Drop The Wires

On Friday last week I finally got to meet my Doctor after nearly 40 years. No, this is not a reference to the grievous state of the NHS – although the way things are going it might not be very far off – just a lame way of saying that I met Tom Baker and got his autograph at London Film and Comic Con.

There are some stories and images from your childhood that haunt you and never leave. Here are a few of mine from Baker’s tenure as Dr Who:

  • The jackal face of Sutekh the Destroyer glaring with glowing eyes through a space-time portal in an Egyptian sarcophagus from his prison on Mars.
  • Mr Sin, the psycopathic killer automaton created by Weng Chiang, lurching towards Leela with his knife upraised, unstoppable even when she buries her own dagger in his throat.
  • The mucoid green mass of a Rutan stealthily sliming its way up the outside of a fog-bound lighthouse to murder everyone inside.
  • A golden goddess with burning eyes turns her cultist acolytes into the shuddering, serpentine beasts of the Fendahl.
  • An alien seed pod breaks open and tendrils whip out to infect a scientist who can do nothing to prevent himself being transformed into a tentacled vegetable monstrosity.

And all this before I was ten. Is it any wonder I write what I do?

I think for me, though, and maybe for a lot of other people, the 4th Doctor’s greatest moment has to be when he is given the opportunity to wipe out the Daleks at the moment of their creation. He kneels with two bare wires in his hands – the fuse for an explosion – and hesitates, torn between his mission to destroy evil and his conscience which tells him that this act, however justified, is morally wrong. I think it’s worth copying in full here:

“Just touch these two strands together and the Daleks are finished. Have I that right? You see, some things could be better with the Daleks. Many future worlds will become allies just because of their fear of the Daleks. But the final responsibility is mine, and mine alone. Listen, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child? Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire against the other and that's it. The Daleks cease to exist. Hundreds of millions of people, thousands of generations can live without fear, in peace, and never even know the word Dalek. But if I kill, wipe out a whole intelligent lifeform, then I become like them. I'd be no better than the Daleks.”

Eventually he is spared from this dilemma by news that Davros has offered to make peace, so he drops the wires and moves on.

The message is pretty obvious – unless you’re ten in which case it’s a mental tac-nuke. The idea that you can commit evil by destroying evil? Or that evil might create good? Or even that what you think is obviously evil might not be evil at all? The missiles are in the air, folks. Kaboom. It was the first time that I was really conscious of thinking (not that I put it in these terms, of course, I was a kid) that the greatest evil of all was not a monster but a sense of righteous absolutism, the idea that your cause is so right, your ideas so pure, so holy, that absolutely any act is justified and sanctified by it.

I say this because for years at London Comic Con I’ve seen countless female Whovians cosplaying as their hitherto male heroes, but for the first time this weekend I saw loads of male fans dressed as Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor. And it was brilliant. She won’t be my Doctor, not like Tom Baker was, but for thousands of ten-year old boys and girls in 2018 she will be theirs, and they will want to emulate her, and that is a wonderful thing.

The problem is that there is a vocal minority of dipshit male Whovians out there - a lot of them from my generation, sadly – who are absolutist in their conviction that a woman can never be the Doctor. If you’re one of them reading this, here’s my message to you: drop the wires, mate. Move on. You’re undermining everything that your Doctor, whoever he was, stood for.

Me, come October I’m going to watch the 13th Doctor and try to remember what it felt like to be ten again.

Hollow Tree Party

Look at how much fun these chaps are having in their big old hollow tree party.

Well, Valentine's Day has been and gone, and Easter is just around the corner, which must mean that it's time for a bit of annual book-pimping.

I've got a new book out, in other words, and this makes me a happy camper.

It's called 'The Hollow Tree', and it's about a woman called Rachel who loses her left hand in an accident but discovers that her hand won't die that easily - despite the fact that it's amputated and incinerated, she can still feel things with it. Not things in the living world as we know it, but things in the shadow realm on the other side; the place where dead things go. More than that, she discovers that she can bring fragments of the umbra through into reality. Just scrap, really - bits of broken glass,  dead leaves, insects and such.

