Clifford Beal

historical fiction with a twist of lime

Tag: horror (page 1 of 2)

Mancunicon 2016 is coming

bee-no-text-header“Mancunicon”, otherwise known as Eastercon, is the great annual conference of the British Science Fiction Association. And beginning this 16th of April it will be the 67th such gathering. And as the organizers say, it wouldn’t be Easter without Eastercon.  The convention, which you’ve no doubt guessed will be held in Manchester, has four outstanding Guests of Honour: Aliette de Bodard, David L. Clements, Ian McDonald, and Sarah Pinborough. I’ve been asked to appear on a panel this year to talk about the changing world of horror fiction which to those of you not overly familiar with my work might be cause for a bit of head scratching. Historical fiction and horror?

But if my first novel, Gideon’s Angel, doesn’t evoke a bit of that old House of Hammer spirit, I’ll eat my cavalier hat and the ostrich plume too. I’m looking forward to talking about how the horror genre has morphed into so many others, following a similar path to fantasy in general– a continual re-invention of the familiar with the new– as genre fiction continues to explore virgin territory while also cultivating well-trodden paths.

Meeting Gideon’s Angel

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The team over at Solaris Books very kindly asked me to guest blog for them on their website this week, specifically, to take the chair for their bi-weekly column “Throwback Thursdays”. It’s a nice idea: get Solaris authors to talk about what led to the creation of some of their earlier works. After a bit of head-scratching I launched into how Gideon’s Angel, released in 2013, came to be born. I made the startling (or bone-headed) revelation that in its earliest days it was not a fantasy novel at all. You can find out how and why that literary 180-degree course change happened by just clicking here:  www.solarisbooks.com

FC-BC (GIDEON'S ANGEL) US small

Fancy a winter chill of the supernatural kind?

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Cast Iron

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.

Roll up for the Freak Show!

AHSFreakShowPosterAmerican 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.

melvinThese 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 Jamesdurks 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.


					
		

Robert E Howard’s “Solomon Kane” revisited

Wrote a retro review for the July issue of SFX Magazine which the editors have graciously allowed me to reproduce here. It was a very different experience reading R.E. Howard again after so many years–and not an altogether pleasant one. Have a read and let me know what you think.

 

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane
Robert E Howard, (Del Rey, 1998)
Writer Clifford Beal considers Conan’s Puritan stablemate

Robert E Howard, who took his own life at the age of 30, was the father of kane
that
 subgenre of fantasy that would become known as “sword and sorcery”. Best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Howard’s writings influenced a generation of fantasy authors, including Fritz Leiber and David Gemmell.

But before Conan, Howard had created a very different character in Solomon Kane, a mysterious Puritan loner who roams the darker corners of the world, fighting ancient and nameless evil in the early 17th century. Bursting from the pages of Weird Tales in 1928, Solomon Kane fought Lovecraft-inspired deities, demons, pirates and scores of hostile natives to rescue the helpless and right wrong wherever he saw it. Kane is far more conflicted and layered a character than Conan, and Howard portrays him as driven, if not downright psychopathic. In “The Blue Flame Of Vengeance” Kane remarks to a man he is helping: “It hath been my duty in times past to ease various evil men of their lives…” Which is an understatement.

To be sure, this is pulp fiction. You won’t find subplots or shades of grey here, and since these are largely short stories there is a definite headlong rush to get down to the business at hand, usually involving a good amount of swordplay and spilt blood. Anachronisms and cod “olde world” dialogue sometimes sound a sour note, but at its best, Howard’s writing is dazzlingly energetic, vivid and not without poetry. His descriptions of hand-to-hand fighting are compelling as they are brutal but even here there is a mastery of mood and intensity. In one scene, Howard’s imagery is chilling: an avenging Kane overpowers a murderous pirate in a knife fight and intentionally kills him by degrees, plunging in the tip of his dagger, one inch at a time.

kane2Yet there’s a darker side to the swashbuckling. Racial stereotyping was always present in pulp fiction and Asian or African physical features were often used as shorthand for moral turpitude and inferiority. Sadly, much of the writing in Solomon Kane follows this path. A few of the better-known tales such as “The Moon Of Skulls” are set in central Africa, where Kane encounters the remnants of an ancient civilisation ruled over by brutish savages. And here, black skin colour is equated with degenerate evil, with Kane portrayed as a white saviour intent on toppling the evil African queen Nekari. Even the last survivor of Atlantis, whom Kane tries to free from bondage, is worried about his ethnic purity: “I, the last son of Atlantis, bear in my veins the taint of Negro blood.”

But Howard and his characters are full of contradictions. Solomon Kane’s self-professed “blood brother” is a black African wizard and the only real friend that Kane has in any of the stories. And in “The Footfalls Within” Kane risks his life to free African villagers from Arab slavers and then guides them to safety. Solomon Kane’s tales are, like those of Conan, rousing epics, and as part of our pulp-era inheritance they deserve to be read. But like much of our past, it’s not all good. Today Howard’s writing, imaginative as it is, leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste.

