After my collection came out last year, 2022 felt like a quieter year writing wise. Moving house in the middle of the year meant that my attention was elsewhere for a lot of the time. However, I did have several stories published over the year.
On the Hills, the Knitters – Bourbon Penn 26
The knitters moved to the elephant five years after the plague ended. Sam and I watched them walk up past the village, carrying their possessions in rucksacks and wheelbarrows.
When the wheels caught on broken limestone, they helped each other, carrying the barrows between them over the rough ground.
The elephant wasn’t ours. We never asked for the three hundred foot knitted effigy to be dumped on the mountainside above the village. We didn’t put it there, but it had been sprawled across the rocks so long, longer than I’ve been alive, we felt it was part of the village. When the wind blew in the right direction, we smelled it in the street, the decay of the wool rotting in the summer sun like dead lambs. Sometimes lengths of orange yarn floated down the slope to catch in the gutters. As kids, we collected the strands and wove them into bracelets, telling ourselves that the elephant would protect us from evil, though we never knew what evil it could defend us against. Exchanging them and wearing them around our wrists as friendship bands.
On the Hills, is one of my knitting cosmic horror stories, inspired by a major landscape artwork in Italy and dealing with grief, loss, outsiders, and crafting.
The sensation of damp gravel against his hand is exactly as Dave remembered, sharp and nauseating at the same time. He stands and brushes down his jeans, then looks at the tiny precise stones stuck to his palms by moisture and imprint.
The staircase rises above him like a concrete cascade frozen in a singular moment. His life still feels stuck around such a moment. He looks down at the path again, and is hit by the scent of pennies, but does not know if it is spilt blood or spilt money he is remembering.
The caves have changed since he was a child. Now many colors of bulbs highlight the stone wonders on either side of the walkway, where before there was only darkness and a fading torch. He touches the hardhat loaned to him by the attraction, and finds a safety sticker peeling away from the rim. He plays with the edge as he sits again on the damp floor.
Flowstone is a story inspired by two tourist attractions near my hometown of Harrogate. As with many of my stories it uses the frame of horror to explore grief and loss.
The Ercildoun Accord in Lackington’s 25 – Prehistories
Small Finds Nos.034-082
A series of small metal coins, heavily worn through apparent use. Each coin is stamped on the reverse and obverse. Larger than standard coinage and heavier, with a golden appearance. During the preparation to remove the finds from site, the material was identified as: leaves (variously sycamore, elm, and ash), sheep’s wool, and bone dust.
-Extract from Small Find Report Excavations in the Lower Kingdom of the Seven Silken Ghosts
I pour the hot fat into the concentric circles and watch it settle against the stone. The winds across the moor are fresh, cooling the fat white and opaque. In the central hammerstone-chipped cup I pour the whiskey, the alcohol staying golden. For years we did not know what the cup and ring stones were used for until we found the Calkerdale Stone in a peat bog, offerings preserved by the lack of air and death.
The irony of using prehistory as a gateway to study prehistory does not escape me. I place my hand against the rock, feeling the grain shift beneath my touch. The surface softens and flexes against my weight and then I’m reaching through for another place.
For a few moments after I arrive my skin is grey and glittered with feldspar, then fades back to normal flesh. In this place I feel myself ageing as everything around me does not. I can feel myself rotting with life.
This was so much fun to write! How would you carry out commercial archaeology in Faery? With great difficulty it turns out. I love stories about the fae that deal with the complexity of whim, whimsy and obligations, but also deal with the visceral character of the world.
The Taste of Sound in Analog Magazine July-August 2022
This is the Autonomous Population Emergency Broadcast System. This country has been disrupted by an unspecified event. We shall bring you further information as soon as possible. Meanwhile, stay calm and stay in your own homes. There is nothing to be gained by trying to get away. By leaving your homes you will be exposing yourself to greater danger. The safest place is indoors. We shall repeat this broadcast at regular intervals. Remain calm.
APEBS 0034 feels the microbes within its gut shift into a new configuration, allowing theflow of chemicals that activates the siren. The sound is intense and it retracts its aural canal, folding over the carbon fibre skin to protect its sensory system from damage. The sound will continue until all the sugar has been metabolised, before the broadcast is repeated.
The Taste of Sound is my second story in Analog and I’m so happy it found a good home. Again, this story came about from two ideas. The first was research for an article I wrote for Fortean Times about Emergency Population Warning Systems (there’s even a YouTube playlist I put together for the article here if you would like to be unsettled by strange sirens. The second inspiration was the living architecture work of Dr Rachel Armstrong (for example here).
You can read a Q&A I did with Analog about the story here.
Pellets in Not One of Us #70
I am scattered. I am fragments. I am separated. Hidden and distant from each other.
Most of me has been digested, even as I rotted, but some morsels survive, scattered in the leaf litter for the dirt to do its work.
Others are enwrapped in sparrow bones and rabbit tendons. Grit and dirt. I hear the bird’s wings against the sky. They rise into the air. I am spread between them, able to hear everything from within, as if my gristle lodged in their gullet becomes part of their vast elegance. Just for a while. Their feathers are a symphony and there are many feathers. Many scavengers feasted upon my corpse. Through their hunger I have become a multitude.
The inspiration for Pellets came from some research into which birds of prey make bone pellets, and the idea of fragmentation after death but awareness and identity remaining.
A copy of Not One of Us can be purchased via the website.
Dawn Caught and Dead in Not One of us #72
Dawn caught and dead, the fish laid in the bottom of the bath, vast below the shallow water. A single distorted eye gazed up at the discoloured paint on the ceiling above. Occasionally my uncle, (the one responsible for dragging the creature from the sea – the one who never ate seafood himself) walked into the small room to stare at the fish, as it lay there too close to the surface. Ash from his cigarette fell into the bath, smudging the scales grey. He continued to stare, taking a lungful of smoke that he looked barely large enough to contain. Dead, the fish continued to ignore him and I continued washing my hands. Smoke rose to turn the ceiling tiles an even richer yellow. He dropped the exhausted cigarette down the toilet and flushed.