Then, one day while out for a walk with her husband Tom, she finds a large hollow tree in the umbra, and a human hand reaching out for help from the hollow - a hand which grabs onto hers and won't let go.

It's based on a local unsolved murder case called the 'Bella in the Wych Elm' mystery which, if you haven't heard of it, I'll post in more detail about later. All I wanted to say for the moment is that the book's out from 13th March on Amazon, or the 6th if you get it from Foyles, apparently, and that there's a launch party at the Birmingham Grand Central branch of Foyles on Saturday March 17th from 6:30 - 8:30; it's open to the public and you're all invited.

Here's the event link if you're interested.

I guarantee it will be at least as much fun as those guys are having in the photo.

The Eternal Picnic

Hekla’s Children is released next Tuesday, and I’ve already said a lot in various places about the kind of British archaeo-fantasy-horror that has inspired it (Holdstock, Garner, etc), but less about one particular Australian influence, which might seem a bit weird considering how, well, English the whole jolly thing is.

And that’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay. It seems particularly appropriate given that it was published exactly fifty years ago, and with a new TV miniseries currently in production. (Coincidences are not allowed in fiction, despite the fact that they happen to me all the time.)

Bit of a warning here: this article contains spoilers. If you haven’t read Picnic, do it. It’s fab.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, it tells of three students from a well-to-do private girls’ school who disappear whilst on a Valentine’s Day picnic in 1900. It’s fictional, but so compelling is Lindsay’s storytelling that many readers remain convinced of its truth, and there is an apocryphal account of staff at the State Library of Victoria having to turn away amateur researchers looking for old newspaper clippings or records about the incident which don’t exist. Lindsay herself doesn’t seem to have been too interested in dispelling their illusions, and why not? That kind of thing is a publicist’s wet dream.

After her death in 1984, Lindsay’s estate published a final chapter which had previously been edited out of the novel; entitled The Secret of Hanging Rock, it tells something of what happened to the three girls, but the dreamlike and opalescent quality of her prose obscures as much as it reveals. To my mind, the original decision to keep it out of Picnic was the right one – the dark heart of the mystery remains more powerfully the unravelling of prejudice and rationality following the disappearances, rather than where the girls actually went to.

There is a truth here, but it’s deeper than mere historical facts.

It is of course tremendously gothic – from the labyrinthine corridors of Appleyard College, full of shadows and whispers, to the looming volcanic crags and monoliths of the Hanging Rock itself, towering over the plain. Like the Rock, with its craggy buttresses and hidden caves which only reveal their secrets over time (if at all), there is a lot more to this story than a simple gothic tale of mysterious disappearances and repressed passion.

Appleyard College is a place of enforced silence and restriction – where the matriarchal Mrs Appleyard punishes the young women under her care for speaking out of turn, enforces strict rules about appropriate dress and deportment, and even goes so far as to have the unfortunate Sara Wayborne physically strapped down to an exercise bench in the College gymnasium as a remedy for having bad posture. Given the current political climate in which the hard-won rights of anybody who isn’t a white, middle class man are being eroded, Picnic’s continuing relevance cannot be dismissed.

Only one girl returns from the rock: Irma Leopold, a rich heiress. She is rescued by a young and handsome English aristocrat, Michael Fitzhubert, and his groom Albert Crundall. After this it is assumed by everyone that the wealthy young lady and the dashing gentleman will form a romantic liaison – indeed, in the fairy tale world of a gothic narrative this would be the expected and satisfactory outcome. Accordingly, they are thrown together for several weeks after her rescue as she convalesces in the lodge on his parents’ estate, taking many boating trips on the lake, even though she begins to tire of his frequent and fulsome praises of the rough-as-guts Albert. There is an inescapably homoerotic substrata to the relationship between Michael Fitzhubert, described as ‘a slender fair youth’ and Albert, with his thick mop of dark hair and his muscular, tattoed arms. Albert is ultimately rewarded with a cheque for a thousand pounds from Irma’s father – an unimaginable amount of money for a man in his position. He uses this to follow Mike, and they both disappear into the deep north of Queensland.

