Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Film Ramble: Frightfest 2011 (Part 2)

Below's the second part of my Frightfest 2011 write-up; if you happened to miss part 1, you can find it here.

Sunday's Frightfest session began bright and early - perhaps a bit too early! - with The Divide.   I was looking forward to this one, mostly because I'm a sucker for anything post-apocalyptic and you don't get much more post-apocalyptic than a film about a group of survivors holing up in the basement of their building when nukes start raining from the sky.  

Sadly, for me anyway, the sci-fi element in The Divide is minimal, little more than a stunning opening shot and a brief interlude towards the midway point.  Director Xavier Gens opts instead to concentrate on how his disparate band interact in increasingly desperate, appalling circumstances. As such, there's little here that feels particularly new, but it's definitely effective, more so than many a similar film.  You know things are going to get bad for these people, and sooner rather than later, but finding out who snaps and how and why - and just how far they'll go when they do - is compelling nevertheless.  Gens directs his cast and claustrophobic location well, and said cast are uniformly great, keeping their characters human even while comitting acts at the far end of the scale from what we like to think of as humanity.  A little more invention on the sci-fi side might have made it a minor classic; as it is, if you need your faith in mankind crushing in a gutwrenching manner, you could do plenty worse than The Divide.

Next came Ti West's follow up to The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers.  Me and fellow Frightfestee Loz disagreed massively on House of the Devil; Loz loved it, I admired its style but found its substance mostly lacking.  But given how promising HotD was, I had sure hopes for better this time around.  And at first, it looked like I might even get it.  Though a little slow-paced, the opening half of The Innkeepers sets up two likeable characters amidst an interesting premise, as hotel clerks Claire and Luke (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy, both great) joke around and bicker whilst half-heartedly investigating the soon-to-be-closed-down establishment's history of ghostly goings on.  Sadly, the more it developed, the more obvious it got that the ghost story element - the part I really wanted to be impressed by - wasn't half so well thought out as the character drama.  And for me, the final few minutes sold both short.  That said, Loz loved this one too, and I won't be surprised if many other people do too.  In particular, Paxton was a revelation, and it would be nice if this performance helps draw her out of the mire of Z-grade awfulness she seems to have found herself in.

Our third film was the one I'd been least sure of at the bookings stage.  A microbudget tale of urban vampirism, Midnight Son definitely had the potential to go either way. As such, it turned out to be one of the festival's nicer surprises that it was mostly a success.  Grungy and melancholy, Midnight Son picks at the mythology of vampirism like an old scab, and succesfully finds a little fresh blood waiting underneath.

Okay, it isn't half as original as it perhaps thinks it is, with explanations of and parrallels with vampirism that have all been seen before elsewhere.  But it's committed and convincing, and it's been long enough since other low-fi real world takes on vampirism, like Romero's Martin or Abel Ferrara's The Addiction, that it feels a lot fresher than it is.  In fact, perhaps its biggest triumph is in daring to behave as though it's just invented the vampire movie, and the meticulous, unapolagetic way in which it reveals the concept afresh is its greatest trick.  By the end, I was too caught up to care that I'd already seen a million other vampire flicks.  I can see Midnight Son finding an audience, if maybe not a cinema release, and  it's easy to imagine writer / director Scott Leberecht going on to bigger and better things.

Lastly came the film that everyone seemed to have been talking about throughout the weekend - or at least wearing the shoulderbag of.  Me and Loz were both expecting good things from Kill List, which seemed to be building an astonishing degree of word of mouth support on the barest handful of preview showings.

What I didn't expect was that it would be amongst the very best British horror films I've ever seen.  Ben Wheatley has crafted an impeccable mix of character drama, hitman movie and absolutely nightmarish horror, and come up with something so truly original and unnerving that it still has its hooks deep in my brain almost fourty eight hours later.  It starts out somewhere between Mike Leigh and David Lynch.  Then its gets weirder and darker (and funnier and sadder), through some narrative contortions that I'm still trying to get my head round and some scenes that will stay with me for a long, long time, to arrive at a last act that still feels more like a bad dream than something I actually sat in a room experiencing with other people.  Please don't let anyone spoil the plot for you; just take my word for this one.  Kill List is rare and brilliant work, and I'll be profoundly impressed if I see a better film this year.

