Friday, April 29, 2011

Cool Stuff To Watch Instantly: The Cry of the Owl

Patricia Highsmith is noted for a grim and unique outlook. Her recurring series character was not a detective hero but sociopathic killer Tom Ripley brought to life with dark charm by Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley. She's also famous for Hitcockian treatment in her queen-mother-of-misunderstandings tale, Strangers on a Train.

The Cry of the Owl, a 2009 film is based on a lesser-known Highsmith novel, but it's a great example as well of her dark perspective. It's available on Netflix Watch Instantly by way of Starz, which means it won't be streaming forever, so catch it while you can.

It's as twisty as it is dark, and it's wonderfully unusual. You haven't seen this before in quite this way.

The story focuses on Robert Forrester (Paddy Considine), who's going through a horrible divorce. He's left New York for a small town in presumably Pennsylvania where he works as a designer in an aeronautics firm.

In a chance glimpse, he catches the seemingly blissful Jenny Thierlof (Julia Styles) doing dishes. What he perceives as her happiness is comforting, so he returns to watch her, innocently and chastely from afar. Things like that never go well. Soon he's caught the attention of her boyfriend, Greg, and then of Jenny herself, who surprisingly invites him into her home.

Jenny believes in fate, romance and harbingers. Soon she's broken up with Greg and is pursuing connection with Robert, even as he struggles to disentangle him from his wife, a witch of twisty dimensions played wonderfully by Caroline Dhavernas. She comes into one arbitration meeting saying she's changed her mind and wants to make up before a "Just kidding."

Before long, a jealous Greg attacks Robert then disappears, and Robert's run of bad luck so far has been mild for what's ahead. Confusion, misunderstanding and terror ensue.

Adapted and directed by Jamie Thraves, the film is relentless in its realization of that Highsmith sensibility. It's not about crime and detection but about situations that spiral around strange characters.

It's very dark, but engrossing and a must for Highsmith fans.

See also
Earlier adaptation: Le cri du hibou

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Giveaway One

Sometimes I get cool stuff from various corners of the blogosphere, and I have items from my backlist of books and comics as well. I thought it might be fun to give some away, so watch for occasional contests.

I'll probably tweet any giveaways also, so you can follow me on Twitter, @Sidney_Williams

Giveaway 1

Here's an ARC of the recently-reviewed Pitch Dark by Steven Sidor, a new release that blends horror and crime-thriller elements. 

All you have to do is follow the blog using the button at the right, and we'll do a drawing one week from today. Or you can comment on this post or the review of Pitch Dark below. Maybe you'll be the lucky winner.

I'll post the winner on the blog, and we'll arrange a drop of the swag at that point.

If you can't wait to read the book, of course, it's now available in stores and online shops everywhere:

Check Amazon here.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Midnight Eyes - Cover For My Thriller

Here's the cover art for my first new book in a while. It's propagating on the usual sites such as Amazonnow, and it's on the Crossroad Press website. Crossroad will issue a paper edition as well in the future.

It's the story of Wayland Hood, a former FBI behavioral science unit agent who's called back to his home town to help his father, the sheriff in a small Louisiana city, deal with a brutal series of murders.

Wayland is scarred emotionally by his family history and his relationship with his father. The two have to put differences aside to get to the heart of the case, which has buried secrets that stretch back many years.

Check it out if you get a chance. A sample's here. Or here.

Also on: 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

New Fiction: Pitch Dark by Steven Sidor

A Chicago Tribune review heralding Steven Sidor's previous novel notes: "Crime fiction and horror fans alike will find The Mirror's Edge a dark, disturbing gem."

That line is applicable to Sidor's new outing, Pitch Dark, as well. A definite crime thriller feel permeates the set-up, while the plot revolves around a Lovecraftian McGuffin and builds to a supernatural-fueled climax. Think Elmore Leonard crossed with dark magic.

Much of the action occurs in a snowy Midwestern motel run by Opal and Wyatt Larkin, survivors of a shooting spree in the diner where Opal worked years earlier. Wyatt, then a police officer, helped stop the incident but took a bullet. Opal, then pregnant, almost perished.

As the story begins, Opal is experiencing mysterious visions, believed to be residual effects of the shooting, of which unanswered questions remain. Wyatt has long believed a second shooter was involved. The truth and much more will be revealed as their snowy Christmas Eve progresses.

Trouble has found them and more is on the way.

Max Caul, a writer of pulp novels and screenplays occupies one of the Larkin's rooms, carefully marking doors with protective symbols while holding up with his Irish Setter, Ann Margaret.

