‘HANGING WAS A VERY UNRELIABLE FORM OF EXECUTION’ – A REVIEW OF SWANSEA MIRACLE BY ANN MARIE THOMAS

Swansea Miracle by Ann Marie Thomas tells the gruesome story of one William Crach, a ‘notorious brigand and evildoer’, who was hanged in Swansea in 1290. Later that night, he started moving and breathing. After about ten days he was walking about and speaking. It was a miracle!
But if being hanged and then gawped at by curious strangers wasn’t bad enough, poor William was then made to walk barefoot all the way to Hereford on a pilgrimage!
What makes this death-defying incident so intriguing is the sheer volume of eyewitness accounts recorded at the time. Also, it was the subject of a Papal Commission no less, which meant that many of those witnesses were formerly interviewed and their accounts preserved. All of this is brought vividly to life in this book, which also features beautiful illustrations by Carrie Francis.
The top three things I learned from reading Swansea Miracle are:

  1. Hanging was a very unreliable form of execution.
  2. William was hanged in the very place I used to live!
  3. In those days there were a hell of a lot of people called William.
    You don’t have to have a connection to Swansea to enjoy this account of the hanging (and subsequent revival) of William Crach. It’s part of the ‘horrible history’ of Britain that deserves to be told, retold and never forgotten.
    Thank you, Ann Marie.

Review: Death & Other Dances by Carla Harvey

Death & Other Dances with Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch

The beauty of a good book is that it’s transportative. It can take you to places you have never been and may never go. It can introduce you to people you will never meet. It can share with you experiences you will never have.

In Death & Other Dances, author Carla Harvey grabs us roughly by the hand and drags us from the slushy streets of Detroit to the sun-scorched boulevards of LA. Along the way we stumble from seedy strip club to maudlin funeral home, from dingy hotel room to rock club stage. By the time I put this book down I felt as though I’d walked several miles in her (acrylic) shoes and peered with anguish, disdain and ultimately hope through her kohl-smeared eyes.

If you didn’t already know, Carla Harvey forms one half of the nuclear-lunged vocalist duo in the metal band Butcher Babies. It pretty much goes without saying that I’m a big fan. Harvey also paints and, in her own words, draws ‘naked ladies’. Creativity is the prism through which she engages with the world.

Death & Other Dances is a fictionalised biography-slash-memoir-slash-novel that’s both raw and beguiling. It’s an incredibly confident and accomplished debut book. There’s a real groove to Harvey’s writing style that had my eyes slipping across the words like they’d been greased! I started and finished it in just a couple of sittings because I absolutely could…

Not…

Put…

It…

Down.

As I said, beguiling.

You don’t have to be a fan of the Butcher Babies, or even heavy metal in general, to enjoy Death & Other Dances. You just need to be a fan of good writing, of good storytelling. I really do hope, on the strength of this novel, that Carla Harvey one day writes another. I’m sure she has many more incredible stories to tell.

Review: ANIMUS by Polly J. Mordant

In Animus we return to the anti-Dibley (aka the village of Flammark) of author Polly J. Mordant’s gruesome imagination to catch up with our traumatised hero Emma Blake, her gifted chum Abigail and her dog-collared friend, neighbour and landlord Will.

If these guys are hoping for a little downtime following their harrowing adventures in When Angels Fear, then they’re shit out of luck as Flammark is rocked by an earthquake. Then the arrival of a sceptre-sporting dean called St Saviour sets a black cat among the pigeons. There is an extremely gory murder that drives deep into the heart of one of the principal characters. And before you can even so much as cross yourself, an evil outpouring from the bowels of the earth threatens to engulf the entire county.

Phew.

There’s something very Hammer Horroresque about Animus and its aforementioned predecessor, and I’m a sucker for all that crows-cawing-and-church-bells-chiming-through-a-foggy-graveyard stuff. For me, a bit of English gothic is always a big plus. And in addition to the beguiling bats in the belfry atmosphere, what this book has in spades is good old fashioned excitement. You’ll notice that on the cover it says, ‘A supernatural thriller’. Well, it ain’t lying. There’s a strong sense of clock-ticking-down-to-doomsday here, and Mordant really knows how to twist that particular tourniquet. 

What quickly becomes clear while reading this book is that our trusty author knows a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff; like about the Bible, about witchcraft, about paganism. Hell, even about fracking. The detail that supports the story is intricate and fascinating, and one suspects that she knows a lot of stuff about a lot of other stuff too. By the end of it I felt not only that I had been entertained, but educated.     

The characters here are all fully-rounded and believable, and we feel their pain and share their triumphs as they lead us from opening to denouement. Also, the baddie is one of the most vile (and henceforth satisfying) that I’ve ever encountered in literature. My personal favourite character, however, is the irascible detective Westen. I love the way the f-count of Animus ratchets up every time he comes swaggering onto the page.

At the end of this book Mordant confidently teases us with the next in the Flammark series. I say bring it on!

Animus is available from Amazon. Try saying that three times.

MY FRIEND IMPOSTER SYNDROME

My life changed the day I read an article about Imposter Syndrome in a newspaper. That’s me, I thought. That’s what’s been ‘wrong’ with me all these years!

In truth, of course, there’d never been anything ‘wrong’ with me. Imposter Syndrome – defined as a ‘an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be’ – is a remarkably common phenomenon. It had never occurred to me that my ‘insecurity’ – as I believed it to be – was the symptom of a ‘syndrome’.

Crippling self-doubt was something that had tormented me for my entire life. No matter what I achieved, whether great things or small, I was forever convinced that my success was underserved. That at any moment I would be rumbled. That the house of cards beneath my feet would give way, leaving me exposed to ridicule and shame.

Naturally, I thought I was the only one experiencing these feelings, but the article assured me that no, Imposter Syndrome is something that plagues great swathes of people. This was reassuring. It’s always a comfort to know that you’re not suffering alone, as selfish as that sounds.

So, from that point on I felt able to deal with these feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. Simply having a name for them enabled me to compartmentalise them. When they bubbled to the surface I was able to recognise them for what they were. They had a name, and knowing that name gave me power over them. Finally, I felt able to accept any successes or good news that came my way. I felt able to give myself credit for the things I achieved. It was a good feeling.

But this article had another effect on me, an entirely unexpected one. It actually enabled me not just to control my feelings of insecurity and self-doubt, but to turn them into something positive.

For as long as I can remember I have been bedevilled by nightmares and anxiety dreams. Needless to say, this was not something I enjoyed. I would dread going to sleep at night for fear of what my subconscious had in store for me. Anyway, I woke one morning after an especially horrifying dream and thought, Man, that would make a great story! So I wrote it up as a short story. Then I thought, Man, that would make a great novel! So I wrote that up too. That novel was DEEP LEVEL which was published last year. Something good had finally come out of these accursed nightmares!

Also, after reading that article I realised that the root cause of all these nightmares and anxiety dreams was quite probably my Imposter Syndrome. And if I could turn them into stories and novels, which was a good thing, that meant that my Imposter Syndrome was no longer a curse but a blessing.

And that’s how my life changed. I had taken something which had caused me years of torment and sleepless nights and transformed it into something positive.

Since then, I have learned to embrace this thing called Imposter Syndrome. It provides me with inspiration, the building blocks for my stories. I am grateful to it for that. When I wake up from a nightmare now, I punch my fist into the air with glee and gratitude and write down the details before they fade away, happy knowing that these notes will one day evolve into another story.

Imposter Syndrome and I now have a very good working relationship. I for one would never have thought such a thing possible, but for once I’m glad I turned out to be wrong.

QUENTIN TARANTINO AND THE ART OF THE FILM/TV TIE-IN NOVEL

“Do you have the novelisation of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino in stock, please?” I asked the chap behind the counter in my local Waterstones.

“Over there,” he said.

Yeah, I’d walked past a whole display of them on my way in. If you know me, you’ll know that’s typically me.

I took it to the counter and paid. The chap said, “I’ll be giving this a read too.”

“I haven’t read a movie tie-in novel in about twenty years,” I offered, “and I honestly thought I never would again. But this one I’m making an exception for.”

What I told the chap in Waterstones was almost right. The last movie tie-in novel I read was The Phantom Menace by noted fantasy writer Terry Brooks, published in 2000. It didn’t help to clarify anything that happened in that frankly baffling film and I didn’t bother reading any of the subsequent prequel novelisations.

To be fair, if Charles Dickens had been brought back from the dead and given the job of translating The Phantom Menace into words, I doubt he could have done any better. It was an impossible task.

It was a shame, because my journey as a novel reader began with Star Wars. I was six-years-old when the original movie was released and it was the subject of my first ever movie theatre experience.

After that, Star Wars became my religion and I started collecting anything and everything I could get my tiny hands on. My long-suffering parents bought me the action figures (obvs), the comic books, the jigsaws, the trading cards, the breakfast cereal, the transfer sets, the board game and, of course, the novelisation.

