Oculus: quite a frightful sight (in a good way)!

oculus movie Putting my head above the parapet to share some quick reflections on Oculus, director and co-writer Mike Flanagan’s superb horror flick from last year worth looking into.

As the puns suggest, it is about a mirror. A haunted mirror. It is no laughing matter.

Dr Who‘s Karen Gillan and Aussie Brenton Thwaites play Kaylie and Tim, reunited after Tim’s got out of a psych clinic years after a horrific incident of apparent domestic abuse.

The movie cleverly merges that past trauma, with young actors Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan giving wonderful performances, with the present as the nature of the mirror is revealed.

Illusion, obsession and confusion reign. Horror results.

Do not watch this movie if you’re feeling down.

Unlike this year’s similar and, indeed, similarly superb, Aussie effort Babadook, there’s precious little hope or light to be found here — it is perhaps my only quibble, from a thematic basis. But the narrative plays out truthfully and unapologetically.

I loved the quiet, building dread of this movie (enhanced by its subtle score), and the brilliant editing as timelines meet — no cheap, screaming string section; no gotcha! jump cuts.

The relationship between brother and sister is well drawn, their actions and reactions believable and intelligent. And by the end of the movie, boy, did Kirstyn and I hate that mirror.

Battlestar Galactica‘s Katee Sackhoff is also among the cast, but in this instance, it’s a case of no cigar for her character.

It’s great to see some clever, psychologically astute horror films around. Another recent viewing was this year’s Irish movie The Canal; alas, it didn’t hold together as tightly as the two mentioned above, and was soundly let down by its bob-each-way ending. Worth a look, though — there’s a public toilet that Candyman would be proud of.


Cthulhu: Deep Down Under — it’s coming

cthulhu deep down under

You might have seen some ripples on the interwebs, but now it’s official: Cthulhu: Deep Down Under is rising!

Editors Steve Proposch, Christopher Sequeira and Bryce Stevens have assembled 24 writers with accompanying artists to provide Lovecraftian tales with an Australian flavour.

They’ve also got UK horror doyen Ramsey Campbell to provide an introduction, and of musical note among the contributors is a prose poem from Steve Kilbey, of The Church fame.

My story ‘An Incident at Portsea, 1967′ is reprinted in the anthology, with artwork from Paul Mason.

The project is now assembled, with stories in, artwork provided. All that remains is the crowdfunding to pay for printing. The program launches at Armageddon in Melbourne on October 18-19 — a bunch or writers and artists will be on hand to talk all things Cthulhu and hand out signed promo material.

You can join the crowdfunding program here to help take this project out of the ether and into physical manifestation for your reading and viewing pleasure, and find out more about the details at Horror Australis.

Getting published … a blog series

the darkness withinNicole Murphy (also writing as Elizabeth Dunk) is running a series of posts at her blog about how writers were first published. It’s yet another reminder of how diverse the routes to getting that first book out are, and how varied are the reasons that people want to get published.

One of the bumps in the road my first novel, The Darkness Within, suffered was a switch of editors between the structural and the copy edit. I enjoyed working with Dmetri, found his advice and feedback highly useful, and would’ve liked to have seen the project through with him. I’m chuffed to be working with him again on my next novel, The Big Smoke, coming out mid next year. It’s also worth noting Dmetri is running a workshop on horror writing later this month for Writers Victoria, encompassing general techniques as well as the peculiarities of the genre.

You can read more about The Darkness Within‘s detours, as Nicole so nicely puts it, at her blog.

Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V: all class

bell shakespeare henry vBell Shakespeare played Ballarat’s Her Majesty’s last night with Henry V, and it’s one of the best adaptations I’ve seen. A play within a play, both ring true: it’s an absolute triumph for the creative team, headed by director Damien Ryan, with an ingenious set built by Malthouse Theatre.

The stage is set in a London classroom during the Blitz, 525 years to the day after the battle of Agincourt, where a teacher distracts those sheltering from an air raid with an improvised performance of Henry V. But first, there’s a quick grounding in the history leading up to the English king’s ascension with some help from the blackboard and others of Shakespeare’s tales: clever.

The set — three bookshelves, a ladder and assorted odds and sods, such as cricket bats, a mop, and crowns and dresses made of newspaper, and smart use of the play itself in book form — proves versatile and evocative, backlit with bomb flashes seen through shattered windows.

The play within a play is a superb device, as the actors portray the makeshift cast — primarily students — putting on Henry V, yet being pulled out of the play by events in their world: the mirroring, the splicing, are brilliantly handled. Ghosts and a downed German pilot, his parachute become part of the set, are just some of the echoes that enrich the drama.