This strange little story is based on true events from my childhood. My Dad used to go sea fishing and caught a huge cod. With nowhere else to put it in our small terraced house, the fish stayed in the bath until it could be divided between family members.
Issue 72 of Not One of Us is available at the website.
720° in Mother: Tales of Love and Terror from Weird Little Worlds Publishing
“Dog hair felted every inch of the carpet though the dogs the hair belonged to were long since dead. My mum sat across the room, a magazine folded upon her lap, open at some random story of misery. I did not ask how she was. I did not care.
“You got my message?” she said.
“Doris passed it on.”
She shifted in her chair, letting the magazine topple to the ground as if she still expected me to pick up after her. Behind her an old FM radio played, a barely audible brass band fading in and out so I could not recognise the tune.
“She was always good, Doris. Always did as she was told.”
I’d seen the bruises myself. Worn my own too.
This is another story inspired by local history from where I grew up, as well as personal experiences growing up and difficult family relationships. Again, I want to use horror to explore subjects that can sometimes be difficult to approach directly. The whole anthology is excellent, featuring authors such as Sarah read, Dan Coxon, Hailey Piper, John Langan, and Ai Jiang.
You can grab a copy at the Weird Little Worlds bookshop here.
Today I’m going to talk about the first in a series of four books by author Mick Norman. It’s worth putting a small heads-up at the start of this article.
Angels from Hell is incredibly violent, contains descriptions of sexual abuse, and some homophobic stereotypes (although this is a bit more complex as I’ll discuss below). All the books I discuss here are pulp fiction and often have sensationalised elements designed to shock their audience. Angels from Hell is no exception. However, what I hope to highlight is the interesting science fiction, fantasy, horror, and occult themes that make these a little more interesting.
Mick Norman was the pen name of editor and author Laurence James, and James’s story is interwoven with that of NEL itself.
After travelling to London for teaching college, James dropped out, spent some time employed at Foyles and Harrods, then worked in publishing for a decade before ending up at New English Library. At NEL he spent three years in charge of editorial work. Finally, he decided to turn his hand to writing, sent the manuscript for Angels From Hell to NEL anonymously where it was picked up for publication.
James became a prolific writer, with many novels under his belt using many pseudonyms. His most successful books were the Deathlands series. Taking over writing Pilgrimage to Hell from Christopher Lowder, James wrote 34 of the novels on his own, which sounds a lot until you realise that the whole Deathlands sequence runs to 125 books and 18 audiobooks.
However, this is a long time after he worked at NEL and had Angels from Hell accepted for publication.
The Perception of New English Library
There is an important point to make here. New English Library is often stereotyped as a very reactionary publisher. TV Tropes describes NEL in terms of;
“The NEL’s output covered all the bete noires of the right-wing establishment: skinheads, teen gangs, uncontrolled non-white immigration, Football Hooligans, biker gangs, greedy trade unions, and liberal politicians acting as willing or unaware dupes for Moscow’s diabolical plan to destroy the West from within before moving in to “restore order”, as well as having side-swipes at pagans, Wiccans, atheists, and others who threatened the traditional British way of life. Looking back with hindsight, it is almost as if somebody was deliberately setting up Nightmare Fuel for the bourgeoisie as well as a stern warning from Nanny not to eat cheese before bedtime. It was like reading the Chick Tracts recast as moral fables for our age, but with Satan replaced with more secular bogeymen.” (Source https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Creator/NewEnglishLibrary)
While I’m not going to sit here and defend all of NEL’s output, I think this doesn’t really capture the nuance of what was going on. Certainly some of their books were incredibly right-wing, particularly the Richard Allen Skinhead books. Yet this wasn’t a political view shared by the editorial staff, and definitely not the view of Laurence James. In the excellent 1994 by Stewart Home, James doesn’t pull his punches when talking about Jim Moffat (the alcoholic Canadian writer behind the Richard Allen name).
“JAMES: I can’t remember the catalyst for the skinhead books but Jim started doing them, and he was a terrible old man. He was unreliable, extremely right-wing, a terrible drunk, a liar, he hated kids. What more can I tell you about Jim Moffatt? HOME: He was a talented hack with reactionary political views and a drink problem. JAMES: In his early days he was an extremely talented hack, a really good hack writer, but unfortunately, as it went on, he began to believe that he was in touch with youth culture. And youth culture to him was fascist skinheads. He started putting masses of terrible racism in his books. His manuscripts were just completely racist. And I was labouring away trying to get rid of all this from his prose and saying “Jim, sorry, you can’t keep kicking the heads of asians (sic), no, sorry Jim”.” (Source https://www.stewarthomesociety.org/interviews/james.htm)
So how did Laurence James counter this in his writing and was he successful?
Angels from Hell
Angels from Hell is the first in a quartet of books about Gerry Vinson and The Last Heroes chapter. In many ways it’s a very typical biker book following the cliched journey of someone joining the club, and rising up the ranks. Yet there are some very stark differences from other books such as Chopper.
The book starts, as many of the biker books do, with an act of violence.
Jerry Richardson is blind. As he walks down the passage under Hither Green station, between Staplehurst Road and Nightingale Grove, he is mown down by several motorbikes. (According to Stewart Home’s interview with Laurence James, this was a particular fear the writer had when using the tunnel himself.)
“Jerry Richardson had been blind. Now he was dead.” (pg9).
Before his untimely demise, Richardson’s thoughts give us an insight into the political landscape of the book. He has spent the night at the London Buddhist Society, where a faction brought a vote to support the Home Secretary as he tries to stamp out the “Permissive Socialists and their fringe elements”, a vote Jerry opposes.
Already Mick Norman is giving us the sense that this is not a broad minded time in British history.
