REVIEW: HAVE COURAGE DEAR HEART by LIV KRISTINE

Imagine sinking into a warm, luxurious bath full of silky, caressing bubbles while, around you, sweetly scented candles gently illuminate the room with a soft, orange light.

That right there is the best metaphor I can come up with to describe Liv Kristine’s singing voice. It’s a voice that beguiles and seduces, and it’s one of the many aspects that makes this release so special.

Have Courage Dear Heart is Liv’s first record since 2014’s Vervain, a magnificent album and a hard act to follow. But follow it she does, because HCDH is a stunner.

The opening track, Serenity, reassures us that a global pandemic has done nothing to dim Liv’s song-writing skills, which are as strong and confident as ever. It’s a gothic-tinged masterpiece with rich, atmospheric arrangements and an irresistibly catchy chorus, setting the mood beautifully for the rest of the record.

Next up is the title track which bewitches with its sumptuous melody and lyrics, and third track Skylight is a powerhouse of a song that allows Liv to unleash the full potential of her incredible vocal range.

Fourth track Gravity is a personal favourite. In contrast to the song that precedes it, it’s delicate and intimate, like having someone whispering gently into your ear. Beautiful.

This is followed by Skylight Cathedral, a gorgeous stripped-down voice-and-piano arrangement of track three. With a completely different feel from the ‘original’ version, it stands as a worthy companion without any feeling of repetition. Just brilliant.

Side 2 (if you’re a vinyl-lover, that is) features five songs recorded live at Nagold in 2019. Present here are versions of the aforementioned Skylight and Gravity, along with Panic (from Liv’s 2012 album Libertine) and Siren (from the Theatre of Tragedy album Aégis). All sound amazing with a great backing band and a superb mix, but my the highlight for me is Liv’s rendition of Ave Maria, which is where the power and majesty of her voice is revealed to full effect.

So, if sumptuously-produced, gothic-tinged rock is your thing (and why on earth wouldn’t it be?), be kind to yourself and buy this record. I can heartily recommend it.

Oh, and one more thing. It’s best listened to while relaxing in a nice, warm bubble bath.

Have Courage Dear Heart is available now on CD and vinyl from HMV, Amazon, Plastic Head Distribution, Nuclear Blast etc.

Check out http://www.livkristine.net.

WHY THE ZOMBIE IS THE BOGEYMAN FOR THE MODERN AGE

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In this extract from my debut horror novel DEEP LEVEL, Roz, who is enjoying breakfast with her friends Syeeda and Ffion, offers up a theory on a particular aspect of modern popular culture…

***

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.

***

DEEP LEVEL is available now from Amazon.

REVIEW: WHEN ANGELS FEAR by POLLY J. MORDANT

The cover pitches this book as a ‘supernatural thriller’. Not quite a crime novel, not quite a horror, a ‘supernatural thriller’ is a tricky thing to pull off. But worry not, friends, because author Polly J Mordant has succeeded, and then some.

When we first meet our protagonist Emma, she is on the run from a violent and controlling partner. She hatches a plan to ‘disappear’ and start a new life in a quiet little village called Flammark. However, it seems that Flammark may have chosen Emma and not the other way around.

Yes, all is not quite as idyllic as it first appears. As a village, Flammark is the anti-Dibley. No loveable middle-class eccentrics and amiable buffoons here. Instead we get mysterious disappearances, spooky apparitions, strange visions, ancient curses, evil mists, horrifying possessions and locals who are not quite what they seem.

And if all that isn’t enough, Emma’s ex is onto her.

Emma is an engaging character and as readers we can’t help but punch the air as this particular worm turns, taking control of her own destiny, vowing to be a victim no more. And as the story progresses, with secrets getting unearthed like bodies from a graveyard, Mordant tightens the tourniquet effectively, putting our hero and her new friends through hell before they can even dream of finding salvation.

It’s exciting, creepy and gripping stuff, with shades of The Wicker Man and vintage Hammer Horror. The cover also states that this is ‘Book one of the Flammark series’. That’s good news for us newly-converted fans of supernatural thrillers. Bring it on!

