Monday, 17 May 2021

Wings in the Darkness


This Friday, (21st May) sees the release of Wings in the Darkness, a novella set in the world of The Damocles Files; a series of novels created by Benedict J Jones and myself which are a mixture of military action and supernatural horror set during World War Two featuring the exploits of the eponymous organisation.

The novella is actually an expansion of one of the stories featured in Ragnarok Rising, the first novel in the series which will be released in the summer. It was written by way of an introduction to Damocles and features many of the characters who populate the world we created and, whilst it works perfectly as a standalone read, also drops a few teasers and hints to events in the novel.

Wings in the Darkness tells of the search, by Damocles, for a vitally important artefact and a such involved a humongous amount of research in order to create a realistic scenario for where, and how, it was hidden in the first place. We both knew where it was of course, but the trick lay in getting our characters to do their own research in order that they could track it down, laying down a trail of clues for them to follow. Enter some warring Iron Age tribes, ancient Norse kings, an expert on the Icelandic sagas and a folklorist with a specialised interest in the “hidden people” and the scene was set.

As with writing the novel itself, I hugely enjoyed co-writing Wings in the Darkness. I can’t wait to invite people into the world we’ve created and the novella is the fist step in that process. It will be available as an ebook for Kindle only and is the bargain price of only 99p. It can be pre-ordered here.

Thursday, 6 May 2021

The Damocles Files Volume One: Ragnarok Rising.

 Just over three years ago, my very good friend Benedict J Jones approached me with an offer to co-write some stories with him based on the exploits of a secret government organisation during World War Two whose remit was to investigate and combat the occult machinations of the Axis powers. I, of course, leapt at the chance. We’d already collaborated on the Dark Frontiers series of horror western novellas and know each other’s writing inside out, it was a real no-brainer for me.

So we began writing. As usual, Ben already had a huge array of characters ready formed to throw into action along with tons of background information on the organisation he had called Damocles. Using that as my starting point I launched myself into the writing, creating my own characters (and appropriating one I’d already used in some short stories).

It was soon after we’d started writing that the idea came to create an overarching storyline and present the stories as a novel with a fractured narrative rather than a straightforward collection. Which only made the project more exciting as far as I was concerned. And more of a challenge, it has to be said. There was a degree of retro-fitting going on once the stories were finished and one story in particular was re-written four times to adapt to the evolving narrative.

I loved every moment of it. I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed a writing process as much as I have creating The Damocles Files. The solitary nature of writing appeals to my hermit-in-training lifestyle and outlook on life but the whole process of co-authoring was amazing, with ideas sparking back and forth between us and, I have to admit, generating a sense of competition - seeing who could come up with the next plot twist or development in the narrative.

On the whole, we would write the individual stories on our own but on a couple of occasions we co-wrote a story. Most notably we did this for the novella that concludes the novel which has four different timelines running simultaneously. From what began as an idea for a collection of shorts, a 110,000 word epic has emerged and I couldn’t be prouder of the final product. I think it contains some of Ben’s best writing (and one of his darkest, most compelling characters), and I’m really pleased with what I contributed too.

The history has been meticulously researched and a number of real life events (and people) are featured in the storyline. It’s an unabashedly pulp novel full of derring-do, grand heroic gestures and noble sacrifice. It also has werewolves, undead Vikings, ancient mariners and ghost ships. There are twenty two stories in total, plus an epilogue, which range in length from a few hundred words to the aforementioned novella and cover the entirety (almost) of the war.

The artwork which graces the cover of the book is provided by Peter Frain of 77Studios, the creative genius responsible for (amongst many others) the covers of the Dark Minds novellas. His idea knocked the hugely unimaginative ones I’d had into a cocked hat and what he’s come up with is a perfect encapsulation of the feel of the book. The nods towards the design of a famous comic are done with love and respect as well as a huge amount of skill.

The novel will be available this summer. By way of whetting people’s appetites, and introducing Damocles and some of its employees, we decided to write a short story which we’d make available prior to release. As these things do, the short story became an 18,000 word novella… Wings in the Darkness is an expansion of one of the stories in the novel and will be released on May 21st. It’s available for pre-order now at the bargain price of 99p.