Vera Coffy is on the run and seeking refuge, having snatched a mysterious stone from her boyfriend, a thief hired to extricate it from a coven.

Max has a long history with the Pitch, the same mysterious figure Vera is fleeing. When Vera arrives at the Larkin's hotel at the same time their son, Adam, returns from college, fires, explosions and siege follow.

The novel's strongest element is its central villain. To describe too much about the Pitch would be spoiling, and Sidor has many twists it would be unfair to reveal. Some of the apocalyptic tropes are familiar, but there's freshness to the rendering.

Of those on the side of goodness, Max is the most intriguing. Elderly but alert, the Mountain Dew swilling writer lives and breathes. Vera, Wyatt and Opal, aren't quite as engaging, to me, though they serve the story and its action as it builds to frenzied chaos.

I might quibble also with the quickness of the conclusion, but in general Pitch Dark is a brisk excursion with distinct flourishes.

What writer's should watch for:
The subtle re-mixing of genre elements that breaks or at least pushes the sides of the horror box.

Further Reading

St. Martin's at the moment has a free short story for Kindle related to Pitch Dark's events: A Chunk of Hell

Monday, April 18, 2011

Interview: Robert Lory Author of The Dracula Horror Series

In the mid-1970s, the book rack at the local Eckerd's provided me a great deal of reading material.

Along with Doc Savage, Lew Archer and thrillers of the day sat a series of titles which brought Dracula, the prince of darkness, into the modern era.

A great deal of attention was focused on Dracula at that time. Magazines featured articles about the newly discovered tie between Vlad the Impaler and the Bram Stoker creation. Both the Christopher Lee Dracula films and Universal Films were also spotlighted frequently in Monster Times and Famous Monsters of Filmland, and the Aurora monster model kits were still on sale.

The Dracula Horror Series fit perfectly into that period, a blend of horror, science fiction and action adventure. In the tales, Damien Harmon, a paralyzed criminologist with telekinetic ability implanted a device with a tiny sliver of a stake near Dracula's heart. Controlled by the professor's thoughts, the device allowed him to harness Dracula's power for the forces of goodness. If Drac failed to comply with Dr. Harmon's wishes, the stake could be activated, sending him back into oblivion. With Harmon's bald, martial-arts-expert assistant Cameron Sanchez and Dracula's shape shifting friend Ktara, they were off to face super villains, lost worlds and much more.

Those titles were penned by Robert Lory, and I was thrilled to connect with him online a few years ago.

I've decided to do occasional interviews here on the blog, and he was the first person to whom I wanted to pose a few questions since those tales stimulated my imagination when I read them in junior high.  It was a lot of fun to learn details about not just the Dracula series but more of Mr. Lory's work at a very exciting time in science fiction, fantasy and horror publishing.

When I was first reading the Dracula novels, I discovered a copy of If with one of your stories among my cousin’s books. Tell us a little about your earliest writing, what first drew you to science fiction and writing for the digest magazines?

I started writing for dollars when in college in the late 1950s. Since my major was history/social sciences, I was heavily into research. I was drawn to science fiction because logically--at least to my mind--the future can't be researched. Similar case with fantasy: just make the stuff up.

You wrote some science fiction novels and horror novels as well. What was it like writing for Ace in the sixties and seventies? Did you work with one editor or more? Any interesting experiences?

Don Wolheim was my first editor at Ace, and he was terrific. Case in point: Because I came to novel writing from the short story scene, I’d learned to write "tight and terse." The result was a first novel (The Eyes of Bolsk) that turned out to be 10,000 words too short. Since I didn't have the stomach for adding a bunch of non-essential scenic views or conversations that went nowhere, I added a secondary plot line. Don liked it, but gave me some serious advice which boiled down to: Look, I like the multiple plot lines but, if you keep writing like this, you'll burn out after four, maybe five, novels. Relax and loosen up.  One of the best writing suggestions I ever got. Too bad I couldn't follow it.

My history with Fred Pohl began in the mid-60s when he was editing Galaxy and If magazines. He editorialized that he would never--repeat, never--buy a story that had astrology as a base. I took it as a challenge and wrote and sent him "The Star Party" with his editorial attached. The check he sent me had a transmittal note that said something like I shouldn't try pulling his chain a second time. I didn't rub it in when Ace Books republished the story in its Worlds Best SF anthology for 1965.

When Fred was at Ace in 1974, I sent him the first 40 pages of The Thirteen Bracelets, saying I had no idea where the story was going, but would he like to see it when done.  He said yes, but would I include two things: an underground battle scene and an insane computer. I had no problem with either, and am convinced they made the book stronger.

