Thursday, 18 November 2010

Booked up

I went to London the night before last to a reception for Booked Up authors, agents, librarians and organisers. It was across the way from the old Guardian newspaper building on Farringdon Road. It was very enjoyable.

I have to say again what an honour it is to be chosen for Booked Up and what a brilliant scheme it is. It is a pleasure to be associated with such a wonderfully notion - that each child starting secondary education should get a free book. So simple, and yet so powerful a statement.

It may not seem such a big idea if you are lucky enough to come from a household in which books are loved and respected and where reading for the sheer hell of it is a natural part of every day life. But many, many children do not come from such households.

Many children in this country live in households where no one reads for pleasure, either because they come from a disadvantaged background, or because they are part of a family that does not see the merit in reading for pleasure.

It used to be a British trait to boast about how much better everything was here than everywhere else. It now seems to be a national trait to say how bad we are at everything - and with some justification.

But Booked Up, Bookstart and Booktrust itself are things that we should be very, very proud of. It is going to come under attack because it costs money and it is a relatively easy cut to make. Unless you are a parent with children of the appropriate age or a teacher or librarian, you may be oblivious to the scheme and unsure of its merits.

But it must be defended - along with our libraries and librarians, art galleries and theatres. When money is tight, we need to decide as a country what is most important. Literature is not a luxury, it is a cultural necessity.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Masterclass


I wanted to say a little bit more about Lawrence Gordon Clark and his M R James adaptations. I enjoyed the Mark Gatiss series A History of Horror. He seems to have a very similar sensibility and upbringing to me, although several years later. If I had made the series it would have been almost identical in terms of the movies covered, but I would have added Lawrence Gordon Clark's 1970's ghost stories for the BBC.

Lawrence was interviewed at the Halifax Ghost Story Festival by Tony Earnshaw as I have already mentioned. I thought it was worth going into what he said in a little greater detail.

Lawrence spoke about the making of these films with a great deal of affection and maybe a touch of nostalgia. They were made in a very different climate to that which exists in television today, as Lawrence was at pains to point out.

He explained that it was relatively easy to pitch ideas in those days, as there were not the layers of development that there are now. Not only that, but because of the simpler structure, he could get the things made reasonably quickly and see them on screen not long after.

The first two films for the Ghost Story at Christmas (both M R James adaptations) - The Stalls of Barchester (1971) and A Warning to the Curious (1972) were produced, adapted and directed by Lawrence.

Amazingly, Lawrence had been a documentary filmmaker before these lyrical, pitch perfect films. His interest in M R James had been formed at an early age when his father read the stories to him as a boy. In effect, Lawrence had done the same for me, years later, with these films.

The process of making these films sounded wonderfully organic and small scale. Lawrence was his own location scout and would adapt the script to the locations he found. He had no script editor to contend with. The level of control he has seems extraordinary.

And despite the fact that Lawrence had come from a background in documentary film making - or maybe even because of it - he stressed that he wanted to tell the story visually wherever possible. This is something that really came over strongly, revisiting these films. There are many sequences of still images, like a slide show, to set a scene or to build tension.

I found myself once again - as I had when I saw some of these films again fairly recently - what it is about them that is so odd. And there is something odd about them - in a good way, of course. They seem totally unlike anything that is on television at the moment. I suspect they were quite unlike anything that was on television at the time.

I wonder whether this is something to do with the fact that the television aesthetic and the cinematic aesthetic have merged in recent decades as TV looks to cinema rather than the theatre. When I was a teenager the difference between TV and the movies was stark. Certainly the difference between the bulk of British TV, shot on video in a studio, and cinema seemed very pronounced.

Lawrence's M R James adaptations were shot on film and on location. Not only that, they seemed very 'European' somehow. They seemed to look towards European movies rather than to American cinema or television. Interestingly Lawrence mentioned that when they shot a sequence where the cruel old magus in Lost Hearts was silhouetted on the banks of a dike talking to the gypsy boy, he was thinking of the 1920s German silent classic Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari.

Incidentally, the wonderfully creepy hurdy-gurdy music in Lost Hearts was a product of the BBC Music Library (or was it the Sound Archive?) rather than some specially commissioned piece. What a find. And the music in Treasure of Abbot Thomas was simply played by the organist at Wells where some of the scenes were shot.

And then there are the performances that Lawrence managed to get out of his cast. Michael Bryant is fantastic as the Rev Justice Somerton in Treasure of Abbot Thomas. I enjoyed the slightly Wildean relationship that was hinted at between the urbane Reverend and the good-looking, vain Peter (played by Paul Lavers). There seemed a bit of Saki creeping into the James.