10 FUN FACTS ABOUT RICHARD E. ROCK

I always enjoy discovering quirky scraps of information about writers I admire. It offers a valuable insight of them as human beings and helps to expand them in my mind beyond their craft.

With that in mind, here’s 10 fun facts about me. If you keep up with my blog then you probably already know a few of these. But if you’re new here, hopefully you’ll be for a few surprises.

So here we go…

  1. I deliberately induce nightmares. Yep, that’s where I get my story ideas from. The last thing I do before going to sleep is look at vids on the internet that purport to show genuine ghosts, poltergeist activity, demonic entities and aliens. Then I switch the light off and let my subconscious get to work.
  2. I’m a MASSIVE fan of heavy metal. As well as all the usual bands you’d expect a heavy metal fan to like – such as Iron Maiden (see pic), Metallica, Megadeth and the Scorpions etc – I also also listen to a lot of extreme metal. My favourites include BEHEMOTH, MAYHEM, VADER, IMMORTAL, BELPHEGOR and DARKTHRONE.

3. I have an art degree. I graduated in the year 2000. Here’s a portrait I did of my dad…

4. I work in radio. My day job is a commercial scriptwriter. My proudest professional moment was working on a campaign voiced by Joanna Lumley.

5. I’ve been an extra in a couple of Hollywood movies. This was in the distant past. I spent three weeks playing a medieval French soldier in the Russell Crowe version of Robin Hood and one night playing a Hydra soldier in Captain America: the First Avenger.

6. The lead singer of IRON MAIDEN once flew me to Stockholm. Tis true. It was on a fan club charter flight with Bruce Dickinson at the controls to see the Maiden in Sweden. We also had a photo taken with him on stage.

7. I did the cover illustration for my novel. Pointless having an art degree if you ain’t gonna use it, right?

8. I genuinely believe that Wind of Change by the SCORPIONS is the greatest song ever recorded in the history of the world. Nuff said.

9. STAR WARS was my religion as a kid. The original movie was released when I was 6 years old. It was my first ever visit to the cinema and it changed my life forever. That’s the day my imagination was born.

10. I have no idea what the E in my name stands for. Richard E. Rock is not my real name. It came to me in a dream and I thought it sounded way cooler than my real name so that’s the one I ran with. Sadly, my dream did not expand on what the E stands for.

DOING IT BACKWARDS – HOW I BECAME A WRITER

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I became a paid, professional writer long before I had ever even thought about writing a novel.

I know what you’re thinking; that doesn’t make any sense. How can it be?

Allow me to explain…

The year is 2002 and I get a phone call from a friend. He tells me that some guy he’s working with has just handed his notice in so I should go for his job. My friend and ‘some guy’ are employed by The Wave and Swansea Sound, bonded local radio stations here in south Wales where I live.

At the time, I was working in Waterstones bookshop, so you could say that already had a career in literature. Kind of. But here was a chance to be a writer by profession. You see, what my friend and ‘some guy’ did at these stations was write commercial radio scripts. Well, I listened to those stations and I would hear the ads that went out on air. I can do that, I thought. So I went for it.

In the days leading up to the interview I made a point of paying very close attention to the commercials. I realised then that there was a kind of language that they all shared, a certain rhythm. I wondered if anyone else going for the job had noticed this.

The interview itself was very informal and lasted pretty much an entire working day. First, I had what could only be described as a ‘chat’ with the station’s commercial production manager, Bev, and some dude whose name escapes me. It was almost twenty years ago after all. After that I joined Bev in the comm prod dept and she gave me a couple of briefs to have a go at.

I can only remember the first brief. It was for the launch of a new rollercoaster at Oakwood Park or something like that. I thought that the most obvious thing to do would be to write a really exciting ad with a techno soundtrack and the sound of people screaming and so on, but being obvious was not going to get me the job. So instead I wrote a very tense ad about what happens to the human body when it’s in a state of fear and excitement. All this happens against the background of someone sitting in a rollercoaster car as it approaches the top of a ‘hill’, pausing for a moment before it shoots down the other side.

