I Didn’t Mean to Call You a Meatloaf, Jack!

So why did I want to write about werewolves, at least for my first novel or three?

Well, for a few reasons. Firstly, werewolves are kickass and anyone who says different is a dirty liar. Secondly, because everyone else seems to be writing about zombies, and I’m all rebellious and non-conformist and whatnot. And thirdly, because werewolves have always scared the living crap out of me… but perhaps not for the reasons you’d expect.

My relationship with lycanthropes goes back over thirty years, to when I was a little boy with a big imagination. In those days one of the local TV networks (Crom bless ‘em) used to play a late-night horror flick every Sunday, and my older siblings sometimes used to stay up to watch them. Not that I ever had the guts to join them – no, I was tucked up safely in bed, trying not to listen to the horrible noises coming from the living room. Along with The Exorcist and The Omen, one of the late-night nasties I got to listen to through the bedroom door was The Howling. Imagination being what it is, I’d probably have been a lot less scared if I’d been able to see what was happening on the TV, but at that age the very idea of werewolves was enough to put me in the foetal position with the covers over my head.

Fast forward a few years and I got a little braver, enough to sit down and watch An American Werewolf in London, and finally sit through The Howling (albeit from the edge of my seat). I quickly figured out, though, that I wasn’t frightened by the scenes with werewolves running about attacking people – it was the transformation scenes that had me grimacing and looking away from the screen. David Kessler thrashing about on the living room floor while his body warped and twisted around him, Eddie Quist’s face rippling and bulging as the hungry beast inside him found its way out, the whole “body horror” aspect of a man turning into an animal – that was the stuff that terrified me. I wasn’t as afraid of being attacked by a werewolf as I was of turning into one.

With American Werewolf, of course, that was kind of the whole deal. The idea of the werewolf as a lurking menace in the dark is there – the attack on the moors that kills Jack and turns David is pretty terrifying stuff – but the real horror (and comedy) in that film comes from David gradually realising that he is the menace in the dark, the monster is lurking inside him, and what the hell does he do about it? This is a theme that plays out in many of your better werewolf stories, of course, and David goes through all the guilt and self-loathing that any good lycanthrope should (it gets a little more in-your-face in his case, of course, since the ghosts of his victims are literally following him around). But it was that gruesome visceral aspect of watching your own body transform into something nasty that always carried the “nope” factor for me. And while some werewolf flicks only hint at the transformation – using dim lighting or clever camera angles to fool the eye – American Werewolf revels in showing us the entire transformation from start to finish, in full lighting, with lingering close-ups on every stretching, twisting body part. The fact that it’s all happening in an ordinary suburban living room, with “Blue Moon” playing on the radio and a plastic Mickey Mouse looking on indifferently from the coffee table, only serves to make it more surreal and horrible.

Others have played around with the idea in their own ways, of course. Ginger Snaps linked the idea of werewolf body horror to the obvious (some might say too obvious) metaphor of puberty and menstruation. The Howling turned the “ick” factor up to 11 by showing us two crazy lycanthrope kids wolfing out mid-coitus (and you probably thought Chris Stone’s pornstache was creepy enough on its own). The 1994 movie Wolf with Jack Nicholson (a woefully underrated flick, by the by) turned the transformation into a slowly-advancing condition, with ol’ Jack becoming more and more lupine every night until the next full moon. The Hellboy story  The Wolves of Saint August (based on the legend of the cursed Alba clan) focused on the religious aspects of the werewolf mythos, and the idea that the animal takes over not only the body  but the soul as well (“Each time more of the creature remains, until all that is man is this thin skin”). And then of course Hellboy beat the crap out of a werewolf with an iron crucifix, because he’s practical like that.