Irma Leopold’s rescue therefore seems to be of more signficance for how it catalyses other relationships and reveals the latent hysteria in the College. It seems as though once she has been reacted to, her usefulness ends, and she is duly packed away in a carriage to be married off to an unnamed aristocrat and live happily ever after in the margins of the text.

One of the most significant ‘disappearances’ of the novel is that of the indigenous inhabitants of the region - the Wurundjeri tribe of the Kulin nation. There is a handful of references to a ‘black tracker’ assisting in the search for the girls, but that’s about it. Nevertheless, the Wurundjeri dreaming is there, encoded anonymously in the text. At the end, as Mrs Appleyard commits sucide by throwing herself off the monolith and onto the jagged rocks below, she is watched by an eagle and a black spider. The eagle is Bunjil, the Wurundjeri creator spirit, watching over the final resolution of the great ‘pattern’ which was set in motion by the girls’ disappearance.

I find it interesting, though not unsurprising, that the only teacher to disappear is the one who insists most steadfastly on logic, science and mathematics – the dry-as-dust middle-aged Scottish spinster Miss Greta McCraw. She is last seen climbing the rock without her skirt, clad only in her voluminous Victorian knickers, something so scandalous that Edith Norton can only refer to it in shocked, giggling whispers. In the Secret Chapter she changes into a crustacean-like animal in order to better pass through into the Wurundjeri Dreaming – she is in fact the first one to make the journey, with the girls following her lead. So rationality is distorted, transformed, and eventually swallowed by the mystery of the Rock.

Ultimately, everything disappears: truth, time, youth, love, gender, class, race, and reason. All that remains is the power of the land, and our bones in it, and its bones in us. Picnic At Hanging Rock remains for me one of the most evocative explorations of this power, and well worth appreciating anew.


My Kids Are Time Travellers

It was Eden’s seventeenth birthday today, which reminds me of the time last spring when the ghost of her two-year old self appeared while I was redecorating the floorboards in the downstairs hallway.

The backstory is this: when we moved house in 2000, we inherited carpet with a pattern so vile it looked like someone had thrown up a Vienetta violently and repeatedly all over the floor, and so we ripped it all up as soon as possible, revealing pine floorboards caked with thirty-odd years of grime and covered in paint spatters from when the house was built. Conscious to establish my credentials as Husband And Father Capable of Manly Labour, I hired one of those big belt sanders and went to work on it – all rolled-up t-shirt sleeves and grunting for tea. What they don’t tell you is that when the sandpaper bites into the wood, the machine more or less pulls itself along by its own power like a carnivorous vacuum cleaner, leaving you (okay, me) reduced to simply hanging on and trying to guide it away from the walls and other people’s feet.

About five minutes in, the sandpaper belt made a horrible noise and shredded apart, and I realised that I should have gone around with a hammer and a nail punch beforehand and made sure that all the floorboard nails were sunk out of harm’s way – so I went and did that. And in this I had a little helper.

Eden followed me with her Bob the Builder Hammer - its handle had been full of sweets, but not for very long – and made sure that I did the job properly. As anyone has seen my DIY will agree, to this day it continues to display the quality control of a two-year old.

I skimped on the edges, basically. The big belt sander wouldn’t go right to the skirting board and I couldn’t be arsed and you wouldn’t have noticed it if you weren’t looking and it took me until last spring to finally get around to doing it. So I waited until TC took the girls to her parents’, cleared out the hall and tidied up the edges with a little detail-sander and some left-over varnish.

Now I’m not going to say that what happened to me was an actual hallucination, in the sense of  any weird or otherworldly apparition, but she was there. The intervening fourteen years had folded in on themselves and become paper thin, and she was standing right next to me, two years old, in her rainbow wellies, utterly absorbed in the important task of Helping Daddy. We didn’t say anything to each other, just got on with the work and then she went on her way back to whatever she’d been doing in 2002.