That ad actually got pitched to the client and they bought it, so they HAD to give me the job. My writing career was go!

Prior to this, I had never really considered taking up creative writing seriously. Sure, I came from a very creative family – my mother is a jazz pianist! – and I was a voracious reader, but the thought of writing a novel was as intimidating to me as climbing the north face of the Eiger. It was something that other people did.

As a kid I had been obsessed with Star Wars and Marvel Comics and I used to love writing and drawing my own comics. That was pretty much the whole extent of my creative writing endeavours up until that time.

Oh, I should mention also that in 2000 I gained an art degree. I got a 2:1 overall but was awarded a ‘first’ for my dissertation, which was about the painting ‘Flag’ by Jasper Johns. So, basically, I knew I could write if I really needed to.

Fast forward 17 or 18 years or so and I experienced a particularly ferocious nightmare. When morning came I could remember certain parts of it vividly, like getting chased through dark tunnels by a silent, driverless Victorian engine that produced no steam. And being stalked by some demonic entity. If I let it get too close my eyes would turn to cobwebs and my life-force would ebb away.

When I woke up safe and sound in my bed I thought, Wow! That was amazing! I need to write that down before I forget it.

So I did, and Deep Level was born.

It started out as a short story, just two-and-a-half thousand words or so. As soon as it was done I knew it had the potential to be novel, so I got to work. In the original version there is only one protagonist, Rich, the bookshop manager desperate to escape his loveless marriage. When I expanded it I created a supporting cast of three characters; Rosalind, Syeeda and Ffion.

Rosalind very quickly, for me at least, became the heart and soul of the book. She’s a fifty-something archivist, happily married and a mother of two fine boys away in uni. She came to London from Sierra Leone as a young girl and found her tribe on the vibrant ska scene. Basically, she’s a rude girl made good.

Syeeda is a civil servant and an aspiring writer. In her spare time she writes and illustrates stories for children and then puts them in a box underneath her bed and forgets about them.

Ffion is a cinema usher originally from Carmarthen in south Wales. She too is a mother of two boys and is happily living with her boyfriend. She is a very warm albeit somewhat crass character with infinite amounts of love to share.

I completed the novel version of Deep Level and, like Syeeda and her children’s stories, put it aside and forgot about it. I realised then that nightmares and anxiety dreams were something that could be harnessed, creatively speaking, so I started deliberately inducing them.

I do this by sitting in front of my computer last thing at night and watching footage that purports to show genuine ghosts, poltergeist activity, demonic entities and aliens. Then I go to sleep and let my subconsciousness do the work. It paid off and I started making notes for a new horror novel, this one a gothic Victorian vampire story.

And then along came Covid.

I was furloughed from my job in April 2020 and embraced this gift of extra time that I had been given. I completed my Victorian vampire novel, started work on a sci-fi horror novel and decided to try and find a publisher for Deep Level.

We all know that people can spend years trying to get a book published traditionally. Hell, some people spend their whole lives trying to do it, without success. But me? I got lucky. The third publisher I sent it to, Darkstroke Books, snapped it up.

Deep Level didn’t need much editing. I had already pretty much nailed that part of it on my own. Nine-tenths of my job as a commercial scriptwriter is self-editing. When I have an idea for an ad, I’ll write it up and then spend most of my time trying to work it down into a neat little 30-second script.

It was officially released in October 2020 and has since been gathering some very enthusiastic reviews.

I am currently hard at work on my fourth novel, my first outside of the horror genre. It’s a fantasy adventure about a young girl travelling to different worlds with her grandad, an old soldier, and his dog. Again, the inspiration came to me in a series of dreams. I’m working on it every day and I can’t stop.

That’s not a complaint, by the way. I love it.

Hopefully, Deep Level will be the first of many novels I get published. Nothing quite beats the feeling of holding your own book in your own hands, with your name on the front and your story inside. It’s a little part of you that will remain in the world long after you’ve gone.