I loved working on The Damocles Files and hope the end product is as enjoyable to read as it was to write. And yes, this is Volume One – we’re 80,000 words into Volume Two which follows the same format but focuses on an entirely different theatre of the war. There'll be standalone short stories and novellas to come too. Exciting times!

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Under A Raven's Wing.


Under A Raven’s Wing
is a new collection of stories by Stephen Volk and is published by PS Publishing. The seven stories contained within this beautifully produced book describe the exploits of a young Sherlock Holmes and his tutelage, in the Paris of the 1870s, by another famous fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin. It’s a marvellous concept bringing together the two men - the veteran and the rookie - with the old master passing on his knowledge and wisdom to the young man at the beginning of his career, and something Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would heartily approve of I’m sure, having acknowledged his own debt to Poe’s detective when creating the character of Holmes.

All of the stories bar one are presented as letters from Holmes himself to Inspector Lestrade, written as the master detective nears the end of his own life; a neat inversion from the original stories in which the narrator was Holmes’ partner in crime(busting) Dr Watson. The final story, the incredibly poignant The Mercy of the Night, is the only one not to follow this format – except it sort of does. The bulk of the narrative is a letter from Dupin to Holmes – which finds its way to Lestrade nonetheless, courtesy of Holmes himself who adds his own correspondence as a coda, giving the whole thing the feeling of a story within a story, a dream within a dream.

I confess, the last sentence of that paragraph was a desperate attempt on my behalf to shoehorn a Poe reference in. And pretty awful it was – unlike those that are distributed about the book itself. There’s much joy to be had at spotting them – some are more obvious than others – and they’re an indication of just how much work has gone into producing these stories. The level of detail is astounding, in particular the recreation of the voices of the two fictional detectives both of which ring absolutely true.

With his wonderful Dark Masters Trilogy, Stephen showed himself a master at placing real people in fictional situations to produce compelling stories and insightful character studies. In Under A Raven’s Wing, he’s flipped that around, placing two fictional creations in real historical settings, populated by real people – including Jules Verne – and set against real events such as the dedication of the Statue of Liberty (a scene in which I believe I spotted an uncharacteristic lapse in the accuracy of Holmes’ recollections…) Jack the Ripper flits through one of the stories but there are nods to famous fictional characters too; the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame also get honourable mentions.

There’s great skill employed then in the creation of this fictional/real world but the key to the success of any crime fiction – which is what this is after all – is in the plots themselves, the crimes which have to be solved. Once again, the author has come up trumps; the mysteries here are ones Poe and Conan Doyle would have been proud of creating themselves – seemingly impossible crimes which are solved by the characteristic application of logic and rationality. Whilst Holmes might be the main subject of the book, the nature of the mysteries he and Dupin solve owe more to the latter’s creator, most strikingly in Father of the Man which involves the plot device of a premature burial (and which is my favourite of the collection).

In truth, the book is an origins story, telling as it does of the apprenticeship of Holmes. As such, it does a marvellous job of inhabiting the character and even provides explanations for, and origins of, many of the great detective’s trademarks; the magnifying glass, the violin – even his drug addiction.

I really can’t express how impressed I was with Under A Raven’s Wing. The stories in here are some of the best to feature the character of Sherlock Holmes that I’ve read – and bear favourable comparison to the originals. It’s proof yet again that Stephen Volk is one of the most creative writers currently plying their trade and also one of the most skilled at his craft. It’s a book I recommend highly.

Monday, 15 February 2021

There Goes Pretty


There Goes Pretty
is the latest novella from Dark Minds Press, the eighth in the series. It’s penned by C. C. Adams, an author whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past (and who featured a favourite monster of mine in his earlier novella But Worse Will Come).

It tells the story of the relationship between Denny and Olivia and opens with their wedding at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. As the couple begin their new life together, so the cracks begin to show – more than the to-be-expected frictions of living together though, there is an external agent interfering with their plans.

A feature of all Of C. C.’s writing has been the excellent characterisation he produces and There Goes Pretty is no exception to this. All the characters within are well formed with traits and habits which ring true. The relationships between those characters is another strength of his writing and this is definitely to the fore here. The interplay between Denny and Olivia and the mistakes they make (with the associated over-thinking) will be familiar to anyone in a relationship.

With the groundwork done establishing the characters and their relationship (and with only a little foreshadowing), the supernatural elements of the story are introduced about a third of the way into the novella. I have to say that the two main scenes in which this happens are extremely effective, generating a real sense of terror and panic.

They’re effective too in the way they fit into the narrative, happening when the couple are apart, casting an air of ambiguity over them and leading to a situation where trust becomes a major issue for the newly-weds.

As the relationship deteriorates, so the rationale for the strange events is revealed. Whilst I was cool with the reveal I did feel that it could have been done in a more dramatic way than it is here, there’s no real “wow” factor to the revelation.

The book rallies for a strong, and clever, finish though – one that nicely plays with the themes of friendship, loyalty, trust and love which have run through the book.

I liked There Goes Pretty very much; it’s further evidence of an author on the brink of big things and a fine addition to a fine range of novellas. Once again the stunning artwork featuring the characteristic red/black colour scheme is provided by 77Studios.

You can buy There Goes Pretty here.

Thursday, 28 January 2021

On the Shoulders of Otava


On the Shoulders of Otava is a novella by Laura Mauro and is published by Absinthe Books, a new imprint of PS Publishing. Its title is taken from a line of the Kalevala, a nineteenth century epic poem which recounts the oral history of Finnish folklore and mythology. Extracts from the poem provide epigraphs for each chapter of the book - appropriately so, given the prominence the mythology has in the narrative of the novella.

The story is set in 1918, during the civil war which raged in Finland as a result of the political vacuum left behind after the end of the First World War. This conflict was a horribly literal class war, fought between the mainly middle and upper class Whites and the Reds of the Socialist Workers’ Republic. The war lasted fifteen weeks but tens of thousands died, many at the hands of death squads and executioners.

The protagonists of On the Shoulders of Otava belong to a unit of the Womens’ Guard -  a division of the Red Guard. Around 2000 women served in such units, some as young as fourteen. The story focuses on the experiences of Siiri, and begins with her glimpsing a shadowy figure in a churchyard, wandering as if in a trance. This figure turns out to be a fellow – male - soldier who, the next day, carries out a violent, seemingly unprovoked, attack on the squad leader.

The scene describing the attack is cleverly written – as are so many within the book – with the action happening at a distance, almost off-camera and only its aftermath being described in any detail. The reader gets to share the shock of the book’s characters as the nature of the wounds which have been inflicted are revealed in the discussion that follows the attack.

This flash of violence also serves to introduce the mystical aspects of the story (although this is kinda foreshadowed with the gothic-tinged shadow in the churchyard scene). The attack was completely out of character for the perpetrator – a “goody-goody” by all accounts – but the possibility is raised that it could be linked to his prior disappearance on a hunting trip in the woods during which he experienced what may have been a supernatural event.

As the narrative progresses, and Sirii and her companions find themselves isolated in those same woods, so the supernatural elements come more into play. The choice of an ancient woodland as location is a perfect one and an incredible sense of atmosphere is generated by some wonderful prose. It’s an inspired choice of location too, given the prevalence of the natural world, and animals in particular, in Finnish folklore. Most notable among these are Otso, the bear - a major player in the creation mythology and Tulikettu the firefox. Amid the established mythology, Laura has added (as far as I can tell) her own invention – that of ghost-lighting. It’s an intriguing concept, and one which lies at the heart of the narrative - so any further discussion here will unavoidably lead to spoilers.

Finnish folklore is possibly less well known to most than other nations’ variations – not least the Norse mythology of their Scandinavian neighbours and therefore necessitates some introduction. This is done skilfully however; the stories are cleverly woven into the narrative, never once feeling bolted on, instead merging into the flow of the story seamlessly.

