Rab Foster gets perspective

 

© Schlock! Webzine

 

I still remember the moment when I discovered Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories and, by extension, the joys of sword-and-sorcery fiction.  I was ten years old and my family had just boarded the ferry at Larne on the east coast of Northern Ireland.  We were heading across the Irish Sea to Stranraer in southwest Scotland, where we planned to spend a week’s holiday.  (In years to come, we would be on that ferry many more times.  However, by then, we’d moved to Scotland permanently and were travelling in the other direction, back to Northern Ireland to visit family and friends.)  Anyway, the ferry-trip took about two-and-a-half hours, which seemed like an eternity to a restless ten-year-old like me.  To escape the prospect of extreme boredom, I went straight to the ferry’s little onboard shop and bought a slim paperback from a bookrack there.

 

The book was Conan the Freebooter (1968), which caught my eye because its cover featured the titular barbarian engaged in a bloody fight with a giant ape.  It contained five short stories about Conan’s exploits in the Hyborian Age, a mythical era of forgotten civilisations, magic, monsters and romance that’d supposedly existed tens of thousands of years ago between the destruction of Atlantis and the beginning of recorded history.  Actually, only three stories of the five were proper Conan ones written by Robert E. Howard – Black Colossus (1933), Shadows in the Moonlight (1934) and A Witch Shall Be Born (1934).  The other two, Hawks Over Shem and The Road of the Eagles (both 1955), were actually non-Conan stories by Howard that’d been set in Egypt in 1021 AD and the Ottoman Empire in 1595 respectively.  However, another author, L. Sprague de Camp had sneakily rewritten them years after Howard’s death, resetting them in the Hyborian Age and replacing their original heroes with Conan.

 

Anyway, as I sat on that ferry reading that particular book, my enthusiasm for the sword-and-sorcery wing of fantasy literature was kindled.  Warriors, knights, sorcerers, witches, kings and queens, princes and princesses, goblins, trolls, ogres and dragons, populating castles, fortresses, palaces, citadels, gladiatorial arenas, mysterious forests, mist-shrouded lakes, dark caves and foreboding mountain passes, involved in the casting of spells, the summoning of demons, epic quests to locate mystical objects with fantastical powers, Machiavellian court intrigue, battles, sieges, swordplay, derring-do and much, much bloodshed…  How could the imagination of a ten-year-old not be fired by all that?  Admittedly, I found the busty, lascivious wenches who kept popping up in the Conan stories a bit boring, although needless to say I appreciated their presence more when I was a few years older.

 

Of course, decades have passed since then and my opinions of Robert E. Howard and his oeuvre have changed somewhat.  Yes, I still respect him for knowing how to tell a proper story.  But it’s difficult to read the average Conan story now without wincing at least half-a-dozen times at the barbarian’s swaggering sexism – those aforementioned busty, lascivious wenches had little to do apart from throw themselves adoringly at their hero’s feet – and the general undercurrents of racism and ableism.

 

And there are plenty of other sword-and-sorcery stories by other writers I’ve discovered since then that I prefer.  For example, there are the Jirel of Joiry stories, a swashbuckling fantasy series written both about a woman (Jirel) and by a woman (Catherine L. Moore), which appeared in the 1930s at the same time as the Conan ones, their polar opposite in the sex-war stakes.  There’s Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (1958-1988), which wittily rip 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 swordsman who’s as violent and immoral as Conan but whose adventures are described with considerably more intelligence.

 

Anyway, this is all a preamble to saying that Rab Foster, the alias under which I write my own fantasy fiction, has a new sword-and-sorcery story called Perspectives of the Scorvyrn published in this month’s edition of Schlock! Webzine.  I see it as a back-handed tribute to Robert E. Howard.  The two main characters are opportunistic warriors in the mould of Conan and have a similar swing-your-sword-first-and-ask-questions-later attitude to life.  Unfortunately, their lack of scruples and imagination leads them into serious trouble.  And that’s trouble with a feminist tinge…   Moreover, much of the story is written in the present tense and, as its title suggests, it’s told from multiple perspectives.  That’s a style and approach that I’m sure a writer as traditional and old-school as Howard would have absolutely bloody hated.

 

For now, Perspectives of the Scorvyrn is available to read here, while the homepage of the May 2021 edition of Schlock! Webzine can be reached here.

