Thursday, 25 October 2012

Cheap thrills

For those of you who fancy some nautically-themed creepy stories for Halloween, then there is a Kindle promotion here in the UK on Tales of Terror from the Black Ship.  It can be yours for a mere 99p!

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Scorpion rider

I may do a little bit more to this but it was really just a test for the surface I was using - gesso on paper, sanded down a bit.  The paint is acrylic as before.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Nice photo of me by my son.  I'm wearing the Venetian mask we bought for him on a trip to Venice some years ago.  I've been posing for his photography project - which involves standing around on a path on Jesus Green here in Cambridge dressed like this.

I get some strange comments - but mostly people just speed up.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Gothic thoughts

On Wednesday I went up to Lancaster on the train and took part in a discussion about Gothic fiction for young people.  Celia Rees, Cliff McNish and I read extracts from our books and spoke a little bit about how we came to write them, and then, after a short interval, Dr Catherine Spooner led a discussion about Gothic fiction.

I saw Celia before the event and was very pleased to hear that her reaction was identical to mine, on hearing that we would be taking part in the discussion, in that we both felt a sudden urge to start swatting up on all things Gothic.

We also both quickly realised that this was hardly the point of the exercise.  We were not there as experts on the Gothic.  We were there to say what we understood by the term Gothic, to say how influencial Gothic works had been on our writings and to talk about to what degree the term could be applied to our own work.

My feelings of potential inadequacy were aroused by the fact that Catherine Spooner is a senior lecturer in English Literature at Lancaster University and something of an expert in Gothic literature.  I an art school graduate and certainly no academic.  But in a way, that's the point.  My interest in the Gothic began life, as much through film and the visual arts as it did through the written word.  As I have said many time before, I saw Poe adapted for the screen by Corman, before I ever read one of his stories just as I saw James Whales' Frankenstein before I read Mary Shelley's novel.

Frankenstein was much to the for in Lancaster, because I was talking about Mister Creecher and reading from it.  But there has been a Gothic strain to much of my published work for children and teens.

My 18th Century set Tom Marlowe adventures, such as Death and the Arrow for Random House are a kind of Gothic noir, with skull-headed highwaymen, unstoppable assassins and supernatural curses.  I have written the Poe and M R James-inspired Tales of Terror series and of course, more recently The Dead of Winter and Mister Creecher.

The Dead of Winter strikes me as the most Gothic of my Bloomsbury books.  My original pitch for the book was a 'Jane Eyre for boys' and though that is probably not as obvious in the finished book, some of that intention shines through I hope, in a story about a friendless boy finding himself in a lonely isolated house full of secrets and dark foreboding.  I read Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey as part of my research for Mister Creecher and was struck by the (purely coincidental) similarities between the P B Shelley-inspired Scythrop and my own Sir Stephen Clarendon.

But this brings me onto the discussion itself.  There was a lot of talk of the supernatural and the belief in ghosts (a belief not shared by any of the authors - or in fact any author of supernatural fiction I've ever met).  There was talk of witchcraft - due in part to our location and its association with the Pendle Witches.  There was a lot of talk about scary stories.  But is any of this necessarily 'Gothic'?  I'm not so sure.

We all agreed that Gothic was an elastic term that had developed and evolved over the years, but it still surely must have a meaning, otherwise it becomes redundant.  If it simply means 'scary' then why bother to use it at all?

So what do I think Gothic means?  Perhaps the easiest way to start to explain is to list some works I've read to which I think the term can definitely be applied:

In fiction

Christabel by S T Coleridge, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Dracula by Bram Stoker, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, The Dunwich Horror by H P Lovecraft, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death by Poe, The Ash Tree by M R James, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, The Inner Room by Robert Aickman.

In film:

Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte dir Robert Aldrich,  The Haunting dir Robert Wise, The Innocents dir Jack Clayton, The Masque of the Red Death dir Roger Corman, Great Expectations dir David Lean, Frankenstein by James Whale,  The Signalman and Lost Hearts by Lawrence Gordon Clark, Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock, The Dark Knight dir Christopher Nolan, Night of the Hunter dir Charles Laughton, The Others dir Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar, Rosemary's Baby dir Roman Polanski, The Picture of Dorian Gray dir Albert Lewin, The Trial dir Orson Welles.