One last thought, then - a conclusion of sorts.  Ye gads, that was a good two days of film!  My affection for horror cinema has been sapped in recent years, but this one weekend has restored my faith and then some.  Granted, most of the films I watched brought strong elements of other genres to the mix, but then, perhaps that's the message to take away; be it Norwegian fantasies about troll hunting, supernatural time-travel thrillers, or nightmare takes on the hitman genre, horror has wide borders.  Hollywood may spend its time recycling and sequeling genre classics into so much fertiliser, but elsewhere, brilliant chimeras are being born.  If Frightfest is anything at all to go by, horror cinema is in a very good place right now.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Film Ramble: Frightfest 2011 (Part 1)

I've gone a few days without a post here, but for once I've a very good reason: I spent every possible spare moment of the weekend watching horror movies in a cinema with my mate Loz, at this year's London-based Frightfest festival.

We caught a little of last year's Frightfest, but a lack of planning on our part, coupled with bad luck and bad timing, meant we only managed to make three movies, and those ranged from the merely okay down to the preposterously terrible.  This year, we were determined to do better.  There was heroic talk of doing the full five days, but that was soon dismissed as craziness, and our final compromise was to catch as many of the weekend showings as we could without risking exhaustion or knowingly putting ourselves through anything that was too unlikely to reward our efforts.

The end result was seven movies over two days, three on Saturday and four on Sunday.  And this time, there was no question of bad planning, let alone luck or timing.  We had our tickets booked well in advance (and even won a few for good measure), and everything we saw, with one sorry exception, was above average.  Not only that, we were lucky enough to catch a couple of stone-cold classics days before they get a general release.  In fact, almost everything we saw was a premier of one sort or another - which, by the way, is my excuse from yet another diversion from my self-imposed mandate for this blog.  Hopefully I can tip you off to some impressive movies you might otherwise miss, while steering you away from that one depressingly awful car crash of a picture.

Saturday began on a high note that looked set for a while to dwarf everything I saw for the remainder of the two days, in every possible sense.  Believe the hype, believe the splendid poster, for Troll Hunter is wonderful.  A horror-comedy fit to be mentioned alongside classics like An American Werewolf in London, it combines a dry but fundamentally silly sense of humour with much exciting (and sometimes awe-inspiring) action, all in service of a concept so basically demented that even the smallest slip in tone would have sent it spinning.  The greatest success of Troll Hunter is that it never slips, or never more than slightly.  It treats its central premise - that trolls are real and living hidden alongside us, kept secret by the government and a handful of individuals like the titular hunter - with just the right mix of playfulness and gravity, whilst constantly undercutting one with the other at just the right moments.  No one we spoke to had a bad word to say about it, I came out wanting to watch it again immediately, and all in all I'll be amazed if it isn't the huge international hit it deserves to be.

My fears that Troll Hunter was going to be the indomitable highlight of our mini-festival were only heightened by our next film: Robin Hardy's long awaited follow-up to his classic horror oddity The Wicker Man.  We knew the odds of it being remotely as good were slim, but nothing quite prepared us for how lacklustre, misjudged and all-round clumsy it turned out to be.  Half remake, half sequel, almost all bad, it confirmed  the vague impression I've always had that Hardy achieved Wicker Man's improbably successful combination of scares, comedy, eroticism, mythology and folk music more by luck than judgement.  The Wicker Tree is too lacking in tension to be frightening, too sleazy to be sexy, and despite the comedy being far more foregrounded this time, it's never particularly funny.  The folklore feels hotchpotch and unconvincing, much as it did in the (sad to say, barely worse) Neil LaBute remake.  Only the traditional songs really stand out, and those are cut away from far too quickly, as though Hardy no longer trusts his audience to stand for such things.  If only he'd paid so much attention to the average viewer's tolerance for predictable plotting, scant characterisation, bad jokes and seventies-style sexism...

