after a one-night stand?

SALEM RECOMMENDS: SPIDER-MAN (1977)

Before there was any such thing as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or CGI, or Tobey Maguire, there was the Spider-Man live action TV series which ran from 1977 to 1979.

The pilot episode was released theatrically in Europe so I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at the formative age of six. It was only my second ever visit to the cinema. My first was to see Star Wars.

The live action Spider-Man blew my mind. My 49 year old self was not so impressed.

The dual roles of Peter Parker/Spider-Man are taken by Nicholas Hammond (aka Freidrich from The Sound of Music and Sam Wanamaker in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood). Here, Peter is a grad student/science enthusiast/amateur photographer who people keep addressing as “kid” even though he’s clearly pushing 30. He also spends a great deal of his screen time sneezing.

The plot concerns some sort of ‘life coach’ guy who’s taken control of the minds of his followers and is getting them to carry out robberies. It’s all part of a wider plan to extort money from the city ($50 million, to be exact). But he didn’t reckon on some “kid” getting bitten by a radioactive spider and stumbling upon his nefarious scheme.

It’s a real clunker of a story. Gone is the zippy, sparky creative energy and snappy dialogue of the original 60s comic books by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and instead we get a dry retelling with little or no humour and some very dodgy fight scenes. Spider-Man himself doesn’t do a lot of web-slinging or swinging, preferring to scamper about on rooftops without ever standing up straight. That said, there is a memorable moment when a stuntman in Spidey costume really does swing from one building to another. However, it might just be memorable because they used the same shot in every episode of the series.

There was a famous scene which sadly doesn’t feature in the pilot in which a stuntman, again in full Spidey regalia, was winched up the side of the Empire State Building, bringing New York City to a standstill. Now THAT was impressive.

It’s also with sadness that I must report that none of Spidey’s comic book villains ever made it into the series. Obviously, budgets were never going to allow for an airborne duel with the Green Goblin or a punch-up with Doc Ock, but an appearance by the Kingpin would have been nice.

Despite all of this, I couldn’t look away. This film has a strange fascination all its own. It’s almost as if there is actually a good film in there somewhere, desperately trying to break out, so you keep on watching in the hope that it does. Mind you, it’s worth sticking with just for the enormous collars and the funky soundtrack.

Stan Lee dismissed this series, which ran for two seasons before being cancelled, as a “nightmare” and “juvenile”. You can see his point, but watching it again through the prism of a 43-year gap, it becomes a kind of historical curio, and one not without charm.

It was directed by TV stalwart EW Swackhamer (surely a name which could also lend itself to a porn star or a Confederate general). To date there has been no DVD release, but there are vintage VHS copies floating around out there and it’s available on YouTube (obvs).

SALEM RECOMMENDS – TRICK OR TREAT

Trick or Treat, released in 1986, is billed as a horror movie but it isn’t really. It didn’t horrify me anyway, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t devilishly entertaining.

Eddie is a high school loner, picked on by the jocks for being a metalhead, laughed at by the girls. One fateful day, he sees on the TV news that his idol, heavy metal star Sammi Curr has died in a hotel fire. Stricken by grief and convinced that no one but Sammi ever understood him (adolescents, eh?), he turns to a local rock DJ for solace. This DJ ‘gets it’ because he’s played by none other than Gene Simmons from off of Kiss, and he presents our hero with a super-rare Sammi demo record.

When Eddie plays this backwards, as you do, he discovers that he can communicate with his deceased hero, and Sammi Curr, hideously scarred and back from the dead, starts exacting bloody revenge on all the scumbags who made his no.1 fan’s life a misery.

Eddie is a bit of a non-entity, to be honest. He just seems to bumble around not saying much of anything, even when things start going shit-shaped. In contrast, Tony Fields has more than enough rock star charisma to play the demonic Sammi Curr, back for his encore. Trick or Treat only hits the high notes when he turns up to off someone in some ghastly manner.

Apparently, Blackie Lawless from off of WASP was approached to play the Sammi role (which would have been AWESOME!), but he backed out when he discovered that Fastway had already been signed up to provide the soundtrack.

Speaking of which, the soundtrack is also worth checking out. Fastway was the post-Motorhead band founded by guitarist Fast Eddie Clarke, and while it may stick to that tried n trusted corporate, mid tempo 80s metal formula, there are more than enough fist-in-the-air choruses to satisfy even the most demanding headbanger.

Incidentally, I was lucky enough to catch Fastway live a few years ago, not too long before Fast Eddie sadly passed away.

Trick or Treat was the directorial debut of Charles Martin Smith (from off of American Graffiti and Starman) who also makes a cameo appearance in the movie. Smith also directed Dolphin Tale, Dolphin Tale 2, A Dog’s Way Home and the forthcoming A Christmas Gift from Bob. When it comes to cutesie animal movies, Smith has a good pedigree.

See what I did there?

Trick or Treat is most certainly of its time, but it’s a perfect movie for Halloween, especially if you invite all your chums around for sugary treats and a bit of heckling. It’s worth seeing for the Ozzy Osbourne cameo alone. He plays a moralising clergyman hell bent on bringing metal down. Such delicious irony!

DEMON POSSESSED BY SPIRIT OF TEENAGE GIRL

Orobas, a powerful demon estimated to be tens of thousands of years old, has been possessed by the spirit of a teenage girl, according to doctors.

The demon, who has the head of a horse and is also known as the Great Prince of Hell, now believes himself to be a fifteen year old girl called Karlie who has 134 Instagram followers. Since falling victim to the possession he has also set up accounts on TikTok and the streaming service Twitch.

“It’s an incredibly sad case,” said Dr Hans Orff who is overseeing the demon’s treatment. “A week ago this being had twenty legions of lesser-demons under his control, but now he can only communicate by text. Oh, and also by rolling his eyes and issuing the occasional derisory snort.”

Despite this, doctors at Ysbyty Gwynedd hospital in Bangor where Orobas is being treated are hopeful he can be returned to his former diabolical glory. “There’s definitely progress,” Dr Orff explained. “When he was brought in he was doing dance challenges on TikTok and streaming himself playing video games, but now he’s starting to get back to his old self again. He’s already ripped the heads off several porters and spat down their necks, and attempted to burn down the hospital. He’s not out of the woods just yet, but once that vile, evil presence has been banished from him completely, he’ll be able to return to being a productive member of demonic society.”