Category Archives: Novel/s

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.

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.

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.

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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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

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

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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.

 

Negotiating The Godfather

 

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There is an absolutely brilliant piece of writing in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. It’s not the opening scene which perfectly establishes the power and darkness of Marlon Brando’s Godfather Vito Corleone and the tone of the film and the resulting trilogy. It isn’t one of the many classic lines; “I believe in America!” “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,”, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”, “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer,” “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again…ever.” (a line which foreshadows Michael Corleone’s murder of his brother and eventual moral downfall as he destroys his own family). It’s not the big, showy assassination scenes or the unforgettable minor characters that are patiently sketched out. I could go on listing all the many examples of masterpiece writing.

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The scene I’m referring to is the subtle and under-appreciated negotiation scene with thug-on-the-rise Virgil Sollozzo a.k.a. The Turk. Brando’s Godfather is there as is his son Sonny (James Caan) and two of their henchmen with The Turk at the negotiating table. It is a verbal game of cards with everyone keeping their opinions close to their chests and giving nothing away. It is the 1940s just after World War II. The Turk wants money from the Corleone family to set up a drug-dealing operation (after the Prohibition booze boom of the the 30s, drugs would be the next one for organised crime) which is “infamita” and unacceptable to Brando’s Godfather. This frustrates The Turk and also Corleone’s son who can see the huge opportunity to get in early to the drugs market and make vast profits.

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The Turk offers a sweetener that rival mob family The Tattaglias will guarantee the Corleone family’s investment. Hot-headed Sonny foolishly puts all his cards on the table and reveals an eagerness for the deal. “Wait a minute,” Sonny says, “are you telling me that The Tattaglias will guarantee our investment?” There are subtle reaction shots from everyone around the table. It’s a huge mistake and all of them know it immediately. The Godfather tries to reprimand his son and makes apologies for his rashness but it is too late. A division in the family is now revealed and Sollozzo can start to take lethal action to get his deal.

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That one line will change the course of the rest of the movie and the other two films that follow. It will result in the death of Sonny Corelone, the attempted murder of his father Vito, the exile of his brother Michael (Al Pacino) to Sicily for taking revenge on Sollozzo and a crooked cop and Michael’s subsequent merciless rise to power on his return, the near-destruction of The Corleone family and an all-out war between the five Mafia families.

Godfather Assassination Attempt

 

Godfather Sonny Shot

Sonny dies before most of these things happen, so he never sees the full consequences of his actions, but we don’t in life. We see some of them, but never all. Another nice touch in the screenplay. The Corleone family are clearly based on the Kennedy clan and their rise from immigrant obscurity to power and success in America with help from organised crime. There then followed assassinations and an unbelievable litany of tragedies just like the Corleones endure. No wonder Americans lapped up  The Godfather in the early 70s; they were watching their own history writ large with the drama bringing them even closer inside it.

The Sollozzo negotiation scene is rarely commented upon but it is masterful in its execution. Sonny’s unthinking rage is the Achilles heel of the Corleone family, a thread sticking out of a quilt that is gently tugged upon to start the whole thing unravelling. A superb piece of writing that, in a movie that is all about strength and power, reveals a realistic human frailty. The moment is even foreshadowed by Brando who says: “Women and children can be careless but never men.” A great deal of clever planning has gone into the script’s epic construction by Coppola and Mario Puzo based on Puzo’s 1969 novel of the same name. It rightly won the Oscar for Best Screenplay.

Text: © Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved

The Godfather © Paramount Pictures

Indie Authors: The New Punks

Johnny_Rotten_3067090c

We’ve all heard about the self-publishing revolution in books in the last few years with Amazon Kindle and all the other e-readers and websites. I was watching a BBC documentary called ArtsNight last week and the presenter made an interesting point: punk rock bands were the first indie authors. They learned their three chords, set up their own bands and, in some cases, record labels and self-published their own music. They took control of their own destinies in the same way novelists did recently. Even the punk fanzines were do-it-yourself wonders; stapled together, photocopied and distributed through record stores, mailing lists, by hand and by word-of-mouth in those pre-pre-internet days.

It’s a very cogent analogy. As with the self-published books, some of the DIY punk music that was put out was awful, but some of it has reached classic status in hindsight. Self-publishing until recently was called “vanity publishing,” but writers were no longer prepared to sit on their hands waiting months for a form rejection letter. They too seized their own destinies through the technology that was around them and turned the publishing industry on its head.

The Martian Book

Movies are even being made from self-published books for the first time like Ridley Scott’s The Martian starring Matt Damon and a future fantasy film that 20th Century Fox has purchased the rights to called Fall of Gods (even after that movie deal was signed, the book was taken down from Amazon due to formatting issues, the bane of indie authors everywhere. Luckily, it didn’t impact on the movie deal and Fox could see the merit of what was there despite the flaws.)