 

© Lancer Books / John Duillo

Riding out with Jim Mountfield

 

© Schlock Webzine

 

In 1970s Britain, it seemed television viewers couldn’t get enough programmes about the strange, dark and macabre.  For scary TV anthology series alone, this decade saw the broadcast of Beasts (1976), Dead of Night (1972), The Frighteners (1972), A Ghost Story for Christmas (1971-78), Leap in the Dark (1973-80), Shadows of Fear (1970-73), Supernatural (1977), Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88) and Thriller (1973-76).

 

One thing that’s often overlooked, though, is that there weren’t just plenty of scary programmes aimed at adults.  British children’s television in the 1970s delivered a fair number of chills too, most notably with series that were ostensibly science fiction but weren’t afraid to creep out their young audiences with their dystopian or plain weird scenarios, for example, Sky (1975), The Changes (1975) and – the kids’ show with the freakiest credits sequence everChildren of the Stones (1977).

 

In addition, 1970s kids in the UK – of whom I was one – also got their own supernatural anthology series.  This was Shadows, which ran from 1975 to 1978.  Its standalone episodes were penned by a range of surprisingly illustrious writers, including Joan Aitken, Susan Cooper, P.J. Hammond, Penelope Lively, Trevor Preston and the Mother of the She-Devil herself, Fay Weldon.  Yes, back then, treated to Shadows’ tales of ghosts, witches, timeslips and even folk horror (as essayed in the 1976 episode The Inheritance), we kids didn’t know how lucky we were.

 

I think I was inspired by Shadows and its tales of 1970s kids and teenagers having encounters with the supernatural when I recently wrote a short story called The Stables, which has just been published in the online journal Schlock! Webzine – attributed, as usual with my scary fiction, to the pen-name Jim Mountfield.  What the characters have to endure in The Stables, though, is considerably nastier than what their equivalents experienced in Shadows.

 

As its title suggests, the story also involves horses, which were another popular trope in 1970s British children’s TV shows.  There was, for example, Follyfoot (1971-73), set in a ‘rest-place’ for horses, and The Adventures of Black Beauty (1972-74), inspired by the 1877 book by Anna Sewell.  Both shows are probably best remembered nowadays for their jaunty theme tunes.  The Follyfoot theme was a number called The Lightning Tree, performed by pop-folk band the Settlers.  Meanwhile, the Black Beauty theme, Galloping Home, written by Dennis King and performed by the London String Chorale, is much admired by Alan Partridge (“It’s brilliant!”).

 

The Stables is now available to read in Volume 16, Issue 13 / the February 2021 edition of Schlock! Webzine here, while its homepage can be accessed here.

 

© Thames Television

My 2020 writing round-up

 

© Schlock Webzine

 

I’m sure few people will be sad to see the back of 2020, although towards its end it did provide two glimmers of hope for the future.  These were the development of vaccines against Covid-19, the main reason for the year’s horribleness, and the defeat in the US presidential election of Donald Trump, the Clown-Master General who’s supervised a four-year circus of corruption, cronyism, disinformation, racism, culture wars, environmental destruction, denial of science and pandering to right-wing terrorism in the world’s most powerful nation.

 

On a personal note, 2020 wasn’t so bad for me in one way.  I did get a number of stories published.  These appeared under the pseudonyms Jim Mountfield (which I use for my horror fiction) and Rab Foster (for my fantasy fiction) and, a couple of times, under my real and boring name Ian Smith.  Here’s a round-up of those stories and details of where you can find them.

 

Firstly, as Jim Mountfield:

  • Back in January, The Path, a cosmic horror story inspired by some rainy season trekking I’d done in Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountains, appeared in Issue 30, Volume 15 of Schlock! Webzine. The issue can be accessed here.
  • Witch Hazel, a folk-horror story playing on one of humanity’s most basic fears – there’s something following you! – was published in the February 2020 edition of The Horror Zine and can still be accessed here. It also appears in the Spring 2020 hard-copy edition of The Horror Zine, which can be purchased here.
  • March saw a story inspired by the many frustrations of working in an office, The Away Day, appear in Issue 2, Volume 16 of Schlock! Webzine, a kindle edition of which can be downloaded here. Come to think of it, The Away Day is probably already dated.  Will there be such a thing as an office culture once the Covid-19 pandemic has passed and companies realise it’s cheaper and more practical to have their employees working at home?
  • In spring 2020, just as most countries were waking up to the seriousness of the pandemic, my violent sci-fi story New Town Tours was included in the aptly dystopian collection Midnight Street Anthology 4: Strange Days, published by Midnight Street Press. It can be purchased from Amazon UK here and Amazon US here.  Also, you can find a clip of me (as Jim Mountfield) talking about the story and reading an excerpt from it here.  I know, the clip looks and sounds like it was filmed by John Logie Baird in 1926, but I was subject to a Covid-19-inspired curfew at the time, didn’t have access to proper video equipment and had to record it in a dark room at the back of an apartment building.
  • In June, my story The Four-Legged Friend, set in Bangkok, inspired by a visit I once made to a Thai surgical museum and tapping into the same fear as Witch Hazel, appeared in Issue 5, Volume 16 of Schlock! Webzine. A kindle edition of it can be downloaded here.
  • Having had cosmic horror and folk horror published in 2020, I was pleased to get some body horror published in it too. In September, my story The Nuclei was included in a new collection called Xenobiology: Stranger Creatures.  It’s a sci-fi body-horror story set in Edinburgh after an apocalypse.  Now that’s a sentence you don’t get to write very often.  Xenobiology can be purchased here.
  • Don’t Hook Now, a nasty sci-fi story I wrote about perverts using future virtual-reality technology to interact with saucy scenes from old movies, was published by Horrified Magazine in October 2020 and can be accessed here.
  • My ghost story First Footers, set as its title suggests in Scotland on New Year’s Eve, has been included in a recent collection of spooky tales entitled Horror Stories from Horrified (Volume 1): Christmas, again courtesy of Horrified Magazine. Available as a digital eBook, it can be purchased here.

 

 

As Ian Smith:

  • In March, my slightly Roald Dahl-esque story The Yellow Brick Road was published in Volume 2, Issue 2 of the Sri Lankan literary magazine Write. The last time I looked, copies of this issue of Write were still on sale in the Barefoot Shop at 704 Galle Road, Colombo.
  • To keep its contributors motivated during the March-May curfew that the Sri Lankan government imposed in response to Covid-19, Write started putting up stories on its social media platforms. These included my flash-fiction story Ferg’s Bike, which can be accessed here.

 

As Rab Foster:

  • October saw my fantasy-horror story No Man’s Land, inspired by the works of Ambrose Bierce, published in Issue 9, Volume 16 of Schlock! Webzine. Its kindle edition is available here.
  • Finally, my quaintly named story Pockets of the Janostovore is featured in the December 2020-January 2021 edition of Aphelion. It can be read here.  Gratifyingly, it’s been listed as one of Aphelion‘s picks of 2020 for long fiction.

 

So 2020 has been a productive year for me in terms of my writing even if, in most other respects, it’s been as shit for me as it’s been for everybody else.  Let’s hope 2021 sees me retain that productivity, while generally offering a better experience for all of us.

 

Anyway, with fingers crossed, I bid you…  Happy new year!

 

© Midnight Street Press

Into battle with Rab Foster

 

© Schlock! Webzine

 

I’m a big fan of the American writer Ambrose Bierce, so I’m delighted to report that my Bierce-inspired short story No Man’s Land has been been published in the October 2020 issue of Schlock! Webzine.

 

During his lifetime, Bierce was best known for his journalism, although today he’s probably remembered most for his short fiction, and for two categories of short fiction in particular: his horror stories and his American Civil War stories.  A good example of Bierce’s work in the former genre is 1893’s The Damned Thing, which has an irresistible premise – something monstrous and hideous is stalking the remote American West but nobody can see it because it’s a colour that exists beyond the spectrum of colours visible to the human eye.  It’s an obvious influence on later writers of the weird and macabre such as H.P. Lovecraft.

 

However, I prefer Bierce’s short stories about the American Civil War, in which, as a young man, he’d fought on the Union side.  They’re packed with unrelentingly grim detail about the conflict – and grim it certainly was, producing the greatest number of wartime deaths in the history of the United States, 620,000 (which is 200,000 more than the American death toll in World War II).  Possibly my favourite of these stories is 1889’s Chickamauga, about a six-year-old child who wanders off from his family home and into a forest, becomes lost, and ends up in the aftermath of battle, where he witnesses all manner of terrible things.

 

Interestingly, perhaps Bierce’s most famous story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1890), manages to combine a Civil War setting with psychological (and almost supernatural) horror.  Kurt Vonnegut has praised it as ‘a flawless example of American genius’ and its twist ending has influenced novels, like William Golding’s Pincher Martin (1956), and movies, like Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990), ever since.

 

No Man’s Land grew out of a mad question that occurred to me one day: “What would a vampire story written by Ambrose Bierce have been like?”  When I started writing it, I perversely tried to model it on one of his Civil War stories rather than on one of his horror ones.  What’s interesting is that as the story developed, and as I tried to accommodate the machinations of the plot, and tried to incorporate the vampire element, it moved further and further away from the Civil War and from America itself.  Eventually, it ended up being set on a battlefield in some imaginary kingdom in 19th century Eastern Europe, rather like Ruritania in Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda.  The result was more like a dark fairy tale.  For that reason, the story published in Schlock! Webzine is credited to Rab Foster, the pseudonym I put on my fantasy (as opposed to horror) stories.

 

Because I wanted to focus on the soldiers, and to avoid making the plot too tangled, I refrained from giving the vampires personalities and made them as bestial and mindless as possible.  They’re not the suave, eloquent figures you’d get in, say, the average Anne Rice novel.  That said, I did pay homage to the more traditional school of vampire story-telling at the end of No Man Land, when I lifted (okay, pinched) an idea from Brian Clemens’ 1974 Hammer horror movie Captain KronosVampire Hunter about the reflective properties of sword-blades.

 

Despite the fairy-tale atmosphere of No Man’s Land, I hope that at least some of Bierce’s influence shows through.  I’ve sprinkled the story with details that evoke his Civil War stories – a fleeing, defeated army of injured soldiers stumbling and crawling along, their uninjured and able-bodied comrades having run away from the scene already; a battleground littered with discarded and dropped items, including “blankets, knapsacks, canteens, rifles with broken stocks and bent barrels, hats, waist-belts, bayonets, bugles, cartridge boxes, rations of biscuits and sardines, a scattered set of playing cards”; the air filled with a fog of gun and cannon-smoke; the mud patterned with the criss-crossing footprints and hoof-prints of armies advancing and retreating.

 

No Man’s Land can be read in Schlock! Webzine for the rest of this month.  The main page of the October issue is accessible here and the story itself here.

 

From the Clifton Waller Barret Library of American Literature

Jim Mountfield hears the patter of tiny feet

 

© Schlock! Webzine

 

Here’s a plug for another short story by Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym I use for works of horror, supernatural and generally dark fiction, which has been published this month.

 

The story’s called The Four-Legged Friend and it’s featured in Volume 16, Issue 5 of Schlock! Webzine.  It’s set in modern-day Bangkok – well, Bangkok until a couple of months ago, when tourists were still able to go there – and is inspired by a visit I once made to an antiquated surgical museum at one of the city’s hospitals.  My horror writer’s antenna started buzzing (and I started thinking, “Hey, I could use this idea in a story!”) when I noticed how little shrines consisting of flowers, pictures, toys and other knickknacks had been set up around some of the exhibits.  These were in honour of the people who’d donated their bodies, or parts of their bodies, that’d become those exhibits.

 

Surgical museums in the Western world are usually clinical, dispassionate affairs.  With its shrines, however, this one in Bangkok seemed to remind its visitors of two things: that the exhibits had human origins and that there was a spiritual aspect to them too.  What you were looking at in those glass cases once belonged to people who’d had souls.  Indeed, depending on your belief system, you might argue that those souls were still present…

 

As well as being inspired by something I saw in a Thai museum, The Four-Legged Friend is influenced by one of the greatest of all ghost story writers, M.R. James, and in particular by the paranoia that James was able to evoke in stories like Casting the Runes (1911) and Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (1904).  James skilfully exploited the basic human fear of being followed.  His characters frequently aren’t just haunted – they’re being hunted.    I should say too that after I finished the story and read it through, I was surprised at how much it reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s masterly, Venice-set novella Don’t Look Now (1971), with the protagonists being tourists, the presence of a child-like apparition and the references to water – some of the action takes place on board Bangkok’s river ferries.

 

A quick word of warning, however, to manage expectations: my story may not be quite as good as M.R. James or Daphne du Maurier!

 

For the rest of June 2020, The Four-Legged Friend can be accessed here.  The main page of Volume 16, Issue 5 of Schlock! Webzine, in which the story appears, is available here.

Begin again

 

© Decca Records

 

There was an old man named Michael Finnegan,

He grew whiskers on his chin-e-gan.

Up came the wind and blew them in again,

Poor old Michael Finnegan.

Begin again.

There was an old man named Michael Finnegan…

 

So runs a particularly disturbing children’s rhyme / song I remember from my boyhood.  It’s disturbing because it’s never-ending.  You sing those 27 words about poor old Michael Finnegan and the whiskers on his chin-e-gan, then you say, ‘Begin again’, and off you go again, repeating the same verse into infinity – or until you and / or your listeners go insane.  And I recall kids in the playground at my primary school who had nothing better to do but test their own endurance, and test other people’s endurance, by singing Michael Finnegan for as long as they could.  I even seem to recall the Irish singer Val Doonican, that knitwear and rocking-chair-loving easy-listening troubadour who had his own show on BBC TV from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s and who was much admired by ‘ladies of a certain age’, performing it on television one evening.   Wow.  Val Doonican singing Michael Finnegan over and over again, for all eternity.  That sounds like a very specialised version of hell.

 

Anyway, like Michael Finnegan’s whiskers, I’m afraid this blog has had to begin again.  In recent weeks it had been hacked into a couple of times.  Despite the efforts of the technical support people at the webhosting company, it was no longer possible to restore the site from back-up – too many longstanding files had been infected, leaving the door open for future hacking.  So, reluctantly, I agreed to have the site eviscerated of its files so that I could set it up again with a clean sheet.  That’s why it’s in the highly functional, impersonal-looking state it’s in at the moment, but hopefully I will be able to improve its appearance when I have time.

 

It’s a shame this happened, as the blog had been puffing along fairly happily since 2012 and I had posted over 750 entries, which of course are all down now.  I have, however, saved the majority of those past entries as Word files and I will hopefully repost some of the more interesting ones over the weeks and months to come.  (Obviously, though, there’s no point in reposting many of them as they were strictly ‘of their time’ – my ruminations about Tunisian politics after the revolution of 2011, written while I was living in Tunisia, for example; or my pontifications about Scottish politics in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum of 2014.)

 

Meanwhile, to hold the fort, here are some updates on pieces of writing I have recently had published, under my various pseudonyms, with links to where to find them.

 

© Aphelion Webzine

 

Published under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield (the name I use for horror fiction and dark stuff generally):

 

  • My short story The Four-Legged Friend should be appearing in the June 2020 edition of Schlock! Webzine. Its home page is here.
  • My short story The Away Day was published in the March 2020 edition of Schlock! Webzine. A kindle edition of this issue can be downloaded here.
  • My short story New Town Tours has been included in the new collection Midnight Street Anthology 4: Strange Days, published by Midnight Street Press.  It can be purchased from Amazon UK here and Amazon US here.  Also, you can find a clip of me (as Jim Mountfield) talking about and reading an excerpt from New Town Tours here.  Yes, I know the clip looks and sounds like it was recorded through a wet towel inside a portaloo, but I’ve been under a Covid-19-inspired curfew for the past two months and I didn’t have access to proper recording equipment.
  • Witch Hazel, a short story I had published in the February 2020 edition of The Horror Zine, can still be accessed here. It also appears in the Spring 2020 hard-copy edition of The Horror Zine, which can be purchased here.
  • The Lights, a longer short story with a Christmas theme, is still available to read on the December 2019 / January 2020 edition of Aphelion webzine, here.

 

© Schlock! Webzine

 

Published under the pseudonym Rab Foster (the name I use for fantasy fiction):

 

  • Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf, a short story I had published in Aphelion webzine 14 months ago, was listed in its final edition of 2019 as one of the webzine’s best stories of the year. It can be accessed here.
  • My short story The World Builder was the featured story in the Halloween 2019 edition of Blood Moon Rising magazine and is still available here.

 

And published under my real and very boring name Ian Smith:

 

  • My short story The Yellow Brick Road was published in Volume 2, Issue 2 of the Sri Lankan literary magazine Write. Unfortunate timing meant that the issue went on sale just a few days before the Sri Lankan authorities announced an ongoing curfew in reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic.  However, there are signs that the curfew is now being eased slightly, and as far as I know, copies of Write are available at the Barefoot Shop at 704 Galle Road, Colombo, which has definitely been open in recent days.
  • Finally, my flash-fiction story Ferg’s Bike appeared last month on Write’s social media platforms. The first page of it can be accessed on Facebook here and the second page here.

 

© Midnight Street Press

 

And that’s everything for now.  Hopefully, normal service will, as they say, be resumed as soon as possible.