Monday, March 28, 2016

Quis es iste qui venit? Ghosts, obviously...

Ghost stories are a favourite thing of mine. Love reading them, love writing them.

As well as my young adult novels, I've written quite a few supernatural short stories over the years, some of which were collected in The Sea Change and Other Stories (Swan River Press, 2013). I'm pleased to say that one of my latest ghost stories, The Watchmaker, is part of a new ghostly anthology from Shadows at the Door. Other contributors include Pete Alex Harris, Caitlin Marceau, Mark Cassell and K.B. Goddard.

As you may know, I'm a great fan of the ghost story writer M.R.James, and my previous work has included a completion of his unfinished story The Game of Bear. I don't write exclusively Jamesian or James-inspired stuff; past stories have included a tale set in the very modern world of scuba diving, and one inspired by Perthshire local history. The Watchmaker, however, was specifically inspired by James's story A View From a Hill. You don't need to have read M.R.James to read The Watchmaker; the story stands on its own. But if you are a fan of MRJ's stories, you may enjoy the fact that it is a kind of sequel to his tale - and you may quickly develop some ideas of your own about the "watchmaker" of the title... At any rate, I can promise you mystery, apparitions, disturbed graves and grim death. What's not to like?

The aim is to crowdfund the anthology through a Kickstarter project, which you can find here: Shadows at the Door anthology. We are aiming to raise £11,500 by 16th April, with contributions starting from as little as £1 and contributor rewards starting at £6 for a copy of the anthology in e-book format. Please do take a look and consider whether you might support this project! For a contribution of £25 for example, you would receive a copy of the illustrated hardback version of the anthology, a download of the audiobook version and your name on the acknowledgements page, so that you can, as editor Mark Nixon puts it, "live on in infamy"! Some of the small press anthologies to which I have previously contributed were priced at £30 per book, so this is a good value offer. Please do take a look!

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Death by bus pass

The other day I had tea with a book blogging friend (very nice tea it was, too; accompanied by croissants). Going to visit anyone always requires a bit of planning on my part, because we have one car and I don't often have it. Public transport to and from my town is limited to buses (the train line closed down in 1964, alas), and the buses run a rather patchy service.

When I arrived at the friend's, this was very much on my mind, and I remarked that I missed the public transport network in Flanders, where we used to live. There was a really excellent local bus service that ran from the airport at Zaventem to the swimming pool in Overijse and passed right through our village; there was a connecting tram (the 44, pictured) which went straight into Brussels; and after that of course there was the Metro and the rail network. I used the buses a lot and I recalled that they ran very frequently (every half hour or so) until fairly late in the evening.
"Ah," said the friend, "I did wonder."
She had read all of my Forbidden Spaces books, which are set in Flanders, and had noticed that the heroine managed to catch buses home at hours that would be unthinkable in my corner of rural Perthshire. Was this really possible, or was it invention on my behalf?

When I was working on those books, I took a lot of care to make sure that everything in them was as factually accurate as possible. I used to travel about on many of the same routes that my heroine, Veerle De Keyser uses: the 830 De Lijn bus, the 44 tram, the Brussels Metro. So I was fairly familiar with the timetables to begin with, but I took care to double check all of them. I took especial care with the public transport in the city of Ghent, which is the setting of the second book, Demons of Ghent; there is a scene at the beginning in which someone wants to get up to no good in the mediaeval city centre, and I wanted to be sure that at the time the action took place, there was no chance of him being seen by a tram full of shocked tourists rattling past (NB there is no chance of it; the Ghent trams stop in the small hours).

Apart from a very few scenes in the trilogy - when the hero Kris Verstraeten borrows his cousin Jeroen's car, for example - Veerle and her friends travel around entirely by public transport. On the night when Veerle first encounters the Koekoeken, the secret community of urban explorers who appear in Silent Saturday, she is actually travelling about by bus; she looks out of the bus window and sees a light where there should be no light, and gets off to investigate. On other occasions, she and Kris travel to the places they intend to explore by bus or tram; they go to confront someone in the city of Brussels by a combination of bus, tram and Metro. Even in the dramatic denouements of Silent Saturday and the final book, Urban Legends, Veerle gets to her rendez-vous with the serial killer by public transport!