I’ve been very lucky in my writing career, I acknowledge that and certainly don’t take my good fortune for granted. I have a job that I love and have had a book published. I really do feel like I’m living the dream – or should that be nightmare? – and long may it continue.

SALEM RECOMMENDS: DAPHNE and VELMA

Before we get stuck into this review, let me start off by saying that yes, I am well aware that as a 50-year-old man I am most definitely NOT the target audience for this film. So what the hell was I doing watching it?

My girlfriend and I are big Scooby Doo fans and we’d just just watched all four of the live action movies. Where can we possibly go from here? I wondered. What can possibly fill the void left in our Saturday nights?

And then I got wind of this.

Daphne & Velma premiered in 2018 and takes place before the Scooby gang all get together. When we meet Daphne Blake she has a successful vlog in which she discusses evidence of paranormal activity and aliens etc. When we meet Velma Dinkley she is a socially awkward student at Ridge Valley High who believes that there is a logical explanation for everything.

However, they have not yet met each other, but all that changes when Daphne is transferred to Velma’s school and mysterious things start going down.

Able students are disappearing and then reappearing in a stupefied state, there is a strange locker that leads to who-knows-where and a ghostly figure is seen gliding through the corridors.

So far so Scooby Doo, but it does differ in a very big way. It abandons the ‘old school’ feel of the Scooby Doo cartoons and films in favour of something far more hi-tech. Ridge Valley High, where the mystery takes place, is operating at the cutting edge of science. One of my favourite gags, in fact, sees disgraced students being followed around by a drone that whines ‘Shame! Shame!’ wherever they go.

Sarah Jeffrey and Sarah Gilman are very likeable as our two heroes and the movie as a whole delivers enough twists and turns to hold the attention. Also, it zips along at a good pace and has a warm sense of humour. I watched it with my girlfriend and we both enjoyed it.

My only complaint, really, was that the director fluffed the action sequence at the end. There was no sense of danger and the whole thing felt a bit stilted. But that certainly wasn’t enough to ruin an otherwise fun film.

Given that Daphne & Velma is attached to such an iconic franchise as Scooby Doo, I’m amazed that I’d not heard of it earlier. But then, a great deal of this film’s charm lies in it’s discovery. I can’t help but wonder what other little gems are out there waiting to be found.

SALEM RECOMMENDS: TIPPING POINT by MICHELLE COOK

In recent weeks I’ve reviewed two books that were published in 1960, and for this one I’ve bypassed the present day altogether and headed straight for 2035.

The future in Michelle Cook’s TIPPING POINT seems close enough to reach out and touch. Climate change is ravaging the Earth, protest is outlawed, the police can brutalise people with impunity and drones hover in the sky watching our every move.

Scary, isn’t it? And what makes it scary is that it feels like it’s almost upon us.

And in the midst of all this chaos we meet Essie, a sparky 19-year-old waitress who lost her entire family in a tragic accident two years previously. Essie is trying to negotiate her way through her personal grief as well as a country in meltdown, and then, one day, she makes a decision that changes the course of her life. She accompanies a friend, Maya, to a meeting.

In this future, that’s all it takes to get you put on a government watch-list, and that’s when things start to get nasty. But there’s more. Essie is being messaged online by a mysterious man who needs her help. He claims to be in possession of plans for a ‘prototype’ that could reverse climate change, saving billions of lives.

Essie is a deeply layered and likeable hero and it’s through her that we experience the descent into paranoia, kidnap, torture, murder and, even more terrifying, politics. The tension never lets up and the author doesn’t spare us when the knives come out. TIPPING POINT is a vital, bloody and compelling debut novel. But it’s also more than that. It’s a warning.

REVIEW: THE L-SHAPED ROOM by LYNNE REID BANKS

This is the second book written in 1960 that I’ve reviewed within the space of a week, and boy, they couldn’t be more different!

Whereas Dennis Wheatley’s The Satanist was an adventure yarn about a bunch of fine, patriotic chaps saving the realm from a murderous Satanic cult who want to start WWIII, this is the story of a pregnant woman who has to move into a crappy room in a dingy house after being kicked out of the family home by her dad.

