Tuesday Book Review: Night Shift by Stephen King

I first read this book back in the late seventies, shortly after its original release.  I remember, at the time, thinking that there was something special about the stories: they managed to blend themes of horror with a masterful style of storytelling. I’ve returned to them several times over the years and the quality of them has not diminished with age.

This might seem like an unnecessary statement but, having read a fair few ‘classic’ short stories over the past few months, I do think some stories lose their charm as age dulls the shine on the attraction they presented when they were contemporaneous. ‘The Signalman’ by Dickens is a story that I found dull and confusing rather than dark and mysterious. ‘A.B.O.’ by Walter De La Mare struck me as unmemorable because it got twisted in the uninspiring loop of its own framed narration.

But that seldom happens with the stories in King’s first collection: Night Shift.

I’d started reading this book again because, as some of you may know, I have a weekly discussion with my friend Colin Davies where we talk about short horror fiction. This week I’d suggested ‘The Boogeyman’ from the collection Night Shift and, as a result, I ended up reading the other stories in the book.  To some extent they’re like those excellent Leibniz chocolate biscuits in that each one is incredible, satisfying and a feast for the senses. But, as soon as you’ve finished one, you need to have another and another until you’ve devoured them all.

The thing that struck me about this collection was that it was focused on the horrors facing the working class.  ‘Graveyard Shift’ is a story about a man employed to help with a rat infestation in an old mill. ‘The Mangler’ is a story about the dangers that can be found working with industrial machines that seem to have a will of their own. ‘Grey Matter’ is a story about the troubles that can befall those hard-working stiffs that end the day with a can or twelve of their favourite cheap beer.

These are stories that play on the worries of the working-class (particularly back in the seventies but they’re probably just as relevant today), and I think that’s why I found them so attractive. These are not like the ‘classic’ stories of yesteryear. These are not like the stories from Poe, where landed gentry are visited by acquaintances who shared idyllic childhoods. Nor are they like the stories from Lovecraft, where respected lecturers are driven crazy by the other-worldly horrors they discover on their upper-middle class expeditions into the depths of ‘savage’ countries. These are stories about people who have a background that I find relatable.  

Consequently, when I’m reading a story such as ‘Trucks’, where the machines that are the lifeblood of the nation’s transport system have turned on their masters, I can feel the shock and terror of that betrayal at the level where it’s intended. When I read a story as chillingly devised as ‘Quitters Inc’, I can be amused, entertained and repulsed by the extremes that someone might employ to help a poor smoker break away from their unfortunate habit. My paperback copy has pages that are turning to yellow-orange and it smells old and dusty. But this remains one of the prizes in my fiction collection and, if you’ve not yet read it, it’s a showcase of a how a master storyteller makes an indelible mark on the genre.

New Beginnings

This post is scheduled to go live on Monday morning, when the UK’s social media will be filled with ‘back to school’ photos of enthusiastic uniform-wearing children smiling in readiness for a return to the classroom. If I can persuade my long-suffering wife to take such a picture of me as I return to the lecture theatre, I shall share that here.

For me, back on campus, I’m going to be reading poetry this evening, trying to find time to get some more words down on the latest Work In Progress, and hopefully find time to catch up on my current research which is shifting somewhere between the supernatural and the alien.

And, finally for this week’s update, I thought I would share a poem I wrote. A dear friend of mine was recently fitted with a Stoma. They asked me to write a poem about Stoma bags to commemorate this event, and this is what I produced.

5 x 5 Writing Tips: Read

One of the things I’ve noticed since hosting The Bleeding Keyboard discussions is the number of writers who give the advice ‘read’. It’s a common thing for writers to say and I think that a lot of people underestimate the importance and relevance of reading to the skills of being a writer.

  1. Read critically: read fiction you enjoy and try to work out what parts of the fiction you are enjoying. Is it the fast-paced dialogue? Is it the exciting action scenes or the detailed description? Find out what it is that makes a story work for you, and be sure to include that in the writing you create.
  2. Read critically: read stuff you don’t enjoy. Again, the reasoning here is to work out what DOESN’T work for you. Is there too much description? Are the characters shallow? Does the dialogue sound like it’s been written by a robot? This can be a tough exercise but, once you figure out what it is you don’t like in a particular text, it’s easier to keep those same failings out of your own work.
  3. Read broadly: don’t limit yourself to a single genre. If you want to write horror, it’s worth reading horror to see how other writers achieve their goals. But it’s also worth reading romance to see how the same skills of narrative tension are used to evoke a different response. It’s worth reading mystery stories to see how the writer teases an audience with the puzzle of the unknown. Whichever genre you prefer, always be aware that you can learn valuable and relevant skills from other genres.
  4. Read outside the mainstream: If you’re looking to see what mainstream publishers want, reading mainstream fiction is very useful. However, if you’re looking for originality and trying to see what can come from writers who think outside the box, Independent Authors have a lot to offer. Try to find out the names of the successful Indie Authors in your preferred genre, and try to work out what these writers are doing right.
  5. Read and REVIEW: If you’re reading something from an independent author, make sure you leave a review. this is partly because Indie authors need those reviews but, of equal importance, writing a review will allow you to reflect on what went well in the story so you have a better chance of being critically engaged with the piece.