Lighting is superb, and the sound is also well crafted, balancing Churchill’s ‘finest hour’ against Henry’s ‘we few’, putting the actors to work on percussion and choir, and signalling the transitions between Blitz and Shakespeare with bombs, planes and sirens.
bell shakespeare henry v
The actors do a great job of handling this meta performance, with all bar Henry (Michael Sheasby) handling multiple Shakespearean roles as well as their 1940 characters.

As Kirstyn noted afterwards, it also allowed the performance to skip scenes, with the understanding that they have been played as the crew while away their terrible night, finding comfort and distraction in the Bard.

And the ending, with only ghosts remaining … a song and that feeling of futility evoke memories of that final ‘God Bless America’ of the Deer Hunter.

In much the same way as 1984, played at the same venue earlier this year, struck a chord with the dangerous, hypocritical idiocy the Abbott government is inflicting on this country, so Henry V has provided a counterpoint to any jingoistic overtones of the 100th anniversary of World War I. None of which is to question or belittle the valour of those on the ground, but rather, the original impetus for the conflicts: the reason for the rattling sabres to be drawn, and the consequences that last long after they are cleaned and sheathed.

The play is touring until 15 November: catch it if you can.

But wait, there’s more Snapshot 2014: Kyla Lee Ward

Kyla Lee WardKYLA LEE WARD is a Sydney-based creative who works in many modes. Her latest release is The Land of Bad Dreams, a collection of dark and fantastic poetry. Her novel Prismatic (co-authored as Edwina Grey) won an Aurealis Award for Best Horror. Her short fiction has appeared in Ticonderoga Online, Shadowed Realms, Gothic.net and in The New Hero and Schemers anthologies, amongst others. Her work on RPGs including Buffy the Vampire Slayer saw her appear as a guest at the inaugural Gencon Australia. Her short film, ‘Bad Reception’, screened at the Third International Vampire Film Festival and she was a member of the Theatre of Blood repertory company, which also produced her work. In addition, she programmed the horror stream for the 2010 Worldcon. A practising occultist, she likes raptors, swordplay and the Hellfire Club. To see some very strange things, try www.tabula-rasa.info

 
1. You’ve recently had a poem published in a new journal, Spectral Realms (amongst others), and have been reading at live events. How is the market for poetry from the dark side?

Market? No one is actually buying poetry, from any side. It’s been squeezed out by the current attitude that paying for any kind of creative work is an imposition, especially online. Stephen King comments specifically on this loss to poetry in Doctor Sleep. I even heard that Les Murray, whom I studied at school (and incidentally, such works as ‘A Victorian Hangman Tells His Love’ are very dark indeed) was having trouble finding a publisher for his most recent collection, and he’s a Living National Treasure. Which reveals that poetry is still being written. I have always found poetry to be something you have to write, if you had any choice in the matter, you would obviously do something else. Poetry is being written, and if you swing by the websites of the Pedestal Magazine or Abyss & Apex, you may read some excellent freestyle verse. Jenny Blackford‘s superb ‘Their Cold Eyes Pierced My Skin’ first appeared in Pedestal #74. If your taste is more formal, I can only recommend that you snare a copy of that excellent new journal from Hippocampus Press. Issue #1 features Leigh Blackmore, Margi Curtis, Danny Lovecraft and David Schembri, as well as myself.

One of the few potential advantages of poetry in the current climate is that poetry can be a performance art. I have performed at conventions, and at the Masked Bard’s Ball thrown by the North Sydney Live Poets Society. I’ve been investigating other potential venues, such as libraries and the more outré cabarets around town, so we shall see.
land of broken dreams by kyla ward
 
2. Your work in progress (The Castle), which I believe has just had ‘the end’ written on the first draft, fancies a castle in Australia – something that a few people have actually built over the years. How are you using your fictional castle in the Australian setting?

Ruthlessly. People have been seeing castles in Australia for a long time – First Fleeter Daniel Southwall diarised his impression of ‘… superb buildings, the grand ruins of stately edifices …’ in the cliffs of Port Jackson. But castles, as natural historical products, don’t belong here and by implication, neither do all the things that go with them, like chivalry and feudalism, and a certain attitude towards your neighbours. To really bring a castle into an Australian setting, a lot of other things have to change and some of these changes are wonderful, others dreadful. I See The Castle is about this effort of imagination and its consequences. But being contemporary urban fantasy, it also about discovering that people you know are actually hideous monsters or possessed of inhuman powers, setting swords and spells against guns and cars, and a soupçon of ill-advised romance.