After you started having novels published, where did you first see one of your books on sale?

I honestly can't remember, but here's a related incident I remember well. In the late '70s I was on a flight to Hong Kong, which had to refuel on Guam. The airport passenger facilities at that time consisted of two Quonset huts, one of which was a jam-packed general store. I had three free-standing swivel racks of paperbacks. When I got back to the States, I couldn't wait to tell a writer friend of mine the "good news": he had two books on those racks. Then I told him the "better news": I had four.   

Do you have a favorite among the science fiction and stand-alone novels you wrote?

In science fiction it would have to be The Thirteen Bracelets, because in it I attacked every sacred cow I deemed worth attacking. A close second would be Master of the Etrax, a sort of sword and sorcery romp that ridiculed, among other things, bureaucratic decision-making. I laughed out loud writing both books, which makes me think that, in those days, I might not have been the most empathetic knife in the drawer.

The Dracula Horror Series was written with the book producer Lyle Kenyon Engle, right? How did you come to work on the Dracula series?

Lyle had read one of my Sham Odell SF novels and called me to work on a series which became John Eagle: the Expeditor. (The publisher wanted the books faster than the first writer could supply them.) I wrote the third and fourth in the series and then alternated books up to when the series ended at the eleventh entry.

When Dracula came up, he asked me if I'd do it. I was delighted to say yes.

Did you have an interest in Dracula before the series? Did you do special research for the series?

I'd read Stoker, of course, but had no really special interest in vampires per se.  My research was fairly skimpy--a few vampire stories as well as the classic In Search of Dracula by McNally and Florescu. I never did get into the Anne Rice thing.

Some of the promotional blurbs for the Dracula novels have different character names. I’ve always assumed those were from the original outlines and that the books morphed in the creative process. Am I right?

There really were no original outlines, just a few very rough ideas. One was for the Professor to tell the stories in the first person, and that was killed from the moment I signed on. There was no way that he could know all the details of Dracula’s history.

British edition of No. 4
 in the Dracula series.
What was that process like with Engle and how much freedom did you have in developing the stories? 

I had pretty much total freedom.  Lyle and I had a long dinner in New York where we covered several scenarios and some specific problems--like how do you control the beast now that you’ve got him? Back home in Houston, it took me about a week to develop Harmon and Sanchez (the prof would need a younger man to do the heavy lifting) and the cat-morphing Ktara--as well as a very sketchy back-story that began some time in the Age of Myth.

I outlined the first book, and it was a go. I also did outlines for the next two in the series, but when Lyle and the publisher saw that I never bothered to follow them, they told me not to bother producing them.

I always thought both Professor Harmon and Cameron Sanchez were great characters. How did they take shape?

I wanted brains (Harmon) and brawn (Sanchez), both of whom were fire-eaters on a mission and were hard-pressed to pull it off the way they originally intended (as badged public servants). Sprinkled in their psyches are some of my own traits. Harmon detests telephones; I only bought a cell when my wife had hip surgery (it now sits in my car, uncharged).  Cam hates airplanes; I avoid them whenever possible.

Did you have a favorite of the Dracula series?

Actually, I best-liked whatever one I was working on. As a writer/reader, I too was learning more about these characters as the type showed up on the page.

Would there have been any more in the series?

Probably--if the sales had held up. The Atlantis/Old Gods back-story could have been mined for at least another two or three books, but it was not to be. However, a series of nine isn’t all that shabby.

You did the second Boris Karloff Tales of the Frightened anthology. Any challenges in working in that somewhat brief form?

It was a great deal of fun. It not only took me back to the short story medium, which I realized I missed, but I also got to do a pretty good imitation of Karloff’s voice as I read my stuff aloud during the editing process.

Tell us a little about the Horrorscope series. Was that an interesting project also?

Initially, I didn’t think of it as a book series. What I proposed was a collection of short stories, each based on a Zodiac sign, so I started the book-length project with more than a little reluctance. As the products appeared in print, some of my friends allowed as how I “didn’t seem to be having much fun” with them. They were right, and I think the writing proved the point. In any case, when Pinnacle dropped that project (and others of its ilk), I felt very relieved.

Can you tell us a little about what you’re up to now?

Nine years ago, I retired early from my corporate (PR and advertising) job--and immediately started a consulting company, which I retired from about four years ago. These days I enjoy day-trading the financial markets. I’m also working on improving my tennis game. To date, Rafa Nadal has expressed no concern.

