Courtesy of the British Fantasy Society, I’ve posted a short story of mine that appeared in the BFS Journal last month. The genesis of this one came about after we moved house a couple of years ago and bought a place that has a massive bread oven from the 1850s in the cellar. Turns out the house was the village bakery in Victorian times so the choice was clear: open a pizzeria or write a story about this wondrous bit of engineering from the past. I chose the latter and you can read the story, Cast Iron, right here.
Rather belatedly, I’ve added a page on the blog for short stories, fragments, and unfinished projects that are still flying in a holding pattern and waiting for ground clearance.
The first bit I’ve posted is chapter one of Camera Obscura, a melodramatic tale set in America in 1864 as the civil war grinds on. Good military intelligence is in short supply and Lincoln’s war cabinet is looking to new sources, even if they’re from beyond the grave.
Check back soon for a complete short story of contemporary weird fiction, Cast Iron, which recently appeared in the Journal of the British Fantasy Society. I’ll be posting that here in another week or two.
Oliver Cromwell may have outlawed Christmas but Rebellion Publishing is giving it back. Get your fix of 17th century historical fiction and fantasy at practically a giveaway price. Beginning on 11 November, you can pick up Gideon’s Angel and The Raven’s Banquet for Kindle over at Amazon and make some substantial savings–better than half price on each title. It’s only until Friday, mind you, so grab your device or head over to the Amazon US or UK websites.
I’ve got a very good friend who is an ace photographer and now the official “war correspondent” for the Viking Varangian Guard. When she sent me these group photos I was blown away by their intensity. These are so beautifully composed that I felt that I just had to share them with the wider world. I’ve done some historical reenactment in the past myself, medieval and 17th century, but these guys are the real deal. The Jomsborg Ulflag “Amateur Sports Team” are one of the largest Viking-era reenactment groups in the world.
They take part in competitive steel combat which has been held in London for over twenty five years, with most of their members based in London and in the home counties surrounding London. They’ve grown to such a point now that they also have members throughout the UK and internationally within “The Ulflag”.
Check out more of Gesine’s incredible work over at:
And to find out more about the Ulflag, grab your axe and head over to:
American Horror Story’s latest series, Freak Show, got off to a rip-roaring start on Fox TV (FX network in the US), invoking the 1930s screen memory of Todd Browning’s Freaks (banned for years) and adding more contemporary (and very adult) elements of modern horror. Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates lead an excellent cast and combined with high production values, the show delivers some gruesome thrills. Twisty the Clown will have you reaching for the tranquilizers or a stiff drink. Freak Show is set in 1952 in Florida and the first episode combined campiness, suspense, and even some pathos. I’m hoping that future scripts deliver on character development and the terrible challenges of being “different” in a conformist judgemental world, far worse in fifties America than today. But empathy might be a challenge for the writers given that a few major characters are already portrayed as murderers (and that’s just the first episode).
Watching the show reminded me of my own childhood experience of seeing one of the last American travelling sideshows back in 1968. Long before the political correctness movement had entered society, carnival freak shows had been a summer rite of American life across the country. I had been shopping at the local department store with my mother and was in the checkout lines when I saw a man with two faces. He wasn’t wearing a mask and had just popped in to buy some things but the effect on other patrons was disturbing. It was a horrific deformity, an extreme cleft palate that had divided his face. I do remember noticing that his third eye looked painted-on. Mother hustled me out fairly quickly but a few days later I ended up seeing him again when we went to the sideshow one evening.
These are hazy memories so long ago but I remember the gasps of the punters as the two-faced man pulled off his burlap mask. The “talker” for the show also performed: he was the Human Blockhead who nailed spikes through his nose and then pulled them out, swallowed swords and fire, and who could suck in his guts so you could practically see his backbone. Amazing and somewhat terrifying for a ten-year old and I’m still at a loss how I was allowed in. Other “exhibits” included a woman suffering from elephantiasis, a bearded lady, and well, the rest have taken root in some forgotten corner of my memory.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I’ve now identified some of those I saw. They were part of the James E Straits sideshow which travelled the US for decades and had come to Rhode Island that summer in 1968. The “Man with Two Faces” was a gentleman named Bill Durks who worked the carny circuit from his early forties until he died (even finding love and marriage there). The Human Blockhead was Melvin Burkhart who died at the age of 94 in 2001, performing right up until a few weeks before he passed away. Reading about their lives now, all these years on, one is impressed with their humanity and the obstacles they overcame. Freak shows still exist in the US, but are no longer the same as they were in the 20th century. The ethics of such entertainment are debatable and we live in a different age now. And thankfully, many of the debilitating conditions that led to sideshow freaks are medically treatable. But I’m glad a little online research transformed these people into individual human beings from the “monsters and freaks” of my childhood.
This year’s British Fantasy Con at York was a veritable cavalcade of good clean fun: great panels, old friends, new friends, and evening sophistication (carousing), all necessitating several additional days of recuperation afterwards. I had the pleasure of being on a panel that took a critical look at swordplay in fantasy and film. This led afterwards to a very impromptu demo of sword skills and myth-busting in the bar next door featuring fellow scribes Adrian Tchaikovsky, Juliet McKenna, Fran Terminiello, and David Moore. Thanks to Annie Catling we’ve got a video. (I’m assured no bar-flies were harmed in the making of this film)
Very much looking forward to York this weekend and seeing everyone again at this year’s Fantasy Con.