SCHEME 9: ORIGINAL STAR WARS NOVEL PROLOGUE (1977)

Written by celebrated sci-fi/fantasy scribe Alan Dean Foster (but credited to George Lucas), the novelisation of Star Wars (boasting 16 pages of fabulous colour!) became the first ‘proper’ novel I ever read. Just to clarify, when I say ‘proper’, I mean that it wasn’t necessarily targeted to my age group. It had long words in it and you’d see actual grown-ups reading it on the bus, so to my young mind it was a ‘proper’ book. Most important of all, however, was that it wasn’t read to me by an adult. It was a novel I wanted to read on my own, and read it I did.

After that came the Star Wars spin-off novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (1978), also by Alan Dean Foster (although this time featuring his name on the cover). This saw Luke and Leia marooned on the planet of Mimban where they encounter Darth Vader. In addition, there were the Han Solo spin-off novels, Han Solo at Stars’ End, Han Solo’s Revenge (both published in 1979) and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy (1980), all written by Brian Daley. That dude had one hell of a work rate.

Anyway, I devoured them all, and after that I started nagging my parents to buy me any novel I saw by any of the above authors. Also, pretty much any novel with spaceships on the cover (I remember Harry Harrison being a particular favourite). I was now officially a reader, and my gateway drug had been Star Wars.

My twenty-one year hiatus from the film/TV tie-in novel had nothing to do with snobbery, I just want to make that clear. I have never once turned my nose up at that particular artform. On the contrary, I had often looked at the author names on the array of Star Trek, Doctor Who and Star Wars books in my local bookshop and thought, “You’re making a living as a writer. Good for you.”

And I’ve always understood that, in the hands of a good writer, a tie-in novel can enrich its source material. It can add depth to it and, in the best cases, make you look at it in a different way. And that’s what intrigued me about the novelisation of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I thought the movie was terrific and I had faith in Tarantino as a novelist as well as a screenwriter, a field in which he is already proven. Also, a filmmaker novelising his own work was a new one on me, so there was no way I was not going to indulge.

Needless to say, the book didn’t disappoint. It deals less with the events depicted in the movie and more with the characters; fading TV and film star Rick Dalton, stuntman Cliff Booth and, arguably the principal one, Hollywood itself. This was an aspect of it I absolutely loved. Tarantino explores in forensic detail the insider politics of the old Hollywood studio system; the backscratching, the betrayals, the affairs, the ebbs and flows of career highs and lows. It really is fascinating stuff, and the period detail is incredibly evocative. This could only have been written by someone in love with the subject matter.

I found the exploration of Cliff Booth’s background particularly fascinating (played by Brad Pitt in the movie). We learn of his record as a WWII hero (more Japanese kills than any other US soldier, including by knife), of his love of foreign films and of the death of his wife. In the pages of this book he becomes a far deeper character, more nuanced, and more dangerous. Basically, we know now that when Bruce Lee picks a fight with him, he’s actually picking a fight with a killer.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the first movie tie-in novel I can remember seeing reviewed in newspapers. No other title springs to mind. I mention this for a very specific reason.

I am a member of a writing group, and not so long back we were lucky enough to have Una McCormack as our guest speaker. Una is the author of numerous Doctor Who and Star Trek tie-in novels, including the USA Today bestseller Picard: the Last Best Hope. During the Q&A after her talk, I asked her if the tie-in novel was undergoing a renaissance. The reason I asked that question is because I had read a fairly recent article in The Guardian saying that the stigma around tie-ins was on the wane and it was becoming a respected artform (thanks to books like the Jurassic World tie-in The Evolution of Claire by Tess Sharpe). I wanted to know if she agreed with this hypothesis. Una replied that that day had not yet come. Articles in The Guardian about tie-in novels is one thing, but when they start actually reviewing tie-in novels, she said, only then the artform would truly have achieved respectability.

The Guardian reviewed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino.

I stayed chatting to the chap in Waterstones for a little while, reminiscing about our past love affairs with licensed products, and he proudly stated that he still had all his Doctor Who novels by Target Books from when he was a kid. I was pleased about that because they obviously brought him joy and that’s a wonderful thing. Also, here was someone other than myself who had discovered the gift of the novel via the humble film/TV tie-in. That was a good feeling.

Oh, and I still have all my old Star Wars tie-in novels too, in case you’re wondering.

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

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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!