The Dracula books now sell at collectible prices. Any thoughts about having any of your work brought out on for Kindle in this burgeoning digital era?

I could hardly believe it when I first discovered my stuff was still being read and reviewed on several Web sites. I’ve gotten “thank-you” emails from people that were toddlers when my books were written. So, from an ego-feel-good perspective, the “digital era” has made my day many times over. Anything more is gravy.

Additional reading

Friday, April 15, 2011

Val McDermid BBC World Book Club

I can't always report top news here, but I have a bit of information that may be of interest to those in the UK.  On May 4, thriller writer Val McDermid will be visiting BBC World Services World Book Club, a radio show and podcast.

The program, recorded at Bush House, home of the BBC, spotlights an author discussing, reading from and answering questions about a single book. Past guests have included James Ellroy, Carlos Ruiz Zafron, Uberto Eco and many others. I subscribed a while back and have enjoyed the installments I've listened to. They're great discussions for writers to hear.

Wires and Execution
Ms. McDermid, who also authored the books on which the Wire in the Blood series was based, will be discussing her novel A Place of Execution. It's a multi-layered mystery thriller focusing on a present day television journalist who's at work on a documentary about a 1963 murder case. Of course, all is not what it seems with the case or the hero detective who handled the investigation. Or with the heroine for that matter.

Her pursuit of the truth leads to revelations that affect her on many levels.

I recently watched the Masterpiece Contemporary/ITV adaptation of the novel, which originally aired in the U.S. in 2009. It's a great mini-series, exciting and compelling with a stellar cast including Lee Ingleby and Juliet Stevenson.

I Tweeted that I was watching, which brought a message and invite from World Book Club's Twitter account.

If I were going to be in London, I could go to the recording of the episode, but since I can't make it, I've been asked to submit a question about the novel to be posed at the session. I'm trying to come up with something meaningful now. I'm leaning toward asking a character question about the journalist, Catherine Heathcote.

That should be fun. What a wonderful new world of communication we have these days. I'll let you know what my question is when I get it formulated and how things turn out.

You can submit a question too via WBC's twitter feed, @BBCWBC or by e-mail worldbookclub(at)bbc(dot)co(dot)uk.

Further reading

Mystery Fanfare: Val McDermid Place of Execution Interview

Variety review of Place of Execution mini-series


The program airs blog post

Listen to the BBC broadcast which includes my question. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Finally Seeing Red

A friend used to scan the new movie trailers on Apple's site regularly. One day he mentioned an upcoming flick called Red.

I realized he was talking about a Jack Ketchum adaptation. "I don't know if I have the stones for that," I said, because I knew it was the tale of a confrontation between an old man and the teens who'd killed his dog. (My vision, incorrectly, was of a hermit stalking unsympathetic but focal teen characters.)

I read Off Season when I was a kid without flinching, but like most viewers I do flinch if animals die on screen. I've almost recovered from Old Yeller, but it took a while.

 I kind of  avoided Red until it popped up recently as a Netflix watch instantly option. David Naill Wilson had mentioned Jack Ketchum's Crossroad Press titles, and I rather liked Red director Lucky McKee's ghost story The Woods.

So, bracing myself, I selected it and watched the credits roll. It's an impressive span of credits including Amanda Plumer and Freddy himself, Robert Englund.

A film not a flick
I can't really say a flick about a man's murdered dog was a pleasant surprise, but the film is, well, a film and not just a flick.

Starring Brian Cox who's tackled many tough roles and character turns, Red is a well realized achievement that does not take an easy path.

Cox is  Avery Ludlow a small town store owner, who's still mourning the brutal loss of his wife. Red, his dog, was her gift to him on his 50th birthday and all he has left of her.

While fishing, Avery encounters three young jerks led by Danny (Noel Fisher), a particularly nasty and violent rich kid. Danny and friends shoot Red out of spite, mercifully in an almost off-camera moment.

This is no, pardon me, rabid revenge film, though. Avery sets out to seek legal remedies for the wrong and to perhaps see Danny's spiraling course corrected.

Instead Danny's wealthy father played by Tom Sizemore backs his son and twists legal arms to thwart
prosecution. Kim Dickens as a reporter is on hand to note how often animal cruelty is lightly prosecuted.

Things go badly, with Cox maintaining a subdued demeanor as every attempt he makes for justice falls apart.

Things get violent, but never in an exploitive way as the conclusion arrives.

Red is not for all tastes, but if you are in the right place, it's an excellent watch instantly selection and an excellent realization of Jack Ketchum's dark vision.