Fortunately, things picked up straight away, as we moved over to the discovery screen for low-budget gem The Caller.  Its concept - a woman moves into a new apartment and starts receiving decidedly odd phone calls from a past tenant who, amongst other suspect traits, considers the Vietnam war current affairs - sounds hokey when you say it like that, but director Parkhill makes the right call in playing it straight and keeping character drama front and centre.  Rachelle LeFevre holds things together more than capably in the lead, playing one of the better-written female protagonists I've seen this year, and gets strong support from the always-great Luis Guzm├ín and a likeable Stephen Moyer.  More thriller than horror, it nevertheless offers a few effective and imaginative shocks.  Maybe more rewarding in the long term, though, is how it all adds up to a poignant study of how we define and are defined by the past, and of the cyclic, inescapable-seeming nature of abuse.

And that was saturday.  One classic, one well-above-average indy horror thriller, and a semi-sequel that would have done well to stay on the drawing board forever.  

Next post: Sunday.  The Divide, The Innkeepers, Midnight Son and Kill List fight it out in a big (cinematic) pit!

Sunday, 21 August 2011

This is Getting Ridiculous (in a Good Way, Obviously) ...

...but then, it isn't all that long since things were ridiculous in a bad way.

According to the absurdly overcomplicated spreadsheet I've been using for six years or so now to track my submissions, the longest I've gone between short fiction sales is 202 days, or a little under seven months.  However, since one of those publishers subsequently gave up the goat before putting out my story, that's a deceptive figure.  Does an acceptance that doesn't actually lead to a published story count for an awful lot?  Discounting that statistical anomaly then, the longest I've gone without a short fiction sale is a whopping 292 days.

To put that in some context, I submitted 103 stories during that period - a comparatively low number for me, but still a fair few.  For a bit more context, I should mention that this lengthy and alarming drought happened fairly recently, between July of last summer and April of this one.  My track record up until that point had been erratic, but I had a fair few sales behind me, many of them to professional and well-established semi-pro markets.  The stories I was sending out were a blend of old and new, which is usually the case with me.  I was submitting to a wide-ranging mix of recently established and long standing markets,  including a few who'd taken my work before; again, nothing particularly unusual about that.  All told, it was a fairly typical period - asides from the fact that the editors of the world seemed to have collectively decided to avoid my work like it was infected with rat cooties.

Then again, according to that selfsame spreadsheet, I've just now sold four stories in eight days.  I've already raved about the ones to Andromeda Spaceways, Nil Desperandum and Dark Tales of Lost Civilisations, and I was happy and willing to accept that I'd met my good news quota for August by the point that new (and already-best-selling-on-Amazon) pro market Digital Science Fiction got back to me to say they'd like to take my Across the Terminator.

Which is, of course, fabulous news - and all the more so for coming on the back of so much other fabulous news.  I seriously enjoyed the first issue of DSF, (which contained my Black Sun and can be purchased here should you have the urge), and I'm completely in awe of how they've comes out of nowhere to become one of the more impressive professional markets in little more than the blink of an eye.

But it does leave me wondering more than ever about the vicissitudes of this zany industry.

Average it all out, of course, and I definitely can't complain.  And even during that phenomenal dry patch, it's not as if there weren't plenty of other good things going on - like, oh say, the run-up to the three book deal with Angry Robot.  I realise there are bad times and good times in everything, and writing is no exception - to say the absolute least.  I mean, comparing the highs and lows of my day job to the highs and lows of my writing career would be to put a line of gently rolling hills and valleys up against a crazy mountain range.  No, I guess my point here is partly just "whee!  I sold another story to Digital Science Fiction!" and partly, "man, there really isn't any way to make sense of this stuff."

So come on, fellow writer types ... is it just me?  Or are these improbably compressed highs and months-long lows just par for the course?  Can anyone beat that better-part-of-a-year-long run of rejections?  Can any publishers offer wise words to explain all this apparent randomness? Is there a secret cabal involved?  Are names pulled from hats? Is any of this to do with that time I sacrificed a raccoon to Stephen King? 