British society at the time the book is set (slightly in the future – probably late 1970s looking at the dates of the various fake news reports and articles featured in the book, and those in the subsequent series) is portrayed as an authoritarian, verging on totalitarian, regime where all the Hells Angels clubs have either been wiped out or driven underground. While the book focuses on bikers who might not be the most sympathetic of targets, it’s safe to assume that under a government where they were outlawed, other forms of descent and rebellion would also attract the government’s attention.
The Last Heroes chapter have gone underground, only emerging for the occasional run led by their president Vincent.
Norman explains what has happened in the US compared with England, and, in some ways, does predict the rise of the right wing politics that came to dominate in the latter half of the seventies/early eighties.
In this alternative timeline, the US government of a Wallace/Nixon coalition (I assume this is George Wallace) stamp down on the biker subculture, with Reagan as Secretary of State with Special Responsibilities for Social Hygiene leading the charge. After Sonny Barger‘s brakes are cut, leading to his death, the rest of the American HA are rounded up. This leads to the collapse of the subculture across US.
Similar techniques in the UK have a different impact. They serve to drive away the younger members who aren’t really committed, leading to a hardcore whose average age is over thirty. (It’s worth remembering that the backpatch scene in the UK at the time the books were written was still very much a youth subculture, mainly comprising young men in their late teens and early twenties, rather then the more established multi-generational scene it is now.)
Into this background, enter Gerald (Gerry) Vinson and his girlfriend Brenda.
Gerry Vinson is not your typical biker pulp novel stereotype. At twenty-eight years old, he is an arts graduate who wanted to be a teacher (intelligent), spent five years in the army, fighting in Ireland, with a talent for unarmed combat (battle trained). After his five years, he refuses to sign up again, meeting Brenda at the Young Anarchists (politically aware). They share similar views, that the running of the country by the old reactionary right has taken away personal freedoms, and while they admire the ideas of the Angry Brigade, Brenda talks him into seeing the Angels as a disruptive force that can change things.
Very early on, their idealism meets the reality of the Last Heroes and nearly ends in a mess of blood and bone. Gerry has to fight Tiny Terry, who, as the nickname suggests, is anything but Tiny. Armed and brutal, Tiny potentially has the advantage. By calculating and using his experience of unarmed combat, Gerry cripples Terry, finally killing him.
After Gerry wins the fight, Brenda is subjected to sexual abuse by the rest of the members, and because this is a pulp book from the seventies, there is a suggestion that she is turned on by her abuse. This is definitely one of the low points of the book.
Throughout, the central conflict is between Gerry and Vincent, with the carelessness of the latter attracting both the government and the media. This raising of the Last Heroes profile also brings the bikers to the attention of film-maker Donn Simon, who sends out his assistant and occasional lover Rupert Colt to make contact with the Last Heroes, and convince them to take part in his bikesploitation film.
Rupert Colt is clearly coded as gay, and portrayed as very camp. What’s interesting is how Norman develops the friendship between Gerry and Rupert. In many pulp books of the era (particularly those of Richard Allen) gay men are just there as victims to be beaten up. In Angels from Hell, Norman makes it clear that Gerry Vinson, the violent driven rival for the president role in the Last Heroes, has a lot of time for Rupert. Over time this develops into a friendship that carries on throughout the quartet. Don’t get me wrong, some of the stereotyping of other minor characters isn’t anywhere near as nuanced. Nancy the lesbian actor teases the bikers and then gets sexually attacked by them. Tarquin the male lead tries to seduce the chapter president Vincent and gets killed when he doesn’t take no for an answer. Both of these events may make Rupert’s friendship with Gerry seem small change, but it is an advance in a very unforgiving genre.
Although the book continues, the climax of the story happens in the quarry during filming, where one event after another explodes, culminating with a police raid, the officers outclassed and killed by the bikers who have been prepared by Gerry. Out of the chaos most of the Last Heroes escape, fleeing to Wales with the intent to hide out and maybe meet up with an almost mythical second backpatch club; The Wolves.
SFFH Elements of Angels From Hell
On first reading its quite hard to spot any science fiction or fantasy in Angels from Hell, and most of the horror comes from the violence and gore, which is not uncommon for pulp fiction. Yet hidden amongst the usual pulp ingredients is a very clearly dystopian police state.
Although police violence in the seventies (and after) is no secret, the difference in the society shown in Angels from Hell is the scale and visibility.
“Now life for an Angel was very different. Authority had come down on them in the biggest way possible and any gang member caught wearing colours or riding a chopped bike was likely to draw a punitive jail sentence. There was another hazard if you fell into the sticky hands of the fuzz. An unlikely percentage of bikers appearing before the new local magistrate’s court were either carried into the dock on a stretcher, or walked in with broken ribs, teeth missing or other facial injuries.” (pg12)
A knock on effect of the suppression was motorbikes almost going out of production, so all the choppers ridden by the Last Heroes date before 1972.
The main driver for the suppression in the book is Home Secretary George Hayes, and the Hayes code. Not only does this give the police the power to act with impunity, for example when they discuss fitting up a police informant with drugs, but also allows, even encourages, vigilante groups.
When one thinks of vigilante groups the image that comes to mind is either masked paramilitaries, or enraged suburban homeowners. In Angels from Hell they are portrayed slightly differently.
“Scurrying through the side streets, black dots of people, all heading for the motorway. Mainly women. Not young, hair swept up in curlers. A few men. Drab clothes. Some women in dressing-gowns and lime-green fluffy slippers. Occasionally a flash of weak sunlight off something metal held in the hand or tucked in the belt. Up and onto the road. Hundreds. Waiting.” (pg 90)
“The women opened out as the bikes roared at them, let them through. Closed up, encircled the bike lying on its side. Stood ringing the fallen Angel. Dylan, struggling to his feet, leaving his hog. Looking round him.