Further Reading

The Woman  by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee, soon to be another major motion picture.

(Full disclosure: Crossroad Press has also brought out my e-book titles.)

Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Girl in The Trunk - Pulp Covers and How Bish's Beat can be dangerous

I now own a copy of the book above, The Girl in the Trunk, an early seventies pulp-noir mystery from Ace by Bruce Cassiday. It's the tale of a Honolulu cop who has to investigate, well, I think you get the idea from the cover.

I was browsing the fabulous Bish's Beat blog one day and caught sight of it in his vintage covers gallery.

They're snapshots of the Fawcett Gold Medal era though not limited to Gold Medals of course. Dell and many smaller publisher's get display, and you know how it is with covers. Once you glance at them, you wonder what the story's about.

I dutifully check the usual suspect spots when one's particularly intriguing. Sometimes those checks pay off. Mr. Bishop posted  Night Squad from David Goodis, author of such classics as Dark Passage and one-time litigant over the origins of The Fugitive, and it seems some of his books have crept into public domain and are readily available for e-readers.

Many other paperbacks are not available in any current form, sadly. That means seeking them out used. I got The Girl in the Trunk for probably a buck plus postage. Bye to some of my royalties from my e-book sales.

I'll let you know how it reads.

As you know, I'm Sid, and I'm a biblioholic.

Further reading

The Fugitive and David Goodis

More vintage covers

Monday, April 04, 2011

New Who

I've been so busy of late, I haven't had time to be excited about the new season of Doctor Who. It's kind of interesting how the phenomena has transformed. 

Took a year for Season 1 to air in the U.S. I can remember visiting the official site one day to discover the TARDIS materializing on White House lawn. 

Now we get the Christmas specials on Christmas night, and a new season is here almost as quickly as it airs in the UK. That's the force of demand and technology, I suppose. 

The lack of anticipation almost makes U.S. viewers take it for granted. 

Seeing the first U.S.-lensed scenes evidenced in the trailer helps with my excitement. Let the countdown begin.

And what should arrive in my RSS feed this afternoon but an interview with lead writer Steven Moffat on the evolution of the series. Read it

New Who Wallpaper

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Tweaking the Synopsis - Midnight Eyes

I'm in what I find to be an awkward phase. It's time to write the jacket copy for Midnight Eyes, a thriller I just turned in to Crossroad Press for copy editing. Summing up 100,000 words in a few paragraphs that capture the relevant points isn't as challenging as, I don't know, math, but it's not just dashing off a few lines either.

I thought I'd toss out the first pass here.

A little background
The first version of Midnight Eyes was written several years ago, around a time when I seemed to have agents lining up to flame out for me, so the manuscript wound up going into the trunk for a while. I moved on to write other things.

As we recently began rolling out my horror novels as e-books, it seemed time to re-visit ME, and it seemed I had the juice to do it, if you will.

It's a non-supernatural tale set more or less in the universe of my previous books. It was written not long after I'd stopped being a reporter. I wondered how the police in a smaller city might cope when a persistent and hard-to-understand serial killer arrived. It started out, in one early draft, from the perspective of journalists, and one remains. But it eventually developed into a different story.

I think of the tale as more than a serial killer novel with several plot strands that weave together, but it all revolves around investigation and attempts to end a spree.

I've spent the last few months revising and updating it, changing the main character's job a bit and modifying situations to reflect the world we live in today. I gave some people cell phones, that is. Cells have definitely changed a few thriller tropes over the last few years, though based on the coverage I get with my iPhones, they've also created new and realistic challenges.

The summary of the story so far
Men are being lured to agonizing deaths in the small Louisiana city of Aimsley. Brutalized bodies are displayed on the riverbank and in little-travelled bayou country, and a mysterious dark-eyed beauty may be connected. It’s a case with tremendous human suffering and a challenging political labyrinth for Sheriff Ty Hood. It means calling on the last person he wants to for help—his son.

Former FBI agent Wayland Hood is a brilliant criminologist and writer. He’s immersed in a project to unravel the mysteries inside the minds of four of America’s most heinous serial killers. Only unresolved issues with his father can draw him into the dark quest for buried secrets that fuel modern bloodshed in his hometown. As father and son clash with each other and with canny reporter Jemy Reardon, who has her own goals and theories, the body count increases. Only a terrifying excursion into the darkest heart of midnight can hope to bring the nightmare to an end. 

Call for feedback
If you have any thoughts or reactions, feel free to leave them in the comments. I'm told a couple of synopsis variations for different seller sites might be in order, so tweaking will occur.

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