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

My First Commission. Or, Is That a Gate? No, It's Clearly a Door

Of the many neat writer things I always assumed would only happen to other people - presumably people who either were or were closely akin to Stephen King - getting a story commissioned was always pretty high on the list.  I mean, it's hard enough trying to sell one at the best of times, so the idea that someone would just come straight to me and cut all the pain and trauma out of the process was a bit like the idea of a dayjob where my boss would slap me on the back one day and say, "Hey, Dave, why don't you just stop wasting your time here and we'll just pay you for sucking up air?"  And, you know, it not just be a sarcastic way of firing me.

So you can imagine how I was coloured the exact colour of surprised when writer / editor-to-be Eric Guignard dropped me a very polite e-mail to say that he'd enjoyed Stockholm Syndrome in the Living Dead anthology, and was there any chance that I might be able to put something together for his forthcoming collection Dark Tales of Lost Civilisations?  Not only a comission, but a polite and complimentary comission to an anthology with the kind of title that would make my fingers get itchy just thinking about it!  I mean, dark Tales?  Lost civilisations?  That's got to mean Lovecraftian goings-on in abandoned, antedeluvian burgs, exactly the kind of stuff I write about with no incentive whatsoever.  I doesn't take much imagination to guess what my answer was.

I said no.

Well, I kind of did.  Actually, what I said was, "I'm completely snowed under with writing my new novel and a kerzillion other things and sadly the hopes of me being able to write a new story in time are roughly equivalent to the hopes of hell getting its own all-star ice hockey team.  But I do have this very nice (though already slightly published) story that I think would be a heck of good fit.  It's called The Gate in the Jungle and it's been read by precisely seven people, including the editor and my mum.  How's about I polish that up?"

A relatively logical solution, I hope you'll agree.  Only problem was, Eric was in the midst of trying to find a publisher for his burgeoning anthology, and one of the selling points was that it was a collection of all-new fiction.  However, he did really like Gate.  How much polishing was I talking about exactly, he asked?  Could it be sufficient polishing that the end result might reasonably be considered a fresh story?  Were we looking at the kind of polish that could warrant a new title here?

I thought it over.  And that time, I said yes.

The end result is The Door Beyond the Lake.  Is it a polish?  A rewrite?  A new story?  I'm hopeful it's a bit of all of those.  I know I put a lot of man-hours into it, and was more pleased than I'd hoped I could be with the results - something kind of like a story I wrote many years ago, except far better and much creepier and - well, new.  Maybe more importantly, Eric feels the same, meaning that The Door Beyond the Lake is now forthcoming in Dark Tales of Lost Civilisations.  And while I was labouring away on my "reimagining", Eric was busy finding a publisher, in the shape of Dark Moon Books.  Who are planning to premier it at next year's Horrorcon.  So that worked out pretty well, all told.

And then, a couple of days later, I got my second ever commission.  But it's probably a little too early to talk about that one.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Hard-Sell Story? Don't Despair...

I first wrote Hand That Feeds about ten years ago, maybe a little more.  This was back in the days when my head was still full of all the insecurity-inducing craziness drummed into me by two back-to-back degrees in English Literature, so I was mostly trying to write serious and meaningful fiction about serious and meaningful things, with perhaps the occasional guiltily pleasurable genre story on the side.

Hand That Feeds fell hard in the first camp.  It was about art and politics and big things like that.  In fact, it's only two real characters were an artist and a politician.  And needless to say, they didn't see eye to eye.  It was also, in fairness to it and with the endless benefits of hindsight, not so bad.  Probably wordy and riddled with run-on sentences, certainly less than subtle, but not what you'd actually call bad.

My then-girlfriend was less than impressed, however.  She felt the fact that I'd set it in what appeared to be Communist Russia and presented the politician character less than favourably was an unjust dig against Russian Communism.  Looking back, it's hard to say just where the "unjust" part came in, but this was back in the days when all criticism was gospel, however bewildering or unfair.  I rewrote Hand That Feeds, replacing Russian names with French names, (rationalising this with some kind of off-page, alternate-history French Communist revolution), and heavily toning down the badness of the politician character.  Slowly, what had originally been more or less a tirade transformed into something approaching a rational debate.

Lo and behold, Hand That Feeds became a slightly better story.