Ambiguity plays a big part of course. The best weird fiction balances the fantastic with the normal, allowing the reader to arrive at their own decisions as to what is real and what isn’t. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap if being too obtuse, and leaving the reader scratching their head as to what they’ve just read. Such is not the case here. That fine line has been navigated very successfully and the novella is as accomplished at creating a sense of awe and wonder as it is in recording the harsh reality of being at war in a hostile climate.

On the Shoulders of Otava is a wonderful piece of writing. It’s beautifully constructed, the themes it establishes in the opening scenes carried through consummately to the conclusion. It’s a (relatively) short read but manages to pack in some great characters (and their interactions and motivations), social and political comment that doesn’t bludgeon the reader, elegant prose (written in a hugely involving present tense), a brilliantly created sense of atmosphere and a salutary reminder of mankind’s place (i.e. insignificance) in the grand scheme of things. It’s a book I highly recommend.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Wyrd and Other Derelictions


The theatre critic Vivian Mercier once described Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as a play in which “nothing happens. Twice.” In much the same way, Adam Nevill’s new collection Wyrd and Other Derelictions from his own Ritual Ltd could be described as a book in which nothing happens. Seven times.

Mercier’s quote wasn’t meant to be disparaging of course, (quite the opposite in fact), and neither is my appropriation and modification of it; the stories in Wyrd are what the author describes as “derelictions” and are all set in the aftermath of some terrible event, consisting of descriptive passages of the evidence left behind. Thus, nothing actually happens during the stories - but a lot has certainly happened just prior to them beginning. Hippocampus, the story which opens the collection is one of my favourite pieces of short fiction anyway, much of that admiration being for the style in which it was written so it’s wonderful that Adam has taken that concept and run with it, developing and expanding it to produce the six original stories which accompany it.

Given the nature of the stories there are of course no characters in which to invest your emotions and no dialogue. What we have instead are long passages of descriptive prose, a presentation of evidence and inferences from which the reader must discern what has happened. It’s a bold move and in order to work requires writing of the highest order.

Which, of course, it has. Whilst in essence the stories are lists of observations, the writing is so assured and skilful that they read like extended prose poems, composed in such a way that there is a momentum to the words, a rhythm and pace which pulls the reader in and carries them along. The imagery created is sublime and unsettling; symmetrically arranged stones, dimly lit rooms, buildings full of the dead… I’m often guilty of comparing Adam’s work to film technique - so once more can’t hurt: the stories in Wyrd put me in mind of long, single-take tracking shots, the camera moving fluidly through a scene. Such sequences can help build tension – especially if they are dialogue-free – the viewer waiting for something to happen, for something or someone to suddenly appear, and this is exactly the feeling that’s created by all of the stories in this book. The power of suggestion has rarely been so effectively deployed.

[As I write this part of the review, I’m struck by the thought that the sequence in Goodfellas sound-tracked by Layla and showing the discovery of the bodies is pretty much a filmic version of a dereliction: aftermath displayed in all its wordless glory: ]

Because the reader is an active participant in the discoveries made within the stories, they are written in present tense, something which only helps to increase the tension. Implied within the form of the stories is the presence of an unseen narrator – or more properly a guide, leading the reader from one gruesome discovery to the next. On the whole, the guide offers no explanation or rationale, simply points out what is to be seen, allowing the reader to reach their own conclusions. I say on the whole as in some of the later stories, the guide certainly becomes more conversational, even offering up some suggestions as to what might have happened. I saw this as an evolution of the form as the book progressed, the style and content changing ever so slightly – or perhaps as signs of a growing familiarity between guide and reader. This is most apparent in the story Monument which at some points even drifts into second person, describing directly how “you” feel and the narrator/guide referring to “we” on a couple of occasions. I started reading Wyrd late at night and (because I'm old) had to read it in two goes but my advice would be to read it all at one go if possible, (definitely achievable, the overall length is that of a novella), and enjoy the subtle changes in the relationship fully.