The exact same thing had happened the summer before that with Hope, when I took her for a hike up Mt Snowdon to help her complete an objective for an internet scavenger hunt. At one point I looked at her, and she wasn’t that long-legged teenager but the two-year old walking beside me along Kurrawa Avenue in New South Wales on our way to the corner shop through the tunnel under the road which made great echoes, with her hand gripped tightly to my finger. Time folded in on itself, and we met each other in the margins.

I don’t really believe in ghosts – not the supernatural kind, anyway. But I do believe that we are always with each other in the memories of the times we shared together, and that at the end of the day we’re only haunting ourselves.

What haunts me most about the photo of me and Eden is where the fuck has all my hair gone?

What Politicians Could Learn From Playing D&D

How to get on with others, for one thing, but more specifically, this little nasty with which my mate Mike likes to torment us from time to time:

The Denebian Slime Devil

(Image credit: http://s281.photobucket.com/user/okumarts/library/?sort=3&page=1)

"When encountered, a Denebian Slime Devil appears as a hideously grotesque thing, often culled from the deepest fears and anxieties of its preferred victim. However, this is a deception, for the creature’s true form is that of rancid, flowing anthropomorphic ooze composed of disgusting refuse gathered from the scum of the dankest swamp. Sages have been unable to identify a practical purpose or ecological service provided by a Denebian Slime Devil."

"If a Denebian Slime Devil is struck by a weapon it immediately splits into 1-4 identical copies of itself, each immediately attempting to locate its own victim. Each copy has the same abilities, and number of Hit Points as the original."*

Now substitute for 'Denebian Slime Devil' the terrorist group known formerly as ISIS (but shall henceforth be known as the name they hate: Daesh); substitute 'struck by a weapon' with 'bombed', and you've pretty much got it.

*source: http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=48&t=15646&start=15&hilit=Creature+Feature+II%3A+The+C%26amp%3Bamp%3BC+Files&sid=4dc99fa4d935e460821bb7701fb63083

Your Hallowe'en Flash Freebie: Collection Day

‘Morning, Mike.’
Mike nodded. ‘Harjit.’ He lugged the wheelie bin up his driveway and deposited it on the kerb with a grunt. It was full to capacity, and heavy as a bastard. He straightened, knuckling the ache in his lower back, and looked around at the Close. It was a crisp morning on the first of November, and the beech trees along the close were sifting flakes of copper-gold onto the pavement and the tidily trimmed lawn frontages of his neighbours’ houses. As an image of suburban tranquility it was marred only by the smoke rising from the blackened ruin of number twenty-one.
He caught Harjit’s eye and nodded at it. ‘Mrs Beauchamp had a busy night of it, by the look of things.’
Harjit, who was busy unfolding a large sheet of black plastic on his drive next to the open hatch-back of his Corsa, shook his head and sighed. ‘She should have known better than to try and see out Hallowe’en alone. Jaz spoke to her on Wednesday; she said that her sons were supposed to be coming down from Doncaster.’ He shrugged. ‘We offered to put her up, but you know what old people are like.’ He pointed at Mike’s wheelie bin. ‘You get many Treaters last night?’
‘No, just the one... hang on, wait.’ Mike peered at the label stuck to its bright crimson lid. ‘Shit.’
Harjit watched, amused, as he ran back into the house and returned a moment later with a replacement label which he stuck over the old one. ‘Danielle’s been pestering me for months to get this renewed,’ Mike explained. ‘She’d have my guts for garters if I missed this year’s collection.’
Something inside the blood-red bin moved with a slow, slithering bump.
Both men looked at it.
‘Borrow your shovel, mate?’ asked Mike.
‘Sure.’ Harjit went into his open garage and came back with a shovel. Its handle was stout hickory; its blade was wide, heavy steel. Mike took it, opened the bin’s lid, and rammed the shovel-head hard into the contents with several heavy, meaty thuds. The slithering stopped. He wiped the shovel off on the grass and passed it back to Harjit.
‘No probs.’
‘But yeah, it managed to get one of the security shutters off the kitchen window and had half the fridge on the floor before we knew what was happening.’ Mike paused to rub at a bandage wrapped neatly around his left forearm.
‘You want to get that looked at, mate.’
‘Nah, be fine.’
‘You know the way those bites go septic.’
‘Man, you’re worse than Danielle. If I want another wife I’ll join your lot.’
‘Bugger off, Farage.’
They laughed.
‘More of them every year,’ Mike mused. Three doors down, a young mother was hosing down the pavement outside her house. ‘Makes you wonder why the government doesn’t do anything more than just help with the clean up.’
‘Yup.’ Harjit had finished unfolding the big sheet of black plastic and laid out four bungee cords next to it. ‘Me, I’m taking mine down the tip. Every year the council puts the collection charge up and for what – once a year? I don’t think so.’
‘Still, nice that it’s a weekend for once, isn’t it? All of the neighbours pitching in together. Like when we had that snow. And you - how was your night? Jasmina and the girls okay? Any Treaters get through?’
 Harjit made a face. ‘So you know that hedge of hybrid blackthorn I had planted along my back fence? The stuff with the two-inch spikes?’
Mike nodded.
‘Chainsaw,’ Harjit said grimly. ‘Fuckers had a chainsaw. I mean where the fuck did they get a chainsaw?’
‘I thought I heard something. That’s a shame, man.’
‘I know – cost me an arm and a leg, that hedge.’ Then, realising what he had just said, he broke into peals of laughter. ‘Still,’ he continued, ‘turns out that a chainsaw’s bugger all use for digging your way out of a punji stake pit.’
Distantly, they heard the hydraulic whine and reversing siren of a collection truck from one of the other cul-de-sacs further around the estate. The Close was busier now with residents coming out to inspect the damage to their houses – the broken fence panels, the filth on the windows, the scorch-marks – and to park their shiny red wheelie bins neatly by the side of the road.
‘You know what though?’ said Harjit. ‘You’re right about the weekend thing. A bit of the old Blitz spirit, isn’t it? Want to help me with mine?’