Peter Vaughan is superb as Paxton in A Warning to the Curious. Lawrence cleverly shifted the date of the story to the Depression and made Paxton unemployed with the hint of desperation needed to take on the forces that were clearly standing between him and the treasure. Clive Swift is also wonderful as Dr Black.

Joseph O'Connor's lovely twinkle-eyed old charmer is so at odds with what Mr Abney is really up to in Lost Hearts that it adds another layer of revulsion. Simon Gipps-Kent was very believable as the boy, Stephen and Christopher Davis and Michelle Foster horribly good as the ghost children. Oh my, but how they disturbed my sleep when I first saw them. Lawrence had originally wanted the children to skip away at the end tossing Abney's heart to each other as they went. An amusing thought - but I'm glad he didn't.

Looking at the films now, those ghost children in Lost Hearts are the only thing that really jars. The special effect make-up isn't quite up to the task and in any case, gore seems out of place with these films. A bloodless hole might have worked better to indicate the absence of a heart.

But it is a tribute to Lawrence's skill as a director and adapter that these films stand up so well after all these years. I can't imagine that the same could be said for much of the BBC's output from the mid seventies.

Lawrence's connection with A Ghost Story at Christmas thread came to an end with the contemporary chiller Stigma, screened on 28 December 1977. The year before, Lawrence had filmed an adaptation of Dickens' The Signalman with the inimitable Denholm Elliot - arguably the finest of the series. He then moved to ITV and to a very rich and varied career, returning to M R James briefly with an updated version of The Casting of the Runes in 1979. The BBC carried on for a while with The Ice House in 1978 and the much better Schalken the Painter in 1979.

Everyone at the event bemoaned the recent disinterest in supernatural TV among television executives, other than of the very obvious kind involving vampires and zombies. Lawrence was very generous in his praise for BBC 4's recent attempt to revive the M R James adaptation with A View from a Hill.

There was some discussion of regrets Lawrence may have had for not directing for the cinema, but I was happy to tell him that for me I think his influence was all the greater for being via the more intimate medium of television. For those of us growing up in the grey and grim seventies, the television was like the log fire around which we gathered on those chill Christmas nights. Lawrence's films were the last things I saw before I walked down to my bedroom to sleep - or at least to try and sleep.

Lawrence Gordon Clark gave me a masterclass in the art of telling a creepy story back in the 1970s. I am hugely indebted to him.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Now with bonus story!



In between all these events, I have been writing of course - writing and trying to get the next books ready for the printers. I have been doing the final edit on the World Book Day flipbook with the wonderful Philip Reeve that will come out next March. My half is called Teacher's Tales of Terror and Philip's is Traction City. That's worth a £1 of anyone's money, surely?


I have also been doing the edits on the additional stories that will appear at the ends of the rejacketed Tales of Terror series, which also comes out in March. The books will have new covers and no illustrations. The bonus story at the end takes the narrative of each existing book a stage further and links it to the next book along.

I have been working on Mister Creecher of course - and that comes back for the next stage of edits very soon. Mister Creecher breaks with the October publishing schedule I've been on for the last few years and is published in June 2011. More about that later. . .

Added to all that I have been writing a short novel about Roman Britain called Blood Oath. It is a return to historical fiction for me and it has been fun. The book is for Pearson and is aimed at boys who are aged fifteen but have a reading age much, much lower. They want a book that is for their actual age, but with a language level that is not going to put them off.

The novel is set in 180 AD and is about a boy from a village north of Hadrian's Wall who swears vengeance on his father's killer. The boy ends up joining the Roman army. The chieftain who killed his father attacks the fort he serves in, and the boy is part of a small force of men sent north to kill him.

I'll tell you a bit more about that when we are little further down the line. . .

Children of the night


I was very honoured to attend the Dracula Society's Bram Stoker Dinner on 6 November and pick up my Children of the Night Award for Tales of Terror from the Tunnels Mouth.

The dinner took place in The Russell Hotel in London, where I had been not too long ago for the Bloomsbury Sales Conference. The first person I saw was Gail-Nina Anderson whom I'd met at the Halifax Ghost Story Festival and who reviews for the Fortean Times - among many other things.

She introduced me to various members of the society and it soon became clear that they were a fascinatingly diverse bunch, all coming to Bram Stoker from different directions. The Society was co-founded by Bernard Davies who very sadly passed away in September of this year. He was clearly much missed.

Toby Whithouse accepted the Hamilton Deane award on behalf of Aidan Turner, the vampire in the BBC's Being Human. Christopher Frayling made a lighthearted speech about how Dracula would cope in 2010. I was given my award and said a few words and then read them a very, very short story.

