Tuesday 31 May 2011

The Out-Of-Print Book Review I - "Black Evening" by David Morrell

Or, the first in what's likely to be an exceptionally occasional series that is intended to highlight out-of-print books that I've only just got around to reading...

'Black Evening' cover art, at least for the edition I have

I just recently finished reading Black Evening by David Morrell. It's a collection of, well, if not horror stories per sé then certainly unsettling stories. No, that's not the genre by which Morrell pays the bills - he's a thriller writer, most famous for writing First Blood. You get the impression from reading some of the author's notes in Black Evening that he isn't wildly keen on what Hollywood and Stallone did to his story but let's not digress. I'm here to talk about Black Evening.

I'll confess I hadn't even heard of David Morrell until a friend of mine, Mark, mentioned one of the stories from Black Evening in a blog post. That story was the excellent "Orange Is For Anguish, Blue Is For Insanity". Mark described that story very neatly, so I hope he won't mind me reproducing his précis - an art historian sees a whole swarm of hideous faces hiding in the paintings of the tortured artist - rather than spewing my own inferior version.

"Orange Is For Anguish..." is an excellent short story, and is among the stand-out efforts in Black Evening. That's saying something too, for although this collection presents its stories in chronological order, so that you can watch Morrell hone his writing technique (as well as seeing the effect events in his personal life had on his storytelling), the standard here is uniformly high. For that reason alone, I don't want to pick out or describe too many of the stories therein... but I do want to give two a special mention.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am an aspiring writer, and that most of the efforts with which I've had some meagre success are short stories of the sort that Morrell includes in Black Evening. No, I am not trying to compare myself to this multi-million selling master of the craft. I'm just trying to illustrate that I try to write what I like to read. And, after reading "The Storm" in Black Evening, I had a genuine I wish I'd written that moment. The story is simple: whilst on holiday, our protagonist comments to his son that a native American's rain dance is hokey and just for show, for the cynical benefit of tourists. Cue a curse on our narrator, who is then followed wherever he goes by a torrential storm. Of course he manages to get the curse lifted, but there's a twist in the tale. Isn't there always? Anyway... okay, yes, the premise reminds me a bit of Thinner by Richard Bachman (I'd have to do some research to find out which was written first) but c'mon, there's nothing new under the sun, after all. And that shouldn't detract from the fact that this story is beautifully, sparsely written, utterly absorbing and, despite the otherworldy content, made entirely plausible.

And then there's "Mumbo Jumbo", a tale of a US high school sports team mascot and the effect it has on the players. Now I didn't go to a US high school and the idea of American football is anathema to me... but that doesn't matter. Morrell weaves a tale that drags you in, takes you back to whatever your school days were and lets you reinhabit the mind of the person you were then. It's a beautifully told tale (with a little twist in the tale, naturally) and, like many of the stories in Black Evening, would make a fine story for The Twilight Zone. Or, if you're English, like me, an excellent Tale Of The Unexpected.

So, Black Evening... it's out of print, of course, but thanks to Amazon, I have an ex-library hardback in pretty good condition that only cost 1p (plus postage and packing), so there's a bargain to be had here. I recommend it to you unreservedly - if you're the sort of person who enjoys Stephen King's short stories (or just well-told short stories in general, as long as you're not averse to being creeped out now and again) then this is a book for you. Go, seek it out.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Clandestine Classic XIV - What Took You So Long?

'What Took You So Long?' sleeve art

The fourteenth post in an occasional series that is intended to highlight songs that you might not have heard that I think are excellent - clandestine classics, if you will. Maybe they'll be by bands you've never heard of. Maybe they'll be by more familiar artists, but tracks that were squirelled away on b-sides, unpopular albums, radio sessions or music magazine cover-mounted CDs. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

I started writing this post again thinking that I'd show you I was down with the kids, showcasing a contemporary song by a contemporary artist. Then I realised the song is three years old already. At least the band in question are still going strong(ish). Whilst I can't claim that today's offering is by one of Manchester's finest (Manchester has produced a lot of amazing bands, after all), they are at least well clear of the metophorical relegation zone... today's clandestine classic is What Took You So Long?, a single from the summer of 2008 by The Courteeners.

In the initial hype-storm that surrounded their first album, the band attracted a lot of attention for being from Manchester and having a frontman by the name of Liam. This led to inevitable lazy (and inaccurate) Oasis comparisons. However, these were fortunately dismissed relatively quickly, and The Courteeners could be judged on their own merits. I bought their first album, St Jude, on the strength of a good review in a weekend broadsheet and an endorsement from Morrissey, no less. It's pretty good actually, with lots of quietly infectious, guitar-led chunks of indie rock. They have tunes! That said, the album was starting to fall out of my regular rotation by the time the band were due to play my adopted home-town. I bought a ticket anyway but must have been the only person to do so who wasn't subsequently notified when the gig was cancelled - I arrived at the venue to find a closed door with a piece of hastily-scrawled A4 sellotaped to it. Oh well. A year later, whilst on a business trip to Edinburgh, I saw that The Courteeners were playing The Picture House. I trooped along, hoping to pick up a ticket on the door, but they were all sold out. Gutted.