Police stopping, beyond the circle. Seeing, but not interfering. No way round, and others had held their chance. Got clean away, sneaking into their meeting place. And the vans made it. All but one.
He didn’t try and run. He didn’t try and fight. He just stood there as they tore him down. As the knives flashed and the nails tore, he died. Quickly. The pain was not long.
Although he died quickly, the mob were not easily satisfied. His head was hacked from his shoulders and passed gleefully from hand to hand. His clothes were ripped to shreds. Some women dipped pieces of his jacket in his blood and took them away. One elderly women (sic), dressing gown and hair still in tight curlers, got the biggest cheer when she went and sliced his genitals from the white flesh of his stomach, holding them high over his head.
Violence breeds violence.
All the Last Heroes made their rendezvous. All but one.
Dylan.” (pg 91)
It’s tempting to think that Norman used the image of older women as murderous vigilantes purely for shock value, but reading Stewart Home’s interview, I think that he is far too considered for that.
I wonder if he included this image of housewives tearing apart a biker as a way of countering the images of male violence included in pulp fiction. I’m not claiming that he was purely focused on redressing the balance, he is writing pulp and does include acts of graphic sexual violence designed to shock. There is a sense that he is aware of some of the prejudices of his contemporaries, particularly Jim Moffat writing as Richard Allen, and tried to do something different in his own work.
He is also tapping into the familiar image of the (mainly older) female wrestling audience of the seventies who would think nothing of attacking the wrestlers with umbrellas and handbags.
At the end of the book, the failed police operation leading to the high profile Quarry Slaughter, forces the Home Secretary Georg Hayes to retire, and the government to go to the country for a general election. In the aftermath of fifty police deaths and no biker convictions, the public have no appetite to live under such an oppressive system anymore, and vote for a more permissive government.
Although Norman positions the government as socialist, when such an oppressive police system became a reality, it was under the Conservatives as the Thatcher government sought to suppress those who did not conform, including;
and New Age Travellers
In the TV Tropes quote at the start of this piece, they try to align NEL with a right-wing suppressive viewpoint, I would argue that Norman is showing that such an oppressive government will fail.
So, even though the SFFH aspect of Angels from Hell feels light, it is definitely there, and also acts as the basis for setting up the following books in the series which have a far more obvious SFFH feel.
Norman likes playing with form, particularly breaking up the main story with epistolary chapters, including police memos, news broadcasts, press clippings, historical reflections from fictional academic texts, and teenage poetry. These two to three page interjections are effective in allowing Norman to work in different perspectives and exposition without losing the pace.
During the finale in the quarry, Norman breaks the text using scene directions, echoing the film location setting. This lets him cut between different events without jarring the reader.
In several places during the story, he also breaks the fourth wall, addressing the reader directly.
By using these different techniques, Norman prevents the story feeling stale, managing to vary the pace and atmosphere.
As with many of the NEL books, they refer to events in other NEL books. On page seven, Norman describes;
“The violence and killings by young hoodlums reached its anarchistic peak in the Salisbury Festival of Heavy Rock. The massive slaughter has been caused, according to the television, by rival gangs of Hell’s Angels fighting and by the death on stage of two members of an Afro group, shot, so left-wing troublemakers insisted, by army units sent in by worried politicians. Whoever started it, the blood of the gentle people had been liberally split in an unprecedented tribute to political paranoia.” (pg 7)
This seems to echo the events at the end of Alex Stuart’s The Bikers.
There is an even more explicit reference on page 53.
“It’s no bloody good. You’re still living in the past, when it was all colours and runs and tangling with the law or the skinheads. The days of Little Larry and Chopper are gone, Vincent. I know it. You ought to know it.“
(Although in The Bikers it’s Little Billy and Larry the Lamb, with Chopper appearing the eponymous protagonist in the novel by Peter Cave.)
On page ten, before the News reports on Jerry Richardson’s death, they talk about a round-the-world yachtsman called Mike Cornelius lost at sea in his ketch, Elric, all clear references to Michael Moorcock and his work.
On Page 69 Rupert goes to a bookshop on Berwick Street, Soho called Light She Was And Fleet Of Foot, a clear stand-in for the famous science fiction bookshop, Dark They Were, And Golden Eyed.
In Angels from Hell, the bookshop is run by a Mary Shelley, while in reality Dark They Were… was founded by Derek ‘Bram’ Stoke.
When I first started rereading Angels from Hell I wondered if the quarry scene had been influenced by the biker scenes in Ken Russell’s Tommy. On checking the dates, Angels from Hell came out in 1973 while filming for Tommy happened in 1974.
I wonder (though have no evidence other than the dates) if the scene in the book influenced the scene in the film. However, it was quite common for bikers to party in quarries as they were often far from towns and the attention of the police. If you want to find out more about the bikers involved in Ken Russell’s film, there is a good article about the Black Angels MC North East Coast here, and an archive Guardian article from 1975 here.
In many ways Angels from Hell has more in common with the run of the mill bikesploitation/youth subculture pulp books than the strangeness of The Devil’s Rider. Yet, even with the fairly typical storyline, the five minutes in the future, dystopian oppressive police state with middle-aged women vigilantes firmly places this in speculative fiction. While the story-line is far too pulp to be seen as progressive by today’s standards, I admire Laurence James in his Mick Norman persona for introducing different gender roles, non right wing protagonists, and sympathetic gay characters at a time when this wasn’t at all common in the youth subculture genre of fiction.
In the 1994 interview by Stewart Home, James is explicit about his approach.
There are many, many metaphors for writing, and many, many metaphors for writing practice. For me, gardening, not architecture fits very well to writing fiction.
Architecture implies a plan, building materials, and permanence. In traditional architecture, the impression is one of a project that is built with certainty and is rarely revised when construction begins. Sure, some repairs might be made and issues addressed if they occur, but overall, what’s on the plan ends up being built.