Mike went to get his machete and together they went into Harjit’s garage, where the Treater was waiting for them, tied by his wrists with a bit of old nylon washing line looped over a ceiling beam. He couldn’t have been more than fourteen years old – bloodstained and stinking and his eyes rolling with terror above the gaffer-tape which muffled his screams as they moved towards him.

(image credit: @jodievents)

There's a Lot of Conning About

Didn't anybody stay at home this weekend? There was FantasyCon2015 in Nottingham, MCM Comic Con in London, and Showmasters Film and Comic Con Cardiff, while at the NEC you had your choice of the BDIA Dental Showcase, the Dive Show, and the Supreme Cat Show... something for everyone, especially if you're one of those people who like to cosplay as a scuba-diving cat-dentist, and let's face it, who hasn't at one time or another?

Me, I was at FantasyCon, and it was great. For most of the time I hung out with Iain Grant and Heide Goody (they of the fiendishly hilarious Clovenhoof series), but manage to catch up with some old friends and put flesh to some I've only met online ('put flesh to' is probably not the best choice of words, it wasn't that sort of con, but whatever). Jim 'Ginger Nuts of Horror' McLeod is exactly as lovely as he comes across on his blog. Jenny 'The Copper Promise' Williams looked slightly shell-shocked when I was wittering on about wanting to set up a franchise of the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club in the Midlands, but by that time I was on my second bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale to armour myself against a nightmare book-reading I'd foolishly signed up for. Sorry Ms Williams.

Four people turned up to my reading - three of whom were Iain, Heide, and her husband Simon. The fourth was Cardinal Cox - poet-in-residence of the Dracula Society - who was a lovely man but really only in the room because he was on after me.

"Don't look up at the empty room. Don't look up at the empty room. Don't..."

I was on a panel about world-building, sat in on all the ones about the arcane secrets of marketing and how to get an agent and discovered that the answer was the same as it ever has been, which is to just bloody work your socks off, like that advice ever helped anybody. Sunday morning's panel on Religion in Fantasy was disturbingly well attended, but then given the prices of the drinks maybe not that many people could afford to be horribly hungover.

Yeah, there was that thing with the food. Still, I had a great curry in Beeston and discovered the student union food outlets at Nottingham Uni are pretty good, so there was that.

