Aliens – The Best Sequel Ever Made?

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Ridley Scott’s Alien was released in 1979 and was a big hit. By 1986, it had faded away into the eerie mists of time somewhat when the sequel Aliens was unleashed by Twentieth Century Fox and writer/director James Cameron.

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Hot off The Terminator, Cameron was just the right guy to take on this sequel. He loved the original and had the sci-fi and technical know-how to push the franchise forward into thrilling new territory. Aliens was a huge hit that summer and earned Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (unheard of for a science fiction movie at the time but indicative of the performance Cameron pulled out of her on set.)

Aliens, like all the best sequels, takes the original concept and expands upon it, deepening the meaning of it. We learn that Ripley’s first name is Ellen and that she had a daughter back on earth who died while she was drifting in space for 57 years (with nothing left for her back on earth, the traumatised Ripley is forced to return to the depths of space and confront her old alien enemy like the Minotaur in the labyrinth of legend.) We learn the name of the Alien species – the Xenomorph (interestingly, both Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender are using that term to describe the Alien in interviews promoting the new film. James Cameron pulled off a similar trick in Terminator 2, another contender for best sequel of all-time, naming the liquid metal T-!000 a “mimetic poly-alloy.” T2 is making a welcome return in summer 2017 in a new 4k 3D version supervised by Mr Cameron.) The original Alien life cycle was based on an African wasp which lays its eggs under the skin of humans before the hatch out. Cameron expands this concept by making the Alien species a hive organism with a giant queen laying eggs at the apex of the hierarchy. Cameron even names the Alien planet LV-426. (They’re on LV-223 in Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott again paying homage to the superior sequel Aliens.) The weapons and futuristic forklifts the space marines use delighted audiences with their ingenuity.

The film was shot at Pinewood Studios in England and the British crew gave Cameron a hard time as they thought they were making an inferior sequel to a British director’s classic original. They even dubbed Cameron “Grizzly Adams” at one stage. Cameron said: “The Pinewood crew were lazy, insolent and arrogant. We despised them and they despised us. The one thing that kept me going was the certain knowledge that I would drive out of the gate of Pinewood and never come back.” If you’re wondering why Cameron painted the Brits in such a bad light in Titanic, now you know.

 

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It was also a difficult shoot for Sigourney Weaver using flame-throwings, shooting weapons and having to carry two heavy guns strapped together and the child Newt on her hip. Weaver injured her back from it and you can tell from the way she struggles to run from the Alien Queen near the end.

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Jim Cameron was responsible for so many shoot-‘em-up moments in the 80s; The Terminator’s single-handed destruction of a police station, John Rambo’s single-handed destruction of the Viet Cong, the Soviets and the team of Nixonian American mercenaries who double-crossed him and left him for dead. He does it again in the finale of Aliens when Ellen Ripley lets rip with flame thrower, machine gun and grenade launcher to decimate the hated Alien Queen and her precious eggs. (Ripley has lost her daughter and denies the Alien Queen the right to be a mother also, a perfect and clever fusing of character arcs by Cameron.) Strange that by Avatar in 2009, Cameron’s heroes are a blue Smurf-like race worshipping a glowing tree like hippies on another planet. (There are FOUR sequels to Avatar coming in the next decade, folks. So prepare to make more love and not war, man!)

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As with the team of mercenaries in Rambo: First Blood Part II (co-written by Cameron), the team of colonial marines in Aliens are a bunch of arrogant jerks that get taught a lesson later in the film. The late, great Bill Paxton, back with Cameron again after a brief Terminator appearance, adds so much humour and energy to the film, even ad-libbing the line “Game over, man, Game OVER!” (his voice cracking with emotion on that last line brings the house down.) Most actors would try to steal scenes by being macho; Paxton does it by being a hysterical (and hysterically funny) coward. It’s a brilliant performance from a fine actor. RIP, Bill.

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Another Cameron regular, Michael Biehn, is a commanding presence and potential love interest for Ripley. He replaced James Remar not long into shooting and is a welcome addition to the film.

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In 1992, a director’s cut of Aliens appeared adding 17 additional minutes to the running time.

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That was the same year we got the shoddy Alien 3 and those extra 17 minutes were a soothing balm to seething fans of the franchise. All the characters we loved from Aliens were callously and stupidly killed off in the opening minutes of the third film. It immediately threw away any chance of being a worthy follow-up right then.

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Concept art for a possible fifth Alien movie

(Neill Blomkamp has proposed a fifth Alien film which ignored the disappointing third and fourth entries and continues where Aliens left off. James Cameron has approved the concept while Ridley Scott has shot it down saying it will probably never happen. Meanwhile, Ridley continues with his perplexing and unnecessary prequels. Not many people want them, they want the sequel that should have been but it seems as if it will never happen now. Fox need to give the audience what they want instead of forcing them to accept the opposite. Scott is doing what George Lucas did with Star Wars essentially; he directed the original but the sequel is better as with The Empire Strikes Back. Now, decades later, he is unwisely returning to direct a series of unwelcome prequels that only serve to remind us how great the first trilogy was and make us long for it again.)

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I’ll go see Alien: Covenant, but I’m not holding out much hope for it or the franchise. The prequels seem to be explaining too much about the Alien, robbing it of its mystique. We don’t need to know the xenomorph’s backstory, it’s a slimy monster that’s going to get you. That’s all we need to know. Fear of the unknown is the key to great horror films, but movie studios are determined to squeeze every drop of cash out of a franchise. Let’s hope they see sense and give us the one we really want – Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

The Vorbing – Fantasy Novel of the Day

Originally posted on Novel Writing Festival: PITCH: Title: The Vorbing Written by: Stewart Stafford Type: Novel Genre: Fantasy/Horror Logline: The Vorbing is a fantasy/horror concerning Vlad Ingisbohr’s struggle to free his village from the reign of terror of vampires and avenge his father’s death at their hands. Interested in this logline, please email us at…

via FANTASY Novel of the Day: THE VORBIN, by Stewart Stafford — WILDsound Writing and Film Festival Review

Scarface: The World Is Pacino’s

“The most popular movie I’ve ever made is Scarface (1983), all over the world. It’s amazing to me. It’s wonderful. We sometimes forget that it was Oliver Stone who wrote it. He is a political creature, and I think that is an undercurrent in the movie. And the combination of him and Brian De Palma made for this kind of fusion or explosion. It worked.”

– Al Pacino

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Brian De Palma’s Scarface is a remake of a 1932 Howard Hawks film of the same name.

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Paul Muni as Tony Camonte in Scarface (1932)

It was a fictionalised version of the life of real-life Chicago gangster Al Capone whose nickname was Scarface. (Tony Montana has an unhealthy obsession with stopping his sister being with other men. It’s possible screenwriter Oliver Stone based this character trait on the brother in the Capone story below, directly connecting it back to the origin of the nickname Scarface.)

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By the early 1980s, Universal started to revisit the works of Howard Hawks to remake them. John Carpenter’s The Thing was first out of the gate in 1982 and was hated by critics and died a death at the box office.

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Scarface was next on the agenda. Pacino had seen the 1932 original in a cinema a few years previously and was amazed at Paul Muni’s performance as Tony Camonte, the Scarface of the title. He went outside, called producer Martin Bregman and told him he wanted to star in a remake. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro had also planned a Scarface remake but Pacino got there first. So the wheels of production started. (Four years after Scarface, director Brian De Palma would tackle the real-life Scarface’s story with Robert De Niro playing Al Capone in “The Untouchables” (1987).)

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Scarface is quite Shakespearean, something Pacino, a stage-trained actor and renowned aficionado of The Bard, must have noticed. Tony Montana murders his way to the top of the Miami underworld just as Macbeth murders his way to the Scottish throne and both men pay dearly for their immoral actions. As in Hamlet, everyone dies in the end (imagine how many bodies would litter the stage at the denouement if Scarface were a play!).

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The over-the-top nature of the film and its characters has been called “operatic” and I believe this is the correct way to look at its excesses (particularly that ending where a cocaine-fuelled Montana raves and rants while being shot to pieces from all angles by a hit squad like he’s demonically-possessed). Opera gets away with it though as its arty, Scarface with its gaudiness, drugs, f-words and blue collar aspirations was given none of that slack. (It’s surprising that nobody has thought of doing Scarface as an opera yet, I can see it now.) It was attacked by everyone. Critics found the ultra-violence deplorable, particularly the chainsaw lobotomy scene in the shower during the botched drug deal. In the film’s defence, Colombian cartels did use chainsaws to savagely dispose of enemies and rivals. So Oliver Stone was merely holding a mirror up to society and reflecting back an uncomfortable modern truth that he discovered in his extensive research. Cubans took the depiction of Montana as a slur on their people and the director and producer of Scarface began getting death threats and switched the shooting schedule from Miami to Los Angeles.

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Pacino outlined how he prepared to take on the role of Tony Montana: “I worked with an expert in knife combat, with a physical education guy who helped me get the kind of body I wanted for the part. I used the boxer Roberto Durán a little bit. There was an aspect of Durán , a certain lion in him that I responded to in this character. And I was very inspired by Meryl Streep’s work in “Sophie’s Choice” (1982). I thought that her way of involving herself in playing someone who is from another country and another world was particularly fine and committed and… courageous.”

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Like Brando’s Godfather, Pacino disappears inside his character in a way he rarely has before or since (he mostly plays thinly-disguised versions of himself with big, shouty moments.) Like Brando’s Vito Corleone, his Tony Montana has instantly recognisable lines (his “Say hello to my little friend!” is up there with “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”) and mannerisms (do an impression of Scarface or The Godfather and people know virtually straight away who it is, even if they haven’t seen the movies each character comes from.) Both Vito Corleone and Tony Montana are immigrants to the United States who set about establishing crime empires on the east coast (Corleone in New York, Montana down south in Miami, Florida). Both endure assassination attempts and both fight back ruthlessly against their enemies to retain control. The Godfather belongs to a timeless, monolithic, mythic storytelling tradition, Scarface was compared to a spaghetti western by critic Pauline Kael, she called it “hot and raw.” With its 1980 fashions, hairstyles and Giorgio Moroder disco score, Scarface seems more dated than The Godfather, even though it was made eleven years later.

Al Pacino remembered the shell-shocked reaction to Scarface after its premiere: “We couldn’t show our faces after it opened. I was at a party after a screening at Sardi’s. I walked in and the faces looked like those in a wax museum. People were sitting so still. Liza Minnelli was there. She hadn’t seen the movie. She came up to me and said: ‘What did you do to these people?’ And yet it survived.”

Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, another Howard Hawks remake that was mauled, Scarface eventually found an audience on home video and a cult reputation began to emerge. Eventually, it became a part of popular culture, even being referenced in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective by Jim Carrey. The black rap community took Scarface to their hearts (you’d be hard-pressed to find an episode of MTV Cribs featuring a rapper who didn’t flash a DVD of Scarface at the camera as it went through their home.) Universal even wanted to release a remixed version of Pacino’s Scarface with a new rap soundtrack at one point but director Brian de Palma refused to allow it.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) was a western that was a remake of a Japanese film called The Seven Samurai (1954). Recently, we had the remake of the remake with the studio recycling the old cowboy movie again instead of having, say, seven mercenaries protecting a village from a Taliban warlord or ISIS. Pacino’s Scarface was a remake of the old Howard Hawks 1932 film. Now we’re getting the remake of the remake again and it appears they’re just going to recycle the 80s Cuban druglord story again instead of, say, having Montana be a criminal mingling in with the Syrian refugees flooding the world now. (Sure, you’d have the PC brigade down on you for that but so did Pacino and Co. in the 80s. They took risks that paid off spectacularly. They took an old story, updated it and made it ultra-relevant again. Studios now only want safe bets. You won’t see them taking huge risks on new stories and talent as they did in the 70s now.)Pacino Diego Luna

Diego Luna has been cast as the new Tony Montana and he has his work cut out for him already having to go up against Pacino’s monstrous Tony. I don’t know how you could top or even match that performance. It’s epic scenery-chewing.

I give every remake the benefit of the doubt. Nobody liked Pacino’s Scarface, but it’s now looked on as a classic. They’ll release new versions of the 1983 Scarface to coincide with the release of the remake too, it will probably get a 4k scan and new extras on disc. Another reason to welcome the remake, even if it seems unnecessary. The world is and always will be Tony Montana’s, whoever plays him.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

The Weird and Wonderful World of Richard Matheson

The writer Richard Matheson was born to Norwegian immigrant parents in New Jersey on February 20th, 1926. He had his first story published when he was eight years old. After graduating from high school, he joined the army, serving in the US infantry with the 87th Division in France and Germany during World War II. His experiences of warfare formed the basis of his 1960 novel “The Beardless Warriors.”

After the war, he studied journalism at the University of Missouri and moved to California. Summer 1950 saw Matheson make his first real mark as a writer when his short story “Born of Man and Woman” was published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and drew attention. It had the kind of frightening science fiction themes that became Matheson’s trademark and was the first of dozens of short stories he would publish over the next two decades.

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“I Am Legend” from 1954 was his first published novel and is probably his masterpiece (it was voted the best vampire novel of the 20th century by the Horror Writers Association in 2012) A daring deconstruction of the vampire legend, it flips the whole narrative on its head by making the last man alive the destructive predator that vampires fear and despise as he systematically wipes them out by day following a futuristic plague.

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It was adapted for film as “The Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price in 1964, again as “The Omega Man” in 1971 with Charlton Heston and, more recently, in 2007 with Will Smith.

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The book may have been about vampires but its main theme was loneliness and there are few better books about that subject. As the main character Neville is alone most of the time, it’s a difficult story to write but Matheson does a great job of keeping the reader engaged with his solitary hero in his nightmare world. “I Am Legend” also served as the direct inspiration for classic zombie movie “Night of the Living Dead”, giving birth to a whole new genre of film, almost as if the vampire pandemic gave birth to zombies.

He was also a successful television writer, penning episodes of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “Star Trek” as well as numerous western shows.

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His 1956 novel “The Shrinking Man” (filmed in 1957 as “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, which Matheson also wrote the screenplay for) has been ripped off by everything from “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” to last year’s “Ant Man.” It had its New York premiere 60 years ago this week in February 1957. In 2009, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” was placed in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, this accolade is only given to films that are “aesthetically, historically or culturally significant.”

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“The Twilight Zone” seemed made for Matheson and another famous story of his, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, was filmed for the show among others. It concerned a nervous flyer (played by William Shatner in the 1963 TV show and John Lithgow in the Twilight Zone movie twenty years later) who is convinced a demon is smashing up the wing of the passenger plane he is on during a vicious thunderstorm. No one believes him, even when he saves the lives of everyone on board by trying to kill the creature and forcing it to flee.

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The Simpsons did a parody of this story in one of their Halloween specials where Bart Simpson sees a demon dismantling the wheels of the school bus he’s on. Demonstrating how his stories are so ingrained now in popular culture.

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In 1968, he adapted Dennis Wheatley’s novel “The Devil Rides Out” for Britain’s Hammer Horror films. It is one of the best British horror movies ever made and features Christopher Lee in one of his finest roles as a man battling the forces of darkness.

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His nerve-shredding TV movie script for “Duel” became Steven Spielberg’s first film in 1971.

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Other Matheson novels made into films include “Bid Time Return” which became “Somewhere in Time” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour (arguably a big influence on “Back To The Future” and “The Terminator”), “What Dreams May Come” with Robin Williams, “Stir of Echoes”, a supernatural horror film starring Kevin Bacon and “Real Steel”, a sci-fi action movie about fighting robots with Hugh Jackman.

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He once said: “I wrote about real people and real circumstances and real neighbourhoods. There was no crypt or castles or H.P. Lovecraft-type environments. They were just about normal people who had something bizarre happening to them in the neighbourhood. I could never write about strange kingdoms. I could never do Harry Potter or anything like that.”