Gardening, I believe, is a more flexible and useful metaphor for writing, and I think this works whether you plan out every paragraph or you discovery write. Let me explain what I mean. (Warning, this metaphor is going to get stretched atom thin, but stay with me.)
If you’re gardening you take account of the seasons and the soil, the prevailing wind and the local conditions. You might have a plan for your flowerbed or allotment plot. What’s at the heart of this approach, is that when you plant seeds, bulbs or shrubs, you never quite know how they will turn out. Of course your plans may turn out perfect, and your fruit bushes may be abundant. Or it might go disastrously wrong. There may be major storms or drought. Parts of your garden might become waterlogged or the birds might strip the fruit from the branches of your cherry tree. Your potato rows might become overgrown with weeds.
You have to be responsive and proactive in your management by constantly making decisions and adjustments. (Doing nothing and allowing it to go completely wild is an entirely valid decision). You might decide that the fuchsias are far too dominating in the back corner of the garden, so you trim them back. You might see a mysterious plant growing by the compost bin, research it, find it’s a rare orchid and decide to leave it in place. You might choose to sacrifice one blackcurrant bush to the garden birds, but net the others so you have them for yourself.
However, the important part of all of this, is that throughout all the decision making, the garden is still a garden; coherent, whole and intact. It might look very different from what you intended, with roses and magnolia dominating where you hadn’t intended them, but you will still have your garden.
I think this responsiveness, this flexibility is a more useful mindset to approach writing fiction than architecture or sculpture. Often we have an idea of where we want to go, but until we start writing, we don’t quite know what it’s going to look like, and in the same way as we can pull weeds up from amongst the potatoes, or thin out the bedding plants, during editing we can change elements of the story while still allowing it to stay coherent.
I also think that the gardening metaphor allows for the possibility of surprise, the chance that we can arrive at a beautiful outcome that we weren’t expecting.
The idea of gardening works whether you are a planner or a discovery writer. You might have more control as a planner, but the final story is probably still going to need some editing, in the same way as a planned garden will need management to get it looking how you intend. And if you’re a discovery writer? Well, you can throw seeds all over the place, see what comes up and work from there.
Can I stretch this metaphor even further? Oh yes!
What happens when a story just doesn’t work. If a garden doesn’t work, you can salvage seeds, ready to start again. You can dig up plants that are in the wrong place, put them in the greenhouse over winter, and replant them in better locations the next year.
In the same way, you can dismantle a story, find the elements that did work (because no story is a complete failure). You might have a good character, but not in the right narrative. A setting might be perfect, but not fit the particular chapter. You might have nothing to show apart from the way the protagonist holds her cup of coffee as she looks out across the city. What you can do if you approach this as gardening is take the elements that might work elsewhere and nourish them in the better soil of another story.
Architecture is different. The building might develop and age. You might be able to tinker. You might even be able to add to it, but the architecture has a solidity and coherence that doesn’t allow for much flexibility. The garden is constantly changing, and constantly changeable. You can beautify it, or make it more practical. Even with all this tinkering, the garden will still be the garden as a story will still be a story, and eventually, you can sit back and put your feet up, enjoying the beauty of it.
So when it comes to writing, my suggestion is, don’t be an architect, be a gardener.
These books aren’t high art, but I’ve always believed that lowbrow art has a right to be respected on its own merits. Often they get dismissed too quickly, leading to some really interesting storytelling getting overlooked. Here, my plan is to dive into the stories, look a little bit at the writers, and argue why I think these stories are worth a second look.
I’m going to start this series with one of my favourites; The Devil’s Rider by Alex R. Stuart.
The Devil’s Rider
Right from the opening lines of The Devil’s Rider, there is a beautiful oddness to Stuart’s writing.
“Dark side of a strange Christmas midnight at the crossroads.” (pg7)
This first sentence feels so off kilter, placing the story in an almost transient location and time, especially considering the folklore surrounding crossroads.
It goes on;
“The wet black tarmac cross plastered horizontal over the buried London earth.” (pg7)
For me, this echoes a lot of themes that emerge in later horror, particularly folk horror, that just below the civilised surface of the world there is something older and darker waiting to emerge.
While I don’t want to carry out a line by line analysis of the book, it’s interesting to note the symbology of the cross on the ancient land, holding something back.
The opening of the book sets a very specific tone – a claustrophobic sense of time and place pressing in, even as Johnny (the main protagonist) races from the police.
It’s this sense of pressure that I find one of the most distinctive elements of Stuart’s writing. The second, in The Devil’s Rider is the way he uses the occult.
Alex R. Stuart AKA Alex Stuart AKA Richard A Gordon
Alex R Stuart was a pen-name used by the Scottish writer Richard A Gordon. Born the son of a Scottish Laird (a title he refused), he changed his writing name several times, first to distinguish himself from the writer of the Doctor books, then adding the R after complaints from Violet Vivian Stuart, who wrote historical novels under the pseudonym Alex Stuart. (I’ll use Gordon for the general discussion of his work, and Stuart when discussing his biker books.)
As well as his work for NEL, there are two aspects of his work worth highlighting.
In the 1960’s Gordon had several stories published in science fiction magazines, including New Worlds (edited by Michael Moorcock), Science Fiction, and Vision of Tomorrow.
In Bearalley’s excellent obituary, Gordon is quoted as saying, “The label ‘science fiction’ is used to cover many different approaches to storytelling, most of which have little to do with ‘science’ as such, save in a romantic, generalised way. The thrust of my own work has typically been occult or mythic in its main concern, and can be defined as science fiction only insofar as it has been characterised (I hope) by that ‘sense of wonder’ which romantically typifies the genre as a whole.”
The second period of interest, comes many years after Gordon’s work for NEL. In the 1990s, following time in a Welsh commune, Gordon wrote a guide to the paranormal, as well as The Book of Curses: True Tales of Voodoo, Hoodoo and Hex (under the name Stuart Gordon – the man did like a pseudonym).