 
3. Your story ‘Who Looks Back?’ opens the Shotguns vs Cthulhu anthology from Stone Skin Press (2013). Why is it, do you think, that Lovecraft’s world continues to have its tentacles in writers’ minds?

Because ‘The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.’ When we shall be required to build castles once again.

Seriously, have you seen Luc Besson’s Lucy? Even with the nostalgia and racism – actually, especially with them – the Old Providence Gent isn’t getting any less relevant. The symbols he provided us are only growing more potent. This is worrisome.

 
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?

I adored Anna Tambour’s otherwise indescribable novel Crandolin. Fantasy? Travelogue? Recipe Book? If the latter, is it a recipe for Crammed Amphisbaena, cabbage soup, or LIFE? Only you can decide! I also enjoyed Walking Shadows, the sequel to Narrelle M Harris’s The Opposite of Life. Her unique take on vampirism and the incredible characters she draws from it go up to 11 here. And while we’re on the subject, Kim Wilkins‘s ‘Popular genres and the Australian literary community: The case of fantasy fiction’ (Journal of Australian Studies, Vol 32 #2, 2008) is very fine indeed.

 
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?

The changes have not affected the way I work, just my daydreams about where that work will end up. Having a novel downloadable for $3 from a website just doesn’t have the same gloss as copies on a shelf in a flagship book shop. But perhaps that’s just me, sitting in my castle and preparing fresh vellum by the light of tallow candles. It has been interesting of late, having all this work come out in beautifully produced anthologies that are only available overseas. A Twenty-First Century Bestiary will be out soon, and I’m told they’re doing a hardback run. But to the best of my knowledge, no one in Australia stocks Stone Skin Press and this is doubtless part and parcel of the way our book shops are vanishing. Which is part and parcel of the whole payment thing. In short, I don’t know what I’ll be publishing/writing/reading five years from now: I just have sad, sad doubts I will have bought it from a book shop.

Having said this, I do sincerely hope that other people will be reading the novels I’ve just completed, in whatever form becomes the new standard of professional publication.

 
2014 aussie spec fiction snapshot

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THIS interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian speculative fiction. We’re blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and archiving them at SF Signal. You can read interviews at:

Snapshot 2014: Mark Webb

mark webbMARK WEBB’s midlife crisis came in the form of attempting to write speculative fiction at a very slow pace. His wife maintains this is a good outcome considering the more expensive and clichéd alternatives. He has had short fiction published at Antipodean SF, Robot and Raygun, and Electric Spec magazines. Evidence of Mark’s attempt to procrastinate in his writing, including general musings and reviews of books he has been reading, can be found at www.markwebb.name and you can connect with him on Twitter at @webb_ma

 
1. You’re part of the Ditmar-winning Galactic Chat team. What are some of the joys and challenges to running a literary podcast?

Working on Galactic Chat has been a fantastic experience. I was very lucky that Sean (Wright) thought of me when he was putting his new team together. I shudder to think of how many people must have turned him down for him to get to me on a list of potential interviewers. Well, boo sucks to them. They missed out on a Ditmar.

I think the thing I love about the podcast the most is how much I’ve learnt from both talking with interviewees and researching to put together questions. We try to talk with people from different parts of the story trade – authors, publishers, editors, agents – anyone who we think could add something to the conversation. And to a person, the people we’ve interviewed have been thoughtful and insightful. Not just trying to sell their latest production, but genuinely interested in the industry we all love to work in and willing to talk about it candidly and intelligently. And there is a great opportunity for someone like me in that. I’m relatively new to the writing game, and I’m constantly amazed at how much thought has been given to issues I’m only just beginning to wrestle with.

galactic chat podcast logoAnother joy associated with the podcast is my fellow Galactic Chat team members. We did a special, group discussion podcast recently and I was just blown away by what a fantastic group of people I’m working with. They are all very inspiring. I’ve learnt a huge amount just watching how they all operate.

And of course, another large part of the joy is that our fearless leader, Sean Wright, does all the heavy lifting of editing and publishing the podcast.

For me, one of the challenges of the podcast is that I’d love the conversations to go on for much longer. I could listen to an interviewee talk for hours, but we do need to keep the podcast to a manageable length. I’ve also been somewhat horrified to listen to myself. Not just the whole ‘I hate the way my voice sounds’ thing – that is just part of the human condition. No, I was deeply disturbed to realised just how often I mutter the word ‘fantastic’ when someone I’m interviewing pauses for breath. I mean seriously. Every single time. I had to edit it out of the last podcast I recorded – couldn’t bear the thought that someone might make a drinking game out of my interview technique. ‘I know, every time he says “fantastic” take a shot.’ That realisation was bloody awful.

