Saturday, June 4, 2016

Stepping back in time

I'm a little shocked to see that I haven't blogged since March! Time flies when you're having, er, fun. Over the last months I've been working very intensely on an extensive rewrite of my work-in-progress. I have to be honest and say: I don't much enjoy doing big rewrites. In my dreams, the final draft falls through a wormhole in space so I can make sure it's that version the first time round... Sadly, this has never yet happened.

Anyway, on Thursday the fateful moment finally arrived when I was able to type THE END on the current draft. I always "sleep on" manuscripts before sending them off to the agent who represents me, just in case I have a blinding midnight revelation that the plot should have worked out differently or something. But yesterday morning, Friday, I finally sent the book off for perusal. Then came the question: what to do with the rest of the day?

I suppose I probably should have cracked my knuckles, made another cup of tea and started on the next book. Or done all those jobs that have been neglected over recent months, such as clearing out the things growing in the back of the fridge, or taking all the glass to the recycling banks. However, when you've been working on one project for quite this long, it's hard to disengage from it and go straight on to something else. In short, I had the heebie jeebies and couldn't bear to stay indoors a minute longer. I've spent far too much time recently sitting in front of a computer screen, so I thought I'd have an old-fashioned day and stay offline altogether for a bit.

Out came the trusty bicycle, and I cycled over to the Library of Innerpeffray, a distance of about four and a half miles via country lanes. It was a gorgeous sunny morning and the verges at the side of the road were overgrown with buttercups, clouds of cow parsley and yellow gorse. When I got to the Library, I briefly stuck my nose into the beautiful new downstairs room, and then I went upstairs to the older reading rooms. In the smaller one, I found an interesting book called TYPES OF ANIMAL LIFE by St. George Mivart, F.R.S., published in 1894. It included a rather charming collection of illustrations of unusual creatures (well, unusual to St. George Mivart, anyway) such as ring tailed lemurs and manatees. I had a look at that for a while, and admired the view of the river from the reading room window.

 When I'd finished in the reading room, I went into the churchyard which belongs to the chapel adjoining the Library. I had an idle stroll about inside the chapel, which I have visited many times before, and admired the leper squint (a tiny window through which the local lepers were permitted to view the services going on inside the church without having to sit next to anyone. Hmmm....). Then I sat in the churchyard among the gravestones and had bread and cheese for lunch - it seemed the most fitting thing for a vintage kind of day; you can't really cycle about the lanes, read ancient books and then stuff your face with a pulled pork wrap - it's far too 21st century. I wish I'd had some ginger beer but made do with water instead. Then I cycled home again.

Later that day when the rest of the family got home, we drove over to Kenmore and swam in Loch Tay, which is very briskly fresh (ok: freezing cold) at this time of year (you can still see small patches of snow on the hills and I suspect meltwater is coming down into the loch). We shared our picnic with the rapacious ducks. Altogether, it was a very old-fashioned day - a bit like stepping back into 1930 or something. It took my mind off work very nicely. In fact, I'm rather sorry to be back in 2016...

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.