As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not sure whether Gordon’s work on the biker books inspired an interest in curses, or whether his interests inspired the story.
What is clear is the role that hexes plays in The Devil’s Rider. The scene where Sam, the leader of The Sons of Baal, curses Johnny’s bike is interesting for several reasons. Johnny challenges Sam’s authority by arguing that they should go out on their bikes rather than sitting around the basement.
Sam tells Johnny about the curse of Archduke Ferdinand’s car, and how following the presumptive heir’s Sarajevo assassination, the Gräf and Stift double phaeton automobile was connected with the death of several owners.
When they head out on the run to Trafalgar Square, Johnny thinks its bullshit, but is freaked, and when he comes to a junction, runs a red light, hits a woman crossing the road, and he blames the curse on Sam. Yet, the way the hex plays out is an interesting study in the mechanism of creating curses. By planting the seeds of doubt in Johnny’s (albeit amphetamine coasting) mind, Sam creates the circumstances for Johnny to fulfil curse himself. He is off kilter, on a bike on a wet winter night, angry and not paying attention. In this way, even if Sam doesn’t have the power to actually hex Johnny, he manages to affect his mood enough for Johnny to cause the accident himself.
I really think what we’re seeing here is Stuart’s interest in hexes manifesting in his storytelling.
“Rasputin was one thing —
But an Assyrian warrior-priest was another —” (pg13)
This is another really interesting aspect of the book. Rather than some throwaway Satanic cult or witches coven, so typical of pulp seventies novels (this time was one of the peaks of interest in witchcraft via personalities like Alex Sanders, as well as a rise in popularity of occult novels by Dennis Wheatley), Stuart centres the story around Babylonian myth and history.
Johnny Sutton has heard about a new club (or ‘one man’s ego trip’) called The Sons of Baal, and when he hears the main guy claims to be an ancient priest of the god Baal his interest is piqued enough to seek them out.
It’s not obvious when Johnny meets up with the club which Baal is being referred to, the text pointing out that Baal is a Canaanite word for lord, used as an honorific in names such as Bel-Marduk, the Mesopotamian Son of the Sun. It becomes clear once again how well researched the book is, when Sam starts to describe his past life in the 7th century BC, life in Nineveh, the temples of Ishtar and Nabu, the Palace built by Sennacherib, and the brutality of the treatment of rebels, with prisoners flayed alive and impaled on spikes. Sam also talks about Ish when she lived this previous life, and how she served in a temple in Babylon.
The main antagonists, who operate through Sam, are The Nine, often described as appearing in a diamond formation. In The Devil’s Rider, Stuart doesn’t use any other name for them (though they could be the nine deities of Babylon, who are mentioned by name throughout The Devil’s Rider), but it’s worth noting that in Chaldean numerology nine is considered a sacred number, and not used in numerology charts. Throughout the story there are also several uses of multiples of nine.
“Time running out. The Son’s of Baal all sense it, though nothing’s been confirmed. It’s getting so they’re almost telepathic, strung up on the high beam of Sam’s activities. Sixty three people here.” (pg101)
“The sun comes in nine minutes.” (pg131)
“It’s almost nine p.m.
There are nine people in the room above Holland Park.” (pg86)
While I hesitate to read too much into the use of other numbers throughout the story, there is a section where events happen around the hexed bike on the 24th of March and May. A couple of references I’ve seen suggest that in Chaldean numerology the number 24 is associated with assistance from government, rulers or superiors, which would fit with Sam’s relationship with The Nine.
Stuart’s interest in this is made explicit earlier in the book. Freelance journalist Patrick Goffman was commissioned to write an article about gematria, and in a bit of an info dump, the theory behind gematria is laid out.
This use of Babylonian myth is a very conscious choice by Stuart, as can be seen during an exchange between Johnny and Sam where the former makes a joke about being one of the ‘Cthulhu gods’, and Sam dismisses it out of hand, warning Johnny to distinguish between fact and fantasy.
While a lot of the themes Stuart talks about could fall under Forteana, he also makes a couple of references to specific phenomena, firstly talking about Men In Black as alien or parahuman mimics, appearing in folklore as demons.
Later in the book, two police officers are talking and one says,
“There’s all that UFO stuff we’ve got under wraps.” (pg117)
He also includes a major thread about the power of true names, something that appears many times in folklore. It has been suggested that one of the reasons the Babylonian god Marduk had up to fifty names, was so no-one could know all of them and control him.
The final scenes of the book play out at Stonehenge, and from our perspective that makes complete sense. Stonehenge as a monument has had a major role in the counterculture for decades, particularly as a place at the centre of tensions between that counterculture and the state. Yet at the time Stuart was writing The Devil’s Biker, Stonehenge didn’t really occupy that role with the same significance. While there is no question that its importance has ebbed and flowed in the public consciousness, at the time Stonehenge was not the same focal point. The Stonehenge Free Festival did not start until 1974. (Though there are some accounts that suggest there were gatherings as early as 1972, these do not seem to have been anywhere near the same scale.)
This is also clear in Stuart’s description of Salisbury plain, focusing on its role as a site of military camps rather than as a sacred landscape, which is the narrative that has come to characterise the area.
Therefore, Stuart is slightly ahead of the curve here with anticipating the role of the stones as nexus of the counterculture.
Two last things I want to note. Firstly, Stuart includes an Afro-Caribbean biker. Black Bob is introduced as just another biker, with his background coming up when Ish asks whether his father was from this part of the world (London).
“Were his fathers born in Trinidad?” comes her weak questioning voice from a distance, provoking his response –
“They got shipped from Africa by heroes like Drake and Hawkins!” (pg93)
While Bob isn’t necessarily a sympathetic character (he is one of Sam’s lieutenants), and very occasionally Stuart falls back on descriptions that feel uncomfortable to modern ears, it’s interesting to see someone of Trinidadian descent included as a character in a book from a genre not really known for equal representation.