It's from this point, incidentally, that I trace my habit of writing fence-sitting fiction about big issues, a tendency I've grown rather fond and even proud of.  It took me a long time to realise that didacticism wasn't for me, that there's much fun to be had in writing opinions and viewpoints you don't necessarily hold with (or even fervently despise) and seeing where it takes you.  But I'm glad I did.  Seriously, if you've never written a story on a subject you feel passionately about and then forced yourself into the head of the character you least agree with, give it a try.  If you're anything at all like me, you might find you've hit one of the mother-lodes of what fiction writing's all about.

Anyway.  Hand That Feeds kept living.  Sometimes I'd give up on it for months at a time.  Every few months, or even years, I'd pick at it.  It got better - enough that I didn't want to give up on it.  It got stranger, too.  It had always been a little Kafkaesque, and the switch to an imaginary Communist France coupled with its flat refusal to take sides only heightened the strangeness.  It got rejected.  A lot.  That was sort of okay, it was a very old, very odd story, after all.  Sometimes it made me think that maybe I should just let it go.  Sometimes - and always, in the end - it made me all the more determined to tidy it a little more and kick it out the door again.

Now, long story far from short, here we are and someone has finally agreed - ten years after I first conceived it - to pay me money for Hand That Feeds.  That someone is Jim Phillips, producer of literary podcast Nil Desperandum, whose stated mission is to publish fiction that elucidates "Truth, Life, and the Human Condition."  Whether or not that's what Hand That Feeds does it open to question, but I'm happy that to admit that I've spent way too long with this particular tale, so probably Jim gets it a heck of a lot better than I can do.  After listening to a couple of the excellent episodes he's already put out, I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what he makes of my almost-oldest published story.

Had common sense prevailed, I'd have written off Hand That Feeds a long, long time ago.  But isn't it sort of poetic that a story about art versus society should get to survive in defiance of all the usual logics of time versus profit?  And then, after five years of rejection, end up in a 'zine called, of all things, Nil Desperandum?  I mean, in that really silly sense of the word poetic that doesn't actually mean anything?  Yeah ... I think it is.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

A Twist Too Far for Andromeda Spaceways

The last few days has seen such an almighty splurge of news that I'm almost at a loss where to start.  Even convincing my brain to divide up the okay-to-discuss from the not-quite-there-but-potentially-awesome stuff is proving a struggle.

I have a vague memory of this happening at almost exactly the same time the year before last, which is probably an excellent argument for the validity of astronomy.  The only rational explanation here is that every couple of years Mars knocks Jupiter out of Pisces, side-spinning Saturn off Venus and shunting Scorpio into the ascendant, and tons of exciting writing stuff happens for a period of roughly a week.

I mean, really.  That's the only rational explanation.  Any other explanation you can think of is just crazy.

So anyway, in the interests of similtaneously hammering home the fact that there are suddenly lots of interesting things going on and not having to write a really long post when it's rapidly approaching my bedtime, I'll just blat* on about these multifarious developments as and when I can, in whatever spurious order my rapidly fading memory tells me they happened in.  And hey, maybe by the time I get to the last thing, another thing will have happened and this blog will finally become a self-sustaining entity.  Maybe it'll even start writing itself.  That would be neat.

Right.  As far as I can remember, and side-stepping the profoundly exciting things I can't talk about, it all began when I picked up my third acceptance from Australia's premier genre publication, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.  This was particularly cheering because Andromeda Spaceways is one of my favourite magazines around; I'm always impressed by what the ASIM collective are doing, and every time I check in I'm impressed that little bit more.  And it was made that bit better by discovering that it's going to be my second time with writer / editor David Kernot in the ASIM captain's chair, since David also happens to be one of my favourite editors, not least because twice now he's accepted weird and screwed-up stories for a 'zine that tends towards fare of a lighter nature.

My last ASIM sale, The Painted City, way back in issue #43, has a scene - one mostly implied and off-page, admittedly - where one of the main characters basically drowns in their own melting, disease-infested face.  And that wasn't even a horror story.  Whereas acceptance number three, A Twist Too Far, is definitely a horror story, and has a scene that I fervently hope is just as nasty as that face-melting stuff.  I mean, it's a Lovecraftian (or maybe Doyleian) tale of competing turn-of-the-century contortionists ... how well is that going to end?