Neither list is exhaustive of course.  For one thing there are none of the novels that sparked the term - The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, The Mysteries of Udolpho etc.  More thought would produce longer lists and there are a great many books, stories and movies that have elements of the Gothic in them, without necessarily being thought of as Gothic.  But I think there is a common thread in all the works above - and that is darkness.

By darkness I mean a darkness of mood - a psychological darkness - but also a literal darkness.  They are works that tend to be played out in black and white or at night or under glowering skies.  We are constantly being pulled towards the shadows and towards whatever horror lies hidden there.

Many of the stories here have a period setting, but I don't think that is a deal-breaker.  I would not call all M R James stories Gothic.  I would not even say that I would describe all of Poe's stories Gothic, although I think The Fall of the House of Usher is almost the epitome of Gothic for me.

As well as the darkness there is a particular scale to the Gothic.  It is operatic.  Everything is full on.  There is often a dream-like, hysterical edge.  The original Gothic novels were so over the top, that Jane Austen and Thomas Love Peacock were already having fun with them even at the time of their publication.

That deranged aspect becomes a descent into madness in the work of Poe and one or more characters in a Gothic novel tend to have their sanity stretched to (or beyond) breaking point.  Vincent Price in Corman's Masque of the Red Death or in House of Usher exhibits this perfectly.  They teeter on the verge of hysteria.  But Deborah Kerr in The Innocents or Julie Harris in The Haunting, or Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby also exhibit the same kind of doubts about their own sanity.

The setting in a Gothic story is often some kind of manifestation of this madness.  The House of Usher stands next to a stagnant mere and has a crack running from foundations to rafters.  Hill House in The Haunting seems to be sentient and malevolent.  The setting is a mirror of the mental state of the character, of their fears or psychoses.  The setting is often extraordinary in some way.

Although Frankenstein has some stand out Gothic moments and settings, I'm not sure the novel as a whole is typically Gothic (although Frankenstein's creature is surely one of the great Gothic characters).  What seems to me more unquestionably Gothic, is the story of the novel's genesis.

The Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva, rain pouring down from pewter skies, seems a perfect setting for the events that unfold there.  The cast is near perfect too.  The bitter, bitchy John Polidori, the gloomy, glamorous Lord Byron, the hypersensitive and highly strung Percy Bysshe Shelley, the charismatic but infuriating Claire Claremont, and the coolly intelligent Mary Godwin.   It lacks a hysterical female character, but Shelley did his best to fulfil that role, having a (probably opium-induced) fit after a reading of Coleridge's Christabel, imagining that he saw eyes on Mary's breasts and running from the room screaming.

Celia Rees made the point that Gothic stories have to be nightmarish in some way, and I agree - there is something about the Gothic that taps into our unconscious dreads and fears in an hallucinatory way.  There is something unreal and yet compelling about it.  Its dark and dangerous but a bit sexy.

I don't think it has to be period set - I think it would be possible to argue that Hideo Nakata's The Ring and Dark Water are Gothic (or even Ridley Scott's Alien) - but the house of many rooms (or the apartment block) has become a kind of modern Labyrinth and seems now to have taken its place beside the forest in Grimm's stories as a kind of stage set for our fears.

Step over the threshold of that big old house, whether it be the Bates Motel, Thornfield Hall, Hill House, or the Villa Diodati and anything - anything - might happen...

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

More doodling

Here is another little acrylic doodle for you.  I know I promised that the next thing I did would be something a bit more considered, but what can I say?

I had a good chat to my lovely agent, Philippa Milnes-Smith, about furthering my plans for world domination.  I felt pretty positive about the things I have in the pipeline and feel even more positive having spoken to Philippa.  To infinity and beyond!

I was actually using a little storyboarding notebook to sketch out a couple of ideas I have.  They are visual ideas and I wanted to see how the pages fell - what the spreads would look like.  That's not to say I actually did any drawing today beyond a couple of thumbnails.  What I was doing was writing a one line note to remind myself what I wanted to see there and then writing a script separately.  It went well. I think.