 

 

The Raven has Landed…well almost

We’re one week away from the launch of The Raven’s Banquet, the prequel to Gideon’s Angel. Published by Solaris Books on 13 May as an ebook, there will also be an exclusive first-edition paperback on sale through Forbidden Planet megastores beginning on 17 May. Forbidden Planet London will also be hosting a signing on Saturday 17 May from 1-2pm at Shaftesbury Avenue so if you’re in the Big Smoke come on down and pick up an autographed limited edition while the ink is still wet. And for those fans of the genus Corvus out there, here is a look at the magnificent cover.

Raven's Banquet

The Raven’s Banquet is coming

on camera

 

 

I’m excited to announce that Solaris Books is publishing the next Richard Treadwell adventure, called The Raven’s Banquet, on 13 May. It’s actually a prequel and will tell the story of how Treadwell got into the soldiering business to begin with. Set on two timelines, 1645 and 1626,  the novel delves into dark places and the past actions of a youthful mercenary. These will intrude into the hero’s present predicament as he awaits trial for treason in the Tower. And readers will also learn more about his predilection for finding trouble of the supernatural sort. Think Platoon meets The Wicker Man. I’ve just completed some video interviews and readings at Solaris HQ and these will be posted on the Solaris website in the coming weeks along with the knockout cover that the team is putting together.

Raven’s Banquet will be available from the Rebellion Publishing store and from Amazon and other online retailers.

Here’s a taster of things:

Germany 1626: A War, a Witch, a Reckoning….

Richard Treadwell is a young man who dreams of glory and honour on the battlefield—and the plunder and riches that would follow. With the help of his father, he journeys to Hamburg to seek his fortune as a mercenary in the Danish army when it intervenes in the vast war that rages in northern Germany between the Catholic Hapsburg empire and the Protestant princes of the north.

But he brings with him an old secret—and the potential seed of his own destruction—as he descends into a horrific maelstrom of conflict and slaughter that quickly destroys his illusions of adventure, of right and wrong, and of good and evil.

When his fate is foreshadowed by a young gypsy woman, he discovers that he cannot outrun what he left behind in England and he soon finds himself thrown headlong into a series of bloody skirmishes alongside the Danes that strip him of conscience and harden his heart. The opposing armies close for a battle that will be the turning point in the struggle for the kingdom—and in the war for his soul. But even as Treadwell steels himself for the final contest against the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor, an unseen enemy stalks him within his own camp.

Fleeing the battlefield, his life takes an even darker turn when he stumbles upon a coven of peasant women dwelling deep in the forest of the Harz Mountains, women that have their own terrible secrets to protect—and a burning hatred to avenge.

The hero of Gideon’s Angel returns to tell how his journey into the supernatural began.

“They are attracted to you as salt attracts the beast in the field….”

Chatting with Solaris Editor Jonathan Oliver (left) and publicist Mike Molcher after we wrap the interview.

Chatting with Solaris Editor Jonathan Oliver (left) and publicist Mike Molcher after we wrap the interview.

Anti-Santa makes a comeback

Say hello to Krampus

225px-Krampus_at_Perchtenlauf_KlagenfurtMy mother Face-Timed me yesterday, rather upset, to say she had received a “very disturbing” Christmas card from my sister. It showed a sleigh and children but instead of Santa there was a jet-black, horned and cloven-hoofed demon driving. Pictured with a red tongue that would put Gene Simmons of KISS to shame, the creature was stuffing a frightened boy into a wicker basket. Turns out this was a Wilhelmine-era German Christmas card showing Saint Nicholas’s seldom-seen other half, Krampus. In Central European Christmas mythology,  old Saint Nick was always a double act: he would reward good children with sweets and toys while the bad kids got a visit from Krampus instead and a lump of coal. If you were really bad, Krampus would take you on a one-way trip to Krampusland. Great parental leveraging tool.

225px-Gruss_vom_KrampusI should have known this tradition having been married to a German woman for many years but strangely didn’t. However, Krampus celebrations are not universal in Germany, having started in the Alpine regions and then spreading into Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the Netherlands and northern Germany, St. Nicholas’s “helper” is “Black Peter”, usually portrayed as a man in blackface makeup. In recent years, some have called for Black Peter to be cut from parades because of perceived racist overtones. But the southern tradition of the hairy, horned demonic creature who accompanies St. Nick on his travels actually predates Christianity as he was once part of pagan winter rituals. It was most probably grafted onto Christmas when that festival displaced Yule in early medieval times. For most of the 20th century, civic and church authorities had repressed this ancient tradition, and in many places, St. Nick lost the flip side of his coin. But that is beginning to change and Krampus celebrations are having a bit of a comeback in southern Germany. After I decided to blog about this, I saw that the Guardian ran a short piece on the same subject yesterday. They put the resurgence of Krampus down to a societal reflex against the commercialization of Christmas and all the saccharine trimmings that accompany it. Sort of getting back to one’s roots really.krampus kidCostumed performers are now popping up everywhere (including some big US cities) during the Feast of St. Nicholas on 6 December, prancing through the streets and frightening the bejeezus out of little kids. Sweet. I think I’m a bit envious the tradition wasn’t around for me when I was a kid. Beats the hell out of Rudolph and his red nose.