But not to worry. Although I kept missing them live, and had shelved the album, one song from St Jude was imprinted firmly in my brain. Why? For the unlikely reason that the DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families) were running their 'Science and Maths' campaign, aimed at showcasing the interesting and exciting jobs those subjects could lead the youth of today to. They had a quite neat advert that was played to death at my local multiplex, and that advert was soundtracked by the distinctive intro and guitar line of What Took You So Long. You can see why - it's the da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA guitar line that hooks you in, completely and utterly. But there is more to the song than this - not only does it build in a way that compels your body to jump about, it's lyrically very snappy and is, quite possibly, the only song in the Western world to namecheck both Morrissey and Stagecoach buses. Not to be sniffed at. If this song was a film, it could be genre-pigeonholed as social realism or, more likely, kitchen sink drama. Witness those lyrics - "What took you so long? Was there a queue at the post office?" So yes, decidedly English too. These, in case you were wondering, are all good characteristics. Oh, and it's got a catchy, singalong chorus too.

As a single, I think today's classic peaked at number 20 and, as I've already said, you can also find it on the band's debut album. Alternatively, the unscrupulous among you might find something of interest here but you didn't hear that from me, okay? If you want to read more about The Courteeners you can do so at their Wikipedia page and, as ever, there's YouTube, where you can watch the DCSF ad or, like I did, find the original promo and tout it around (below). Enjoy.

Thursday 5 May 2011

So what's the score with all those lazy blog posts?

You might have noticed that during March and April nearly everything I blogged was a "lazy blog post" You might have wondered why. Well, I wasn't just being lazy - there was a reason. Let me explain.

I read a fair few blogs. Don't get me wrong, I don't fritter away my days constantly refreshing feeds in my RSS reader of choice, no no. But I do subscribe to a number of feeds and check them regularly. Now some of these blogs are very good - come on, why would I be reading them otherwise? But sometimes, almost inevitably, you come across a blog that is not so hot. And the more blogs I read, the more patterns I see, and the more I realise that there are certain blog tropes that strike me as, first and foremost, just plain lazy and, secondly, seem destined to turn me off from reading the blog in the future. So I tried to highlight a few of these lazy blog post types over the last two months, specifically:

  • The "humourous" photo - the vast majority of hilarious photos on the Internet are, it seems to me, not actually that funny, and those that might be are typically more of the "a ha ha" type than rib-shattering. The blogger might as well just write I'VE TAKEN A PHOTO OF A CAT DOING SOMETHING SILLY AND MY MUM LIKES IT!
  • The embedded video without context - we've all done it: embed some YouTube content when we're short of blogging ideas. But come on people, at least add some context, some opinion, maybe some original ideas to the post too. It's just a thought but why else should I be reading your post? I mean, if I just want to watch videos I'll go straight to the source, thanks.
  • The redirecting link - now I don't have a problem with blog posts that exist purely to draw attention to something else - another website, a Twitter feed of note, a please-sponsor-me page. But COME ON - tell me why it's worth clicking! Express your thoughts on the website/Twitter feed/please-sponsor-me page. And do so in a way that makes me want to read to the end of the sentence. Don't just say it's really good. Tell me why it's good, what makes it worth clicking the link.
  • Whimsy - well-written whimsy can be okay sometimes, imbuing a kind of collective, misty-eyed nostalgia. That's alright. I don't mind a bit of that now and again, and I suspect you don't either. But the sort of whimsy that trades exclusively in "things aren't what they used to be and I feel so old" probably isn't that well-written. I don't want to sound like a snob or anything, I'm just saying, that's all.
  • The old chestnut - most often typified by the embedded video without context. If your blog consists of nothing but old TV and film clips that I have seen a dozen or more times before, I'm going to get tired, however KWALITY or KRAZY those clips might be. And I won't be alone.
  • Bandwagoneering - the number one crime in the interminable chart of lazy blog post crimes is Zeitgeist-chasing, or simply blogging about something because it's in the news and you want to get a few extra hits. Have you got something new, original or insightful to say about the Royal Wedding? No? Then leave the subject well alone. Something incisive, searing or inventive to say about the Obama/Osama grudge match? No? Then why are you regurgitating banalities about it and calling it a blog post?

Don't get me wrong, I may sound a bit preachy but I'm not so wholesome - this is my 256th blog post here, and I've fallen into all the traps mentioned above at times. We all have, I'm sure - no-one's perfect, and sometimes we simply don't have time to craft the perfect post, especially those of us who do this as a hobby rather than as a form of employment. But I try to keep the lazy blog posts to a minimum. The blogs I read regularly do too.

I'll stop sounding like a crazy ranting fool now.