So how do I handle it? Well, Coppertown Red is primarily a horror/action story with a little mystery thrown in, so there’s plenty of distressing transformations and gory violence to be had. But my werewolves (much like my vampires) come in all shapes and sizes, and also differ in their attutitudes to who and what they are. Some have been born with it and don’t know any other way to be; others have been infected and have to decide where their loyalties lie -whether to cling to their humanity or embrace their feral side, especially when the inevitable full moon throwdown kicks off. The upcoming second book – The Species Problem – will deal with the even thornier question of whether a werewolf should even be considered a human being… or, for that matter, treated like one.

All of which might be an interesting exploration of the psychology and culture of werewolves, or might just be me trying to figure out what makes them tick because they still scare the bejesus out of me, and I’m too fecking big to hide behind the sofa.

Next time, I’ll (hopefully) have some news of things to come. Watch this space.

I’m readin’:

Down Town by Viido Policarpus and Tappan King

Monster Pets: Dracula’s Cat by Gary Buettner

I’m writin’:

A new story featuring Helena “Borrowed Time” Downwright, and (lightly) revising the old one.


Words In The Heart Cannot Be Taken

I was going write something about werewolves this weekend (or more accurately, write something about writing about werewolves… never mind) but as you’re probably aware by now, something came up.

Sir Terry Pratchett is one of those names that’s kind of woven into the fabric of my adolescence, along with Douglas Adams and John Wagner and Steve Jackson and John Cleese. I don’t exactly remember when I first bought my copy of The Colour of Magic (the first of the iconic Discworld novels) but it’s still sitting on the shelf not three feet from my desk. The pages have gone yellow (and a wee but smelly) the front cover is long gone and the spine looks like it’s been chewed by tiny dragons, but there it still sits, along with about a dozen other Pratchett tomes. I’ve owned, loaned and lost many others over the decades, from the Discworld to The Carpet People to Good Omens, Pratchett’s apocalyptic collaboration with Neil Gaiman.

I first found myself attracted to Pratchett’s work because I was a budding fantasy geek, and in the early Discworld books I was to discover “heroic barbarians, chthonic monsters, beautiful princess and fiery dragons… but none of them is doing business as usual,” as Publishers’ Weekly would have it. Rincewind (the “singularly inept and cowardly wizard” who only knew one spell, because it had stowed away in his brain and refused to leave) was the kind of cynical, self-serving but immediately likeable character that it’s all too easy to latch onto, and Pratchett’s odd mix of rollicking adventure and shrewd comedy immediately appealed to me, even if my spongy tweenage brain wasn’t quite ready to grasp all the satirical undertones woven through it. It moved me in all sorts of geeky ways, including creating a loosely-Pratchett-inspired roleplaying world for my nerdy friends to swashbuckle and smartarse their way through from week to week.

And of course it inspired me as a writer, or at least as a spotty kid who wanted to be one. I won’t bore you (or embarrass myself) with recollections of my early efforts, but as a wee lad hammering out disjointed chunks of jokey sci-fi/fantasy gibberish at my dad’s computer (to be shared only with my aforementioned geeky friends, who were doing the same) Pratchett’s work was the stuff I was always trying to emulate. I even avoided chapters, and included footnotes.

Of course, Pratchett knew a lot of things I didn’t. As stated in the revised edition of The Carpet People, he’d once thought fantasy was all about “battles and kings”, but eventually came to the conclusion that “the real concerns of fantasy ought to be about not having battles, and doing without kings”. His gifts for satire and social commentary were something I learned to appreciate as I got older, as he took shots at politics, religion, racism, war, the press, the music and movie industries, and just about everything else he could think of, all through the skewed lens of the Discworld. He once said that fantasy was a genre that allowed an author to “bend the universe around the story”, and the Disc was a setting in which he could write just about any kind of story he wanted, whether it be a gothic horror or a war story or a police procedural. He handled them all with the same dry humour and eye for parody, but underneath it all was the very real sense that he always had something important to say.