Assessing his career, he said: “I think ‘What Dreams May Come’ is the most important (read effective) book I’ve written. It has caused a number of readers to lose their fear of death, the finest tribute any writer could receive. … Somewhere In Time is my favourite novel.”

His daughter and two sons also became writers.

Richard Matheson died in June 2013. He left behind a significant body of work including dozens of novels, short stories, TV show scripts, TV movies and movies both adapted by him from his own work and adapted by others. Writer Ray Bradbury called him “one of the most important writers of the 20th century.” While Stephen King claimed Matheson was the writer who had influenced him the most. Another writer called Harlan Ellison praised his “supernova lifetime of writing mentioned in the same breath with Poe and Borges.” That is about as good as it gets.

I’ll leave the final word to Mr Matheson: “I hope people are reading my work in the future. I hope I have done more than frightened a couple of generations. I hope I’ve inspired a few people one way or another.” You certainly have, sir, you certainly have.

(“The Vorbing”, my vampire novel inspired by Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” is available here)
© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Fifty Shades Better

The sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey was the big Valentine’s weekend movie for 2017. In it, billionaire Christian Grey renews his S&M relationship with Anastasia Steele. I wasn’t a fan of the first movie. It was a huge missed opportunity. James Foley, director of Glengarry Glen Ross, has replaced the original director and his steadier hand makes for a better movie. There’s a new screenwriter also and it feels dramatically tighter, funnier and just a better movie overall.

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The first Fifty Shades film should have been the Basic Instinct of its generation but it completely wimped out to get a cash-friendly lower age rating. In one scene, Anastasia says to Christian: “Show me how bad it can be” (or words to that effect). He smacks her six times really hard on the ass (anyone who has been near an internet connection in the past two decades will know that that is very, very far from the worst it can get). Ms Steele’s face contorts into floods of tears. “Never do that to me again!” she howls. (She just told him to do it to her! Idiot.) Although this is based on a trilogy of books and they might have needed to pace the franchise. If they had gone full-on in the first one, there’d be little wiggle room left for the sequels.

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Despite being dubbed “mummy porn” by the British press, Fifty Shades of Grey began life as Twilight fan fiction. Christian Grey began life on the page as Edward Cullen the vampire. There are flashes of Grey’s dark vampire origins in Fifty Shades Darker. A damaged former submissive of his starts jealously stalking Anastasia Steele, a paradigm of what the future could hold for her if she continues exploring Grey’s “kinky fuckery” with him, as Ms Steele calls it. Grey appears to be an energy vampire, sucking the life out of females that cross his path, destroying them and discarding them. That was good writing there.

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There is inconsistency in the writing of Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades Darker. On the one hand, she’s this ordinary girl who is out of her depth in a naughty relationship with this rich chap. On the other, she’s this ravishing beauty that a billionaire and her boss fight over (Grey even buys the publishing house she works for. Helen of Troy she ain’t), while everyone else tells her she’s the most gorgeous girl in the world. So which is it? Is she a struggling ingénue or this beautiful girl used to such attention all her life? That doesn’t make sense. Then again, the whole thing is a female fantasy and not a documentary. If you’re looking for logic, put on the Discovery Channel.

E.L. James gives her heroine a job in a publishing house. There’s a handy movie job for ya. No research needed there, James already knows the publishing world well. Even so, that whole section isn’t very convincing. It’s lazy writing.

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Julia Roberts as a hooker in Pretty Woman

Fifty Shades peddles a similarly dangerous Pretty Woman notion in that it suggests that getting involved in degrading sex will lead girls to their rich Prince Charming.

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(Kim Basinger appears in Fifty Shades Darker as the baddie. She was also in 9½ Weeks with Mickey Rourke in the 80s; arguably the spiritual movie grandparent of Fifty Shades. That was about a similar kinky relationship and showed the reality of the situation – bondage only leads to more numbing bondage. The woman doesn’t get to change the guy into a vanilla version of his pervy self as happens in Fifty Shades Darker. Strangely, after Christian Grey tones down his act, Anastasia suddenly announces “take me to the Red Room!”, Grey’s whips-and-chains dungeon. This chick doesn’t know what she wants other than wanting to have her cake and eat it too like E.L. James)

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On the other hand, it’s an anti-feminist message to acknowledge that some women enjoy bondage and letting men take control sometimes (some men enjoy it too). To deny it or repress it is censorship and a denial of freedom.

The sex scenes while they are well shot, lit and blocked out, feel perfunctory like the actors are just going through the motions. There’s little eroticism in them, that frisson that elevates the whole thing. Writing sex in books and for the screen can be difficult to do, you’re always going close to the line of humour; too much and it’s a laugh riot, not enough and it’s no good.

So, yes, I’d just about watch a third Fifty Shades movie, but let’s hope there’s not a fourth. We need to stop playing around in the grey areas…

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

 

Film Review: Trainspotting 2

“Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone…”

– John Cougar Mellencamp, Jack & Diane

“Thou shalt not be middle-aged” could almost be the theme of every review written about the sequel to Trainspotting. The critics moaned that Renton & Co. have gone “mainstream” with “Dad rock anthems” on the soundtrack.

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Like when The Young Ones started singing with Cliff Richard for charity (forgetting that their sitcom started life on the BBC, the very heart of establishment Britain). All the stars of Trainspotting have taken the Hollywood shilling decades ago (Ewan McGregor has done three Star Wars films, Robert Carlyle was a Bond villain, Ewan Bremner will be in the new Wonder Woman movie). There’s nothing wrong with that, most actors are out of work and fair play to any of them that can make a living at it, but these critics are making moot points.

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It’s like a Sex Pistols reunion; same band, same music, same (older) faces but the heart doesn’t pump as angrily as it used to. It can’t really. Johnny Rotten has done butter commercials but we all conform and sell out as we get older as we have more to lose and life’s too damn short. The cold isolation of youth rebellion loses its allure as we crave acceptance and, yes, easy cash (sorry to drop that nugget of reality on ya). Today’s rebel is tomorrow’s leader, that’s the way it always has gone and always will go in the future.

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“I’m 46 and I’m fucked,” Ewan McGregor says at one point in T2. A brave statement, as middle-aged men are meant to be invisible and consigned to life’s scrap heap to await the slow death of retirement. It’s wrong, especially when older men have so much life experience to bring to the table. But nope, ageism is rife in our society, just ask all those talented older guys who can’t get hired because of a number beyond their control. Not only are men of 46 meant to be ignored, movies aren’t meant to be made for them either. You can feel the hostility of the younger critics reviewing the movie towards these older characters and men of that age in general. They almost feel that it would have been better not to have made the movie at all. Films can only be about teens with superpowers for spotty teens with no power at all. That’s your demographic now.

Trainspotting 2 has flaws, sure; director Danny Boyle unwisely uses too many flashbacks of the first movie that begs for comparisons, almost as if he’s desperate to make people like the second one as much. There are snatches of Iggy Pop from the first movie and remixes of other songs from that classic soundtrack, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. There’s even a new riff on McGregor’s classic “choose life” voice-over from the first film. Okay, it doesn’t have the same scathing, anarchic, raging tone and has a mid-life crisis feel about it but it is surreal hearing that same voice addressing things happening now (even if the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been with us for most of the last decade, so it’s not that new.) The George Best references seem out-of-place (Archie Gemmill’s orgasmic goal seems to have lost its allure) along with that “where did it all go wrong?” story Best told on Parkinson donkey’s years ago (see my ageism creeping in reader? Stop it!) It also lacks that razor-sharp, documentary-style deconstruction of detox and the surreal sequences that peppered the original. However, the characters have grown up and gotten over their addictions, even seemingly Spud (we do get a scene of Renton and Sick Boy suddenly shooting up for no apparent reason, again that should’ve been cut but Boyle loses his nerve a little there, giving the audience what they want).

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The most unbelievable thing is the cameo by Kelly McDonald. She played the underage nymphomaniac who went drinking on a school night and slept with Renton minutes after meeting him. We’re supposed to believe that she’s now a convenient, plot point lawyer instead of the mum-of-three on welfare that she almost certainly would’ve been. Still, fans of the original will skip over that and enjoy her appearance.

This isn’t Trainspotting: The Male Menopause Years, though. On the plus side, it’s very, very funny (the audience I saw it with laughed throughout); Renton’s improvised song in a Loyalist club about no Catholics being left after the Battle of the Boyne is probably the best scene in the movie (that, along with the George Best scenes, make it seem more like a Northern Irish film at times).

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As for the characters having lost their balls, Robert Carlyle’s escaped convict Begbie is, if anything, a beast even more fierce now. With a head like a flaming football, Begbie tears through the film like a Celtic Joe Pesci, annihilating anyone and everything that gets in his way (he’s even made out to be like Jack Nicholson in The Shining when he smashes through to where Renton is hiding, sticks his head through the hole and roars at him.) There was a picture of De Niro in Taxi Driver in the first one and the style of Boyle’s flick was pure Marty  Scorsese with narration, freeze-frames and classic rock on the soundtrack. In T2, we get a parody of Raging Bull called Raging Spud.

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Ewan Bremner’s ne’er-do-well Spud is the vulnerable heart of the film and, while Bremner sometimes overdoes Spud’s child-like glare, his character perhaps shows the most progress going from a lonely, suicidal addict at the start to a blossoming man of letters.

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Jonny Lee Miller’s bleach blond Sick Boy returns and, as he’s a bigger star now than he was in 1996, he’s given a lot more to do. He seems to leech off a bit of Begbie’s violent, bullying energy in shouty, showy scenes, maybe they rewrote some of Begbie’s schtick to satisfy his agent.

Queen’s Radio Ga Ga makes a sudden, loud appearance during a trippy scene and this is probably what annoyed those young critics the most. Freddie and the boys are rock royalty and not the edgy, druggy types like Iggy and Lou Reed, but who cares? It’s a great rousing scene. It’s fun. What’s wrong with that?

The script also takes piquant pops at the EU; Renton is greeted on his return to Edinburgh after 20 years away by a Slovenian girl handing out leaflets, Sick Boy is running a blackmail scam with a Bulgarian hooker and the boys get involved in trying to hook up with a £100k EU grant scam. Brexit is the unmentioned ghost at the feast.

Sequels are delicate balancing acts; you have the give the audience something similar to the first one but in a new way. Rehash everything from the first film and the audience will get bored, but go in a totally new direction and it won’t feel like a real, true follow-up. Trainspotting 2 does move the characters on and tries to do something different with them. It updates them while giving us echoes of their past selves and, in that, screenwriter John Hodge does a solid job. It was always going to be a near-impossible task catching lightning in a bottle twice. Danny Boyle acquits himself admirably. He’s too talented a filmmaker to just phone it in.

There’s talk of a Trainspotting 3, and, as I thoroughly enjoyed Trainspotting 2, I’d love to see it happen. The pressure will be off in the threequel and they can wrap things up by making the Trainspotting franchise into a trilogy. I can almost hear those young, angry critics groaning; but that’s life, kids. Choose life.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Trainspotting 2 & The Return of 90s Culture

The 1990s really didn’t kick into gear until 1996. Stock, Aitken & Waterman had dominated the pop charts in the late 80s; by the early 90s they were gone. So was Freddie Mercury and the great Queen hit machine as we knew it. Into this power vacuum flooded a lot of anonymous house music, “rubbishy old dance” records as Cliff Richard dubbed them. The emergence of Take That and East 17 promised a return to steadier pop hits, but I still remember how bad the pop charts got in 1993 and 1994. Things improved in 1995 and then 1996 hit and, suddenly, everything seemed to be happening again.

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One of the gang. Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis and Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting

There was the retro Britpop war between Oasis and Blur with Pulp and Suede thrown in for good measure. The Spice Girls burst out of nowhere and George Michael returned with his excellent Older album and two number one hits. Take That were splitting up but Robbie Williams did get his first solo single out (a cover of George Michael’s Freedom ’90) and, despite this inauspicious start, he would confound his critics, pick up the fallen pop star banner and churn out some incredible hits later in the decade. Even Queen released the last singles recorded with Freddie Mercury in ‘96.

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Into this mix landed Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting. Based on Irvine Welsh’s scabrous novel of the same name, it was the movie of the year that everyone was talking about and was voted the best British movie of the last 60 years in a 2012 HMV poll. The title, taken from that old, nerdy British pastime of standing beside train tracks for hours collecting the numbers of trains as they pass, risked putting off potential viewers but it was subversively deceptive. This film crackled with energy from the first second it appeared on screen. It was anything but boring.

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It had that iconic orange poster campaign and that song “Born Slippy” by Underworld that instantly time-stamped it and still does. It captured a mood, a moment and the zeitgeist in a way that films like Fight Club and The Matrix would do later in the 90s. You remember exactly where you were when you saw it. It had the amoral Kubrickian tone of A Clockwork Orange, the freeze-frames and druggy juggernaut pace of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (another classic from 1990) and perhaps the best narration of any film since Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

Although it was written and mostly completed before the whole Britpop thing, Trainspotting played right into it as if it were planned. Britain momentarily got its balls back (some would argue they are doing so again with Brexit; an appropriate time for the Trainspotting sequel to appear). It was a case of the Brits saying “anything thing you can do, I can do better” to Hollywood and the US pop charts. Empire magazine looked down on the film in a very British way for this “shameful” aspiration by writing that the film had “its nose pressed up against the glass of Hollywood, desperate for a piece of the action.” (That would come later in the 90s when Ewan McGregor was cast as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace and when Danny Boyle directed Leonardo di Caprio in The Beach, a casting decision that split up the McGregor/Boyle dream team until 2017 with the release of Trainspotting’s sequel T2, a cheeky nod to Terminator 2, another 90s classic).

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Like The Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night, another Brit youth culture movie that perfectly captured the time it was made, Trainspotting explodes into action with a breathless street chase on foot (to the pounding drums of “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop. The inclusion of this and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” later, both produced by David Bowie, and the film’s subject matter of drugs, appears to use Bowie’s Berlin period as the film’s spiritual talisman for the themes of death, rebirth and hope Bowie went through both creatively and in his life then. Danny Boyle directed the closing ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 and featured a clip of Bowie singing “Heroes”, again from his Berlin period. It’s something Boyle revisits again and again in his work.) All the while, Ewan McGregor’s character Renton mouths the film’s nihilistic, punky mission statement in the voice-over as our outlaw protagonists flee from store detectives as they drop most of their stolen items on the ground…

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Thereafter, Renton, despite the use of humour and surrealism, begins the long, depressing slide into heroin addiction. The film pulls no punches. Anyone aspiring to this rebellious lifestyle is left in no doubt about the hellish dangers that await them. There are horrifying cold turkey hallucinations about Sick Boy’s dead baby (whether the model of the baby is meant to look deliberately fake or not is unclear) and the desperately sad way he is dumped in the street alone by his dealer to await the taxi to the hospital when he overdoses. All his so-called “friends” in the gang retreat back into their murky world to save themselves. (There is no honour among thieves here but crime does pay inevitably, two clichés nicely undercut there.) It makes Renton’s determination to save himself at the end understandable and sets up his character arc for the sequel.

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It was reported that Tom Cruise leapt to his feet during a private screening of Trainspotting shouting “this film rocks!” Praise from Caesar which kept the box office fever going, no doubt. Cruise would kick off his Mission: Impossible franchise that summer and the fourth sequel will be with us soon. It seems to be the 1990s all over again suddenly. (It just shows the problem with movies today: they’re all remakes, reboots, sequels, adaptations of old TV shows and/or comic book movies. Studios are playing it safe which is boring. Would Trainspotting get the green light to go into production today? Probably not. It’s the reason the 1970s is the best movie decade and always will be. New stories and new talent were given their head and the results were astonishing; The Godfather I & II, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Dog Day Afternoon and on and on. Those mature, morally-complex classics with their anti-heroes and downbeat endings would be too dark and confusing for foreign markets and gamer kids now. It’s all reheated, dumbed-down, hyperactively-edited drivel. Film companies aren’t prepared to take risks on new ideas unless they come pre-packaged with a built-in audience from a TV show or comic book. Ridley Scott bucked the trend by adapting the self-published novel The Martian into the movie with Matt Damon. This is what Hollywood should be doing to recapture the Golden Age again. Find those great writers and stories that are hidden out there and back them up with financing.