Here, she finds friendship, support and, yes, love among her new housemates, including a frustrated Jewish writer called Toby, a black jazz musician called John, her stern landlady, the eccentric old lady downstairs and the two prostitutes who live in the basement.

Jane Graham is a likeable, intelligent and cultured protagonist who merely finds herself on the wrong side of the social mores of her time. Author Lynne Reid Banks vividly evokes the squalor and griminess of the post-war period while conjuring a cast of richly-drawn characters, each with their own complex arcs and motivations.

As modern readers, we can only look on aghast as Jane accepts as inevitable the fact that she’ll lose her job because of her pregnancy. Proof that some things at least do change for the better.

One thing this book does have in common with its 1960 cousin The Satanist, though, is the whiff of racism. It seems that the author cannot mention John, the black jazz musician, without also mentioning the jungle, or his body odour. It’s a real shame, and also slightly baffling, because John is a sympathetic character, one of the good guys. He’s as deep, complex and richly-drawn as any of the others.

The L-Shaped Room provides an invaluable snapshot of Britain right at that moment. In these pages it’s frozen in time for us to delve into and experience, casual racism included.

REVIEW: THE SATANIST by DENNIS WHEATLEY

This was my first Wheatley and three things stood out…

  1. The incredible amount of exposition in the opening chapters.
  2. The incredible amount of drinking.
  3. The racism.

That said, it would be remiss of me if I failed to state right from the off that Dennis Wheatley really does know how to write an exciting book. But before I get stuck into that, this review includes spoilers so if you don’t want to have any surprises ruined, you’d better stop reading.

What begins as two apparently unrelated plots – one involving Russian rabble-rousers in the trade union movement and the other a young lady investigating the death of her husband – soon converge to become something akin to a James Bond novel, with an evil genius trying to start WWIII by launching a stolen nuclear warhead at Moscow from his mountain lair.

It’s all genuinely thrilling and Wheatley wrings every last ounce of tension out of various imaginative set-pieces that take our heroes from the seedy streets of London to the snowy heights of the Swiss Alps.

Mary Morden’s husband was a secret agent who was murdered while attempting to infiltrate a Satanic coven somewhere in the capital. She decides that she should be the one to gather the evidence to convict his killers, so she disguises herself and tries to worm her way into the coven via a sleazy Indian chap called Ratnadatta.

Meanwhile, a fine, upstanding chap called Colonel Verney suspects a connection between the Commies and the Satanists and sends agent Barney Sullivan in to check it out. However, the defence of the realm is threatened when a megalomaniac with supernatural powers steals a plane-load of experimental rocket fuel for his own nefarious purposes.

The aforementioned exposition that occurs in the opening chapters of the book, far from holding things up, actually serves to set the scene nicely. It’s all too common these days for novels to begin by dropping the reader into the middle of the already unfolding action, so it was nice to read something that starts with a slow burn. However, not even this amount of exposition could prepare me for the absolutely astounding amount of drinking that Verney and Sullivan indulge in during the course of their adventure.

No national crisis, it seems, is too severe to prevent a quick visit to the nearest “club” for a glass of port, sherry or gin. I’m not kidding, they’re knocking this stuff back every couple of pages. After a few chapters I could only envisage them as two shambling red-faced drunkards, slurring their way from one plot point to the next, urinating themselves as they go.

And then there’s the racism. I can already hear people saying, “Ah yes, but The Satanist was published in 1960. It’s just of it’s time, that’s all.”

Yes, well…there’s being “of it’s time” and then there’s the n-word. Know what I mean? Also, as she infiltrates deeper into the Satanic coven, Mary learns that she might be expected to have sex with some of the members. She is horrified to discover that this may include one or more of the “negroes”. This is something that no decent, self-respecting white girl would ever consider, apparently.

So yes, that certainly left a sour taste.

The book concludes with Mary getting what every young lady truly desires, a marriage proposal. And that’s not all, because her suitor (ie Barney) also has a title (Lord) which means that she will too (Lady). It’s all so terribly terribly British, isn’t it?