I’ve also been grappling with the best way to record. My first interview was with Keith Stevenson. We’re both based in Sydney. I know, I thought, we’ll meet face to face. Record into two microphones. The sound will be much better. Well, that was just patently not true. Background noise was a killer. I’m not sure what I was thinking really. Every time I see Keith I feel like apologising on general principle. As it turns out, Skype is a much cleaner mechanism for recording interviews for someone with my level of investment in recording technology. I envy people who have had the means to acquire things like mixing decks, and seem to have the capability to use them.

(Fantastic)

 
2. I believe you like to draft stories longhand. What’s the advantage in doing that?

Now there is one thing I need to make clear from the start of this answer. I love computers. I studied engineering and science at university. I spent the first half of my career working exclusively in the IT industry. I’ve been fascinated by electronic calculating devices ever since the day my Dad surprised us all by getting us a Commodore 64 as a family Christmas present (we’d been pushing for the older Vic 20 because we didn’t think the budget would stretch to a C64 – ah, the practical mercantile instincts of youth). So when I started writing I just assumed I would draft everything on the computer.

And I tried. Oh, how I tried. But no matter how much I persevered, I struggled to get any momentum in my writing. I would pick over paragraphs trying to get them exactly right, edit and re-edit the same sentence until it fell apart from overuse. And my stories crept forward, making slow progress, never quite finishing.

I tried writing in different locations. I tried getting a new, ultra portable laptop so I could carry it around with me. I made elaborate plans to free up chunks of time to really knuckle down and use my electronic typewriter. It never quite came together.

And then, one day, I was off on a holiday with the family and was cut off from the electronic conveniences of modern life, so I grabbed a notepad and started to write. Before I knew – bam! I’d written more over the course of a few days than I had in months beforehand. And it all came down to one thing. With longhand writing, I seem to be more capable of turning off my inner editor and just going with the flow of writing. Something about the messiness of scribbling erased my neuroses about trying to capture perfection. Analog approximations were less troubling than the pursuit of digital purity. Used the same word too many times in the last paragraph? Who cares. Can’t remember how to spell something? Just flick your pen to create a wobbly line and come back to it. Can’t remember what you called that minor character nine chapters back? Call her Jane, underline it and pick it up in editing. Know the kind of mood your aiming for but can’t think of the perfect, original phrase to capture it? Jot down a cliché as a placeholder.

Suddenly my writing had momentum. To paraphrase one of my daughter’s favourite movies at the moment, I was a vector. I had both direction and velocity. And a few weeks after writing something, I could come back and type it into the computer, giving it a first-pass polish as I went. Replacing those clichés. Finding the right name. Letting red wriggly lines tell me where my spelling had failed me. Using the joy of an online thesaurus to eliminate word repetition.

I’ve read a lot of advice about writing. The main thing I’ve taken away from it all is that the process is intensely personal, and that there may be a difference between the kind of process that logic says should work for you and the kind of process that actually does work for you. I was at GenreCon last year, and listened to a couple of writers talk about how to write when you have a day job and family commitments (both of which I also have). The consensus was that getting up an hour early every day was the way to go. Yes, I thought. You’re freshest first thing in the morning. The family is still asleep so you can write uninterrupted. You can carve out an island of free time that otherwise wouldn’t exist. It made perfect sense. It was logical. It would suit my situation perfectly.

The only problem was that, for me, it was complete bollocks. I couldn’t do it. I press snooze. Five-thirty in the morning is something that happens to other people, not me. So instead of following a process that logic tells me should be perfect for me and my situation, I have set up a system whereby I can’t go to bed until I’ve written something. And that means I do most of my writing after 10.30 at night. When I’m tired. When the day job has drained my creative energy. When I’m often absolutely aching to just go to sleep.

What the hell. Logic is overrated anyway.

 
3. You’ve been getting a few short stories out – one that comes to mind involving ‘backpacking’ kobolds! Is fantasy where it’s at for you and is it something you’d like to write in longer form?

I’ve been a bit all over the place with my genre selection since I started writing. My flash fiction pieces have ranged across science fiction, fantasy and horror. My latest published short story, Showdown (here be kobolds! JN), was a rural-fringe fantasy piece, but the short story before that, Wefting the Warp, was pure science fiction. The novel-length piece I’ve been working on is urban fantasy, and I’ve just starting writing something which is falling fairly directly into the space opera classification. I love reading across the speculative fiction spectrum, and my writing seems to be following the same path.