I was in the middle of my two-year acting course in 1996 and Trainspotting confirmed how exciting the art form I had chosen as a possible career was becoming. I would act with two of Trainspotting’s stars; Robert Carlyle (aka Begbie) in Angela’s Ashes and Jonny Lee Miller (aks Sick Boy) in The Escapist, both of which were shot in Dublin. I was doing a scene in Angela’s Ashes where Robert Carlyle is going to England looking for work. Unbeknownst to me, they had put Robert Carlyle and Emily Watson behind me in the train queue. I was having an animated discussion with someone and looked around to see those two familiar faces staring at me and I was struck dumb (as I usually am when I meet stars.) Jonny Lee Miller kept to himself all day on the set of The Escapist in Mountjoy Prison as he stayed in character. I played a prison officer, my one and only acting credit to date (more to come on that in 2017 with speaking parts in the ITV courtroom drama Innocent and TV3 show Assassins.) It was my little brush with Trainspotting and now the sequel is with us.

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Will it capture the mood of the time again? Doubtful, but a lot of middle-aged young pups from the 90s will be showing up at the cinema to try and recapture their youth and the cherry high of the first film.

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If it doesn’t have a cape and superpowers, today’s kids ain’t interested. They’re hungrily waiting for the next string of sausages from the Marvel machine, not some edgy junkie movie from Edinburgh. It’s their loss.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Press Self-Destruct: Newspaper Dinosaurs in the Digital Age

If I ever have grandchildren, I’m sure I’ll tell them about the time a newspaper did an article about me. “What’s a newspaper, granddad?” they’ll ask with genuine wonder.

Traditional or “legacy” media (a term which already appears to have consigned television, radio and newspapers to history’s dustbin) forms are struggling to survive in the 21st century. Newspapers, in particular, are seeing sales drop at an alarming rate which, in turn, reduces advertising revenue and only older, die-hard brand loyalists are happy to pay to access content on newspaper websites. It tries to roll with the times to stay afloat by hiring bloggers and sourcing stories from hackers and activists (or “hacktivists”, if you will).

The problem is that the newspaper business model of is dying and the purveyors of the new business model are not only deciding what crumbs to feed the press, they’re naming their price too.

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There is now a timescale for the demise of newspapers in most countries. It is comparable to how self-publishing challenged the dominance of printed books. Reports of the end of hardback and paperback books have been prematurely announced many times in the last decade. Then sales of ebooks dropped and the electronic takeover didn’t happen. It turns out that people like the feel and smell of a real book. Technology has an annoying habit of losing power or breaking down. Recharging is not always possible but printed books never need that just a light source to read from.

ebookvsbookThe internet had a similar affect on music too. The mp3 file appeared to have trumped vinyl records which were in a similar decline. Now vinyl sections of record stores are growing as are sales. There’s life in the old analogue dog yet.

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Could print media stage a similar comeback? It’s probably wishful thinking as news or rather the information itself is freely available from endless sources. If newspapers charge for content, people can get it somewhere else for free. Citizen journalists don’t have the resources of a major newspaper or that Pulitzer cachet, but they do have that most precious modern commodity in abundance – time. Printed newspapers report yesterday’s news, by which stage a newer story has broken online. Yes, the papers can update their websites but the loyalty is to the information and whoever breaks it first now and not the brand. Even if a newspaper gets a scoop, it can be repackaged by news aggregrator sites and the reader may not even know who originally broke it. In the frenzy to get likes and shares and the kudos of being first with news, the basic courtesy of a hat tip to the originator of a story also appears to be endangered.

So it appears the newspaper is terminal decline. It was a remarkable phenomenon while it lasted but, sadly, it seems to be going or have already gone the way of the Dodo.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

 

Loving The Alien

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Star Wars is the fairy story and I was going to do The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of science fiction,” said director Ridley Scott about Alien (1979).

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Director Ridley Scott on the set of Alien with Sigourney Weaver.

There were vague suggestions in the script as to what the creature looked like. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon gave Scott a 1978 book by Swiss conceptual artist H.R. Giger titled Necronomicon. Giger had an incredible and unique surreal style with pages and pages of grey, suffocating, biomechanical erotica. When Scott saw one of the many creatures in Giger’s book, he knew he had found his monster.

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Hans Ruedi Giger at work

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The creature collapses many of our darkest sexual fears into one beast; its phallic head and tail, its erectile teeth and slavering mouth with two sets of jaws that recalled the vagina dentata (the folk myth of toothed female genitalia that goes back as far as Ancient Greece). So the creature was at once alien yet oddly familiar in subtle, subconscious ways.

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The alien has a life cycle straight out of a biology book. The creature begins life as one of the many eggs Kane (John Hurt) finds on the alien planet, the face-hugger leaps out of the egg, wraps itself around his head and implants its seed inside his throat (the first of several oral rapes in the film; Ash the android later malfunctions and tries to shove a rolled-up porn magazine into the mouth of Sigourney Weaver’s heroine Ripley). The writers apparently based this on a species of African wasp which lays its eggs underneath the skin of humans. The alien “foetus” grows inside Kane until it explodes out of him as the chest-burster and hides out in the ventilation shafts of the vast Nostromo spacecraft. The alien rapidly sheds its skin like a snake and grows in size to become the eight-foot tall adult.

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Perhaps because Ridley Scott is British, there’s a class element to the hierarchy on board the Nostromo spacecraft. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee says Scott uses “stepdown imagery” in the living quarters to make it seem blue-collar; mementoes like the shot glass with the toy bird pecking in it and family photographs show us a crew of interstellar truck drivers light years from home, missing loved ones and complaining about pay and conditions.

It has been said that Alien, like the slasher movies that were popular around the same time, stole the plot of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians where a group of characters are confined in one place and get bumped off one by one. Where the slasher movies and Alien inverted that structure was a plot device called The Final Girl – the female survivor who outlives her peer group and kills the monster or appears to. Ripley is the final girl in Alien. The key difference is that slasher films are set on earth with friends, family, neighbours or the police to call on for help. Ripley is totally alone in the depths of space and working for a company who think she’s expendable. There are no humans around for millions of miles and no one to hear her scream, which made it infinitely scarier.

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Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is credited with creating the genre of science fiction with her 1818 novel Frankenstein. The feminist theme of that book is that when men create life, they create monsters and Alien essentially has the same theme as the creature is born of man. So Alien is a very clever reworking and reinvention of basic horror and sci-fi themes for a modern audience.

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© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Star Wars – Empire Under Construction

Narrative theory is the academic idea begun by the Russian scholars Todorov and Propp and continued later by the American Joseph Campbell, that the same archetypes and story motifs and narrative structures appear repeatedly in fairytales and folktales in every culture.

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With Star Wars everywhere in the news this week following the release of Rogue One and the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, let’s take a look at narrative theory through the example of Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope. It was written and directed by George Lucas and released in 1977. It’s a science fiction film even though it takes from every genre; Arthurian legend (the Jedi knights are similar to King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table, Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Merlin-like figure who gives Luke a laser sword similar to Excalibur), Japanese Kurosawa movie The Hidden Fortress (1958) (Lucas said: “The one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress was the fact that the story was told from the [perspective of] the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which was to take the two lowest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars case is the two droids.” Darth Vader’s helmet is also supposed to resemble a Samurai’s.)

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Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) and Harrison Ford in Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars also evokes American Westerns (Han Solo is dressed exactly like Gary Cooper in High Noon minus the cowboy hat.The raucous, violent canteen is like a Western saloon and the destruction of Luke’s home and family is very like The Searchers) and World War II movies (Darth Vader’s helmet also resembles a Nazi helmet, the Empire’s troops are called Stormtroopers just as Hitler’s were and the dogfights in outer space are like Second World War aerial battles. Lucas even edited World War II dogfight footage into an early rough cut of Star Wars as a guide before the special effects were ready.)

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Lucas had tried and failed to secure the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie, yet he retained the opening exposition crawl from the start of the old 1930s Buster Crabbe/Flash Gordon serials for Star Wars.

Here are Propp’s archetypes in Star Wars:

Hero – Luke Skywalker

Donor – Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke his lightsaber.

Helper – Han Solo, Chewbacca and the droids

Princess – Leia

Her Father – Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader

False Hero – There is no obvious false hero in the Star Wars – Episode IV. It appears to be Han Solo, who selfishly refuses to take part in the crucial assault on the Death Star but he redeems himself in a last-minute twist by saving Luke’s life and neutralising the threat of Darth Vader which gives Luke time to destroy the Death Star.

Dispatcher – I believe it’s Leia; she puts the distress hologram inside R2-D2. This sends the droid on his mission which reactivates Obi-Wan who activates Luke as the hero.

For me, the structure is this;

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Act I – Hidden Fortress meets The Searchers

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Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare (1968)
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Han Solo and Luke Skywalker similarly dressed as the enemy in the Death Star

Act II – Where Eagles Dare (Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton disguise themselves as Nazis to infiltrate a German fortress on a mountaintop just as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker disguise themselves as the enemy to get around the Death Star)

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Act III – The Dambusters (Lucas hired British cinematographer Gil Taylor to shoot Star Wars and he had done special effects photography on the 1955 British film The Dam Busters. The assault on the Death Star at the end is a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the bombing of the German dams at the finale of The Dam Busters.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Star Wars © Lucasfilm Ltd.

       

2016: George Michael’s Last Christmas

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George Michael died in his sleep on Christmas Day 2016 of suspected heart failure. I always associated him with Christmas because of his classic 1984 hit Last Christmas (written, produced and recorded by him when he was 21 years old, amazing) and to a lesser extent with December Song (I Dreamed of Christmas), one of his last releases in 2009. Now the anniversary of his death will always be December 25th, tying him to the festive season permanently and in a much bigger way.

So many of the 80s generation of stars I grew up listening to are gone now; George, Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston. And so many musicians have died this year including the great David Bowie (the first anniversary of his passing is in a fortnight), Prince, Rick Parfitt of Status Quo earlier this week (who sang on the Band Aid record with George) and now poor old George Michael is added to that tragic list.

The body of work of stars like those become the yardstick by which we measure our lives. Hearing a hit of theirs immediately transports you back to an earlier time in your life. George Michael had a 34-year career, but his legacy was really assured after about two decades. He was controversial, getting into legal battles with his record company, releasing songs like ‘I Want Your Sex’ in the era of the AIDS epidemic, being arrested for lewd conduct in a toilet in California, a string of car crashes, one of which lead to him spending time in jail and a series of health scares including an emergency tracheotomy to save his life when he got pneumonia on tour in Austria.

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Last Christmas is a classic for me as it captures the bittersweet feeling of the festive season. I’ve had Christmases of great joy and extreme sadness in my life. You just approach each one thinking ‘let’s hope it’s a good one’ like John Lennon cautiously wrote and sang in his Christmas song, ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over).’ The song ‘Last Christmas’; and its memorable snowy video, deals with the trials and tribulations of young love and all the heartache and happiness that’s a part of it. It’s not automatically happy clappy, there’s a sadness there that echoes George’s own life.

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I’ve heard ‘Last Christmas’ four times in the past few days before news of George’s death was reported. The pilot of a plane I was a passenger on played it on the plane’s sound system as we landed in London, I heard it again half an hour later in Heathrow airport itself and twice more on a CD in a car I was travelling in, including Christmas Day 2016, just hours before his death. Little did I know its creator was about to leave us. There have been over 395 cover versions of Last Christmas and, no doubt, that will only grow and grow in the wake of George’s death.

George remembered Christmas as a child: ”I do love Christmas. I always have loved it, ever since I was a child. When I was young both my parents used to work so hard and they always seemed quite stressed to me. But at Christmas everyone would calm down and be nice to each other for a few days, and that used to make me feel very safe. It’s Frank Sinatra who reminds me of Christmas. During the school holidays, when I was a kid, I used to work behind the bar of my dad’s restaurant in Edgware [North London], and he’d always play Sinatra records for the customers. So that association is very strong for me. Why doesn’t it snow at the right time anymore, like it did in the ’60s? If it could snow on Christmas Eve or something that would be perfect.”

George nearly died of pneumonia at Christmas 2011 and he recalled how much he appreciated things that year: ”Best Christmas I can remember, surrounded by the people I love. And knowing that Christmas could have been very different this year for everyone at that table. As it was we stuffed and laughed ourselves silly. I’m such a lucky man! I hope you all had a great one.”

Sadly, he didn’t survive Christmas 2016.

I was lucky enough to see George in concert twice in Dublin within six months on his 25 Live tour. The first one in what’s now called the 3Arena was my favourite. He hadn’t toured extensively and his voice was still in great condition. At one stage, all the girls in the audience screamed simultaneously and a soundwave went right through my head, rocking me a bit. It was a little taste of what Beatlemania must have been like with that wall of screams filling the concert venue. The second gig was outdoors at Dublin’s RDS in the showjumping arena where I’d seen Prince fifteen years before (everyone I see in concert seems to die, I might bar myself from future shows to save lives.)

We need our musicians, the way we need all creative people to try and make sense of our lives and the world around us through their work. When they die, part of us dies with them. George Michael really was a genius. He was a huge fan of Queen and sang with them at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, but he achieved what they did alone. There were four songwriters, producers and musicians in Queen. So George is more like Bowie in that respect, but George was producing his own songs by himself from his early 20s, whereas Bowie always had a co-producer helping him, so George’s achievements are even more impressive in light of that.

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Wham! were even starting to enjoy an ironic mini-comeback thanks to the year’s big hit movie Deadpool where the hero keeps mentioning them to comic effect throughout the movie. Sad that he won’t get the chance to take advantage of that as there are some great songs there. Predictably though, there will be an inevitable huge surge in sales of George Michael and Wham! songs in the coming days, weeks and months.

I was going to bed on Christmas night and checked my messages to see if British Airways had traced my missing luggage for my wedding (they haven’t!). That’s when I saw George had died and my heart sank. Then I reminded myself of his self-destructive nature and that we were lucky to have had him as long as we did. In this age of karaoke X-Factor wannabes stealing their 15 minutes of fame by parroting old songs, he was a true original. We really will never see another like him. Rest in peace, George.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved

Behind “The Shining”

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A nightmare inspired Stephen King to write The Shining novel:

“In late September of 1974, [my wife] and I spent a night at a grand old hotel in Estes Park, the Stanley. We were the only guests as it turned out, the following day they were going to close the place down for the winter. Wandering through its corridors, I thought that it seemed the perfect – maybe the archetypal – setting for a ghost story. That night I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his over shoulder, eyes wide, screaming.”

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Director Stanley Kubrick on the set of “The Shining” with Jack Nicholson

“Jack comes to the hotel psychologically prepared to do its murderous bidding. He doesn’t have very much further to go for his anger and frustration to become completely uncontrollable. He is bitter about his failure as a writer. He is married to a woman for whom he has only contempt. He hates his son. In the hotel, at the mercy of its powerful evil, he is quickly ready to fulfil his dark role.” – Stanley Kubrick

The Shining (1980) begins with epic, sweeping helicopter shots of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family driving through the Rocky Mountains. Its director and co-screenwriter, Stanley Kubrick, was scared of flying and sent his second unit to get the shots. The shots become important later when some of the local legends about Native American burial grounds and the cannibals of the Donner Party are brought into play. They also serve to begin the story wide open before venturing into the interiors of the Overlook Hotel and the minds of Jack Torrance and his psychic son Danny. The epic vistas could be made to seem exciting but the ominous, creepy music lets us know we are entering dark territory.