Fall of Gods

Punks and indie authors are strange bedfellows indeed, but both groups were and are pioneers in their fields. While the punk movement didn’t manage to overthrow the mainstream in the same way hippies in the previous generation hadn’t, they democratised their art form and showed others what was possible with self-belief and a little effort. Just as indie authors did. The shockwaves of the indie author revolution are still spreading out from the epicentre and nobody really knows where it will stop or what comes next. The most important thing is that books that would have gathered dust in drawers and on hard drives and memory sticks are now finding a worldwide audience. That can only be a good thing.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

The Paper Tablet – Setting Your Writing In Stone

Writers in the 21st Century think they’re so sophisticated in the way they can store, transport and transmit stories. We worship at the altar of electronic technology. However, hard drives can fail. Memory sticks can get damaged, lost or stolen.

bad-cat

Take my case, for example. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my cat Ginger was going blind. He thought he was in his litter box but was actually squatting over my memory sticks which had fallen onto the ground. He peed on them and wiped 8 gigabytes of data on me, a huge amount for those who don’t know what that means. The acid in his urine corroded and rusted the metal tips of the memory sticks, making them unreadable. Although I had saved the contents of my prime memory stick to a back-up, the cat had managed to pee on both of them. Through that freak accident, I lost things I can never get back.

Burning-books-006

Similarly, I went away on holiday once. While I was gone, my sister decided to surprise me and clean up my place. She threw out a load of writing I had saved on disk, including about half a book’s worth of material. When I got back, I was shocked and not a little pissed off (we’re back to urine again, see a theme emerging here?). Luckily, she hadn’t thrown out a stack of hard copy printouts I’d done. I went through the pile, silently praying that my discarded work was there. It was and I breathed a massive sigh of relief. Now, I had to retype it all from scratch but the material wasn’t lost forever. I was able to retrieve it. You might think you can retype something verbatim from memory but every time you sit down to write, you make different choices. It’s never the same way twice. Retyping it all was actually a good way of revising what I’d done. I spotted some errors, fixed them and took the story in a different direction as result.

The point being, print out early drafts of your material as well as storing back-up copies separately from the primary source. If you’re blocked, reading what you’ve done so far gets you thinking. Even if the solution doesn’t present itself immediately, your mind is working on it. You may not find a way to progress the story ahead but, very often, you’ll see a way to link earlier sections of your book with new sequences. That all adds to the wordcount and gets you closer to completing your novel.

Yes, paper can be shredded or torn up but it’s far more difficult to do than wiping something electronically which can happen in an instant before you know it.

So there’s the writer’s life for you; sometimes we sabotage ourselves and sometimes it’s technology, those around us or even nature itself preventing us getting our work out there. (I wonder how many great books have been lost over the centuries in that way?) For all our perceived sophistication, you really can’t beat having that tangible paper copy in your hand. Some things never change.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

The Segregation of Shock

“Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness” – Pablo Picasso

I have written a fantasy/horror novel about war with vampires called The Vorbing. It is hard to deal with either of those subjects without dealing with bloodshed. Yet, I have discovered, to my great surprise, that there is discrimination by book reviewers against books with “gore” (which they find “tacky” and on the same level as porn) and “extreme violence” (which they find “offensive.” That’s strange as fiction isn’t about real pain or suffering so there’s nothing to be offended by. It’s all make believe). They had better not read The Bible then or anything by Shakespeare.

In Act III, Scene VII of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the elderly Earl of Gloucester has his eyes gouged out by the Duke of Cornwall with the words: “Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?” Pretty graphic stuff but it perfectly illustrates the upside down nature of Lear’s kingdom once he mistakenly divides it up between his three daughters.

The crucifixion of Jesus in The Bible also has scenes of graphic torture followed by the slow death of Christ that follows. Again, this is deliberate to make the reader or the listener in church live every wound with Christ as he dies for our sins (or so The Bible says, believe or don’t believe what you want, dear readers).

Where did this ludicrous squeamishness appear from suddenly? Why are books being prejudged for their content without being given a fair chance?

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” the old adage goes. Equally, don’t judge a book by its content until you’ve read it. If you dare to write extreme scenes, you are essentially barred from getting not just a fair review but ANY review. This is wrong on all levels. It is holding back writers that want to try new things and push boundaries. You don’t get great art by playing it safe but that is the message being sent out loud and clear by these reviewers. Conform and be unimaginative is their coda.

It is a form of censorship and all that entails (I always get images of Nazi book-burning in my head when I think of censorship) My old acting teacher told me never to censor myself as that’s when all the good stuff happens. She was and is right. I never have censored myself and I never will. Nor will I allow others to censor me either. The glorious freedom of writing is a beautiful thing that must never be stifled.

I am not saying be outrageous or controversial for the sake of it. That is petulant attention-seeking. Some writers are acutely aware that there are two ways to get your message out there – advertising (which costs money) and publicity (which is free). Being cynically controversial is the cheapest and fastest way to sell anything. The media and chattering classes see to that. I am saying take risks because your characters and their world take you there or demand that you do. Even if these lily-livered reviewers want you to water down your work, I say don’t. Why? I’ll give Shakespeare the final word: “To thine own self be true.” Amen.

© 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.