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