Tomorrow I head north (well, actually I head south and then head north) to Lancaster for an event at the Litfest in which I am in discussion with Celia Rees and Cliff McNish about Gothic Young Adult Fiction.  The event will be chaired by Dr Catherine Spooner and is at The Rounds, The Dukes at 7.30pm.  Maybe see you there. . .

Monday, 15 October 2012

Festival by ferry

I got back from the inaugural Isle of Wight Literary Festival on Saturday evening after doing my spot there on Saturday at one o'clock.  I had a great time.  The organisers were incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic.  Considering it was their first festival it all looked to be going pretty well with lively audiences and well-attended events.

I never seem to see anyone else's gigs when I go to festivals but I saw two things in the same evening after I had checked in to my hotel.  I saw Louise de Bernieres (of Captain Corelli's Mandolin fame) singing and playing old English lute music and then later over dinner heard Rebecca Chance read a 'saucy extract' from her novel Bad Sisters.

It was a beautiful morning on Saturday and after a night in which a gas leak had resulted in a road drill rattling away near my window at two in the morning, I was happy to mooch around Cowes, hopping over on the chain ferry to east Cowes and then hopping back in time for my event.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The nominations are in...

I was very pleased to hear that Mister Creecher has attracted a couple more award nominations.

It has been longlisted for the UKLA Children's Book Award in the 12-16 category.  The list of authors in that category is incredibly strong so I don't know how much further the book will get.  But as always, it is an honour to be noticed among all of the amazing books out there.

Mister Creecher is also up for the North East Teenage Book Award.  This seems particularly appropriate as my obsession with Frankenstein started in Newcastle, forty years ago, when I first saw Boris Karloff's creature emerge from his cell late one Friday night on Tyne Tees television.

Mister Creecher is still in the running for both the Sheffield Children's Book Award and the Coventry Inspiration Book Award.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Just looking at the pictures

It goes without saying that reading is hugely important to the business of writing.  All writers want to be writers because of the books they read - often the books they read when they were quite young.

But certainly in my case, I think I get as much inspiration from looking at pictures!

Whilst I have learnt a lot about the kind of writer I would like to be (and the kind of writer I definitely do not want to be) from reading other authors, and of course learnt a lot about the craft of writing from them, when it comes to the kind of worlds I want to create in my books, much of the inspiration comes from television, cinema and still pictures - illustrations, drawings, paintings, photographs.

Many of my books have developed from a visual image.  In fact as I think of it, maybe it's true to say most of them have.

Death and the Arrow began life when I saw a crude little wood engraving of Death about to hurl an arrow at an unsuspecting man.  The engraving was 18th Century and it gave me both the beginning of the plot and the setting.

The Dead of Winter was to a large degree inspired by an old photograph reprinted in a Sunday newspaper supplement that I had kept for years before I ever thought of the story that would go with that image of a woman in white next to a house and a dark lake.

Through Dead Eyes has its roots in a detail of Brueghel's Children's Games that was reprinted in a schoolbook and which always gave me the creeps when I looked at it.  The detail showed a child - it's not entirely clear - holding a horrible, hollow eyed mask at an upstairs window.

That mask stared out at me for forty years before I found a story to go with it.  Maybe that's how I exorcise these ghosts and demons in my mind - I write them out of my head.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Painting the studio red

I spent today painting half of my studio.

I have had my studio divided into two distinct halves - one for writing in and the other for drawing and painting.  My studio is not the brightest places so it makes sense to have white walls in the drawing half.  But I thought that in the writing half, I'd go for something a little different.

So I chose a very deep red - a dark claret red.  Not only do I think it will set the right tone for my writing in the morning, but I am hoping that psychologically it will fool my brain into thinking my freezing cold studio is warmer than it actually is.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Yet more doodling

Yet another little painting on that old gesso panel.  Again - it is merely a bit of invention.  It isn't for anything.  I am just trying to see what the possibilities are with this way of working.