Stuart also makes it clear that The Devil’s Rider takes place in the same fictional version of England as his Little Billy trilogy, when he talks about an earlier incident where four infantry companies went into a rock festival after a chapter of bikers.
Although part of the biker book genre, The Devil’s Rider feels very different.
The story is not focused on violence in the same way as, say, the Chopper trilogy, and does not feel as salacious.
It’s clear that when it came to the occult/mythological aspects of the story, Stuart was very well read, and these elements give the book a very off kilter feel that I feel has its own beauty.
Throughout, Stuart manages to keep an almost claustrophobic sense of pressure (something he manages to do elsewhere, for example in The Bikers).
It also needs to be pointed out that I get the feeling The Devil’s Rider and The Bike From Hell might have been written as one novel then split to better fit the New English Library format.
At times the storytelling is uneven, perspectives changing often, and very dense description, but pulp biker novels are not where you expect to encounter vivid descriptions of ancient Babylon, or discussions of Chaldean numerology. If you want something different from endless biker and skinhead rumbles, I highly recommend picking up a copy of this forgotten curiosity.
Skinhead Farewell is a 1996 documentary primarily focused on the work of James Moffat, the Canadian writer behind the Richard Allen pseudonym.
As Richard Allen, Moffat was responsible for the prodigious number of New English Library skinhead books throughout the 1970s . While the skinhead side of New English Library’s youth cult output has never really interested me, the documentary also covers the biker books and those I am VERY familiar with.
Though New English Library published authors such as James Herbert, Michael Moorcock, Frank Herbert, and Stephen King, the publisher will forever be known for the various youth subculture books released in the early seventies. At the time, one of the most visible of these were bikers, almost always called Hells Angels (whether they were or not).
The discussion about biker books starts 23 minutes into the documentary, and is very well put together. This is helped by an interview with Dr Maz Harris, who was a respected researcher into the biker subculture, and himself a Hells Angel. The documentary also interviews Peter Cave, the writer behind Chopper, as well as some of the NEL editorial staff.
As is pointed out, the books were reflecting what was happening in youth subcultures at the time. What I find interesting is the role these books then played (along with Hunter S Thompson’s Hell’s Angel: A Strange and Terrible Saga) as young bikers started to find their identity.
Watching the documentary as an author is also fascinating, particularly the interviews with James Moffat.
Moffat was an extremely prolific writer with over 250 books to his name. Talking about when he wrote for the pulp magazines, he explains the need to write six stories a week to make an income. He explains his process, how he might start on a Monday with Chicago and a detective where the victim is stabbed. On Tuesday New York, another detective story with a gunshot victim. On Wednesday a female protagonist and a case of poisoning, followed by a Western story on the Thursday with the same plot (replacing the cars with horses), and a science fiction tale to finish the week. (I assume he wrote one on a Saturday too, though he doesn’t give an example here.) This meant that by the time he was writing for NEL he could, when he needed to, write 10,000 words in a day.
I also love the interview with Sandra Shulman, the author of The Degenerates. While the camera follows her around the supermarket, she explains NEL asked her to write an orgy scene as a sample chapter. To achieve this, she wrote down a list of all the perversions she knew then ‘choreographed’ them into a scene, all the time not really knowing what ‘shafted’ or ‘going down’ meant.
The documentary is an insight into several worlds, the publishing world of the seventies, the subcultures of the same time, and the 90’s when the documentaries were made.
None of the discussions cover the books I find the most interesting like The Devil’s Rider or the Gerry Vinson series, but it’s definitely a good introduction to what New English Library were doing at the time and well worth fifty minutes of your time.
Although it does deal with grief, a subject I write about a lot, this short piece is very different from my usual style. Because of that I was a little nervous about sharing it. I hope you like it, but beware it does talk about death, suicide, grief and loss.
You remember that song we used to dance to? Said something about if I leave the world alive the insanity will lessen. Doesn’t though, does it? You went and the insanity intensified. Like a cutting diamond, faceted and precise.
I don’t know if you left the world alive. One day you were there, the next gone.
There was no pile of clothes carefully folded on a tide strewn beach or note with my name written on the back of the folded paper.
Sometimes I like to imagine the world cleaved in two and you fell through the fissure to another place where you live on, trying to find a way home. I know this isn’t true. You’re probably beneath some undergrowth, bones greening with lichen as time turns you to forest. Nothing subsides with you gone. Not the madness. Not the memory. Not the guilt. Only the chance that I might see you again. That’s what subsides, and it lessens me every single day.
Horror is a genre of many themes. Amongst the blood and gore, a vast number of subjects are explored, from consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, to community cohesion in The Wicker Man.
One of the subjects I return to a lot in my own writing is grief. (I’m not subtle about it. One of my stories is called Green Grows the Grief…). This does appear in horror, sometimes explicitly such as in The Monkey’s Paw, and sometimes more subtly.
Grieving a loved one is a horrific country to find oneself in. It’s a place where everything looks normal but is tipped off kilter. It is a strange world to make a home, but it is one we often need to live in for a while until we’re ready to move on. Often, however, we’re not given the time to grieve or the choice of when we leave. Real life intrudes.
In the traditional ensemble horror movie, people watch their friends killed off while not being given time to grieve. They have to run from the chainsaw wielding murderer. The killer (real life) intrudes before they can truly mourn the dead.
One place this forms the core of the story is in Alfred Kubin’s seminal weird fiction novel, The Other Side.
Best known as a printmaker and illustrator, Kubin only wrote the one novel in his life. In The Other Side, the narrator is invited by Patera, an old school friend, to travel to the Dream Kingdom, a realm Patera rules from the city of Pearl. The Dream Kingdom is a place where the citizens live only through their moods, and is a place of strange rites. Other times Pearl changes and reorganises in unpredictable ways. Patera, the creator of this strange land, is always beyond the narrator’s reach. With the arrival of the American Herkules Bell The Dream Kingdom falls apart and Pearl becomes taken over by wildlife.