The Shining at heart is a traditional haunted house movie. However, it defies genre conventions by raising uncomfortable social issues like domestic violence, child abuse and racism, issues which were only starting to be publicly discussed in 1980. This further unsettles the audience. Plus, it has the ghosts interacting physically with the human characters, like when a spirit unlocks the pantry where Wendy has locked Jack and sets him free (some people I saw the film with found that hard to believe and that they were unable to suspend disbelief beyond that point).

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Then there is the scene where Jack goes to the forbidden room 237. He sees an attractive, naked young woman emerge from the bathtub and they embrace, only for her to turn into a cackling crone and witch-like figure with a decomposing body. There Kubrick appears to be playing with the psychology of dreams and ageing nightmares.

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“I think The Shining uses a…kind of psychological misdirection to forestall the realization that the supernatural events are actually happening.” – Stanley Kubrick

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There was a recent documentary about The Shining appropriately titled Room 237. In voice-over, people we never see expound on their theories as to what Kubrick’s The Shining is really about. One person thinks it’s a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans by white settlers. Another believes it to be about the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews of Europe. Someone else sees the Apollo 11 jumper Jack’s son Danny is wearing as proof that Kubrick faked the Apollo moon landings for NASA in 1969 in a television studio. There is a fascinating section of the documentary that explains that Kubrick was getting very interested in subliminal imagery at the time and that The Shining is loaded with signifiers of this type. A movie that began as a novelist’s nightmare and that is presented in such a consistently surreal fashion is, like a dream itself, open to many interpretations.

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Peter Sellers in the inspired lunacy of Dr Strangelove

There was always dark humour running through the work of Stanley Kubrick, most notably in Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Kubrick also loved his actors to improvise and these elements came together in the The Shining when Jack Nicholson came up with the line: “Here’s Johnny!” A wicked parody of the line that introduced Johnny Carson on his chat show, it became the most famous line in the movie, was used as the poster image and is one of the most famous lines in film history.

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When Jack Torrance is waiting for his interview in the reception area of the Overlook Hotel at the start of the film, he’s reading an issue of Playgirl magazine that has an article about incest in it. The Shining could be seen as an Oedipal tale with the son killing the father (Danny traps his father in the maze where he gets lost and freezes to death, Danny carefully retraces his footsteps and saves himself) so he can have his mother all to himself in their new life together.

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© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Capital Punishment: The Ghosts of Death Sentences Passed

The death penalty question has been dragged kicking and screaming into the headlines again this week after the execution of a man in Alabama who appeared to be still conscious during his execution. It was reported that he “coughed” “heaved” and clenched his fists as the authorities began administering lethal injections to end his life. He had been convicted of the murder of a man during a robbery in 1994. The jury gave him a life sentence which was overruled by the judge who imposed the death penalty as judges in Alabama are allowed to do. The execution has prompted 101 lawyers and legal professors in Alabama to call for the removal of 34 inmates from death row who were put there by a judge overruling a jury’s verdict.

So let us take a look at the history of the death penalty.

“Since 1976, 1,348 people have been executed in the US, but in that time 136 people have been exonerated from death row on the grounds that they categorically could not have committed the crime for which they were sentenced to death. In other words, for every ten people on death row who are executed, at least one person on death row is innocent.” – Dr Bharat Malkani, Birmingham Law School

There is no way back from an execution. Like any of man’s constructs, the death penalty is fallible. Innocent people have been executed throughout history. No amount of compensation can replace a human life.

The Guildford Four were three innocent Irishmen and an Englishwoman found guilty of carrying out the IRA pub bombings in Guildford in England in 1974. As he sentenced them, the judge, Mr Justice Donaldson, lamented the fact that he was unable to impose a death sentence on them as capital punishment had been abolished in England in 1965. He said he would have no hesitation in having them executed. (The judge even asked the home secretary why they weren’t charged with treason as that was the only way he could have them put to death) Imagine how those innocent people felt hearing those chilling words.  The Guildford Four were exonerated and released from prison in 1989. Their story was told in the movie In The Name of the Father starring Daniel Day Lewis.

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Even though the rate of capital and non-capital murder offences increased after the abolition of the death penalty in England, Scotland and Wales in 1965, it’s arguable that those figures would have risen anyway given the more permissive attitudes of the late 1960s and the proliferation of gun use in British criminal circles starting with the headline-grabbing Kray and Richardson gangs.

New forensic methods and tools are becoming available all the time now, things unavailable in the past when death sentences were decided and handed down. Cold cases are being solved, convictions quashed and people are being set free. What future developments will arrive to challenge the evidential certainties of today?

The death sentence happens all over the world with China heading up Amnesty International’s league chart for having the most executions. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United States take up the next four positions.

The death penalty in Western countries has been around for centuries and would appear to have moral backing. The Bible calls for “an eye for an eye” or the law of retaliation. Leviticus 24:20 says: “Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him.” As Gandhi succinctly put it, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” BBC Learning interpreted and expanded on this quote: “This famous quote refers to an Old Testament reference regarding the legal penalties for violence. Gandhi rejected violence as a means to change, and only engaged in peaceful ways of protest. A version of this quote was in fact also used by Dr Martin Luther King Jr during the struggle for civil rights and equality in the USA. Both men were proponents of the power of the people and their peaceful methods carried great weight and helped bring about social change.”

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If you wanted to take a pro-Christian view of the death penalty, you could argue that Jesus was an innocent man put to death for nothing. Even Pontius Pilate stated that he could see no wrongdoing on the part of Christ. Nevertheless, the execution went ahead to placate the baying mob, the local elders and to maintain peace in the region. So it is not simply a case of innocence or guilt, the death penalty, as almost happened in the cases of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, can be abused as a political tool with sacrificial scapegoats slaughtered because someone wants blood.

Prejudice plays a part in executions too. If a person belongs to a socially-reviled group, race or social class, there probably won’t be a big effort to save them either.

The families of some victims are against the death penalty, some for humanitarian reasons, some because they think execution is a quick, easy escape from what the offender has done to their loved ones. They want them to spend the rest of their lives rotting in prison and contemplating their actions. The execution of the focus of their rage may not bring the closure they hoped for. It can prove anti-climactic when people get what they think they want.

It is very expensive to keep people in prison for decades. And, in countries with huge prison populations like the United States and China, there is chronic overcrowding. So, to use horrific Holocaust economics, the death penalty is cost effective and recycles occupied space. No politician will publicly admit this but these are the decisions being taken in countries with the capital punishment on their statute books.

Whatever heinous act someone has committed, the “life” they are allowed on death row is non-existent. In the United States, death row prisoners can wait many years before their execution, with no hope for the future. They appeal and appeal and appeal and go back and forth to courtrooms endlessly. Depression is common among death row inmates but they are placed on suicide watch to prolong their psychological torture. When all legal options have been exhausted, a date of execution is set. There have even been stories of men sitting in the death chamber getting last-minute reprieves and being taken back to their cells on death row (essentially a mock execution). That is mental cruelty of the highest order. Even worse are the stories of executions going wrong with inmates suffering agonising injuries and/or a slow death. (Saddam Hussein’s half-brother was accidentally decapitated during a botched hanging in Iraq in 2007.)  A state that retains such a barbaric system loses something of itself that it can never recover.

Yes, there are some people who are beyond rehabilitation and will always be a threat to society. The solution is not to put them down like animals. We have surely evolved beyond the sadistic public executions of the Middle Ages.

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© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Story: In The Beginning…

Where do you start your story? A key question and one of hundreds if not thousands to be answered when writing and publishing a book. Do you start when your character is born or before? When they are a child? A teenager? An adult? When they get married? When they are old? Do you start at the point of death or after and tell the story in flashback?

If you were telling the story of your life, where would you choose to start and why? Looking at your characters in the same way and treating their lives as real can be hugely beneficial. When you start treating them seriously, they become more realistic to you and hopefully your readers.

When a potential reader opens your book, how do you pique their interest? Your first sentence is crucial. The point you choose to start the story will determine that first sentence. The whole structure is like a line of dominoes (no, not the pizza place); set the first one right and the rest should stand. Get it wrong and they all could topple.

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It took me many years to publish my book The Vorbing and, during that time, I wrote many different versions of it. I went through a city map of blind alleys but it taught me what worked and didn’t work each time and sharpened the story. When the time came to pull all the strands together, I could use all the best bits from all the various drafts to come up with a kind of “greatest hits” version of the story. All those ideas gave the whole thing a fast pace and fresh perspective. I won’t have that luxury on book two, but such is the challenge of writing.

This is where a fresh pair of (preferably experienced) eyes on your work can pinpoint a loss of initial focus. Even if you need to lose earlier material, you can use it later in the story or in a sequel or even just as backstory to help you know your characters better. No piece of writing is ever really wasted. You can cannibalize it later or even combine bits to create a new story (Anne Rice was writing a book set in Atlantis and hit a dead end, so she put her vampire Lestat into the mix and, hey presto, got a new Vampire Chronicles book out of it – Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis.)

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That old cliche “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” is doubly true for writers, especially in the internet age. If someone is viewing a preview of your book using the “Look Inside” option on Amazon, that mouse button is right at their fingertips and they are ready to click off if you fail to hook them. So think carefully about that first sentence. Be original. Be surprising, but be true to your characters, your story and yourself above all.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

 

Last Tangle With Marlon

A social media storm has blown up in recent days about a simulated rape scene from an old movie from 1972 called Last Tango In Paris.

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It starred a then 48-year-old Marlon Brando as Paul, a middle-aged man having a desperate fling with a 19-year-old-girl after the suicide of his wife. There is a scene where Paul rapes Jeanne (German actress Maria Schneider) and uses butter as a lubricant. Director Bernardo Bertolucci said: “I wanted Maria to feel – not to act – the rage and humiliation. Then she hated me for all of her life.”

Typically in the internet age, people only read the headlines and think Maria Schneider was actually raped for real on camera. She wasn’t. It is alleged that Brando did lubricate her anally with the butter on his finger. That changes things. We will never see it legally challenged in court, but it would be something to see lawyers try to work out what happened. Marlon Brando was a man who did whatever the hell he wanted and left the wreckage behind for others to deal with. He said: “Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences, and I am not ashamed.” He had sixteen children, three marriages and seemingly endless affairs. Today, he would probably be called a sex addict.

Brando died aged 80 in 2004. Maria Schneider died of cancer in 2011. She had a history of drug problems and mental problems after Last Tango In Paris.

The surreptitious plotting of the rape scene itself with Brando is a director going too far. It is deliberate humiliation of an actor on set, which is pretty shabby behaviour already.

Brando also felt he’d been violated by Bertolucci but in a psychological way, when he got him to improvise on camera about his painful childhood. “I don’t have any good memories,” Brando says through the mask of his character Paul. He goes on to say his father was “a whore fucker and a bar fighter…He was tough.” Bertolucci gloated later on that he’d made Brando reveal all his secrets on film. Brando, raging and trying not to admit his humiliation, said: “You think that’s me?” Brando swore he’d never reveal as much of himself in a film again and he didn’t. He said: “I’m not going to lay myself at the feet of the American public and invite them into my soul. My soul is a private place. And I have some resentment of the fact that I live in a system where you have to do that.” He did a lot of movies for massive fees like Superman in 1978. He would never do anything as raw or challenging as Last Tango In Paris.

Some have called for all copies of Last Tango to be burned. I say no. The scene at the start where a grieving Brando raves and rants at his dead wife in her coffin is probably the best acting he ever did. Sure The Godfather won him the Oscar and gets more praise but the foul-mouthed rage, confusion and despair he conjures up out of nothing, is phenomenal.

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A court once ruled that all copies of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu be burned because it had infringed the copyright of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Thankfully some copies survived as it is, for my money, the best Dracula movie ever made and a remarkable example of German expressionist cinema.  Need we go into Nazi book-burning to show how this kind of censorship is wrong?

It isn’t the only occasion of directors using odd, disrespectful means to get performances out of actors. On the set of The Exorcist, director William Friedkin fired guns behind actors to get the right level of fear out of them.

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Director William Friedkin giving direction to actor Jason Miller on the set of The Exorcist

Jason Miller, who player Father Karras in the film, reacted angrily to Friedkin’s weapons and said: “You son of a bitch, don’t you ever do that again!” Friedkin went further at the end of the picture when a real priest, not an actor, had to give his friend the last rites and wasn’t as upset as he should have been. Friedkin belted the priest across the face, called action and the priest’s hands were shaking as he blessed his dying friend on the ground (Tony Scott did the same thing to actress Chelsea Field on the set of Bruce Willis movie The Last Boy Scout in 1991.)

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Director Tony Scott

Perhaps Tony Scott took a leaf out of his brother Ridley’s book. While directing Alien in 1979, it came time to shoot the infamous “chest-burster” scene where the infant alien rips its way out of John Hurt’s writhing body. The cast were not told what was going to happen. They arrived on set to see everything covered in plastic and the writers “giggling like kids” as Sigourney Weaver put it.

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The looks of shock and astonishment on the faces of the actors are real. Nothing like it had ever been seen before in a film and they were watching it as it was happening before their very eyes. Ridley Scott had pulled a mean trick on his actors but got some no-bullshit reactions from them.

Do the ends justify the means? How far do we want the creators of art to go on our behalf? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

© Copyright 2016, Stewart Stafford. All rights reserved.

Remembering Freddie Mercury – The King of Queen

freddie-mercury-1974-2It was on this day, November 24th, a quarter of a century ago that the world lost Freddie Mercury. I remember the day well. I’d read in the newspaper (remember them?) in April 1991 that Freddie had a “mystery wasting illness.” It said he’d viewed some properties for sale in London and the owner was told to “be out” when Freddie arrived. He was seen being helped in and out of the car. As soon as I read that, I knew it was AIDS. Still, I thought he had a few years more to live.

On November 23rd, he put out the press release confirming he had AIDS. On Sunday the 24th, I was flicking through the TV channels before going to bed and Sky News were playing the Barcelona video. The newscaster, Scott Chisolm, said: “That’s how he’d want to be remembered.” I thought it was a bit premature to be talking about him in the past tense despite his AIDS diagnosis. Then he read the headline that Freddie had just died. Despite my suspicions, it was still a hell of a shock. I remember just sitting there stunned the next day, the wind howling outside. Queen guitarist Brian May said Freddie’s death was one of the grimmest memories of his life. It was one of mine too. An awful, frightening time. There was no cure for AIDS then and it appeared the virus was going to go on killing people indefinitely. Who would be next?

I was 20 then and Freddie seemed old to me at 45. I’m 45 now and, I can tell you, it isn’t old at all. He was still a young man with a long way to go, but we never get the best for very long. They come out of nowhere, shake up everything and then they’re gone, leaving us to wonder who they really were and where they came from.

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Most rock stars die suddenly without warning; Elvis, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, etc. Freddie, like his Under Pressure collaborator David Bowie, knew he was dying and had time to prepare for it. There are little hints and clues in the final albums released while he was alive The Miracle and Innuendo.

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His most famous work, Bohemian Rhapsody, was re-released and hit number one again over Christmas 1991 for five weeks (adding to the nine weeks it had spent at number one in the UK over Christmas 1975.) It’s been said that the success of Bohemian Rhapsody gave Freddie the money and fame to embark on the lifestyle that killed him. The song made him, remade him at Live Aid in 1985 and was a fitting epitaph to his career in late 1991.