One thing that I have learnt is that this painting is much more luminous if the white of the gesso is shining through a relatively thin layer of paint.   Expensive acrylic paints (I'm using Golden here) are more transparent than cheap ones and richer in colour - and it shows in the hat in this picture.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

More doodling

More experimentation with acrylic paints on gesso.   I spent the morning sanding down my newly primed panels to a super smooth finish and in the afternoon went back to an earlier panel and did another test.

I don't know why this image popped into my head, but it is a doodle and nothing more.  I am just looking for an excuse to see how the paint handles.  This started to go badly wrong in my opinion and was improved no end by attacking it with a piece of sandpaper and a scalpel, giving the pleasing impression of a damaged fresco.

The problem with spending so much time on preparing your support is that it induces timidity.  They took so long to make, I am nervous of wasting them and having to start all over again.  I'm bad enough with stretched watercolour paper to be honest.

But all that has to be put on one side.  To produce good art you have to be prepared for it to go horribly wrong.  There is no way to avoid mistakes and false starts.  People who try usually don't produce anything of any value.

My next task is to go straight into a finished piece of work.  Doodling is OK - it's fun - but it only takes you so far.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Doodling on gesso

I have been trying out some ideas today ahead of putting some visual proposals together.  A long time ago I experimented with tempera paints and that involved making gesso from scratch - a smelly business - and applying it in many layers to sheets of MDF before sanding it down to a glass-like finish.

This is a very old technique, employed by many early painters before oil on canvas became the gold standard for painting.  And even when painters moved on to oil, their technique owed much to tempera painting.

Tempera is powdered pigment mixed with egg yolk used as the binding agent.  The paint is thinned with water and is fast drying.  It shares some of these properties with acrylic and I am experimenting with acrylics on a gesso primed panel.  Layers of gesso are laid on with a brush and then sanded down so that the surface is very smooth.  It is a very tedious process.

But I want to explore a technique that allows me more control than the painting method I normally employ when I do my landscape paintings.  A 'painterly' (ridiculous word, but you know what I mean) approach is all well and good when the image can move in any direction you want, but I want to do some more controlled pictures where readability is going to be essential and where I need to be able to predict the outcome more.

I have been playing around today and this was one of the results.  Having said all that stuff about predictability, this image changed radically from the drawing as it started (he had hair and a more normal nose) but this was a doodle and nothing more.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Japanese curse

Three copies of Japanese edition of Redwulf's Curse arrived today.  I was so pleased when a Japanese publisher - Poplar-Sha - decided to publish my Tom Marlowe books.  I am very fond of those books and it's nice that Tom is getting this second life in Japan.  The books are still in print here in the UK, published by Random House.

The story is set in Norfolk, on the coastal marshes near to where we used to live and takes place, like all of the Tom Marlowe books, at the beginning of the 18th Century.  It is a murder mystery with a supernatural twist to it.

I did chapter headings in the UK edition, but Poplar-Sha have used their own illustrator throughout the series and I think they've done a nice job.  I would tell you who they are, but sadly I don't read Japanese.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Through dead eyes

I realised that I haven't put the cover up for my upcoming title - Though Dead Eyes - out next March and published by Bloomsbury.  Nice cover, I think.

A boy called Alex accompanies his father on a trip to Amsterdam.  His father is a writer and is working on a TV documentary.  Whilst he works, Alex is left in the care of Angelien, the beautiful daughter of his father's editor (and ex-girlfriend) Saskia.  Alex's parents have divorced and his father is starting a new relationship with Saskia.

Alex is troubled.  He is not coping well with the divorce and is in Amsterdam having got himself into trouble involving a girl at school.  But his life is only going to get more confusing as he falls for the older Angelien and comes under the influence of another girl - this one long dead.

Through Dead Eyes is the first of my chillers for Bloomsbury to have a contemporary setting, although the world of 17th Century Amsterdam is constantly flooding in.   The novel was originally called The Mask and so it will come as no surprise if I tell you that it is a mask that provides the window to this sinister and haunting past world.

I will talk more about it nearer its publication date.