On Saturday evening there was a tribute to the late and very much missed Graham Joyce. It turned out that a number of folk had taken this off down to the pub, which is presumably what he would have wanted, and those of us who were left paid our respects in Conference Room 1. During the sombre and thoughtful proceedings, Joe 'Horns' Hill was passing by outside, saw what must have seemed to him a deeply introspective group therapy session and responded in the only appropriate way - by launching himself drooling at the window like something from the Walking Dead. We reckoned Graham would have approved of that too. When Lee Harris discovered that the 'official' event had taken itself off-piste, he very generously bought drinks for those of us left, of which I'm sure Mr Joyce would most definitely have approved.

I didn't know him at all well, and it's only quite recently that I've got myself into this writing gang, but I thought that I'd have more time to get to know him better. That's the danger, isn't it - thinking that we've got all the time in the world, and we just don't.

So I've booked a place for next year's con at Scarborough, and I've got my bucket and spade ready to build some sandcastles against the tide (you can see where this metaphor is going, can't you?) and even though I got a rejection from a publisher today, it doesn't matter because in the meantime I'm just going to write as many stories as I can. At the end of the day, it's all you can do, isn't it?

The Philosophy of the Shed: Perspective

You may be the biggest person in the shed, but there are always people smaller than you. Please be nice to them. Who knows what size you yourself might be when you step outside again?

London Film and Comic Con 2015

The government's idea to ban all mind-altering substances is obviously one of their more outstandingly stupid ideas in a long winding queue of stupid ideas eagerly waiting to have their stupid arses autographed by King Stupid, but for all that I really don't like messing with my own brain too much, since it does a good enough job of messing itself up on its own. Nevertheless, yesterday was the first time in my life I have ever had a can of Red Bull to get me safely home on the motorway. That in itself will give you some idea of my sad, sheltered little life - but also how gloriously knackering this weekend was.

It got crowded. It was always going to get crowded. All the same, the queues for the lifts and stairs got so long that Olympia's staff opened the big freight elevators to ease the congestion (although they were probably already being used to get the wrestlers up to Level 3), one of which opened directly in front of us writers. Not the nice, well-behaved writers from YALC - the Young Adult Literary Convention just around the corner. Us lot. The fringe. The gin salesmen and Beano artists and teachers who were taking a break from being nice to teenagers for the summer holidays. I almost felt sorry for those con-goers as the big corrugated iron doors opened like the Atmosphere Processing Station delivering Ripley into the Aliens' nest, to be met by me waving my tez gun and Kit Cox hollering 'Welcome to the second floor! Fresh meat! Fresh meat! Fresh meat!'

Frankly, I'm amazed we sold anything.

No, I'm not. We're fucking awesome. Everybody is. Writing is the best job in the world - it's just that when you're cooped up in the shed, scribbling away and convinced that your writing sucks but driven to do it anyway because of Reasons, you forget that the only people more awesome than writers are readers, and every so often you get a chance to go into the real world and actually meet some of them. Someone tweeted me just today and said that she thought I was the 'most genuinely excited' person there. I joked that it was extreme fatigue and caffeine, but in retrospect I don't think so. It's like 'Holy shit, these people are actually REAL? You mean it's not all in my deranged attention-seeking imagination?' If you're lucky, they buy your book because they like your work. Or they just pity you. I'll take pity; I'm not proud.

But yeah, basically my brain is fried. I wasn't even going to write this. Christ knows how many typos there are in it (please don't tell me). Still, I might take a wander down the shed in a bit and see what's going on.

Buy my shiny word things.

Me standing in a queue for a really GOOD writer, trying to look all cool and nonchalant. First prize if you can work out who it is.

The Philosophy of the Shed: Fur

The shed doesn't care about your race, gender, age, or even species - just so long as you take pride in your fur, whatever its colour. Paradoxically, the grooming of one's fur is of almost no importance to the shed. It is merely enough that you have fur, not that you parade it around like some foppish mountebank. The shed scorns vanity, and will put spiders in your coiffure.