Tuesday Book Review: Cooking With A Serial Killer (Recipes from Dorothea Puente)

It was my birthday in August and two dear friends surprised me with this title as a gift. As I’m sure everyone is now aware, I’ve been reading a lot about serial killers as research for my novel Conversations with Dead Serial Killers.

Funnily enough, they gave me the gift in a cafeteria and the waitress for our table noticed the book and said, “Oh! She’s one of my favourites.” This was a disconcerting thing to hear because, the last thing anyone in a café wants to hear is that their waitress has a favourite serial killer who happens to be a renowned poisoner.

According to Wikipedia: Dorothea Puente “was an American convicted serial killer. In the 1980s, she ran a boarding house in Sacramento, California, and murdered various elderly and mentally disabled boarders before cashing their Social Security checks. Puente’s total count reached nine murders; she was convicted of three and the jury hung on the other six. Newspapers dubbed Puente the “Death House Landlady”.”

I think the horror in this book comes on a meta level. I’m reading a list of recipes from a lady who died in prison having been convicted of murder, and I’m fully aware that her preferred form of murder was poisoning. This means there’s a strong likelihood that any one of the recipes I’m reading could have been used to conceal poisonous content, such as the overdose of codeine and acetaminophen that killed Ruth Munroe in 1982.

Aside from the recipes there are some of Dorothea’s poems, transcripts of  her telephone conversations with the writer who collated and anthologised all of this material, Shane Bugbee, and some choice excerpts from the written correspondence between these two.

The correspondence is interesting in that it shows a woman protesting her innocence. This is apparent in her list of reasons why she couldn’t have committed the crimes and her suggestion that the man who conducted the toxicology report for the DA was an unreliable substance abuser who had contaminated evidence.

All of which leaves the impression that, if Dorothea was wrongly convicted, we’re reading the wholesome recipes of a woman who loved to cook for family and friends and tenants and had that pleasure wrongly taken away from her whilst she was incarcerated. And, if there was substance to her conviction, Dorothea was still trying to find a way of avoiding justice throughout her correspondence with the author Bugbee.

5 x 5 Writing Tips: Point of View

The Rolling Stones famously sang “It’s the singer, not the song.”  Regardless of how you feel about The Rolling Stones, I think we can all agree with the sentiment of this lyric.  Narrative voice is potentially more important than the story we’re telling.  The most interesting and compelling story in the world can easily fall flat when the narrator is someone bland and inappropriate for the task. Conversely, a dull story can come across as irresistible if the narrator knows how to convey a story.

  1. There are only four points of view to worry about: first person, second person, third person and omniscient. Each of these allows the reader a different level of closeness with the narrator or the narrating character and your choice should be made depending how much closeness you think is appropriate for the story you want to tell.  The most popular in current fiction are third person and first person but don’t be swayed by the market: write the story that feels right to you.  
  2. Choose the correct point of view for the story you’re telling. Sometimes this can require writing and rewriting until you get it exactly right but it’s worth the effort.
  3. Try to avoid head-hopping. (This is when we suddenly shift from the perspective or thoughts from one character to another.) I’m not going to say head-hopping is wrong.  We can see examples of head-hopping in classic fiction from all over the world and each story will take the route it needs to take. But head-hopping can be distracting. Part of the fun with a well-written story is that we’re limited to the perspective of a single character so we’re unable to know the important train of thoughts hurtling through that other character’s mind. Head-hopping can destroy that tension in a single paragraph.
  4. Never underestimate the value of an unreliable narrator. Edgar Allan Poe begins ‘The Tell-Tale Heart with the following paragraph: True! — nervous – dreadfully nervous, I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? Hearken! And observe how calmly I can tell you the whole story. (Well, the reason why we say you’re mad is because you’re nuttier than a squirrel turd and I think most readers have come to that conclusion by the time they get to the next paragraph). This example of an unreliable narrator takes us into a story where we see the world through the eyes of a crazy person – which makes the whole experience even more unsettling.
  5. Whenever you’re reading, take a moment to distance yourself from the book and think how and why the author has made the decision to use a particular point of view.  If we do this with our favourite authors, we can learn how and why something works for us.  If we do this with authors that we don’t enjoy, we can see what sort of things we should be avoiding with our writing.

ABO by Walter De La Mare

In Episode 44, Col and I look at ‘ABO’ by Walter De La Mare.

Walter De la Mare is renowned as a poet and author of works aimed at children. Consequently I was exited to come across this title because I was familiar with the author’s name, just not familiar with his work.

Maddeningly, the story was something of a damp squib. There is potential for a lot of unnerving content but a lot of this is lost with unnecessary characters and heavy-handed over-writing.