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How good was Freddie Mercury? He named the band Queen, designed their logo, wrote their first top ten hit and their first number one single. Just look at the originality of Bohemian Rhapsody. There hasn’t been a song like it before or since. That’s why it stands so far apart and above most other contemporary songs. Freddie wasn’t only a genius songwriter, he was a superb pianist, arranger, producer and an unforgettable showman on stage (I was lucky enough to see him on his last tour with Queen at Slane when I was 14). Who else could walk on before a football stadium crowd and command them all effortlessly for two hours? There was that unique voice with the four-octave range. The groundbreaking and hilarious videos Queen made. He even danced with the Royal Ballet company for Christ’s sake. And all this before the age of 45. He crammed a lot of life into his short time on earth. May he rest in peace while conducting the choir eternal.

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I’ll leave the final words to Freddie himself, he said: “I don’t think I’ll make old bones and I don’t care. I’ve lived a full life. I really have done it all and if I’m dead tomorrow I don’t care a damn.”

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Imagination Vs Technology – The Writer’s 21st-Century Faustian Pact?

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Imaginary things take time to write. Fantasy and horror and, to a lesser extent, science fiction can be among the toughest genres to write as they are works of pure imagination. Science fiction can be slightly researched and current trends can be followed to their logical conclusion. Educated guesses can be made as to what direction science will go in. Fantasy and horror mostly comprise world-building from scratch and, depending on the writer, the concepts can take time to generate.

Added to that, readers want new product yesterday. They’ve become ultra-impatient in the internet age. Some of them even refuse to read the first book in a series as they are unable to wait for the other books to be written and published. “Am I going to have to wait years for you to finish your Vorbing trilogy? I’m an impatient bitch,” one of my readers helpfully explained to me.

In their book, The Neuroscience of Clinical Psychiatry: The Pathophysiology of Behavior and Mental Illness, Edmund S. Higgins and Mark S. George note: “People who can delay gratification and control their impulses appear to achieve more in the long run. Attention and impulsivity are opposite sides of the same coin.” This is especially true of all those internet babies who have grown up in the technological age. So the internet is a bit like Brexit; we don’t know what the full implications of its arrival are yet.

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The web has its advantages. It’s a phenomenal communication tool. Twitter has definitely made me think faster and streamline messages better, that is certain. As a way of quickly disseminating a message or a product worldwide immediately, the web takes some beating. The net is like a giant synthetic brain our thought patterns are connected to (a strength and a weakness that can be exploited). There are concerns over privacy and who is doing what with our data and those worries will only increase as time goes on.

Back to the writing. This awareness of the disintegration of attention spans has unquestionably changed both the method and style I employ when writing books. I started writing my first book when the internet was in its infancy. I was able to remain in the world I had created all day interacting with my characters. I was totally immersed in it and wouldn’t notice hours passing. Now social media, that great thief of time, eats up chunks of my day without me noticing hours passing. I mostly interact online with people I don’t know instead of my characters. I’m totally immersed in the internet. Writing is done now in feverish bursts to meet my daily word count so I can get back online. Experience has enabled me to do much more in less time though. I no longer need to spend all day going down blind alleys trying to find myself creatively. So perhaps there is no damage done there.

There are writers who have given up social media for a month to get books out there. I’d be concerned about losing half my hard-earned followers. You can’t expect people to continue following you if you’re offline for weeks. Especially if you’re a self-published writer dependent on social media to market your books. It appears to be a 21st-century Faustian pact with the web.

Then there is the pace of the novel itself. I am only too aware that if you fail to hold the attention of your readers, social media is tickling their ears non-stop to woo them away. So they’re dealing with getting their electronic fix too (especially if they’re consuming your book on an e-reader or smartphone app that’s connected to the internet and the ejector seat button for your novel is half an inch away). The pacing of a novel has to match the online frenzy going on out there or you’re toast. Then again, if the flour is going rotten to begin with, maybe the quality of the toast isn’t so important these days. We shall see.

So the internet has rewired our brains, changed our expectations and how books are written, edited, sold and read (or not as the case may be). What form will books take in 2026? 2036? 2066? Will we be taking downloads directly into our brains as in a William Gibson cyberpunk novel? I have a saying: “The possible is just the impossible that we’ve come to accept.” It will happen.

My novel “The Vorbing” is available here

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

“You Can Quote Me On That” – The wise ramblings of Stewart Stafford (Slideshow)

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Wuthering Heights & Its Influence on Vampire and Popular Culture

Wuthering Heights, the only novel by author Emily Bronte before her death at 30, has been highly influential on popular culture. It was published in 1847, the year of the great Famine in Ireland and exactly 50 years before Bram Stoker published Dracula.

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The book begins with the narrator Lockwood coming to stay at Wuthering Heights. He is given the former room of Catherine Earnshaw. During the night, he dreams that the ghost of Catherine or Cathy Earnshaw comes to the window, grabs his arm and begs to be let inside. Lockwood informs Heathcliff, the landlord, who opens the window to let the spirit enter but none appears. This supernatural appearance at the window is similar to how Dracula gains entry to the bedrooms of his victims, except he uses his mental, physical and/or erotic power to get in. In some vampire stories, it is necessary to invite a vampire in for them to gain access. It would appear to have at least partially originated in this standout scene from Wuthering Heights.

The story of Wuthering Heights is then told in flashback (Stoker also uses narrators to tell the story of Dracula but in the form of letters and journal entries). Heathcliff as a child is discovered wandering homeless by Mr Earnshaw on his trip to Liverpool. (Liverpool is a port and, as with Dracula, Heathcliff seems to have arrived in England by ship although that is never stated in the book. Judging by the ethnic description of him though and the location where he was found, it is a strong possibility.) The boy is described as “a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect.” Earnshaw names him Heathcliff and brings him home where his presence stirs up jealousy from Earnshaw’s son Hindley and infatuation from his daughter Cathy.

Heathcliff, like Dracula, is the mysterious, dark foreigner bringing his obsessive, destructive and ultimately lethal love to England’s stuffy upper classes. The theme repeatedly used in Wuthering Heights about eternal love even after death was one Bram Stoker would return to in Dracula five decades later.

Although they appear destined to be together, Cathy and Heathcliff grow up and marry other people and their relationship turns jealously masochistic with fatal consequences. Only after their deaths do they appear to fulfill their destiny and become soulmates at last.

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Sir Henry Irving
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Irish author Bram Stoker

Dracula author Bram Stoker was the manager of actor Sir Henry Irving. Irving was a fearsome figure who dominated Stoker. Many believe him to be the inspiration for Stoker’s vampire count.

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Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff (1939)

Not only did Irving serve as inspiration for Bram Stoker but, indirectly, for actor Laurence Olivier who played both Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Van Helsing in Dracula onscreen.

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Olivier as Van Helsing in Dracula (1979)

When stuck for ideas on how to play Shakespeare’s Richard III in the movie he was directing, Olivier said: ‘I’d always heard imitations of old actors imitating Henry Irving. And so I did, right away, an imitation of these old actors imitating Henry Irving’s voice. That’s why I took that sort of rather narrow vocal address.’

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Olivier as Richard III (1955)
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Ralphie Glick returns as a vampire

Cathy’s ghost appearing at the window echoes the victory over death and return from the grave in vampire lore. Stephen King’s 1975 novel Salem’s Lot was inspired by Dracula. One night over supper, King mused what would happen if Dracula reappeared in the-then 20th century. Again, King makes the connection between Dracula and Wuthering Heights explicit when dead boy Ralphie Glick comes to his brother’s window after being preyed upon by the master vampire in the town. He also wishes to be let in as Cathy does.

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Kate Bush in the video for Wuthering Heights

In 1978, Kate Bush reached number one in the UK charts with her song Wuthering Heights. It was directly inspired by a 1967 BBC adaptation of Emily Bronte’s novel that Kate Bush saw when she was 18 (she even shares the same birthday as Emily Bronte). Bush specifically chose Cathy’s appearance at the window in the book to structure the song around and wrote from her perspective: “Heathcliff! It’s me, your Cathy, I’ve come home. So co-o-o-old, let me in at your window.” She definitely played up the scary, supernatural side of the scene and wasn’t afraid to potentially frighten away record buyers. Her bravery paid off with her first and only number one to date.

Kate Bush’s mother was from Ireland. With her high-pitched wailing and scary eyes in the video, it’s tempting to imagine Kate Bush shifting the setting of Wuthering Heights to Ireland and the ghost of Cathy becoming a Banshee coming in from a misty bog in the Irish countryside. Journalist Clive James famously stated in 1978 that he wasn’t sure ‘whether Kate Bush is a genius or a headcase, but she is definitely something else.’ Her ethereal, otherworldly performance spooked some people just as the original scene in Emily Bronte’s book had.

You can watch the two very interesting versions of her Wuthering Heights videos here;

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Version 2

It just demonstrates how, when an author hits upon a striking and powerful image, it can permeate down consciously and unconsciously through many forms of artistic expression for decades and even centuries to come.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

The Vorbing vampire novel by Stewart Stafford

The Phantastic Phantasms

Halloween Henry sitting on top of a pumpkin he made

Eyes are ablaze

Morbid Melissa breastfeeding strychnine to all of the babes

Her smile never fades

Don’t you see that darkness creeping?

It’s a nightmare without sleeping

Trick-or-Treat Trevor knocking on doors with no head to display

It’s his headless way

Emmet The Clownface haunting the grounds of an old children’s school

He’s nobody’s ghoul

On a carpet of Autumn leaves

They’re around every All Hallow’s Eve

Sam O’Terry counting the bones of his earthly remains

None of them lame

Simon-Whose-Head-Hurts taking his 920th overdose

Chemically verbose

They will always do their worst

On October the 31st

©Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

A Hobbit, Four Beatles, a Queen and a Led Zeppelin: How Tolkien Influenced British Music In The 1960s and 7os

Stew Fantasy Quote Meme

Allow me to elaborate on my quote, dear readers. In the Second World war, Britain and Germany were gleefully bombing each other’s major cities into oblivion day and night. In the myopia of war, they thought they were engaged in a conflict to strengthen themselves, but were, in fact, destroying each other as major world powers. This created a vacuum into which stepped the new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union.

In the aftermath of the war, Britain was devastated physically, financially and mentally. Rationing was still in force and luxuries were unheard of for a whole generation of children. The war was before their time but the impact and implications of it were a daily fact of life. Ruined areas called bomb sites still pockmarked the land and the new kids played on them, including a young David Bowie.

Bowie’s biographer Paul Trynka kicks off his excellent book Starman with this illustration of grim post-war austerity from Peter Prickett: “Everything seemed grey. We wore short grey flannel trousers of a thick and rough material, grey socks and grey shirts. The roads were grey, the prefabs were grey and the bomb sites seemed to be made of grey rubble.”

Behold the constraints of reality! Glam Rock in the 70s was going to be the antithesis of all that childhood drabness and deprivation. First though, Tolkien would unleash the beast that was The Lord of the Rings. Despite being written in stages between 1937 and 1949, three volumes were published over the course of a year between 1954 and 1955 (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and the Return of the king). There was a sudden glut of Tolkien product in the marketplace at just the right time. The books were manna from Heaven for a generation starved of good food, new ideas and hope. For the first time, they had in their hands an affordable escape and a template for a way out of their difficult situations. It was like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the world goes from monochrome to eye-popping technicolor as Dorothy reaches Oz. John Lennon was one of many British kids who became a fan of Tolkien’s.

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The Beatles turned everything on its head when they shot to fame in 1962. As well as topping the charts with monster hits on both sides of the Atlantic, they also made some remarkable films including A Hard Day’s Night, Help and the surreal, Pythonesque Magical Mystery Tour. Kicking around for ideas for a new Fab Four flick, John Lennon suggested an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Peter Jackson directed both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies. In 2014, he said “The Beatles once approached Stanley Kubrick to do The Lord Of The Rings and he said no. I actually spoke about this with Paul McCartney. He confirmed it. I’d heard rumors that it was going to be their next film after Help.”

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It wasn’t just Kubrick who rejected The Beatles: “It was something John was driving, and J.R.R. Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage, but he didn’t like the idea of the Beatles doing it. So he killed it,” Jackson added.

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Lennon had published two books himself, A Spaniard In The Works and In His Own Write, his love of wordplay being evident in the titles. Lennon was fan of Lewis Carroll as well as Tolkien and his writing has been compared to Carroll’s, particularly I Am The Walrus.

 

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It is arguable that many of the prog rock concept albums of the 70s were an attempt to transfer Tolkien’s epic fantasy imagery to the album format. Rick Wakeman played piano on Bowie’s Life On Mars and was the keyboard player with Yes. Wakeman did a 70s concert at an ice rink with skaters playing knights on horseback jousting to the music he was playing. He admitted recently that he had gone too far but it was excess-all-areas in the 70s.

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Lord of the Strings

Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin was a serious Tolkien nerd, liberally sprinkling references to the books in his songs. Take these lines from Zeppelin’s Ramble On: “Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair. But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her.”

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Queen, in turn, were big fans of Led Zeppelin. They played Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song during soundchecks and Plant turned up at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 to perform Innuendo and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. It’s possible that Freddie and the boys imbibed some of Zeppelin’s Tolkien imagery by osmosis. Seven Seas of Rhye was Queen’s first hit. It came out in 1974 and was written by Freddie Mercury. Rhye was a fantasy world that Freddie had created with his sister Kashmira. Freddie sings of “the mighty Titan and his troubadours” in Seven Seas of Rhye. On other Queen albums there was “Ogre Battle” and “Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” The imagery of Brian May’s The Prophet’s Song on A Night At The Opera is very Tolkienesque, although the images came to him in a dream. Queen would also go on to do the music for fantasy films like Highlander and Flash Gordon.

Tolkien was probably horrified by the bands and music he inspired but that would have been a typical reaction from his generation. None of it was intended for him. He was unable to foresee the consequences of publishing his books but it is interesting to see how one creative act can inspire many similar and dissimilar ones, spreading out like ripples in a pond. We pass the torch of inspiration down the generations, it is not ours to keep but ours to maintain and pass on.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

 

Author Interview with Stewart Stafford

Tell us about yourself and how many books you have written.
I was born in New York City to Irish parents. My family moved back to Ireland when I was three years old. I’ve lived there ever since.

I appeared to have a natural gift for writing. The first school report card I got when I was five had just one comment at the end: “Stewart writes very interesting stories.”

I listened to my grandmother’s tales of the Banshee in her kitchen and was enthralled and terrified. It was direct exposure to Ireland’s Celtic storytelling tradition and I was hooked. I love the folktales, traditions and superstitions of Ireland, the country that gave the world the festival of Halloween and Dracula author Bram Stoker. I went on to do an Irish Folklore course in University College Dublin. I also have qualifications in Theatre Studies, Criminology and Social Media for Business.

The Vorbing is my debut novel. I have a plan to write five novels; three in the Vorbing Dubhtayl saga and two crime books.

What is the name of your latest book and what inspired it?
The Vorbing is my first book and a nightmare I had back in 1996 inspired it. I rushed to type it up before I forgot it (you always think you’ll remember these ideas later, but you never do. Get them down!) The short story that resulted became the first chapter of The Vorbing. 19 years later, it’s finally out there.

Do you have any unusual writing habits?
I don’t have a set wordcount goal that I must reach each day. I wait for inspiration to strike and write in feverish bursts. That way, what I’m writing is fresh and just sings off the page. Sometimes it can take weeks for ideas to start flowing, but I never panic and wait for it happen. Thankfully, it keeps happening. I don’t know how or where these ideas come from, I’m just grateful they appear.

What authors, or books have influenced you?
Joseph Campbell’s work on mythic structure was a definite influence. James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential) is my favourite fiction writer and Antony Beevor (Stalingrad) is my favourite non-fiction writer. I also admire Richard Matheson’s daring take on vampire lore with I Am Legend.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on the paperback version of The Vorbing and its sequel.