I have to say that it didn't really occur to me to move my characters around the locations in the book by any other means than public transport. Veerle is 17 in Silent Saturday after all, and still at school; she would be unlikely to have the means to run a car. Many of the buildings she and Kris visit are fairly local to Tervuren and the pair can get about more inconspicuously by bus and by foot than by parking a car outside them. So there are practical reasons why buses and trams are such a part of the narrative. But actually I mainly used public transport in the books because I could. When we lived in Flanders I found it a really good way of getting about. The buses really do run that late, and to all those places.

If I tried to set Forbidden Spaces in my current home town, I'd struggle. The buses from Perth, though not as frequent as the Flemish buses, do run until fairly late in the evening, but on some nights of the week you cannot get a bus back from Stirling much after 7.30pm. That would put a bit of a damper on any urban exploration requiring the cover of darkness.

There's one other problem, too; as my blogging friend's husband pointed out, if you live in an area with very infrequent buses, you'd probably be able to track the evil killer pretty easily by looking at the time of the murder and then at the bus timetable...

Buses: transport for the discerning heroine.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Nosferatu live! (or possibly, undead)

Yes, I've said before that I don't really "do" reviews, and yes, here I am, doing a review again...

Back in November 2014, I reported seeing Fritz Lang's Metropolis with a live piano score by composer Dmytro Morykit, who is local to my part of Scotland. I hugely enjoyed the experience - it's wonderful seeing a silent film with music that has been sensitively tailored to it. At the time, there was some talk of Dmytro creating a similar score for F.W.Murnau's horror classic Nosferatu, and I'm thrilled to say that this has actually happened. The premiere was before Christmas, but there was a performance last weekend at the Strathearn Artspace, which I attended.

I'd actually seen Nosferatu once before, many years ago, but I was surprised how much of it I'd forgotten. It's remarkably chilling when you consider that it came out in 1922, without the special effects that are commonplace today, and without even the spoken word. I particularly relished the moment when the hero, Hutter, investigates the cellar of Count Orlok's castle and finds a large sarcophagus - peering through a rent in the lid, he sees a sliver of the Count's face including one large protruding eye! Shudder. The moments when Orlok sucks blood from his victims are also genuinely repellent (NB you can tell a horror film fan when they see "genuinely repellent" as a GOOD thing).

Dmytro Morykit's new score for the film is stunning - dramatic, stirring, sometimes eerie. Creating music for a film of this type and age has potential pitfalls - stray to close to the territory of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor and you would probably have the audience chuckling. My impression of Dymtro's score is that it concentrated on expressing the emotions of the characters - bravery, anxiety, fear, desperation, love - which made it a passionate and involving experience for the audience. As with Metropolis, Dmytro played flawlessly for several hours, and received a standing ovation at the end.

I thoroughly recommend seeing Nosferatu if you are able. The next performance is on Saturday 6th February at the Byre Theatre in St. Andrew's. For future tour dates check Dmytro Morykit's Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.

Above: Dmytro Morykit and his manager Hazel Cameron at Strathearn Artspace. 
I said this was a "live" performance, but now I'm wondering...

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Beach House: Jimmy Perez trophy winning short crime story

The Shetland Noir book festival held in Lerwick in November 2015 included a short story writing competition. Shetland Noir Writing Competition, the prize being the Jimmy Perez Trophy (with kind sponsorship by Ann Cleeves).

The competition rules stated:

To enter, submit one piece of crime fiction: 500-1000 words

Your piece must contain all of the following ingredients:
At least one corpse, or part thereof
One darkened room
At least one Nordic reference
The misuse of at least one kitchen utensil
A telephone that rings unanswered

THE BEACH HOUSE by Helen Grant, posted here and on Wattpad, was the winning story. The 2nd prize was won by Matthew Wright with AND THE HILLS SANG WITH BLOOD and the 3rd prize by Marina Marinopoulos with JUST DESERTS.