Next post: whatever thing happened after this thing!  Unless some other more urgent thing happens in the meantime!

* This is actually really a word.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Ten Things the Small Press Can Do As Well (Or Better) Than the Professional Press, Part 6: Availability

Of all the posts in this interminable series, I suspect this one has the most potential to wind someone, somewhere up.  Not, I hasten to add, that that's my intention.  Really.  It isn't. But there are certain subjects that tend to make almost everyone a little edgy - and none more so than money.

But what the hell!  Let's just come out and say it.  Just because your independent science-fiction magazine is independent, that doesn't mean I should have to hock my kidneys to be able to afford a copy.  Just because your anthology of vegetable-themed horror stories is coming from a small press, that doesn't excuse it costing three times as much as the average book.  Small Press does not equate to "license to print money" - let alone "license to print money in a horribly inefficient fashion that involves pre-schoolers, potato halves and poster paint."

Part of the problem here, undoubtedly, is Print on Demand.  POD is the Pandora's Box of independent publishing - for while there's definitely hope at the bottom of it, you have to be willing to wade through a fair degree of horror to get there.  I've seen POD-printed magazines retail for more than I'd expect to pay for a new book, and POD paperback anthologies go for more than I'd consider forking over for a deluxe hardback.

I've not doubt that if I were to mention said preposterous costs to said publishers, they would fall back, in  hugely offended fashion, on the in-turn horrendously unrealistic costs charged by organisations like Lulu and CreateSpace.

To which I'd say, "Rubbish.  You're just doing in wrong."

Then we'd probably have one of those fights that only two people with absolutely no degree of martial prowess can have - likely there's be hand-waving and arm-flapping, and maybe someone would end up with a slightly bloodied nose.  But throughout it all, I'd know I had the moral high ground.  Because I've been taking a serious interest in POD these last couple of years.  I've worked out, for example that - if you do it right - it's cheaper to run off proofreader copies of your latest novel by POD than it is to churn them out through the average home printer.  If you do it right.  Heck, get it really right, and you can run off a novel length book for about the price of ... well, a novel length book.  Or an anthology for only a little more than what the average punter would expect to pay for an anthology.

Lest I cause unnecessary irritation - and I think this is a topic where there may be such a thing as necessary irritation - I should probably say here that, yes, I do totally get that there are constraints on the small press that drum prices up in a way that larger publishers can sidestep.  What I'm saying is, that isn't an excuse to charge the first (or for that matter, the biggest) number that comes into your head.  A few overheads are unavoidable.  Many aren't.  If you prep your Lulu-published anthology by merrily accepting the default options then sure, the resulting tome will cost about the same as a black-market Kalashnikov.  But take the time to test out different combinations of format and paper stock, have a look at the handful of markets that have managed to really make POD work to their advantage, and you might just find you've shaved 50% or more off that first, preposterous price.  To tie this back to the alleged theme of this series: POD has the scope to be the great leveller between small and professional press - if it's done right.

This is a theme I'll come back to in other posts - because it really is an area in which the small press can meet or even beat the pros - but it all starts here, with putting out a product that people can a) afford and b) actually get their hands on.  Cost plays a huge part in that, but these days, there are plenty of other factors too.  It's fine and commendable to put out a Kindle version of your magazine, but what about the many other file formats out there?  Sure, conversion can be a hassle, but cover all bases and you automatically double or even triple your potential readership.  Or, to put it another way, confine yourself to .pdf, say, and you immediately - and needlessly - lose countless readers who would be jumping at your product if they could only read it in a fashion that suited them on their device of choice.

One of the absolute best things any editor can do for a writer is to make their work as available as possible to as many people as possible.  For that matter, of course, it's also one of the best things they can do for themselves.  When it comes to electronic publication, that's an absolutely level playing field; for print, the steadily-declining costs of POD are going a long way to changing the game in favour of the small press.  But that only works if you're willing to delve into its intricacies, rather than blundering into its many pitfalls.