What is your best method or website when it comes to promoting your books?
This is all new to me, so I’m still trying to figure that one out. Online sales are the Holy Grail for writers and you’ll come across a zillion people promising you the earth, moon and stars. Everyone likes and shares my book posts on social media and wishes me luck but somehow that doesn’t translate into actual sales. If I could crack that one, I’d be on to something. Everyone that has read The Vorbing raved about it, so it’s frustrating that people won’t take a chance on a new writer. I’m hoping this will change.

Do you have any advice for new authors?
Finish your book no matter what. Don’t listen to negative people or your own doubts; keep going, get it done and get it out there. Never put something out that isn’t up to scratch. Get your work professionally edited. Believe me, there are mistakes in your writing that only others can spot.

What is the best advice you have ever heard?
Don’t listen to advice. Give yourself the freedom to make your own errors, it’s the only way you’ll learn.

What are you reading now?
How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise by Chris Taylor

What’s next for you as a writer?
Vorbing II and III and then two crime books. That will be my five-novel plan completed. After that, there may be a Cold War black comedy or maybe I’ll give up writing, who knows. It depends on whether people want to read my work. Supply and demand.

If you were going to be stranded on a desert island and allowed to take 3 or 4 books with you what books would you bring?
The Year in Ireland by Kevin Danaher
The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler and Michele Montez
Stalingrad by Antony Beevor
The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

This interview first appeared on the Awesomegang website; http://awesomegang.com/stewart-stafford/

The Vorbing is available exclusively on Amazon Kindle here; http://www.amazon.com/Vorbing-Dubhtayl-Saga-Book-ebook/dp/B0162713PU/ref=sr_1_1

Irish Writer Bares His Fangs In “The Vorbing” – A New Book About Vampires

The Vorbing, Stewart Stafford, The Dubhtayl Saga, The Vampire Creation Myth Begins, Nocturne, Vlad Ingisbohr, Deadulus, Vampire/s, Vampire Book/s, Vampire Story, Vampire Stories, Dracula, Nosferatu/s, Bloodsucker/s, Strigoi, Fantasy, Horror, Fantasy/Horror, Epic Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

This article about me was published in The Echo Newspaper’s November 5th edition. My debut novel, The Vorbing, is available exclusively on Amazon Kindle and can be purchased here at this universal link; getBook.at/TheVorbingAmazon

How My Love of Stories Began

My exposure to the magical world of stories began in my childhood. My mother would read bedtime stories to my brother and I. She would read from books and we heard tales like The Elves and The Shoemaker, Snow White and Rumplestiltskin. It was hearing the canon of the works that had gone before.

Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin

My father took a different direction. He made up stories on the spot and put us in them. We would start chipping in ideas on what direction the story should take. Our particular favourite was the story our dad told about Batman and Robin bringing us to school in the batmobile (we were crazy about the old Adam West Batman TV show). Sometimes, my dad would say it was too late to continue the story despite our protestations. (He would always finish with: “I had a little doll, I stuck it in the wall, that’s my story after all.”) The next day in school our imaginations ran riot with the possible turns the Batman story could take later on. I was starting to write my first story.

In school itself, there were more stories. I remember my teacher reading from Roald Dahl’s James And The Giant Peach. She read the words and I put the visuals to it in my mind. I would look from the book to the teacher’s face. The book was some sort of incantation read aloud to us, holding us spellbound. Then the teacher would close the book and say it was time to move on to another subject. I didn’t want her to close the book. I didn’t care about the other subject. I wanted to hear the rest of that story. As a writer, I don’t get distracted from stories now and it is very satisfying to me.

A Banshee mourning

In grandmother’s kitchen, once the housework was finished, the women in my mother’s family would sit down with cups of tea and swap stories, jokes and gossip. My grandmother recalled how the Banshee attacked her father in the wilds of the country. The story went that his bicycle tyre got punctured. He was pushing the bike along a narrow country road when he heard a woman crying. There, on the wall, was a woman combing her long, bedraggled hair and sobbing. My great-grandfather approached the woman and asked her what was wrong. At that moment, she threw her comb at him, striking him in the foot. His foot swelled up as a result. The moral of the story is; if you hear the Banshee crying, you mind your own business and don’t interfere with her spectral mourning. She was crying for families with O’ or Mc in their names. As a child, I didn’t question the veracity of this story. It was 100% real, terrifying but also enthralling. This wasn’t just family history I was hearing, it was the words of eyewitness testimony to a supernatural incident. I have tried to do the same thing with vampires in my novel The Vorbing. I wanted to make the vampires real creatures to see how that society operated, hunted and functioned. I also wanted to treat vampirism as a pandemic.

My grandmother also related an incident to me that may or may not be true. She claimed to have witnessed an attempt to dispose of a murder victim’s body possibly through cannibalism. Before I relate what happened to you, you have to understand what life in rural Ireland was like when my grandmother was a child. She was born in 1910 and there was no electricity in the countryside then. The Irish government’s Rural Electrification Scheme didn’t come along until the 1940s. It was a dark land where the even darker worlds of superstition and criminality flourished. My grandmother was told to get something in the shop by her mother. It was dark outside and if it wasn’t a moonlit night, you wouldn’t be able to see your hand in front of your face. Pitch darkness. She set out and soon came to a house with its front door wide open. My grandmother thought she saw what looked like a human body roasting on a spit over the fire. She crept inside to get a closer look. Her fears appeared to be confirmed. It was a man’s body. She spun around to get out of there and something or someone hit her on the leg. She managed to escape and lived to tell the tale. My grandmother died back in the 1990s, so we’ll never know if any of her story was true. Was it mistaken identity? A bad dream? Something she made up? Or was it real? It was related to me as fact when I was in my 20s. There’s a little nod to my grandmother’s experience in my book The Vorbing, I won’t give away how I work in the reference. So you’ll all have to go to school and hear about Batman later if/when you buy my book, he he. I had a little doll, I stuck it in the wall, that’s my story after all.

The Vorbing is available exclusively on Amazon Kindle from Thursday, October 29th, 2015 and can be pre-ordered at this link now; http://geni.us/1bza

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

The Vorbing Cometh: October 29th, 2015

Ladies and gentlemen, at long, long last (19 years), my book The Vorbing is finally available for pre-order on Amazon.

US: 

UK: 

Exciting times ahead in the near future. Join me.

The Power of Dreams, The Richness of Nightmares

Dreams have inspired thinkers of all kinds to come up with great works throughout history. Author Salman Rushdie referred to it earlier this week as “the world of imagination and dream, the irrational world which is not subject to logic.”

The theory of relativity is alleged to have come to Albert Einstein in a dream. The genre of science fiction owes its existence to the nightmare Mary Shelley had that inspired her to write the novel Frankenstein in 1816. Bram Stoker had an erotic dream about female vampires ravishing him after a crab supper one night. That surreal spark lit the touchpaper of his classic vampire novel Dracula and became the “brides of Dracula” sequence.

shining_jack_stare

A nightmare inspired Stephen King to write The Shining:

“In late September of 1974, Tabby and I spent a night at a grand old hotel in Estes Park, the Stanley. We were the only guests as it turned out, the following day they were going to close the place down for the winter. Wandering through its corridors, I thought that it seemed the perfect – maybe the archetypal – setting for a ghost story. That night I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his over shoulder, eyes wide, screaming. He was being chased by a fire-hose. I woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over, within an inch of falling out of the bed. I got up, lit a cigarette, sat in the chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind.”

Misery

A nightmare also inspired King to write Misery:

“I was on Concorde, flying over here, to Brown’s. I fell asleep on the plane, and dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer’s skin. I said to myself, ‘I have to write this story.’ Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling. But I wrote the first forty or fifty pages right on the landing here, between the ground floor and the first floor of the hotel.”

James Cameron was in Rome in the early 1980s. The production company behind his directorial debut Pirahna II: Flying Killers (you’re not missing much, folks) fired him. He was starving and penniless. In his hotel room, he had the “fever dream” that would lead to his big breakthrough – The Terminator:

“I was sick at the time. I had a high fever. I was just lying on the bed thinking and came up with all this bizarre imagery … I think also the idea that because I was in a foreign city by myself and I felt very dissociated from humanity in general, it was very easy to project myself into these two characters from the future who were out of sync, out of time, out of place.”

stingj0487d1

Dreams can even inspire musical compositions. Singer/songwriter Sting keeps a diary of his dreams and he named his 1985 album “The Dream of the Blue Turtles” after one of them.

Brian May

Queen guitarist Brian May on how he wrote the classic track We Will Rock You:

“Queen played a gig at Bingley Hall near Birmingham. It was a popular venue at the time. It was a big sweaty barn and that night it was packed with a particularly vocal crowd. They were definitely drowning us out with their enthusiasm. I remember that even after we left the stage they didn’t stop singing – loudly. They sang You’ll Never Walk Alone, which is very emotional. Quite a choking thing really. I certainly found it inspirational. Later that night back at our hotel I said to the others, “That was great. So what should we do to continue generating that kind of energetic response?” I woke up with the We Will Rock You lyrics in my head and had it written in about 10 minutes.”

macca-sleep

A similar thing happened to Paul McCartney when he wrote The Beatles classic Yesterday:

“I just fell out of bed and it was there. I have a piano by the side of my bed and just got up and played the chords. I thought I must have heard it the night before or something, and spent about three weeks asking all the music people I knew, ‘What is this song?’ I couldn’t believe I’d written it.”

The idea for my first book The Vorbing also came to me through a dream. I’m not for one minute comparing myself or my book to the aforementioned works of genius. Their reputations are set in stone, mine has yet to begin. I am merely stating that the process was the same for me. It was in June 1996 that I had a nightmare, a fragment of a dream really about vampires. They were coming out of the sky and flattening people around me. I woke up and ran downstairs to type it up before I forgot it. I wrote a short story that would become the first chapter of The Vorbing. From there, I kept working on it every day that summer. I was not on the internet then, so there were no distractions. I recreated the world of my dream on the page and then expanded it to see where it would take me. I was about to start the second year of my acting course and was so lucky to continue being paid during the summer recess. I could put 100% into seeing if I could write a book for the first time. Somehow I did and it felt like climbing a mountain.

It did become an obsession. I had not chosen to write a book about vampires, they had chosen me to write about them for some reason and I couldn’t stop. Now, 19 years later, the book is nearly ready for release. It is a time of great excitement but also great uncertainty as I push my baby chick out of the nest to see if it can fly. Some will try to shoot it down, no doubt, but some will also give my baby a chance and nurture it. Vampires should fly at Halloween and this year, The Vorbing takes flight.

“I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams” – William Butler Yeats

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

The Literary Hourglass: Art Versus Commerce

A writer’s legacy should be determined by the variety and fearlessness of their choices. It’s tempting to establish a formula or rip one off (just look at all the Harry Potter clones out there) and milk it for every cent. Another option is to pander to the demands of a readership and just give them what they want. Some writers (I never used the word “hacks”) are capable of doing that and are very successful. I can’t write something if my heart is not in it. It’s that passion that drives me to complete it.

Too often today, artistic merit is decided by commercial sales. We live in a virtual world of instant gratification. Being a successful author is the equivalent of going viral through commerce. Everyone wants a flake of viral gold dust for themselves. It’s being said in many online articles how unreliable website reviews have become as a way of determining the merits of a book. Hire the right people and you can have wall-to-wall positive reviews.

So it’s not easy being a writer in today’s world.  They are in a Faustian pact with websites, readers, agents and managers. Most agents would have a fit if a writer wanted to write something they wanted instead of being “on trend” and giving the readership what it wants. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” they’ll parrot. The greatest writers always challenge their readers with their ideas and test their loyalty. If they really are fans, they’ll respect the creative process and the risks taken by their favourite author.

Play it safe too long and you become stale and so does your work. That’s when you have to seize the reins of your career from scaremongering agents and managers and write what you want. Money is great to have but it’s temporary, the work lives on after you die. The priority should be what you want to leave behind. Others can and will decide your place in the pantheon, if you have one. The most important thing is what you think of yourself and your work. No monetary gain can fill the emptiness of a wasted career and promise unfulfilled.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

Reinforcing The Unknown

“I’ve come to the conclusion that mythology is really a form of archaeological psychology. Mythology gives you a sense of what a people believes, what they fear.”

George Lucas

Propaganda is most effective when it enhances beliefs that already exist in a society or culture. That was the conclusion that marketing analysts came to after studying German propaganda from the 1930s and 1940s. The Nazis did a superb job of disseminating their obnoxious brand of hate. They did not create the anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust. It already simmered covertly and sometimes overtly in Germany and the other countries that fell under German control. All they did was encourage it, make it legal and allow it to flourish. It was perhaps similar to the witchcraft hysteria that swept Europe in the Middle Ages and the belief that if “evil” scapegoats were exterminated, everything would return to an Eden-like Utopia. Precedents have proved important in making incidents happen throughout human history.

Even the Nazi symbol of the swastika means “hooked cross” in German. The symbol of the swastika had benignly existed in Neolithic times and in other cultures until Hitler twisted it into his genocidal logo. Even so, the Nazi swastika was surreptitiously piggybacking on the Christian iconography of the crucifix to sweeten a bitter pill and render it acceptable en masse.

“The story being told in ‘Star Wars’ is a classic one. Every few hundred years, the story is retold because we have a tendency to do the same things over and over again.”

George Lucas

Propaganda is the propagation of an idea. That goes for creativity too. George Lucas managed to collapse and rebrand many different mythological and historical archetypes, icons and structures into his Star Wars series. Take the Jedi knights for example. They were the protectors of the Old Republic. Just as King Arthur had his Knights of the Round Table, Roman Emperors had their Praetorian Guard and Hitler had his SS Liebstandarte personal bodyguard, the Jedi/Sith orders were riffs on structures that people were consciously or unconsciously aware of. Thus it leant an automatic credibility to Lucas’s ideas.

Ridley Scott did something similar with Alien. There were vague suggestions in the script as to what the creature looked like but nothing concrete. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon gave Scott a 1978 book by conceptual artist H.R. Giger titled Necronomicon. Giger had an incredible and unique surreal style that came across as suffocating biomechanical erotica. When Scott saw one of the many creatures in Giger’s book, he knew he had found his monster.

hr_giger_alien_ii-copy

The creature collapsed many of our darkest sexual fears into one beast; its phallic head and tail, its erectile teeth and slavering mouth that recalled the vagina dentata (the folk myth of toothed female genitalia that goes back as far as Ancient Greece). So the creature was at once alien yet oddly familiar in ways that were not apparent at first.

It could be one reason why some sequels don’t work as they move too far away from what people already know and want. The best artists know how to give the public something similar in a new way.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

Vampires In The Brain: The Genesis of The Vorbing

The only comment at the end of the first report card I ever got from school at age five said: “Stewart writes very interesting stories.” I can remember having a discussion with my headmaster in front of the class about the Watergate situation. He was impressed that a five-year-old even knew the word Watergate let alone the political and judicial situation. That was my dad’s influence; he treated me like an adult from the start and made me aware of things. My mother’s side of the family had a lot of performers. She herself had the rare gift of having one of those pure singing voices that brought an instant hush to the noisiest party. Such a shame the world never got to hear it as she is no longer with us.

As all children at the time did, I was into comics. Yes, the paper ones. Ones from England like The Beano, The Dandy, Buster (my brother’s comic of choice that I read when he was finished with them) and Whizzer & Chips. I particularly liked the cut-out masks of Guy Fawkes that came with them around November 5th as we don’t celebrate Guy Fawkes Night in Ireland (The Gunpowder Plot being an infamous part of British history) Look-In was my favourite kids magazine with articles on movies, TV shows and music. When Star Wars came out, I did buy the Star Wars comic too and enjoyed seeing characters from the movie spinoff into different adventures. There was even a Laurel and Hardy comic out then and a Popeye one as well. To this day, I can still draw a pretty good Popeye in under 60 seconds. (Today’s kids don’t do tangible. They’re mostly gamers, especially boys, and their first experiences are visual and online and remain so. There are phenomena like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games that give hope that the younger generation are keeping up literary traditions and forging their own path.)