* * * * *


Too damn early. There was a flat bright quality to the early morning light that made his eyes hurt. All the black coffee in the world wasn’t going to help. He’d grabbed a kanelbulle, a cinnamon roll, as breakfast on the hoof, but it was sitting half-eaten in a bag on his lap as he drove. He’d taken one bite and lost interest. It was difficult to get pissed in Sweden with the cost of alcohol, but he’d managed it, and now the early sunshine made him feel as though his cranium were being x-rayed.
Shortly before the Haverdal turning, he tried phoning again; once he got to the crime scene, there’d be no chance. It rang a few times, then went to voicemail again. This time he left a message.
“Christina? It’s me, Alexander. Call me back. Please.” He paused, sighing. “I’m sorry, okay? I shouldn’t have pressurised you. Don’t tell him now, or not ever if you don’t want to. Just call me back. I love you.”
He forced himself to turn his thoughts to the call-out, to prepare himself mentally for what he was going to have to look at. It was incongruous somehow: violent death in such a quiet and affluent place. He drove past opulent villas that posed as simple beach houses with their corrugated walls painted white or blue or red ochre. Robotic lawn mowers moved in silent trajectories across their perfect lawns. 
The house he wanted overlooked the sea. There were other vehicles there already, including an ambulance waiting patiently, siren off. Alexander parked on the street. He put on his protective gear, wincing as he bent to pull on the shoe covers; when he leaned forward the throbbing in his head intensified to an excruciating extent. Then he ducked under the tape and walked up to the front door, which was guarded by a uniformed officer with a grim nauseated expression on his face.
A bad one, then.
Inside the house, hooded and overalled figures were at work, looking strangely out of place amongst the expensive and deliberately understated furnishings. Someone recognised him.
“Inspector Rasmusson.”
Alexander nodded, then followed the woman into a spacious living room. The activity at the other end told him that that was where the body lay. The taste of the black coffee was like ashes in his mouth. He delayed the inevitable viewing for a few moments by asking who had called the incident in.
“Nosy neighbour?” he asked, but the woman shook her head.
“Nothing to see from outside. The blinds were down at both ends of the room. It was dark. Even if someone had been able to peep in, they probably wouldn’t have seen anything.”
“Phone call, apparently. Guy said he’d killed his partner and was going to kill himself. Wouldn’t give any names.”
“Who does the place belong to? Do you know?”
“A couple in Stockholm. It’s not them. The place was being let out to holidaymakers. Someone’s trying to get hold of the agent to find out who.”
Alexander nodded. He didn’t want to think about this, didn’t want to look at the remains. He wanted to check his phone again, see whether Christina had tried to call him back or maybe left a text message. He wanted to tell her he’d been an idiot, and whatever fragment of her life she was prepared to give him, that would be enough. I love you, he wanted to tell her.
There was only one way to do that, though, and that was to get the job over. He went to the other end of the room, where two of those otherworldy-looking suited figures were kneeling by the body.
One look was enough.
Satans helvete,” he swore. So much blood – but that wasn’t the worst of it. The half of the cinnamon bun that he had eaten threatened to come up again. “What the hell did he do to her?”
“Stabbed her with a kitchen knife,” said one of the men, looking up. “The other injuries were probably post mortem.”
“How do you know?” asked Alexander queasily. He’d seen some pretty bad stuff before, but nothing like this.
“Would you lie there and let someone take off your face with a cheese grater?” asked the man.
“That was what he used?”
The man nodded. “And took off the hair with kitchen scissors. It’s like he wanted to obliterate her completely.”
It was a point of honour not to show nausea in front of the crime scene examiners, but as soon as he could get away, Alexander went out for some air. From outside the house, he could see the curve of the beach and the sparkling surface of the sea. It looked idyllic, a bizarre contrast with the bloody horror he had just seen. It made him want more urgently than ever to speak to Christina, to grasp what happiness he could. With shaking fingers he pulled up her number and pressed the green call button.
When he heard her phone begin to ring at the other end of the line, he heard simultaneously a ringing from inside the house. He might not have made anything of this – everyone carried mobiles, after all – except that as Christina’s phone went to Voicemail, the ringing from indoors stopped abruptly.
That was strange, Alexander said to himself, doing his best to disregard the cold churning in the pit of his stomach. He called Christina again. By the time he heard the second answering ring from the house, he was on his way back inside. Voicemail again. He called a third time, stumbling into the living room, barely taking in the faces that turned towards him, open-mouthed as they heard him screaming out a name, over and over. Christina, Christina.
And still the phone rang on unanswered, from the pocket of the body.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Every picture tells a story