There are many ways of interpreting The Other Side, but I think one way of approaching this foundational piece of weird fiction is as an exploration of grief. Kubin wrote his only novel following the death of his father, who he had a troubled relationship with. Seen through this lens, The Dream World can be understood as the state of grief where everything is reactive and driven by mood. Herkules Bell is the real world intruding into this dream like state of mourning, disruptive as any killer in a slasher movie. Disruptive as death taxes and probate. Everyday concerns taking attention away from grieving for the dead.
None of this is to say that the portrayal of grief and the intrusion of everyday life and ‘normality’ was in the mind of the creators of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or A Nightmare on Elm Street (though I do think that an argument can be made for The Other Side). This is more an attempt to look at how these stories can be understood in terms of loss and mourning, In horror, and especially in weird horror, death is a constant presence. Possibly, our relationship to grief experienced in the world is there too, if we look close enough.
My collection TO DROWN IN DARK WATER, including Green Grows the Grief, is now available to pre-order from Undertow Publications.
Children of the Rotting Straw was inspired by the image of the sky obscured by wicker hurdles, and grew from there into some strange Jack and the Beanstalk, woollen, scarecrow populated hybrid horror story.
Schwabylon in Munich no longer exists. With it’s seventies sunburst frontage, Yellow Submarine themed club, and 600,000 litre water tank containing 30 sharks it seems more like something from a Bond villain’s fever dream. Schwabylon was the inspiration for my weird fiction story No Sun to Guide the Way.
Where I grew up in Harrogate the disused railway track was known as The Airy Mountains (or sometimes The Hairy Mountains) so William Allingham’s poem The Fairies has a special place in my heart. Now I’m a parent, the devastating loss hidden in verse four really resonates with me, and was the inspiration for On a Bed of Flag Leaves.
Grief features a lot in my work, and Green Grows the Grief is one of the stories where I explore loss and how we mourn. The inspiration for the setting was a compendium of abandoned greenhouses put together by Messy Nessy Chic.
The Fugue of Winter brought together some technical ideas I put together for a project pitch. These included taking inspiration from penguins for architectural approaches to regulate building temperature. I don’t often write upbeat stories. I wanted to write a story which was about discovering and valuing the beauty of music, enough to risk everything to preserve it.
Today’s story is another inspired by a dream. Is anyone else dreaming more at the moment?
“Come down to the river bed.”
Mac grasped my wrist and led me across the worn down limestone, not caring whether I struggled to find footing amongst the weed covered rock. I followed best I could, stepping into the water to save myself from falling. Soon we stood at the centre of the shallow river, a small plateau of smoothed stone surrounded by veins of water.
“What are you showing me?” I asked, trying to ignore the chill in my feet and keep the ice from my voice.
“The foundations,” he said. “The Abbey was here.” His arm curved wide, taking in the whole of the channel surrounding us and returning to point to the expanse between us.
I shook my head until he sighed and knelt.
“Look, here, below the fossils. The Abbey once stood here. The monks came here to worship.”
“That’s not the Franciscan site we’re looking for,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “This is much older. The Twisted Church of the Boiling Sea. The Holy Order of the Gasping Dead. The Congregation of the Eroded Eyes.”
I looked once more at his evidence. Between the fossils all I saw were the scratches of his trowel on the stone.
That night I dreamt of the Abbey. Saw the narthex rammed with gasping worshippers, the nave and cloisters carpeted with those barely alive clawing at the bare bone pillars. The ceilings hung with intestine garlands. In my dream I waded through the bodies, stepping in rib cages as I approached the altar. The black volcanic stone block was pinned with a single cover. Approaching, I recognised several tattoos in the preserved skin and woke with my fingers tracing the ink in my own arms.
The next day I’d agreed to meet Mac at the river once more, but when I arrived I was alone. I searched the banks and the channels for any sign of him, worried in case he lost his footing in his fervour. With no sign of him I walked out to the limestone once more. Stood there alone I shuddered at the memory of that cavernous church and knelt down to settle myself. Amongst the fossil shells beneath my feet I saw the shattered ribs that I so recently stepped over. Kneeling down, I brushed a smear of dirt and rubbed the away at the stone.
Even with an expression of agony, even below the compressed shells, I still recognised Mac’s face pinned down and stretched, and as I stared at his trapped distress in the limestone I felt the temperature drop and knew the Abbey would be rebuilt and once more gather worshippers to its halls.
Morning! How are you today? Today’s flash fiction is about music and voices, and beauty. At the start, anyway.
The wings fluttered the silvered surface of the pool. Not both wings at once, but each in turn. Feather tips scraped across the metal, tearing through the crust and letting the molten steam rise through the air. The angel drinks it in, and as the silver cooled to line its throat, the creature began to sing.
We watched from a distance, hidden in the undergrowth, the charms we wore at neck and wrist hiding us from its gaze. The angel raised their head to the sky, and we pressed record as their voice erupted once more. Hidden within the modulations were the notes that would free us from this world.
Back in the recording studio we started the ritual at first light, reinforcing the equipment with incantations and invocations, both demonic and angelic, in hopes our preparations would allow the mixing desk to bear the pressure of the voice within.
With dried toads thorn pinned, and rook’s feathers fanned between speakers and floor, we played the recordings.
The distortion was noticeable straightaway, the crackling and deforming of the purity until it become debased and impure.
After the voice came the angel. Not the one we saw singing silver above the pool, but the one shaped by the song erupting from the shattered notes in the amps. We watched as it dragged itself through the fine mesh of the speakers, lacing together torn strands until it stood before us and slowly, piece by piece, dismantled us. We are now one voice. We are the distortion and the signal decay. We are the fade and the interference. We are the singing angel and we do not sing the world silver any more.