A while back, Bloomsbury instigated a competition called 247tales. Basically, they asked their authors to write a story of no more than 247 words and then young writers could try their hand in response. This was mine. . .

Emma Weston had never believed in ghosts, but standing there in the cold moonlight there could be no doubt. She had the evidence of her own eyes.

It was all Mary Haver’s fault. Mary had dared her to sneak out of the dorm after an argument about whether or not there was a ghost in the kitchen garden.

‘If you are so sure there’s no ghost, you shouldn’t be afraid should you?’ And so the dare was set.

A full moon had illuminated Emma’s way across the lawn. The garden door creaked open and she stepped in. But immediately, thick cloud obscured the moon and impenetrable darkness descended.

Emma did not panic. She knew that the girls could not see her behind the wall. All she had to do was stand there and wait. Twenty minutes ought to do it.

But something scuttled across her feet. She jumped. She stumbled. She put out a hand to stop herself falling, but her hand met the glass pane of the greenhouse and it shattered under her weight. Her head hit the frame and knocked her senseless. She did not feel the glass shard slice the artery in her neck. She died within minutes.

Emma had stood in confusion looking back at her own body. She knew in that instant that she had been wrong. Ghosts certainly did exist. Now there really would be a spectre haunting the kitchen garden.

But first she would pay a visit to Mary Havers.

Halifax ghost story festival





















I was really pleased to be invited to the first ever Halifax Ghost Story Festival and hope I will be invited back for what I'm sure will become a regular fixture in the events calendar here in the UK.

Dee Grijak did a superb job of organising the event, though she seemed very reluctant to take any credit for it. I had was originally told about the event by the illustrator and writer, Chris Mould and it was great to meet up with him and fellow author/illustrator David Melling. Chris has a studio in Dean Clough - the colossal ex-carpet factory that is now, among other things, an arts centre and was hosting the Ghost Story Festival. Chris and Dave had a joint event ( as well as some great work up on the walls) but I couldn't see it as it was right before mine and I need a bit of thinking time before I perform.

I saw Gi60 when I first arrived on the Friday night. This was an amazing idea - sixty ghost stories, each only sixty seconds long. It rattled along at a fair old pace, but it is very hard to get a decent chill when you only have sixty seconds and may follow a funny piece. Many of the plays seemed to opt for humour. I sat there wondering what I would have done.

I also saw Jeremy Dyson in conversation with Ray Russell of Tarturus Press talking about Robert Aickman. I am ashamed to say that I was not really aware of Aickman though I intend to put that right. I have stories of his in various compilations but I hadn't registered the name. Jeremy Dyson read one of Aickman's long short stories - The Inner Room - and he made a very good job of it. It is a wonderfully creepy story.

My event was pretty well attended and I chatted about who I was and how I came to be an author of children's books. I read The Glasshouse from Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth.

A big reason for my becoming a writer of chillers and ghost stories was sitting at the back of the room while I gave my talk and reading. It was slightly surreal to have Lawrence Gordon Clark, the director of the wonderful BBC Ghost Story for Christmas films from the 1970s, asking me to sign his copy of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. It is hard to explain how wonderful it felt to be able to tell him how huge an influence those films had been on me (and I'm sure, many others of my generation).

Lawrence turned out to be an extremely charming man - very modest and thoughtful. And very funny too. We watched The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, Lost Hearts and A Warning to the Curious. They all stood up remarkably well given the time that has elapsed since they were originally shown. It is a testament to Lawrence's skill as a director and adapter, but also to the performances he managed to get from his cast. They have a strange feel about them, unlike anything I can think of now. Lawrence managed to find a visual equivalent for the prose style of M R James, without ever feeling that he had to stay pedantically faithful to the original.

The conversation with Tony Earnshaw was fascinating - particularly as Tony was feeling under the weather. It was a wonderful insight into a lost world of relative creative freedom in television. I felt very privileged to have been there and even more privileged to have seen the films at such an impressionable age when they originally aired.

I was lucky enough to go for a meal on the Sunday night with Lawrence and Vic Allen, the arts coordinator at Dean Clough. It was a really great way to end the weekend.

Dead of Winter launch


On Thursday 4 November, we had the launch for The Dead of Winter at Heffer's here in Cambridge. Kate Johnson who runs the thriving children's book department there went to a huge amount of effort on my behalf and I am very pleased that lots of people turned out to appreciate it.

I did a reading from The Dead of Winter and read a story from Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth as it is now out in paperback. I read Little People and it seemed to go down alright. I certainly seemed to have a steady queue of people with books to sign, which is always nice.

Thanks to Annie Galpin for the photo. I'm sure that spider wasn't there when I sat down. . .