Tuesday Book Review: Soup

Back Cover Blurb

Ashley McCormack was brutally abused as a child, but she’s found a way to thrive as the sadistic Assistant Coroner at the City of Changusay morgue. Convicts from a nearby maximum security prison get shanked on a regular basis, and Ashley loves to play with their remains, picturing her estranged father with every slice of her scalpel. When the morgue is updated with the newest in “environmentally friendly” human disposal systems, the Alkaline Hydrolysis HT500, a fellow member of her dark web death group makes an offer she can’t refuse. No really, she can’t.

One of the great things about reading Indie Horror is that you find yourself experiencing new writers who aren’t bound by the strictures of mainstream norms.  Kate DeJonge is one such writer who can tell an effective story but isn’t contained by the boundaries of what’s expected or what’s been done before.

In this story we’re introduced to Ashley McCormack and given her backstory which shows, she wasn’t subjected to the best parenting in the world – but she’s found ways of coping with that setback. Innovative ways. We also find she’s immersed in her work as a morgue attendant. 

One of the things that stood out for me whilst reading this story was DeJonge’s understanding of funerary practices and the minutiae of life working at a mortuary – this level of realism added a whole new world of verisimilitude that added to the horror I was reading. 

If you enjoy your horror dark and your fiction well-written, this is the next title you need to enjoy.

Soup by Kate DeJonge

Listen for Free

Those who enjoy Indie Horror will already be aware of Godless.  It’s the go-to site for all things Indie Horror and I’m delighted to have a couple of novels on there, as well as a free short audio story.  Some of you may have already read The Damned Box but, if you like listening to authors read their work, it’s now available as a free download.

This has been a ridiculously busy week.  I’ve been interviewing writers for the Bleeding Keyboard and the first of these went live yesterday from when I’d spoken with the award-winning author Candace Nola.

Aside from chatting with authors, I also celebrated my birthday on the 22nd and recorded the audio version of Conversations with Dead Serial Killers

I’m also overlooking the most important event of my calendar for the last week which was the launch of Seagulls from Hell.  The seagulls officially landed on Monday and the feedback is already making me grin.  Thank you to everyone who’s taken the time to read and review.  It really is much appreciated.

5 x 5 Writing Tips: Ideas

I’m not going to say that there’s nothing worse than a writer being stuck for ideas because there are worse things. But I am going to say being a writer who is stuck for ideas is avoidable and below are five tips to help circumvent this particular issue.

For further ideas, check out my book, How to Write Short Stories and Get Them Published.
  1. Keep a journal. In the good old days writers would keep a journal, notepad or diary on them at all times. The point of this was, when inspiration struck, it would be ideal for keeping a record of ideas, thoughts and potential material that could be built on. Nowadays a writer doesn’t need to be encumbered by the need to carry a notepad, journal or diary as all of this is available as an app (or a series of apps) on the handy little mobile phones that we all keep in our pockets.
  2. Use the journal. It’s all well and good having a journal/diary/notepad app on your phone, but you need to use it regularly and keep it filled with ideas. Did you hear an interesting snippet of conversation that could inspire a scene? Write it down. Did you just get an idea for a superhero whose Kryptonite is cute doggies? Write it down. Did you finally figure out the perfect comeback for that asshat who called you a no-talent hack? Write it down. Any or all of these could prove the inspiration for your next piece of creativity. But they’ll only be available to you if you make a point of writing them down.
  3. Be Inspired. I consume fiction and it makes me want to create something in a similar fashion. For example, I watch a vampire movie and I want to write about vampires. Or, I watch a movie about dark magic and I want to write about dark magic. This doesn’t mean I want to copy what I’ve experienced (copying and plagiarism are the worst crimes a writer can commit). It means that I take the traditional tropes of the story and try to tell it with my own distinctive style. Be inspired by the stories around you and transform them into something that matches with your own style.
  4. Practice Writing Exercises. Exercises such as ‘free writing’, timed exercises or constrained exercises, allow us to stretch those writing muscles that seldom get used in day-to-day writing practice. Taking 5 minutes to compose a sentence where each word begins with the next letter of the alphabet, or 10 minutes to compose a haiku that sums up your plans for the day, can often produce something that inspires a fuller idea.
  5. Break with Routine. A lot of the time, we’re inspired by the things we see on a daily basis. We see the echo chamber of Twitter and FaceBook. We see the 9 – 5 of our daily experience and the regularity of everything we do outside that 9 – 5. Since I’ve started visiting the gym on a morning, I’ve written at least two stories that feature a character in the gym. I also work my dog each day and there are regular scenes in my stories where characters encounter unexpected surprises whilst walking dogs. Which suggests, if these versions of normality appear in my work because I’ve been exposed to them, lunch at a different location, a chat with different work colleagues, or an impromptu visit to a local tourist trap could all help to add variation to the content of my creativity.