I recently typed the words ‘THE END’ against my first novel-length work, with great relief. For too long I’d been saying to people that I was two thirds of the way through a bloody awful first draft of a novel. It has been of great comfort to me that I can now say that I am all the way through a bloody awful first draft of a novel. The sense of completion is sublime.

For some reason, writing fantasy, horror and science fiction seem to exercise different parts of the creative bit of my brain. Writing fantasy for a while allows the science fiction ideas to bubble away in the background. And vice versa. I’m not great at horror, but I find writing some (unpublishable) pieces in the background acts as a kind of palate cleanser. So for the time being I will classify myself as a literary dilettante, and flirt my way across the genres with a breathtaking disregard for propriety.

 
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?

At the risk of making my interviewer blush, I loved Blood and Dust by Jason Nahrung and am absolutely hanging out for The Big Smoke to see how the story plays out. I’ve been a fan of Jason’s work since hearing one of his short stories, ‘Smoking, Waiting for the Dawn’ on Keith Stevenson’s Terra Incognita Speculative Fiction podcast a couple of years back. Blood and Dust was a rip snorter of a yarn. Vampires in the Australian outback. Fantastic stuff.

I also really enjoyed Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott last year, and was very pleased to get a copy of the inadvertently limited edition first print run of the book at Continuum this year. Wonderfully unsettling work set in a modern context.

Speaking of Kirstyn, her podcast with Ian Mond, The Writer and the Critic, is one of my favourites and remains on my ‘must listen’ podcast playlist.

I’ve been fascinated by Tansy Rayner Roberts’ online experiment in serial writing, Musketeer Space. Not just for the story, which has been very enjoyable in and of itself, but also for the experience of watching someone push the boundaries of what modern publishing can do.

The Twelve Planets series (now 13) of books from Twelfth Planet Press have been highly entertaining. Choosing a favourite there would be difficult, but I must admit to an inordinate fondness for Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti.

Bloody Waters by Jason Franks had a wonderfully different style to it, which I loved. I would like to see it get more attention, it was a fantastic read.

And look, I know it’s New Zealand in origin, but given Australia hasn’t had any home grown SF TV for a while, I think I’ll sneak in a cheeky plug for The Almighty Johnsons as my pick for recent televisual delight. Norse Gods emigrated to New Zealand. What’s not to love?

 
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?

I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the step change publishing seems to be going through at the moment. As e-publishing and print on demand technology becomes more sophisticated, more options are going to be available for authors, especially those that already have an audience. I mentioned Tansy Rayner Roberts and her experiment in serialised fiction in one of my other answers. I’ll be interested to see whether this kind of “patronage” model becomes more prevalent for mid list authors with enough of a following to try more experimental pieces of work.

Of course, for a newer writer such as myself, the sheer volume of fiction now available over the internet makes building an audience a challenge. And I think that because of the volume issues inherent in the use of new publishing technology, the role of the gatekeeper is going to become even more important in directing people towards new talent.

Of course, it is still an open question as to whether traditional big publishers will be able to position themselves in that way. I look at the strategies being employed by places like Tor, Angry Robot and Subterranean overseas, and even small press like Twelfth Planet, Ticonderoga and Fablecroft here in Australia, and I can see a trend towards establishing brands which focus on ‘taste setting’. People talk about liking Angry Robot authors. The Twelve Planets series from Twelfth Planet Press reinvigorates a conversation about female authors in the genre. These are the actions of organisations trying not just to publish books, but to create brand loyalty to the publisher themselves, much more so than I remember in the past. I see some of the big publishers starting to reinvigorate their speculative fiction imprints and I wonder if they are trying to create the same branding edge. I’ll be fascinated to see how that plays out.

I’m not sure I can pick any trends in what may be hot in terms of sub-genres or story types. I suspect I’ll just be writing whatever takes my fancy and hoping that I can find people that enjoy the work. I did dabble in a form of self publishing recently, when I wanted to collect my flash fiction pieces together into one place for ease of sending people. And as a result, A Flash in the Pan? was born. But again, without an existing audience an effort like that sinks without a trace.

So, in summary, I’ll probably still be writing via longhand and lurching from project to project without much of a coherent plan, while finding it increasingly difficult to find an audience.

Fantastic.
 
2014 aussie spec fiction snapshot

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THIS is my final interview conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian speculative fiction, which concludes today. We’ve been blogging interviews since 28 July and archiving them at SF Signal. You can read the rest of the team’s interviews at: