Rab Foster gets antsy

 

© Blood Moon Rising Magazine

 

In the last few years, nearly all the fiction I’ve had published has belonged to one of two genres: horror and fantasy.  The horror stuff has appeared under a pseudonym I use, Jim Mountfield.  The fantasy stuff has borne another pseudonym, Rab Foster.  (I generally use pseudonyms for my writing because ‘Ian Smith’ is one of the most boring names in the world.  Also, it risks me being confused with the white supremacist prime minister of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, who unilaterally declared independence from the UK in 1965, or with the bloke who used to play Harold Bishop in the never-ending Australian soap opera Neighbours.)

 

Well, my new story The World Builder has just been published in the October 2019 edition of the ezine Blood Moon Rising and it’s something of an anomaly.  It’s a horror story inspired by a visit my partner and I made a while back to the historical / cultural site of Polonnaruwa in north central Sri Lanka, where we observed some big, abandoned anthills that looked worryingly… organic.  Blood Moon Rising is a publication that specialises in horror stories and articles about the horror genre, and I’m especially pleased that my story has become available to read just before Halloween.  However, the pseudonym it’s been attributed to isn’t Jim Mountfield, but Rab Foster.

 

This is because when I started to develop the story, which involves a, shall we say, special type of ant, I quickly realised I couldn’t set it in the ‘real’ world.  It would just seem too far-fetched.  And to my mind, a story that strays beyond the boundaries of believability can never be properly scary.  So it made sense to set the story in an ‘unreal’ world, in a fantasy setting where the rules of what’s plausible and implausible are less rigid, and let its horrors unfold there.  Thus, it became a Rab Foster story instead.

 

Actually, in the middle of putting together the story, which as well as featuring super-powerful ants features an Emperor of Games of Thrones-style viciousness, I realised I could link it to another Rab Foster story I’d had published.  That story was called The Water Garden.  It appeared back in 2010 in a now-defunct publication called Sorcerous Signals and was about an evil Emperor cultivating some deadly gardens in which he can discretely get rid of his political rivals.  Part of the inspiration for The Water Garden had come from the bizarre ‘Garden of Death’ that Ernst Stavro Blofeld installs at his hideaway in Japan in the 1964 James Bond novel You Only Live Twice.

 

So I set The World Builder in another quarter of those gardens, adjacent to the one in The Water Garden, and called this new quarter the ‘Earth Garden’.  That makes 2019’s The World Builder a sequel to 2010’s The Water Garden.

 

In fact, the way is now open for two more sequels – stories set in further quarters named after the remaining elements, the Air Garden and the Fire Garden.  Rest assured that Rab Foster will be working on them shortly, as soon as he can figure out what hideous, horrible things to place in those gardens.

 

For the time being, the October 2019 edition of Blood Moon Rising is available here, and The World Builder itself – the issue’s featured story – can be accessed here.

 

Jim Mountfield gets arty

 

© Aphelion Magazine

 

My horror fiction-writing alter ego Jim Mountfield has just had a new story called They Draw You In  published in the July 2019 issue of the webzine Aphelion.

 

They Draw You In came about through a desire to write a scary story set in an art gallery.  Not in a world-famous gallery, like the Louvre or the George Pompidou Centre in Paris, or the National Gallery or Tate Modern in London, or the Guggenheims in New York or Bilbao – all of which I’ve been lucky enough to visit over the years – but in a small provincial one.  A gallery where the artists whose work is on display are less well known or not known at all, where the artwork itself is probably variable in quality, and where the overall vibe is unglamorous and unassuming… but also unpredictable, because you just don’t know what you’re going to find there.  One place that inspired the story was an art gallery I explored in the Romanian town of Brasov a few years ago.  The premises were cramped and the visit was brief, but some of the things I saw were memorable – because they were slightly eccentric and odd.

 

 

Because I wanted to make the setting drab and ordinary, but also disorientating and disturbing, I suppose I tried with They Draw You In to emulate the work of the Liverpudlian writer Ramsey Campbell, who’s made a career of taking drab, ordinary settings and characters and doing disorientating and disturbing things with them.  However, while I wrote it, I found myself borrowing ideas too from the life of notorious occultist Aleister Crowley who, as well as being a magician, theologian, drug addict, mountaineer, poet, novelist and self-styled ‘wickedest man in the world’, was – yes! – an artist.

 

I was slightly dismayed after I finished the story to sit down one evening with my better half and watch a new movie on Netflix called Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) – and discover that it too told a horror story set in the world of artists, paintings and galleries.  Would it cover exactly the same ground as They Draw You In?  Well, I don’t think so.  I enjoyed Velvet Buzzsaw and particularly enjoyed its savage ridiculing of pretentious art dealers and art critics, but I found it all over the place in terms of its horror elements.  Things happened in it without rhyme or reason: one character was dismembered by a machine in a modern art installation, another was murdered by a creepy figure from a modern art installation, and another again was swallowed by paint that magically flowed out of a wall mural.  Hopefully, the idea at the heart of They Draw You In is more consistent and coherent.

 

Incidentally, the half-dozen paintings that appear in the story are inspired by real-life ones.  Those real paintings are Fix Your Eyes by Fiona Michie, Journey in a Carriage by Alfred Wierusz Kowalski, The Little Street by Johannes Vermeer, Fishers in the Snow by John Bellany, The Lark by George Henry and (obliquely) The Spell by Sir William Fettes Douglas.  With the exception of Kowalski, who was Polish, and Vermeer, who was Dutch, all those painters were or are Scottish.  So although the Caledonian art scene isn’t usually the first thing that springs to mind in connection with Scotland, it’s clearly had a big influence on the humble horror scribe Jim Mountfield.

 

For the next few weeks at least, They Draw You In can be accessed here and the edition of Aphelion in which it appears can be accessed here.

 

Rab Foster goes to the pub

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(c) Aphelion

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A short story of mine entitled Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf has been published in the March 2019 edition of the webzine Aphelion.  It’s credited to the pseudonym Rab Foster, which I use for stories written in the fantasy genre, and as you might expect from the title it’s largely set in a pub – or to use terminology more appropriate to fantasy fiction, an ‘inn’ or a ‘tavern’.

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Fantasy stories are riddled with taverns – usually populated by thirsty barbarians, dwarves, hobbits, etc., knocking back tankard after tankard of foaming ale.  Off the top of my head, I can think of the Prancing Pony in the town of Bree in the first of the Lord of the Rings books; the Leaky Cauldron, the Three Broomsticks and the Hog’s Head Inn in the Harry Potter novels; and the Silver Eel Tavern in Fritz Leiber’s witty Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories.  Oh, and let’s not forget the Slaughtered Prince in Neil Gaiman’s novel Stardust (1999).  When Stardust was filmed eight years later, a real-life hostelry called the Briton’s Arms in the picturesque, cobbled district of Elm Hill in Norwich was used as the Slaughtered Prince’s stand-in.  I lived in Norwich in 2008-2009 and the Briton’s Arms was one of my regular hang-outs, but since it’s really a tea and coffee-shop the beverages I consumed there were non-alcoholic ones.

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Anyway, despite the prevalence of taverns in this type of literature, it occurred to me that the hard-working staff in these places – the jolly ruddy-faced innkeepers, the saucy serving wenches (who would invariably get pulled onto some bawdy barbarian’s lap in the course of their duties) and so on – rarely get much attention.  So I thought it would be nice if, for once, there was a fantasy story that put them centre-stage and featured one of them as its hero.  Hence, Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf.

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Incidentally, the layout of the titular Speckled Wolf, with its island bar and high gantry, is inspired by the prestigious Café Royal in Edinburgh.  The idea of the stained-glass windows came from the public bar of the Green Tree Hotel in my hometown of Peebles – though what’s depicted in the Green Tree’s windows is less dramatic than that in the Speckled Wolf’s windows.  And I suspect the general ambience of the place was modelled on that of the Machar Bar in Aberdeen, where I spent many an evening (and afternoon) during the 1980s.  Mind you, an acquaintance recently told me that by the early 2000s the once spare and no-nonsense Machar had acquired a carpet – a gruesome thought.  So its ambience has evidently changed since my day…

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For the next few weeks at least, you can access the March edition of Aphelion here and Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf itself here.

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Jim Mountfield gets on his bike

 

© Blood Moon Rising Magazine

 

That Which Does Not Kill Us, a short horror story I wrote under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield, has recently been published in issue 74 – the Halloween 2018 edition – of the magazine Blood Moon Rising.  Issue 74 is accessible online here and the story itself here.

 

The story is partly inspired by some cycling trips I made while living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the early 2000s, when I’d get on my bike and head from there up to the Scottish Borders, where my family lived.  This involved a two-day expedition.  I usually stopped off for the night at the youth hostel in the village of Byrness, in the middle of the Kielder Forest and just below the England-Scotland border – a place I mainly remember for being painfully infested with midges.  However, as the title suggests, the story is also inspired by one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous quotes: That which does not kill us makes us stronger.  Though I’ve heard people often repeat that maxim flippantly in the course of their normal, everyday lives, I wondered if it would actually be any use to you if you found yourself in a truly dire situation.

 

I’ve had a couple of short stories published under the name Jim Mountfield in Blood Moon Rising in the past and it’s interesting that my nastiest, most nihilistic pieces of work seem to end up there.  These include The Balloon, the story of a paedophile who gets his come-uppance from a primordial, flesh-eating blob-monster whilst hunting for children in a South East Asian temple complex…  And The Ecosystem, about a man who ingests some weird hallucinogenic drugs and sees his whole body consumed by and transformed into a weird, alien ecosystem of grotesque flowers, fungi and insects…  Okay, I’ll stop now.  This is starting to sound a bit like Garth Marenghi.

 

© Channel 4

 

The return of Rab Foster

 

© Columbia Pictures

 

I’ve always loved the idea of high fantasy and heroic fantasy fiction.  The two are slightly different, though overlapping, things – for the former, think Lord of the Rings (1954-55), for the latter, think the Conan the Barbarian stories (1932-36).

 

Therefore, I’m talking about literature set in imaginary kingdoms in medieval worlds with a total absence of modern science and technology.  Its pages are populated by kings, queens, princes, princesses, warriors, knights, witches, warlocks, elves, goblins, trolls, dragons and any number of other supernatural and mythical creatures and monsters.  Its landscapes are dotted with castles, fortresses, palaces, citadels, gladiatorial arenas, walled towns, thatched cottages, riotous taverns, mysterious forests, mist-shrouded lakes and foreboding mountain passes.  And its plots are animated by the casting of spells, the summoning of demons and suchlike magical shenanigans, by epic quests to locate mystical objects with fantastical powers, by Machiavellian court intrigue set against backgrounds of rebellions, invasions, sieges and battles, and generally by non-stop swordplay, chases, rescues, derring-do and bloodshed.

 

Oh, and maps.  The opening pages of any high or heroic fantasy book have got to contain a map:

 

© Gnome Press / David Kyle

 

The trouble is, there hasn’t been a great deal of this literature that I’ve read and actually liked.  Much of it I’ve found either drearily pompous (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson) or badly written (e.g. Lin Carter).  I quite like some of the Conan the Barbarian tales written by Robert E. Howard, somebody who knew how to tell a proper story.  But it’s difficult to read the average Conan story without wincing at least half-a-dozen times at the titular barbarian’s swaggering sexism and the undercurrents of racism and ableism.

 

But there are a few items that I’ve unreservedly liked.  There’s the Jirel of Joiry stories, a heroic fantasy series written both about a woman (Jirel) and by a woman (C. L. Moore), which appeared in the 1930s at the same time as their polar opposite in the sex-war stakes, Howard’s Conan stories.  There’s the Earthsea books (1968-2001) by another woman, Ursula K. Le Guin.  There’s Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (1958-1988), which wittily rips the piss out of the genre.  And there’s the Kane novels and short stories (1970-1985) written by the underrated Karl Edward Wagner, which feature an immortal and immoral swordsman roaming a fantasy world, selling his fighting services to mortal but equally-immoral humans and getting involved in all sorts of violent skulduggery.

 

I haven’t read the Game of Thrones books (1996-present) by George R. R. Martin or watched the TV show based on them, but from what I’ve heard about their cynical and nihilistic tone I wouldn’t be surprised if Martin had been influenced by Karl Edward Wagner’s work in his younger days.

 

Over the years I’ve tried my hand at writing high and heroic fantasy short stories, but there never seemed to be many outlets for getting them published.  I got one into the pages of a hard-copy British magazine called Legend in the early 2000s, but that publication, alas, was short-lived; and later another of my stories appeared in an American webzine called Sorcerous Signals, which is no longer on the go, either.  Meanwhile, a folder on my computer hard-drive titled ‘Fantasy Stories’ gradually turned into the literary equivalent of a breaker’s yard, filled with unpublished stories rather than decommissioned ships.

 

Happily, I have managed to dust down one of those fantasy stories, The Trap Master, and get it published this month in the webzine Aphelion.  Although this year already Aphelion has published two stories that I wrote under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield, The Trap Master sports a different pen-name: Rab Foster, the name I’ve put on my published fantasy output, meagre though it is.  For the next few weeks, the October 2018 edition of Aphelion should be accessible here and the story itself accessible here.

 

© Aphelion Webzine

 

Although it belongs to the tradition of high and heroic fantasy, don’t expect The Trap Master to be about royalty or members of the nobility, or indeed, about muscular superhuman swordsmen.  I’ve always enjoyed imagining what it would be like to be an ordinary, unremarkable blue-collar worker in one of these fantasy worlds, and the characters in The Trap Master are representative of that economic sector.

 

Incidentally, the story is inspired too by my interest in mythological and folkloric creatures, something I suspect comes from the Sinbad-the-Sailor movies I watched as an impressionable kid: The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).  These films were devised as unashamed showcases for legendary special-effects man Ray Harryhausen and his artistry with stop-motion-animation puppets, which still looks impressive today and, unlike slick modern CGI technology, possesses a dreamy unreal charm.

 

Cheerfully ignoring the fact that the literary Sinbad came from Bagdad during the reign of the 8th / 9th century AD Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, Harryhausen had the movie version of him dodging creatures drawn from Greek mythology, prehistory and elsewhere: cyclopes, centaurs, dragons, homunculi, minotaurs, sabre-tooth tigers, troglodytes and even a six-armed statue of the Hindu Goddess Kali that’d come to life.

 

At the end of the 1990s, I got a chance to briefly speak to Harryhausen while he was visiting Edinburgh and just after he’d given a talk at the city’s (now sadly defunct) Lumiere Cinema at the back of the National Museum of Scotland.  I mentioned that I was a fan of the Sinbad movies.  He looked me in the eye, chuckled and commented, “You know, son, you look a bit like Sinbad yourself!”

 

Made my year, that did…

 

From godzilla.wiki.com

 

Another kiss from Jim Mountfield

 

From expedia.com

 

Ae Fond Kiss, my short horror story that managed to be inspired both by a love song by Robert Burns and by the marvellous Musée Mécanique on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, is featured in the September issue of the webzine The Horror Zine.  The story first appeared in The Horror Zine’s summer 2018 paperback edition and, as usual with my horror fiction, it bears the pseudonym ‘Jim Mountfield’.  (Unfortunately, ‘Ian Smith’ is about the most boring name ever.)  The story can be read here.

 

The Horror Zine requires its contributors to submit mugshots of themselves, so be warned.  You may find the strained, painful-looking selfie that accompanies Ae Fond Kiss more disturbing than anything in the story itself.

 

Also featured in The Horror Zine’s September edition is a story by the prolific, seemingly indefatigable Edinburgh-born author Graham Masterton.  Among the more-than-100 books written by Masterton is 1978’s horror novel Charnel House, which gave me the creeps when I read it as a kid (and which, coincidentally, was set in San Francisco).  However, he’s probably best known for the 1976 novel The Manitou, which was made into a movie two years later with Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara and Burgess Meredith – the film isn’t a classic, but with its enjoyably dated, disco-y 1970s special effects, it’s still good fun.

 

So all in all, I feel honoured to have my work featured this month in the same fiction section as that of the Father of the Manitou.

 

© Sphere Books

 

A Northern Irish ghost story

 

© Aphelion Webzine

 

In Hog Heaven is my attempt to write a ghost story set in modern-day Northern Ireland – though the ghosts in it date back to a recent and traumatic period in Northern Ireland’s history.  As usual with anything I’ve written that involves the supernatural and / or the macabre, it bears the pseudonym Jim Mountfield.

 

The story is currently available online in the August edition of the web-zine AphelionThis is a link to the issue and this is a link to the story itself.  And the Aphelion staff have very kindly put Mr Mountfield’s name on this month’s cover!

 

A kiss from Jim Mountfield

 

© The Horror Zine / Jeani Rector

 

My short story Ae Fond Kiss is among those included in a summer 2018 paperback showcasing the latest fiction and poetry to be featured on the well-known and award-winning web-zine The Horror Zine.  And since it’s a horror story, I have attached my usual horror nom de plume Jim Mountfield to it.

 

The title comes from a wistful romantic song by Robert Burns and, as you’d expect, it’s set in Scotland – next to the Irish Sea on Scotland’s southwestern coast, probably not far from Burns’ birthplace in Alloway.  However, the biggest inspiration for the story was provided by the Musée Mécanique on Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, which serves as both a functioning amusement arcade and a museum for more than 200 “coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines in their original working condition.”  A few years ago when I was in San Francisco I spent a delightful hour or two wandering around the place and examining all its vintage and rather magical contraptions.

 

Indeed, several of the Musée’s exhibits are referenced in Ae Fond Kiss, including a turning miniature Ferris Wheel (made by inmates of San Quentin Prison, apparently), a group of marionettes that perform as a barber shop quartet and a device called a motoscope that resembles a what-the-butler-saw machine and shows clips of 1920s movies like On the Beam with Harold Lloyd and Quick on the Trigger with Tom Mix.  I should say, though, that the machine at the heart of the amusement arcade described in my story is a figment of my imagination and has absolutely nothing to do with anything in the Musée Mécanique.

 

The paperback version of The Horror Zine’s summer 2018 anthology can be ordered here, and there’s a kindle edition available here.

 

Oh, and the story has creepy clowns in it too.  What’s not to like?

 

© BBC

 

Worming my way into Aphelion

 

© Aphelion

 

A quick post to say that the latest issue (May 2018) of the science fiction and fantasy webzine Aphelion features a short story of mine called Bookworm, which I wrote under the pen-name Jim Mountfield.  The issue can be accessed here for the next few weeks.

 

Like several things I’ve written, Bookworm is the result of two different ideas I had that, originally, I assumed would lead to two different stories.  They’d been bouncing around inside my head for a long time and I’d never figured out a way of constructing a coherent narrative around either of them.  Then it occurred to me one day that I could combine those two ideas into one story – wildly dissimilar though they were.

 

In Bookworm’s case, one of the ideas was inspired by an art bookshop in Edinburgh that I occasionally worked in thirty years ago.  To be honest, a mate of mine officially worked there, but he wasn’t available on certain afternoons and asked me to fill in for him.  I was on the dole at the time and for the afternoons I worked there I was paid cash-in-hand.  The bookshop has long since disappeared and its premises are now occupied by a pizzeria, so I think I can say that without getting anyone into trouble.  The shop looked unusual in that it stood just before the junction where George IV Bridge, descending from the Royal Mile, and Candlemaker Row, climbing from the Grassmarket, slanted together.  Because it was at the end of a terrace and stuck between two converging streets, it had a strange, tapering, almost triangular shape.  Also, most of its frontage on the George IV Bridge side was glass.

 

So I’d always wanted to use that bookshop as the setting for a story – with its odd shape (‘like a slice of pie’, as Bookworm puts it); its glass frontage that meant I spent a lot of time just gazing out onto George IV Bridge, people-watching; and its shelves of big, expensive and beautifully-illustrated artbooks.

 

I must admit that the other idea that powers Bookworm is not an original one.  It was something I encountered as a teenager, when I read a 1947 short story called Cellmate by the science fiction and horror writer Theodore Sturgeon.  I thought the premise for that story was so wonderfully bizarre that I’d always wanted to write a variation on it.  I’ve seen the idea turn up in several places since then – for example, in the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi blockbuster Total Recall – so I don’t feel too guilty about nicking it.

 

Theodore Sturgeon was, incidentally, a very interesting character.  I suspect he’s best remembered today not so much for his work (which included scripting a couple of episodes of the original Star Trek TV series in the late 1960s) but for coining the adage known as Sturgeon’s Law, which goes along the lines of: okay, 90% of science fiction is crap but then, 90% of everything is crap.  In his day, though, he was a prolific and popular writer of short stories – he penned about 200 of them and during the 1950s he was said to be the most anthologised short-fiction writer in the English language alive.  And it’s claimed that he was the inspiration for Kilgore Trout, the fictitious sci-fi writer who recurs in the novels of Kurt Vonnegut and becomes their bemused, oddball conscience.  (Sturgeon…  Trout…  Get it?)

 

© Marc Zicree

 

And there you have it.  Long-gone Edinburgh art bookshop + bizarre short story by Theodore Sturgeon = Bookworm.

 

I write about a writer for Write

 

© Write magazine

 

When I write fiction, I try to follow two rules: not to write about drunkards and not to write about writers.

 

The main reason for these rules is to avoid laziness.  If your main character is a drunkard, he or she can make any decision or perform any action no matter how ridiculous or irrational because, well, they’re drunk.  It becomes a cheap ‘n’ easy ploy for authors to sidestep the necessity for logic and reason in their plots.  It’s also cheap ‘n’ easy to have a writer as your main character, though in a different way.  Writers aren’t beholden to the same working conventions as most other people.  They don’t have to be in a specific location for X number of hours each day, starting at Y o’clock and ending at Z o’clock.  So if you’re crafting a plot, your writer-character is available to do anything, anywhere, at any time of the day.  Which again strikes me as a cop-out.

 

I also don’t like stories about writers (and literary-related people) because it just seems so up its own arse.  I still like to moan about the dire state of contemporary English literature back in the days of my youth by holding up, as an example, the shortlist for 1984’s Man Booker Prize.  That year, the novel that should have won the Booker – J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun – was the only one that didn’t have a writer, or a biographer, or a literary scholar, as its main character.  (For the record, the other novels on the shortlist were Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, Anita Desai’s In Custody, Penelope Lively’s The World According to Mark, David Lodge’s Small World and, the eventual winner, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.)  I’m sure such writer-fixated novels were fascinating for the 0.001% of humanity who actually worked in, moved around in and fraternised in the literary world – but were a bit smug and elitist for everyone else.

 

The only author I can forgive for having writers as his main characters is Stephen King, basically because I find his work so damned entertaining no matter whom he writes about.  (Well, as the blurb on his books used to intone: WORDS ARE HIS POWER.)  In The Shining (1977), he even got away with having as a main character a man who was both a writer and a drunkard.  Wow!

 

© Warner Bros / The Producer Circle Company / Peregrine Films

 

Anyway, all this is a preamble to saying that Volume 2, Issue 1 of a new Sri Lankan magazine of poetry, fiction and literary articles called Write has just gone on sale and it includes a short story by me called Holmes, Sherlock.  And guess what?  As I’m a complete and utter hypocrite, I have broken my own rules and betrayed my own principles and made it about a character who’s a writer.  Sorry.  I’m not proud of myself.

 

Incidentally, because the subject matter of Holmes, Sherlock is less dark and macabre than what I usually write about, I haven’t published it under a pseudonym like Jim Mountfield.  It’s attributed to my own, real, very boring name.

 

Available for just 400 Sri Lankan rupees, the new issue of Write can be purchased at the Barefoot Bookshop on Galle Road or at the Sooriya Village Restaurant on Skelton Road.  And here’s a link to the magazine’s Facebook page.