I’ll be participating on a panel session Saturday 6 October that’s bound to have some sparring (and possibly with steel) and will also be doing a reading from the incredible hair-raising memoirs of Colonel Treadwell (Gideon’s Angel to be exact).
Here’s the skinny from the official website over at www.fantasycon2014.org
11.00am – The Pen vs the Sword
Writers who also happen to be swordfighters discuss the myths and realities of the sword in fiction – and demonstrate their skills with the blade!
Marc Aplin (m), Fran Terminiello, Juliet E McKenna, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Clifford Beale
Readings from authors commence on the Friday evening and I’ll be doing mine on Saturday at 10:20 am (hopefully after the double lattes have kicked in).
Hope to see you there! Check out the latest on the twitter feed: @FantasyCon2014
Fell in love with this 1760 longcase clock at Croft Castle outside Hereford. There’s a delightful creepiness to it and reminded me very much of a Munchhausen style Man in the Moon
And for those fantasy lovers who haven’t heard of the famous 18th century “lying” Baron, here are a few links to get you started.
A short history over at wikipedia
You can even download a free copy of the book here at Project Gutenberg
And of course, there’s the quirky Terry Gilliam film that is well worth a viewing.
Britain’s Channel 4 aired a fascinating documentary this past week, Recreating Richard III—a forensic investigation with a twist (spinal twist really). Historians have always questioned the battle prowess of Richard III given his back deformity and after his remains were conclusively identified, and the extent of his scoliosis seen, these doubts took on greater weight.
Step in Toby Capwell of the Wallace Collection and the Channel 4 team who set about trying to discover whether Richard could have actually dealt with the physical stress of medieval battle. Amazingly, and by chance, they linked up with a 27 year old reenactor with scoliosis. And, as it turned out, with the same degree of spinal curvature and shape as Richard III. Dominic Smee became Richard’s “body double” over a period of months, training in riding and swordfighting and even had a custom suit of armour made for him to account for his twisted ribcage and back.
The results were astounding and made for fascinating viewing as it turned out that even this degree of scoliosis would not preclude swinging a sword effectively. Dominic couched a lance, smacked the quintain, and sparred with foot soldiers. Even did a charge of 700 metres over broken ground. Admittedly, endurance was a problem as his ribcage could not expand enough for his lungs and heart to pump effectively, meaning that he would run out of puff after a few minutes. As someone who used to reenact medieval combat in full armour, I know that feeling all too well and my ribcage is A1.
Some of the points were not all that surprising: turns out that riding in a medieval saddle provides more support and control than a modern one. Duh. The postage stamp of a modern English saddle is a joke to those of us who ride Western. There was a parallel thread of analysis on Richard’s skeleton to provide clues on his diet. Turns out that after he became king, his meat and wine consumption went off the scale (leading researchers to claim this affected his overall health and could have contributed to physical failures in the field). But what about every other noble quaffing gallons of wine and eating a whole roast pig for lunch? Seems it was an even playing field in that respect. But at the time of his death, aged 32, his spine already had arthritis and constant pain would have been his companion. Far more likely a contributing factor to his demise perhaps.
For me, the answer was never in doubt. Far too many references in the historical record of Richard’s fighting prowess and not unexpected for someone who would have started training as a boy. Overall, a fun and compelling view and well worth catching if you can online.
It’s not your ordinary run-of-the-mill holiday snapshot I’ll admit, but to see it was both moving and slightly disturbing. We were in the Languedoc region in southern France last week and visited a medieval abbey in the hamlet of St. Guilhem le Dessert which lies tucked into a verdant hillside fed by mountain streams. The abbey crypt contains the bones of Saint Guilhem, an advisor to Charlemagne and the the founder of the abbey who brought back three pieces of the True Cross from Rome. The abbey eventually became a major stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Spain and Santiago de Compostela. The crypt also contains this bit of installation art entitled “Memento Mori”. It’s actually a giant rosary comprised of fetters and human skulls and is, depending on your point of view, very devotional or just plain macabre. I sort of liked it (which probably tells you a lot about me). The bottom of the rosary chain (which is out of frame) extends beyond the iron bars that seal off the crypt and terminates in two leg irons that lay unlocked and open upon the floor. Symbolic of the release to a better world, I suppose. At any rate, for the kids running around me it was probably as good as any ride in the Fun House at the amusement park.
But something else resonated for me. The opening chapter of my current work in progress, The Guns of Ivrea, is set in an underground crypt and involves a terrible discovery made there by the monks. It was more than a little spooky to see the place you had built in your mind’s eye now laid out for real before you. From the worn sandstone slabs and stones, eroded capitals on the ancient pillars, and the dust of ages on the dirt floor, if a writer ever needed raw material for his imagination, then here it was. We ended up visiting several medieval towns and their Romanesque churches and abbeys on our trip in the Herault region and each offered something unique in detail, evoking more images and scenes I have already written as well as some I have yet to scribble down. They say that travel broadens the mind, but for a writer, it can also supply the spark to bring fiction and the characters that inhabit it, to life.