There has been (and will be) a lot written about Pratchett this week – his numerous other works, his struggles with Alzheimer’s (or “the Embuggerance”, as he called it) and his beliefs on illness, death and assisted suicide (though apparently his death was natural). But when I first saw the news of his much-too-early demise, my thoughts were of those many adventures in the Discworld – of Rincewind and Twoflower and the Luggage; of Cohen the Barbarian and the Silver Horde; of Death and Mort; of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg; of Tiffany Aching and the Nac Mac Feegle; of Samuel Vimes and the City Watch. What they meant to me in my awkward spotty years, and what they mean to me now. The stuff I’m writing these days is nothing at all like Pratchett (or my early attempts to emulate him) but the man and his works will always be a source of inspiration.

Next time, I’ll get to those werewolves.

I’m readin’: Eric by Terry Pratchett (in tribute); Conan: The Song of Belit (graphic novel)

I’m writin’: My will, just in case Cyclone Pam gets me.

How the internet turned me into an author

It just so happened that the release of my first novel, Coppertown Red, more or less coincided with the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, give or take a week or two. At the time, a certain YouTube vlogger asked viewers to reflect on the biggest impact that the web had had on their lives.

Mine was easy.

See, the internet’s a wonderful place for a writer. Not only do you have access to all the inspiration and research materials you could ever wish for, but it also gives you a public forum to try out your writing on real people. Some use the web as a means to bypass traditional publishing completely, produce their own books and get them directly into the hands of their readers, and there’s nothing wrong with taking that route. But I had more or less the opposite experience.

Go back ten or eleven years, and you’d find me posting (not very good) serialized fiction online, by way of a couple of creative writing forums I frequented at the time. It was there that I first encountered Thom Brannan – he of Lords of Night and Pavlov’s Dogs, among many others – who took a liking to my early stuff (it still escapes me why) and offered to host some of it on his website, alongside the early versions of his “Faceless PI” stories. We did this for several years, in various forms, and aside from directly sharing/collaborating on a couple of things we’ve always enjoyed a back-and-forth exchange of ideas, some of which have yielded writing results. But through my online dealings with Thom (who, to this day, I’ve never actually met in person) I was also starting to encounter other writers, not to mention editors and publishers. I also got to witness (if not really participate in) conversations about writing and the publishing business.

After a while, I also started to tentatively submit stories to open anthologies. My first publishing success came, I admit, from jumping on Thom’s coat-tails when we co-authored a story for Permuted Press’ Times of Trouble anthology. Then a couple of years ago I saw a call for submissions to Pill Hill / Emby Press’ The Trigger Reflex (the second volume in their Legends of the Monster Hunter series) edited by Miles Boothe. Since most of my online fiction revolved around a character who was a professional monster hunter, I decided to contact Miles and try my luck with a (heavily reworked) version of one of those stories (entitled ‘Till the Sun is in the Sky). Miles being the gentleman that he is, I was ultimately successful and got my first solo story in print. And a couple of published stories later, we got into a conversation about me expanding some of my ideas into a novel.

This was where the learning curve really began. Writing a novel-length manuscript to completion – not to mention working to a deadline – is really one of those things you can only learn by actually doing it. And while I can’t speak for anyone else, it’s not something I would have been able to do on my own. I needed advice on how to outline the story and stick to a writing schedule; I needed insights and criticisms on the various drafts as they unfolded; I needed people to read the damn thing for me and point out my mistakes. Besides Miles and Thom – both of whom came through with volumes of invaluable advice – I found help from a number of other people who proofread and critiqued the book at various stages of the writing and editing process, helping me polish it up all shiny and ultimately make it a better novel than I could have managed by myself. And with one notable exception, I’ve never spoken to any of those people face to face. Met ‘em all online.

So that’s the biggest thing the 25-year-old web has done for me. Given me the means to finally have a proper go at being an author, and put me in touch with people who can help me along the way. So thanks, internet. And thanks to all those people.

Next time, I’ll tell you about my love/hate relationship with werewolves, and why I wanted to write about them in the first place.

I’m readin’: The Vampire Hunters by Scott Baker

I’m writin’: A synopsis for the not-yet-titled third book in the Hand That Feeds trilogy.