Television gets a bad rap these days with some parents refusing to let their children watch it, but that’s a mistake. There was an excellent news show tailored for children on the BBC called John Craven’s Newsround. I watched that from Monday to Friday for years. Through that, I began to form opinions about things. I started to agree with one thing but not with another. Even just the awareness of what was going on around the world at that time like The Cold War shaped my world view. Denying children access to that is closing them off from reality and knowledge. Reading about something is one thing, seeing it happen in front of your eyes makes you a witness to history (all of that culminating in 9/11, a day I’ll never forget). Of course, there is selective editing from the journalist and news corporation’s viewpoints but the gist of it is yours to decipher and absorb. You come to an understanding of that later in life. An opinion makes your writing specific and different from others.

I saw the old Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movie The Hound of The Baskervilles on television one afternoon when I was around nine and was fascinated (you could argue that its Gothic influence is all over my novel The Vorbing). I saw the book on sale for 99p in my local supermarket and snapped it up. The book was even better than the film and a love of reading was born. I did endure an unfortunate Sherlock Holmes-related incident when I got a book on the Holmes movies from my local library. I returned it on time but received a threatening card in the post from the library saying the book was overdue. I told them I had returned it but for three years the threatening communiqués kept arriving. Not a nice experience for a kid who had done nothing wrong to go through. Finally, they copped on that the book was in fact back with them in the library just as I had told them all along.  I never got an apology only an admission that they were wrong. That experience put me off libraries and I usually buy the books I read now. It’s also probably why I can’t stand unfairness and bullying and will stop it as no one did that for me.

My school library proved to be a much more lenient and fruitful experience for me. The books were stacked along the windowsill of the classroom and they had a wide variety of texts. I read Rudyard Kipling, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and even The Iliad by Homer. There were books of ghost stories that I was just entranced by (even better if they were true, I always hated the endings of Scooby Doo cartoons when the ghosts weren’t real). A documentary came out at that time about the Bermuda Triangle and I was lucky that my local cinema actually screened documentaries. I urged my dad to take me to it and he did along with my brother. As with Sherlock, there was a book of the movie by Charles Berlitz. It was my dad’s birthday soon after the film opened, so I got him the book knowing that I could read it if I wanted to and I did. I remember one dull, wet morning our teacher was late or absent and I just took out my Bermuda Triangle book and lost myself in it. The rest of the class were getting louder and louder with unsupervised boredom. I heard none of it. I was off the coast of Bermuda searching for Flight 19 and various other missing planes and ships. I went further in that area by buying a magazine on the paranormal called The Unexplained. It covered not only the Bermuda Triangle but also Bigfoot and even things like spontaneous combustion with graphic photos that earned me major brownie points in the schoolyard.

In later years, I came across the work of James Ellroy, my favourite fiction writer. He has written L.A. Confidential and other noir thrillers. There is a great, obsessive rhythm to his work. It is expletive-ridden and gloriously politically incorrect. His attitude is, if you don’t like something he’s written: “Fuck you, put the book down.”

I also discovered the works of Antony Beevor, my favourite non-fiction author. In recent years, he has released one definitive text on World War II after another, his masterpiece being Stalingrad. The numerous awards it has won and the seemingly endless ecstatic blurb quotes by big names aren’t there for nothing. Again, The Vorbing is steeped in warfare and the influence of Beevor’s minutely-detailed but heart-wrenching battles scenes bleed into my vampire novel. My dad was also a soldier and so war has always been there in the background.

So now I come to put my own first book out there in October. It is surreal to think I will soon see a book with my name on it, in my hands and on the internet. To think someone could hopefully derive pleasure from something I have written is a thrill beyond words. Perhaps I could even inspire someone else to write something the way my heroes directly and indirectly inspired me. That is the literary baton we pass from generation to generation going right back to the oral tradition passed down the generations around the campfire and hearth. Long may it continue.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

(This blog was first published on my website earlier; http://thevorbing.com/2015/07/vampires-in-the-brain-the-genesis-of-the-vorbing/)

One Good Book?

Everyone has one good book in them. So the cliché goes. Well, maybe. We all have ideas passing through our minds; the difference is that writers capture theirs on paper. Some ideas can sustain the epic length of a novel but most do not. Let’s assume that creative lightning has struck; not everyone can express themselves well through language or they may not enjoy the writing process which can be tedious and solitary. Even if they did, have they the drive and/or obsession to take them from a blank page to a finished manuscript? The complete writer is a jigsaw made up of many disparate pieces.

We are all born with certain innate abilities. You either have a good sense of humour or you don’t. You can condition your mind to think certain ways but it is always easiest to go with the natural flow of the skill sets we possess.

There are some groups that refuse to believe that William Shakespeare wrote his phenomenal plays and sonnets. They argue that he did not have a sufficient level of education to come up with his great works. It is an elitist and narrow-minded argument. Education is not creativity. Education is the acquisition and interpretation of the ideas of others. Creativity is the generation of your own concepts, opinions, narratives and characters. Education is the known, creativity is an exploration of the unknown.

Great writers are born not made. We have all met extremely well-educated people who are unable to string a sentence together properly. Their skills may lie in rote learning and having an excellent memory in the exam hall. Someone with a lesser education may have an astonishing natural gift for invention and expression. I believe that is the case with William Shakespeare and that he was the author of his seminal body of work.

Life experience can teach you far more. We learn by doing. There is no exam to measure your life experience level, so it is wrongly discarded as a legitimate source of knowledge.

I meet people with great ideas all the time. When I ask what they are doing about them, their body language immediately changes and the excuses start flowing. “I can’t because of… (x,y,z),” they say. I try to encourage them but, again, they sabotage themselves with their negative inner dialogue. So those ideas in their heads stay there, they never come to fruition as anything tangible or rewarding and that is a great tragedy. The world is a poorer place for it. You can’t live someone else’s life for them. If they refuse to allow themselves permission to go for their dreams, that is their choice. It is hard to believe some people choose failure but human beings are complex creatures with many inherent paradoxes. Not everyone has the confidence to pursue their ambitions to their zenith. Depression and self-esteem issues hinder great swathes of the public daily.

So everyone may have one good book in them but, as you have seen, there are many, many obstacles to getting it out there. Many of those obstacles are the limitations we unnecessarily place on ourselves.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

Indie Piranhas & The Book Promotion of Doom

Indie authors, book marketers and promoters can be a bit like Piranhas sometimes. Once they lock onto you, they start ripping strips off you with their desperate over-enthusiasm, frothing the waters of the information superhighway with your virtual blood. Their bio on Twitter smothers you with grand statements about themselves (“I’m a writer/producer/actor/director/philanthropist/mountaineer/marketer on a personal journey of discovery.” Puh-leese!) and links to all their zillion websites and profiles. Then they send you a direct message bombarding you with more of the same. Their tweets tend to be frenzied, repetitive, spammy Amazon links that clog up your timeline with free giveaways of books you’d never read if you were paid to.

It gets worse because their legions of followers are just like them. Once they see you being bombarded, they join in. Soon you’re inundated and struggling to breathe. Indie Piranhas in action, ladies and gentlemen. Is it any wonder self-publishing has a bad name?

Trying to stand out from all of that is difficult. Nobody knows a first-time indie author yet and the writer themselves doesn’t know who to trust as they’re new to it all. Influencers are important but it could cheapen your brand and hobble you from the start to go with the wrong person or company spamming your book details out everywhere in a scattergun fashion. My old history teacher used to call it “blanket bombing”, i.e. pumping out everything you know on the subject instead of actually figuring out precisely what is needed.

Trial and error is the only real way to learn. You can take advice from people, but you really won’t know until you take the plunge and go for it and see for yourself. It’s the same with relationships, you will meet people that will lie to you, rip you off and break your heart but you have to keep going until you find the right one for you. When you do, everything that was awkward and stressful becomes natural and straightforward. The gears stop grinding and everything flows beautifully.

For all the empty promises on the internet, results will speak for themselves. You will see quickly if it is having any impact on your book sales. The reality is that I only read books that I want to read. I don’t read books that I feel are compulsory or because some stranger tries to pressure me into doing so. That has the opposite effect on me. (Reading is always a joy when I follow my tastes and interests.) It is counter-productive in the long run but they still keep pumping that white noise out to anyone that will listen. Think small, be small. Only the indie authors that can see the bigger picture will be able to haul themselves out of the primordial swamp of the cold-calling hard sell and become fully-fledged writers.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

Don’t Shoot The Watchman

Readership implies ownership. It is something I have said many times before and no doubt will again. Getting a book published is a struggle in itself, hoping that book finds its audience and building up a devoted readership is even harder and takes years. Keeping that readership happy while staying true to yourself, your characters and their world is perhaps the hardest thing of all. Once people financially invest in your book and become emotionally invested in your creations, there is an implied ownership. They feel they have the right to disagree and even to pillory the author and, through internet reviews and social media comments, that has never been easier.

Such is the case with Harper Lee’s second and probably final novel, Go Set A Watchman. It’s been touted as the sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning-classic To Kill A Mockingbird when, in fact, it is really a rejected early draft of Mockingbird. It was written before Mockingbird, so it is not as if Harper Lee sat down and took a chainsaw to her beloved book. We know that early drafts, especially by young writers who are trying to find themselves and their voices, can go through vast changes before the finished manuscript is ready. So be kind in your judgement of this work-in-progress. We are privileged to be able to read it. As a writing exercise, it will be fascinating to see where she started out, what was kept, discarded and shaped into what became To Kill A Mockingbird.

Ironically, in a novel with race and racism as its central themes, the characters in Mockingbird are morally as well as racially black and white. The good and evil characters are clearly delineated. While this makes it easier for readers to understand the story, it is not how people really are. We are flawed and various shades of grey, perhaps more than fifty. I have always felt that Atticus Finch was less of a realistic character and more of a mould into which we pour our noble aspirations about ourselves. He is the perfect father and the courageous lawyer taking on the case no one else wants because he feels it is right. If Atticus Finch has become the “bigot” that early reviewers claim (and I have not read Go Set A Watchman yet) then it just reflects how people can change and go against the principles of their youth. We know, for instance, that Elliot Ness, the Untouchable who enforced Prohibition and brought down Al Capone, developed a drink problem later in life. The heroic early Ness is what we focus on because we want to believe in brave, righteous people like him and Atticus. The reality is much different. No one is all good or all bad. All of us are capable of compassion and kindness or great evil. That is the imperfect human condition.

It could be one reason why people withdraw from the media tag of hero when some major incident happens. They are aware that it is an impossible ideal to live up to that will severely restrict them in the future. Harper Lee is finding that out right now with the role model she created in Atticus Finch.

There have also been allegations that 89-year-old Harper Lee, who is partially blind and deaf and in assisted living accommodation, has been duped into releasing this book against her wishes. It is as if people don’t want to believe she would willingly publish something that would change Atticus Finch so drastically. She insists that she wants the book released. I say good luck to her. Writers must be free to do as they please with their creations. That is the joy of the creative process. The racism Harper Lee wrote about was a legacy of slavery which was a form of extreme control and a denial of freedom. In a further irony, her readership is now trying to exert control to deny Harper Lee the freedom to express herself how she wants (one reviewer even went so far as to suggest that Watchman would change Harper Lee’s own legacy. Nonsense.) It is a form of censorship, and, as my old acting teacher used to say: “Don’t censor yourself, that’s when all the interesting stuff appears.” Very true.

So don’t shoot The Watchman. Welcome them in, give them a chance and listen, really listen, to their tale and the uncomfortable truths therein.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

Terminator Genisys – A Terminator Too Far

Terminator Genisys Poster

[N.B. This review contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, you might want to watch it first before reading this. You have been warned.]

It’s sad to witness great ideas being run into the ground but that’s exactly what you get in Terminator Genisys. James Cameron’s cool, iconic, anti-hero android assassin is reduced to a grandfatherly irrelevance spouting boring exposition in the background (“You’re a relic from a deleted timeline!” says the villain to Arnold at one point and it just about sums up how he and his character are treated in this). It reminded me of the last Indiana Jones film where Harrison Ford was literally a backseat passenger most of the time while the younger Shia LaBeouf did all the action. Here Jai Courtney is the younger man given much more to do. It just doesn’t work. The movie is called Terminator for a reason.

It starts well, we finally get to see the moment Skynet gets defeated in a future war prologue and their Terminators, tanks and aerial machines come to a screeching halt. Except, if you’ve read the novelisation of Terminator 2, all of that was in there. James Cameron even planned to film the segment himself in Terminator 2 but ran out of time and money. So that’s a lift from T2. So is Arnold’s fake cyborg smile. Oh and the whole plot about the destruction of Cyberdyne. The first movie gets pilfered too even down to trite lines like “I’ll be back” and “Come with me if you want to live.” It’s time to park those lines and try to come up with new ones or better yet leave us with our memories.

James Cameron got the casting of Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese so right in Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, they brought so many different things to the role. The same can’t be said of the tiny Emilia Clarke and Aussie Jai Courtney in the same roles here. There’s no charisma or spark between them. It’s like the makers wanted a slice of the Marvel audience. They reckoned there’s a generation of kids who’ve never seen a Terminator movie. So they took the best bits of the other movies, recast it with young actors and made sure it got a kiddie-friendly 12-rating (there’s no random murders of women called Sarah Connor or bloody massacres in police stations here, just look at the way they rewrite the scene where The Terminator kills three punks who won’t give him their clothes. They wimp out and go for the soft option. The Terminator has lost his edge completely.) It’s also a great shame that neither Christian Bale nor Edward Furlong returned as John Connor, he’s played by another Aussie and the second Clarke in the movie (not related), Jason Clarke. He’s okay even though he bears an uncanny resemblance to the wrong Sarah Connor shot by Arnold back in the 1984 original.

Connor Clarke

On the positive side, we do get to find out that the mother of Kyle Reese, the father of the saviour of humanity, is Irish (knew it! He he.) Plus, there’s a nice reference to The Addams Family when one of the cops sees Arnold and asks: “Who’s Lurch?” (Sarah Connor’s pet iguana in the first Terminator film was called Pugsley, also a nod to The Addams Family.) These flashes of inspiration are few and far between. The jokey dialogue doesn’t really work either.

James Cameron has given Terminator Genisys his blessing but I think he’s being kind to his old pal Arnold Schwarzenegger to help him have a big opening weekend (even so, it’s made $10 million less than predicted at the US box office in its first three days). Paramount had hoped to do two sequels in 2017 and 2018 before the rights automatically revert to James Cameron in 2019. Arnold Schwarzenegger is nearly 70 years old now. It might be best to finally throw The Terminator onto the scrapheap. The thrill has most definitely gone.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

Inward View of the Vampire

“As the vampire myth developed and went through a rationalising/secularising process, various authors have posed alternative, non-supernatural theories for the origin of vampires – from disease to altered blood chemistry.”

– J. Gordon Melton

I published my first novel, The Vorbing, at Halloween 2015. Even though I began writing my vampire book nine years before the first Twilight novel appeared, you could see my book as the antithesis of that series. I don’t see vampires as being sparkly hunks with six-pack abs. Far from it. My vampires are disgusting, parasitic predators. I wanted to give the vampire its nasty bite back.

That’s not to say I’m dissing the work of Stephanie Meyer at all. I applaud anyone that can get a piece of writing out there. To be as successful as Ms Meyer has been is even more impressive. I thought the basic premise of Twilight was interesting – an updated, supernatural twist on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (instead of the Montagues and Capulets keeping the young lovers apart it’s humans and vampires and then vampires and werewolves) Fifty Shades of Grey began life as Twilight fan fiction and it’s been widely panned but remains mega-successful.