A couple of days before, I was at Thrales, a literary salon here in Cambridge. I had been invited along by Anne Rooney, to read The Demon Bench End from Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror as a slightly post- Halloween treat, as the story has a Cambridge setting.

It was fun reading aloud to a group of adults, though a little intimidating knowing that they were all professional writers themselves. The reading sparked an interesting discussion about phobias and fears, horror stories and horror films.

At the end, I overheard one of the people there saying that his only ghostly experience featured a bench end! I never got to find out exactly what it was - but it must have freaked him out a little to hear my fictional version.

Dublin





















I had never been to Dublin before. My wife and I spent our honeymoon in Ireland - in Cork and Kerry - many years ago, but that was my one and only visit.

I was in Dublin's fair city for a Halloween-ish event at Easons Bookshop in O'Connell Street. I flew over from Stansted on a lovely afternoon and landed in Ireland as daylight was fading. Louise Dobbin of Repforce (who are the publicists for Bloomsbury in Ireland), whom I'd met previously at the Bloomsbury sales events, picked me up from the airport and took me to my hotel in Ballsbridge.

In the evening I went for a very pleasant meal with Louise, Cormac Kinsella, who had been my point of contact about the trip, Lee Weatherly and Ann Howarth of Usborne, Lee's publisher.

I did an event with Lee at Wesley College the following morning. Lee had a a big banner poster and a proper Hollywood blockbuster-style trailer for her book Angel. I had nothing. Just me and my book. I hope it was enough. But then Lee did get a bigger queue than me for signing books.

We were superbly looked after by Niall MacMonagle and the students were really attentive and asked lots of good questions. What a lovely school. They even gave us presents! I got to my hotel room later and unwrapped Seamus Heaney's Human Chain, a book called Lifelines featuring letters about famous poems and a calendar.

I did an event at Dublin Central Library for some very quiet children at lunchtime. The group was very small and involved two schools. They seemed too embarrassed to speak up. Apart from one boy, who when I was explaining what I'm trying to do in my chillers and the difference between me and, say,Darren Shan, piped up and said, 'Yeah - he's more famous!'

Superb.

The Eason's event went well - organised with great enthusiasm by David O'Callaghan. I was sat between Lee Weatherly and Becca Fitzpatrick, which was never going to flatter me. Both Lea and Becca have a big teenage girl following (the following is big, you understand - not the girls). I was starting to feel as though I was in the wrong place but the crowd was great and in fact it helped to introduce me to an audience who might never have considered picking up one of my books. That said - Becca was still signing when I was leaving with Cormac. Queue envy.

Still, we got to go and get a pint of Guinness - so it wasn't all bad. And some great food too. I ate well in Dublin and Cormac was great company.

Before I left the following day, I had a chance to do one more event - at the wonderful Fighting Words. Fighting Words is a creative writing centre set up by Roddy Doyle and based on Dave Eggers 826 Valencia project in San Francisco. I went with the very amusing Peter McIntyre of Repforce. I didn't get to meet Roddy, sadly, but I did get to meet the director, Sean Love, who was great. The staff and helpers were all brilliant as were the children we had with us.

What an amazing project. Top marks to Roddy Doyle for setting it up and let's hope they spread around the world.

I did have a free afternoon to look around Dublin. It was a glorious day, if rather chilly. I looked round both cathedrals. I wandered through Temple Bar and into Trinity College. I went and looked at the Book of Kells, but though it is astonishing, it is the Old Library at Trinity that really took my breath away. It was almost empty when I was there and I would have happily stayed there for the rest of the day. But I thought I really out to be a bit more inquisitive.

The photos show my wanderings. . .

Monday, 1 November 2010

Cheltenham


I think this must be the longest the blog has ever gone without an update - so apologies for all those who have tuned in only to find the same old post. The reason for this is that I have been racing around from event to event and from book to book and have simply not had the time. But because of that, there is a lot of catching up to do. . .

I went to the Cheltenham Literary Festival for the first time this year. It is a huge literary festival here in the UK, though you would never have guessed that from the cab I took from the station. The cab driver had no idea what I was talking about when I asked to go to the Literary Festival.

I met Emma Bradshaw from Bloomsbury in the Writer's Room, which was like one of those preposterous paintings or illustrations where every single person in the room is famous. Apart from me, of course.

I did a well-attended event with Justin Richards who I had never met but whose work I knew. My son (and I) had both enjoyed his Invisible Detective series. We did a kind of Q&A session, read a piece each and then answered questions from the audience. The event was called Don't Be Scared and we were talking mainly about fear, real and imaginary, and the appeal of chillers.

The whole thing lasted forty-five minutes plus some time for signing, but it had taken four hours to get there and took another four hours back. It was a very exhausting day.