 

 

British Fantasy Society reviews Gideon’s Angel

BFS_Logo_red_gradientVery nice review for the novel by the British Fantasy Society this week. “Gideon’s Angel is historical fantasy that smoothly combines real characters with fictional ones to create a gripping and entertaining story.” Check it out here: http://www.britishfantasysociety.co.uk/reviews/gideons-angel-book-review/ and for goodness sake get a copy before Andras, grand marquis of Hell, pays you a nocturnal visit!

 

 

Review: A Field in England

A retro trippy multi-layered delight—if you like mushrooms

Warning: contains a few spoilers

As the credits rolled and a lovely period tune played with vocals, I felt a bit shell-shocked (not unlike one of the main characters). I’d just seen a piece of original cinema that was disjointed, confusing, frustrating, and often meandering. Rubbing my face there on the sofa, I actually found myself saying, but I liked it. Can’t say my girlfriend agreed. She drifted away after twenty minutes. But that is the kind of film this is. Some will find it intriguing, others pointless.

A Field in England is set during the English Civil War in the 1640s. The action takes place over not much more than a day and involves four deserters from battle, one of whom is working for an Irishman lurking in the said field, a man who we discover is dabbling in the occult arts. The three soldiers are led to the would-be sorcerer O’Neil, to be instantly enslaved as his workmen in a hunt for a treasure that is never specified.

Field-in-England-Poster-640x480The film is shot in black and white and this works well to convey a starkness of mood as well as to focus attention on textures and the central characters. It is extremely evocative of 1960s arthouse cinema and low-budget psychological drama. The director (Ben Wheatley) himself discusses this on the film’s website and lists some influences such as the 1964 BBC docudrama Culloden and The Trip from 1967. It actually reminded me in many ways of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God from 1972 which starred the slightly mad Klaus Kinski.

afie19-reece-shearsmith-as-whitehead-by-dean-rogers-low-resMadness is a central theme to the film (like in Aguirre)and the viewer is left to decide for themselves whether there is actual magic taking place or just a bad trip brought on by the ingestion of some hallucinogenic mushrooms. And the “trip” sequence taken by the captured lacemaker Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) is pure retro sixties cinema (think Easy Rider). Though the trailer refers to alchemy, the main villain of the piece is more necromancer than alchemist. Actor Michael Smiley portrays O’Neil as a callous and driven killer whose fixation on finding the treasure of the field through the use of enchantment on the innocent deserters, drives the plot to its chilling conclusion. But it’s a rather leisurely drive which sometimes loses its energy along the way.

Costuming is done well, capturing both the elegance and grubbiness of a country at war in the 17th century. Equally, the script (Amy Jump) does a solid job of handling the cadence and vocabulary of an earlier era without getting too bogged down in cod-historical speak. That’s not an easy balance to strike in books or film and some writers opt for using modern language to boost viewer or reader affiliation. This film takes a middle road but it does make the viewer work though. A lot of ideas are being thrown around in these 90 minutes and there are many period references that will be meaningless to those not familiar with the time. A mention of one character “wearing an angel” around his neck is not explained and most people would not know this refers to an English coin used as a “touch” amulet by the king’s hand to heal those afflicted by scrofula (what we call today tuberculosis). Given the linear progression, there is a lot of backstory taken for granted and precious little dialogue exposition to put anything into context for the viewer.. The soldier banter and humour is a high point though and the down-at-heels pikeman character, only referred to as “friend” (Richard Glover) has some of the best lines. Shortly after making a run for it through a hedgerow and away from the battlefield, one of the others remarks that they won’t even be missed to which the pikeman comments reflectively, “I often leave a wake of disinterest behind me.” There’s also a great death speech scene where you think the character is about to launch into a “tell her I love her” routine only to hear him say “tell her I hate her” about his soon-to-be-widow and admitting to adultery with her sister. The climax is bloody, if not unexpected, but does liven things up.

A-Field-In-England-poster-detail-3I think I’ll have to give A Field in England  a second viewing to fully appreciate it. That I’ll watch it again must be an indicator that this is a good film. It’s challenging, original if somewhat flawed, but overall a delight to those who like me love the time period and for those who wish to discover it.

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