It just demonstrates how the vampire is an archetypal mould into which we pour our obsessions with sex, sexuality, disease, death, addiction and rebirth. The core material can be tweaked to fit any era and its fears (some would argue that the human condition is a constant state of fear – fear of the unknown, fear of loss, fear of sickness and death, fear of alienation from family, friends and wider society, etc). Different writers see different things in the vampire legend just as writers always bring their own perspective and baggage to any story.

In her very fine book, Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice stripped away all the Christian folklore around her vampires. In the movie version that Ms Rice wrote the screenplay for, Bram Stoker and Dracula were dismissed as “the vulgar fictions of a demented Irishman.” (Neil Jordan did some uncredited rewrites on the script and it’s possible that the line is his.) Is Anne Rice disregarding Stoker and his Count or is it the “real” vampire in the story setting the journalist interviewing him straight on fictitious misrepresentations of his kind? I believe it’s the latter. Nevertheless, it takes a brave and unique voice to disregard convention and strike out in a new direction.

I’ve nicknamed Interview with the Vampire “Inward View of the Vampire” as, shorn of so much of their outside mythology, they reflect inwards on their eternal state of ennui. In the December 1998 issue of Starlog magazine, director John Carpenter said of his movie Vampires: “I wanted to get away from the Anne Rice aura, of the vampire as lonely bisexual. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not my approach.” In the last scene of the film Interview with the Vampire, Tom Cruise’s Lestat reappears after several centuries to berate Brad Pitt with the words: “Still whining Louis!” At least they’re starting to have a little fun with this undead thing.

I like to believe that when I read another writer’s work, I’m filtering their imagination through mine which alters and improves my thought process as my mind is opened to new possibilities and different ways of approaching the same subject. In a June 2014 Moviepilot article on Interview with the Vampire, Laylla Azarbyjani wrote: I’m not saying I don’t watch vampire films/series that portray vampires differently, I don’t mind them, I just prefer films that stay true to the original story about vampires. For example burning in the sun, stake to the heart and crucifixes – these are just some examples, there are so many more.” All of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series are important works in the vampire canon.

As I drink my blood-red tea and return to the world of my vampires, it’s comforting to think that the vampire legend will continue and change ad infinitum. What do you think?

[The Vorbing is available here; getBook.at/TheVorbingAmazon]

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

Why ‘The Hobbit’ Doesn’t Cut It

An interesting essay (by a girl named Jack!) comparing and contrasting the content and context of Peter Jackson’s six Tolkien-inspired movies; http://www.ozy.com/performance/why-the-hobbit-doesnt-cut-it/38264

The Vorbing Cometh…

The provisional publishing dates from my fantasy/horror Vorbing trilogy (a.k.a. The Dubhtayl Saga) are as follows;

The Vorbing Part I – October 2015

The Vorbing Part II – January 2016

The Vorbing Part III – October – December 2016

Today, I reached the 8,000-word mark on The Vorbing Part II. I was being a bit impatient with myself with the new book. I had 18 years to get the first one right but today I really did some terrific writing and surprised myself. I added another layer of complexity to what was already there, I can feel it starting to come together and it’s really exciting.

That is how most writers write though, they get the bare bones finished first and then start slapping more clay on to shape it and layer in the detail

I even found an amazing piece of dialogue for my new vampire scribbled in the back of one of my notebooks. If I hadn’t written that down or lost the notebook, it would’ve been gone forever. It just proves how important it is to note down or voice record ideas because you cannot think of them afterwards. I had a blog post before entitled “Fishing in the Stream of Consciousness” and that’s what ideas are like. They swim past and then they go back to wherever ideas come from never to return. I love the idea of rescuing little nuggets from the numbness of amnesia.

I remember seeing a documentary about The Bee Gees. Barry Gibb recalled waking up in the middle of the night with the idea for their number one hit “You Win Again” in his head but he couldn’t find his tape recorder. He was running around in the dark going “where the bloody hell is it?” while humming the tune over and over again so he didn’t forget it. Luckily, he found the tape recorder. When his brother Robin heard it, he said, “That’s a hit.” He was right.

So remember the five P’s when it comes to ideas – Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. A design for life, to quote another song, if ever I heard one.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

(This blog first appeared on my website on February 16th; http://thevorbing.com/2015/02/the-vorbing-cometh/)

The 20-Year Itch

“Where do you get your ideas from?”

It’s the number one question writers get asked most. You can get ideas from anywhere, dreams can inspire you, memories, other books, radio and television, a conversation you overhear in the street or an online article or YouTube clip you might come across. As long as your mind is open to new ideas, there are infinite possibilities. Primarily, it’s my imagination that is the source of my ideas. You end up repeating that after a while and it gets boring. So now I tell a tall tale of meeting a person of restricted height named Eric in a Dublin alleyway, I slip him a brown envelope of cash and he slips me the ideas. Scarily, some people lean forward, wide-eyed and go: “Really???” That’s the joy of being a writer; you’re preaching to the converted, people want to believe what you’re telling them.

“How did you become a writer?”

That would be the next most-asked question to writers.

“Fleas,” I always reply.

WTF? their expressions say.

It’s true though, I became a writer because of fleas. The summer of 1995 was a real scorcher in Dublin. I got quite badly sunburned, the dark red agonising kind that you can’t get any relief from. The heatwave had an effect on my pets too and they got fleas. So I went to the pet store to get flea spray to destroy the little buggers. On the way home, I decided to stop off at the library to see if there were any good books worth reading, perhaps some on fleas or sunburn which were the pressing issues of my day. That was when I saw a leaflet on a table.

Interested in acting? it said

Yeah, I thought through my dark red pain.

So I applied for the acting course and was accepted. For the next two years I was there and it was a wonderful time in my life. There was a writing module on the course where we’d be given writing topics and meet up once a week to share and critique our ideas. It was then that I began to write seriously for the first time. My book, The Vorbing, began life during the summer break between Year 1 and Year 2 of the course. It was great because I continued to get paid from the course during the summer recess and could devote all my time to writing and I did. I’d finally found what I wanted to do in life and it was and still is very exciting for me. So, yes, I have to thank those fleas that I nuked back in the summer of 1995 for changing the direction of my life. Thanks, fleas. RIP you little bastards. The acting course is still going today long after my departure. The 20th anniversary reunion for all past pupils is at the end of this month. I will be in attendance. Boy George once said: “Unfortunately, with all these reunions you get to a point where you start remembering why you left.” We shall see. I owe that course a lot and I’ll be showing up as my way of saying thanks. Sunburn and fleas are optional.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

Back To Black: From Exterminator to Ex-Terminator?

The-Terminator-Poster

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the movie “The Terminator.” Even though it had been made in 1984, I didn’t catch up with it until October 1986. My parents had gone out for the night to my cousin’s 21st birthday party and I was left alone to watch whatever I wanted (a new and thrilling experience for a teenage boy!). They had also gone out the previous Friday and I’d rented a double bill of Bruce Lee movies (inspired by the early Jean Claude Van Damme movie “No Retreat, No Surrender” where Bruce Lee returns from the dead to teach a young guy how to overcome the evil Muscles from Brussels.)

This time I decided to choose a movie I’d had my eye on for a while. I had seen the phonebook-sized VHS cover with the word Schwarzenegger on it. I didn’t know who Schwarzenegger was, but the name sounded foreign, unpronounceable and vaguely threatening. He also looked cool in his shades, leather jacket and with his gun raised up by his face. I had no idea who James Cameron was either (I didn’t particularly notice or care about movie credits then). I think I’d gotten it mixed up in my head with a film called “The Exterminator” that my friends had told me about in school. They said something about The Exterminator putting a gangster in a mincing machine and teenage boys love a bit of cartoon gore like that. So, after school, I cycled over on my Raleigh racing bike and booked “The Terminator” before anyone else could.

As soon as my parents went out, I popped the cassette into our suitcase-sized Blaupunkt video recorder. I had no idea of the unique quality of the movie I was about to watch. From the moment the future war sequence appeared on the screen, I knew I was watching something really different. Then this legend appeared:

The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire.
Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future.
It would be fought here, in our present.

Tonight…

I was spellbound. After the eerie opening images of Skynet’s probes and flying Hunter Killers (the precursors of today’s drones?) prowling the rubble of a skull-covered WMD-flattened city (the nuclear nightmare of every kid who grew up from the late 1940s to the late 1980s, including myself), there was now the promise of something even more exciting. How good was this movie going to get?

After the ominous Terminator theme tune by Brad Fiedel, we get to the time-travellers who in arrive in Los Angeles circa 1984. James Cameron, like John Carpenter before him, proves himself to be a master of atmosphere (indeed, the music for “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” and “The Terminator” are very similar in parts and both movies deal with killer robots masquerading as humans). Both directors know how to use silence and shadows and even humour before hitting the audience with big shocks. The Terminator does ape the noirish photography, electronic soundtrack and editing techniques (Mark Goldblatt also edited Halloween II three years previously) of the Halloween series which was probably a clever move by Cameron as they were hugely popular at the box office then.

I was thrilled by Michael Biehn’s theft of a pair of Nike running boots as, believe it or not; I was wearing an identical pair of them as I watched this movie. I had bought them when I was on holiday with my family during the summer of 1986 and they served me well. The similarity in our footwear convinced me that this was a movie for me!

To cut a long story short, I was completely hooked from start to finish on the movie. I didn’t want it to end. But end it did and I turned over to watch one of those naughty “Red Triangle” movies they were screening on Channel 4 at the time. This one turned out to be Japanese.

Two months later, I went to see “Aliens” with my brother after he came home from America. (30,000 people emigrated from Ireland in 1986; my brother was one of them). So I suddenly got a double dose of James Cameron’s first movies all at once.

James Cameron, wanted “The Terminator” to be a film “that a twelve-year-old would think was the most rad picture he’d ever seen,” but also one “that a forty-five-year-old Stanford English professor would think had some sort of socio-political significance between the lines.” I can understand both perspectives looking at the film now and remembering my teenage experience of it that Friday night.

Terminator_2_poster

In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, as happened with the edgy protagonists in the Dirty Harry and Lethal Weapon franchises, the Terminator character is softened greatly. He becomes a family-friendly, wisecracking father figure and is no longer the ruthless, casually homicidal character he was in the first film. The character and the sequel lost the intense, nihilistic feel of the original by letting the audience off the hook through comic relief. The end of the world doesn’t seem so terrifying if you’re laughing at it. It coincided with Schwarzenegger’s initial forays into politics and his association with the Kennedy family through his marriage to Maria Shriver and campaigning for President George Bush Sr. So it could have been an overt attempt by Arnold to exercise his star power and reboot his image. There is also the possibility that the studio and/or James Cameron wanted to tone down the violence to get a lower age rating for the movie to make more money and that it did (The Terminator got an 18 certificate age rating in the UK, Terminator 2 got a 15).

I’m looking forward to seeing Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels, whenever he brings out a movie you’re going to sit up and take notice. He’s hired the writers of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to help him with the “Avatar” sequel scripts and they’re talented scribes. It should be interesting to see what they come up with. The fourth sequel to Cameron’s The Terminator, “Terminator Genisys” is coming out in summer 2015. (Schwarzenegger’s movies since his comeback after politics haven’t been great. Escape Plan with his pal Stallone is easily his best post-Governor movie and performance. The rest have been forgettable and Arnold looks tired and bored in them with no sign of his old charisma or one-liners.) The Terminator has undergone another image change for “Terminator Genisys” to reflect where Arnold is now and his android assassin will have grey hair in the new film. Yes, will people take to a granddaddy cybernetic organism? We shall see.

Grey Arnold

So Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, like The Terminator, will be back, if separately. Let’s hope they can reach the levels that they did with their unforgettable first collaboration. If not, we can always time travel to the original again any time we want by putting it on our TVs. Arnold’s not an ex-Terminator yet.

Terminator-Genisys-4

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 690 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 12 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Vorbing – The First Proof (Your Opinions, Please)

http://thevorbing.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/dfw-ss-ds1-cover-proof.jpgHey everyone, I’ve just received the first proof of my novel The Vorbing. I need your feedback here. What do you think of it? Would this cover make you want to buy this book? What do you like about it? What do you not like about it? How would you improve it? Your replies will be very helpful.

The Science Fiction Faction

For me, the term science fiction is something of a misnomer. For me, science fiction is “science yet to be.” It’s amazing how the sci-fi films of the 80s and 90s have influenced our modern world.

1990’s Total Recall, seen as a classic at the time, is now pounced on by today’s generation as being not very good because its innovations are with us now from its then-futuristic webcam chats to body scanners at airports (although they still haven’t got around to making that touchpad device that turns a girl’s fingernails different colours on command). The pilotless flying machines in The Terminator(1984) that were called HKs or Hunter-Killers are quite clearly the prototype for the drones we have prowling our skies today (they’re even called Predator drones after another Schwarzenegger sci-fi film)

You could argue that H.G. Wells predicted all this with his Martian fighting-machines in his book The War of the Worlds in 1898. Or did the designers of mechanised warfare in the 20th century take their cue from Wells himself? I believe they did. Writers have the luxury of creating worlds in the freedom of their imaginations. There are no budgetary constraints. No chains of command or standard operating procedures to adhere to. They can play out their scenario in full and demonstrate its effectiveness which perhaps inspires those in power to emulate their proven hypothesis.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sits at the heart of the science fiction spider web. Her 1818 novel concerned itself with things we are still worried about today, especially in this interconnected online virtual reality world most of us live in 24/7. Where is all this technology going? Is our humanity being swamped by it all? Will it one day overwhelm us, its creators, and take over as Frankenstein’s creature did? What sort of world will that be? James Cameron extrapolated on those fears to spectacular effect in his Terminator movies (surely Schwarzenegger missed his calling with Frankenstein. In his prime, he did resemble something someone had constructed instead of a real human being or “a condom stuffed with walnuts” as Clive James once described him.) Those fears are also in everything from 1927’s Metropolis to Westworld in 1970s, Robocop in the 80s and The Matrix in the 90s.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde novella from 1886 is another cornerstone of the science fiction genre. He had two different personas inhabiting the same body. That idea is the basis of every comic book superhero movie from Superman (Kal-El/Clark Kent) and Batman (Bruce Wayne/Batman) to Spider-Man (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), etc. It has also served sci-fi’s cousin genre, the horror movie, well in Psycho (Norman Bates/Mother) and The Exorcist (Regan/Pazuzu The Demon).

Science fiction is the exploration of innovations, not necessarily in a futuristic world, but the very projection of forward-thinking ideas does shape the construction of those worlds. Even if the influence is indirect, it is still fuelling reality through pop culture filtering into the public consciousness. The science “fiction” tag is dismissive to me, as if to label it ludicrous and put it in an unreal box. The cliché that the pen is mightier than the sword, like all clichés, has a basis in fact. Ideas really can and have changed the world. It is happening every day all around us. Fiction has been the launch pad of progress so many times and will continue to be in the future. Dismiss it as science “fiction” at your peril.

© Stewart Stafford, 2014. All rights reserved.

The Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of 2014

Here’s the Kirkus Reviews end-of-year list of the teen titles that really impressed them. Some fine work by trailblazing writers here. I’m more than happy to pass on the information to you.

Click here to read it.

If you haven’t read Kirkus Reviews appraisal of my fantasy/horror novel, The Vorbing, you can view that here or on my website here.

The Vorbing: The Book Cover

Stewart Stafford, The Vorbing, The Vampire Creation Myth Begins, Fantasy, Horror, Vampire Novel/s, Vampire Book/s, Supernatural, Superstition, Myth, Legend
The Vorbing by Stewart Stafford (Coming in early 2015)

The book cover for The Vorbing will be delivered to me on December 15th, 2014. I have just spent the morning answering dozens of the designer’s questions and sending as many photos and other visual aids as I can. Exciting times. It’s another step on the way to my dream and I am slowly but surely getting there with the help of others.

Writing, life and whatever takes my fancy at any given moment.

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