There’s a change in the timing of the point of entry into the stories too. Whilst the early stories show the aftermath of events only, later tales offer fleeting glimpses of the perpetrators and create a feeling that events are still unfolding. The horrifying prospect that what is being described is not just an aftermath but also a beginning is one which looms large in these later tales.

The dead litter the pages, often described in forensic detail that isn’t for the faint-hearted. The “who” of the whodunnit is most obvious in the title story of the collection even if the “why” is open to speculation but in the rest there are only hints as to who, or what, has perpetrated the foul deeds on display. Hints of supernatural interference abound, possibly even extra-terrestrial forces have been at work here. Notably, there’s a distinctly coastal theme to the locations described, a perfect choice, a place where two worlds intersect and most of the aftermaths described are in remote areas, their isolation adding to the atmosphere and feelings of abandonment – and yes, dereliction - wonderfully.

Wyrd is an incredible piece of work. As I stated earlier it’s a bold move on the author’s part to take it on and the stories will not be to everyone’s liking. In musical terms this is definitely a concept album but in my opinion the concept is a brilliant one and the experience of reading this collection is one I thoroughly enjoyed and one I’m looking forward to repeating very soon. As ever, the book itself is a work of art with the impeccable production qualities we’ve grown to expect from Ritual. Once again, a stunning piece of art from Samuel Araya graces the front cover.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Wyrd pushes the boundaries of short fiction writing. Adam Nevill has produced a work of stunning originality and may even have created a new sub-genre in horror fiction. I loved this collection and can’t recommend it highly enough.


Friday, 14 August 2020

The Fallen


My second novel The Fallen is being published in September by Demain Publishing. This will be my third collaboration with the press, and its head honcho the irrepressible Dean M Drinkel, with my novella The Lost featuring in their debut publication, the WW1 themed anthology The Darkest Battlefield and my short story Shattered taking the number 11 slot in the Short, Sharp Shocks series.

The Fallen tells the story of three different times mankind has come into contact with the same supernatural force – a fallen angel – those times being the present day, during World War Two and at the end of the sixteenth century. The protagonists are the scientists onboard an Arctic research vessel, the merchant seamen onboard an oil tanker which is part of an Arctic convoy and a group of mercenaries hunting down religious icons for Tzar Ivan the Terrible respectively.

The novel is presented in a nested format, with the present day section providing the first and last parts, wrapped around the World War Two section which is itself split around the Russian section which makes up the heart of the story. The plan was to show the interlinking nature of the three sections, and how actions in one would have consequences in the others and this seemed a more interesting way of doing it rather than just presenting them in chronological order. I did toy with the idea of presenting them in reverse order, which could have worked quite well, but decided in the end to stick with the more convoluted format.

Mt original idea was to write a novella set in an Arctic convoy and as I began plotting, I realised that it would need a prologue. When that prologue – the Russia section - turned out to be 25000 words or so, I realised that I had a novel on my hands… About halfway through writing the WW2 section, I had the feeling that the novel would need something more – which is how the present day section came about. The three sections were written in their entireties: Russia first, then WW2 and finally the present day section. Only after all were completed did I chop them up into the order they appear in the final version. That said, I’d made the decision to use the format whilst I was writing the WW2 section – which allowed me to arrive at a suitably cliff-hanging point at which to make a break both in this section and the present day one.

The Fallen is a creature-feature and is partly a homage to the books and films which I love and which have influenced the things I write about. The most obvious cinematic references are to The Thing (and The Thing from Another World) and Alien. It’s always tricky getting the balance right in situations like this but hopefully I’ve succeeded in paying homage rather than blatantly ripping off. There are enough references in the text – overt and subtle – to acknowledge the debt I owe to them.

I had a great time writing The Fallen and I hope the enthusiasm I felt has transferred onto the page. At heart I’m a frustrated film director and writing this novel has allowed me to present the epic blockbuster I’d have loved to direct. It has some of the biggest set-pieces I’ve ever written but hopefully enough human drama to make you care about the characters I’ve pitted against the demon.

My thanks again to Dean for taking this on and also to Adrian Baldwin for creating such a fine cover. The Fallen will be available first as an e-book then later as a paperback and you can pre-order it here.