This weekend I was in Newcastle for the Books on Tyne book festival, where I did an illustrated talk about Mystery Fiction for Young Adults at the impressive City Library (pictured left). A very big thankyou to those who attended, and also to the library staff, who were super friendly and very welcoming. The library is altogther an amazing place and has a very nice cafe too. I can vouch for the high quality of the hot chocolate!

I hadn't visited Newcastle for a very long time - decades, I think. This is not very surprising since we lived abroad for quite a while. Anyway, I was very keen to see something of the city while we were there. I went down to the quayside and photographed the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, and went up to the frankly terrifying glass viewing box on the fifth floor of the Baltic arts centre. We also did some shopping and drank mulled wine at the Christmas market. I think, however, the thing that I enjoyed the very most was visiting the Laing Art Gallery, which is very close to the City Library.

I visit art galleries fairly often with my art-loving teenage daughter, who has made me stand in front of all sorts of surrealist, cubist, conceptual and expressionist art. Personally I like older stuff, so I was thrilled to see that the Laing gallery has an "18th and 19th century" room. I made a bee line for it. It did not disappoint - there was a brilliant selection of paintings, the most famous of which is probably William Holman Hunt's gorgeously ominous Isabella and the pot of basil. 

I very much liked this painting, by John Martin, entitled The Bard.

According to the notice on the wall next to it, the painting shows the destruction of the Welsh bards by King Edward I. You can see the last remaining bard defiantly poised on a cliff top, clutching his harp.

Here's a close up of that bard:

I was unreasonably fascinated by this painting. Why would anyone want to wipe out all the bards? It seems to me that that is taking "not really being into the Arts" to extremes. Before anyone writes in to explain exactly why King Edward I did this, I am going to look it up. I am just enjoying speculating a bit first. I'm guessing the bards were peddling subversive songs or something. I quite like to imagine them standing under King Edward's bedroom window strumming on their harps and launching into "There was a young fellow named Eddie" or similar, until he lost his kingly temper. 

Anyway, I did eventually manage to tear myself away from The Bard and look at the other paintings in the room, and it was then that I came upon this one:

It's called The Unknown and it's by John Charles Dollman. There was also an information panel for this painting, which talked about mythology and symbolism, but however you dress it up, it's a topless woman giving a lesson to chimps. I absolutely love this painting. Aside from the breezily confident lunacy of the subject matter, it absolutely begs the viewer to make up their own story about what is happening. In fact, some of my friends did make up their own stories, after I posted the painting on Facebook: 

I put it on Twitter, too (you can never see a picture of chimps having a lesson too many times) and fellow author Kate Wiseman surmised:

Then, of course, you have to wonder why that one particular chimp has gone off, while the others are still listening. Is that the chimp who is going to become the leader of the new chimp civilisation? Or is that the chimp who can't be bothered, and has gone off to see if there are any bananas, leaving the others to construct a democratic chimp state by themselves? So many questions. 

That's the beauty of a really striking painting. It fills our heads with new stories. If you have any ideas about what's going on, feel free to share! And in the meantime, if you find yourself in Newcastle (or need an excuse to go) do visit the Laing Gallery. The chimps await. 

"Pah, I'm not listening to any more of this. Planet of the Apes is on the telly."