2014: A Retrospective

I brought in 2014 draped in beaded necklaces thrown from the balconies of Bourbon Street, New Orleans. I brought in 2015 asleep. How things can change in 12 months.

2014 was a big year, probably the biggest year of my life. March saw the birth of my first child, my boy Eli. Though it may be oft-stated there is still immense truth to it, having a child completely changes your outlook on life. Your priorities certainly shift. Your social life decreases, the time for your hobbies decreases, your ability to sleep in decreases too, but the supposed losses in your life are more than made up for by the overwhelming joy felt every time that little face smiles.

Of course November saw the birth of my other child too, A Town Called Dust, my debut novel released by Momentum Books. The culmination of not just the five years I worked to create the characters and the world of The Territory but really the culmination of a life long dream. I'm incredibly thankful to everyone who has bought, read and supported the book.

I still had some time to watch, read and play this year (even if it often happened at odd hours of the night). Here's my favourite good stuff of the year:

Favourite Book of 2014: The Martian by Andy Weir.

Favourite Movie of 2014: Guardians of the Galaxy

Favourite Game of 2014: Destiny

Favourite TV Show of 2014: True Detective

Favourite Comic/Graphic Novel of 2014: Sex Criminals

So here's to 2015, hopefully another big year, and I'm looking forward to the release of A City Called Smoke which I'm working hard on finishing now. I hope 2015 brings everything you wish to yourself and your families. Here's to another good year.

Author Top 5s - Christian Read's Top 5 Noir Novels

In Author Top 5s I'm inviting a number of authors to share top 5 lists somehow related to the genre they write. They'll be discussing things they love and how they've been influenced by them. Should prove to be interesting and hopefully we'll all pick up a few recommendations of good stuff to check out.

I've got Christian Read on the blog today. Christian's 'Lark Case Files' series is an awesome blend of horror, magic and hard-boiled noir. As one big feature of his writing I asked Christian whether he would share with us his top 5 noir novels.

I was recently asked to share my favourite noir novels.

But, here's the thing. Everyone has a list of noir and hard-boiled novels they dig on and you'll recognise most of the classics. Jim Thompson and James Cain and Chandler and Hammett and Woolrich or my beloved Traven. Or hit up the new school classics like Kerr's Berlin Noir, or the deranged mania of the brilliant Elizabeth Hand's latter books or William Gay's almost gentle murders.

Noir is more than just dark alleys, losers in hot hotel room, flies circling the rooms in dive bars and lonely men in empty hotel rooms, waiting on women who'll never call. Noir is losers and loners and a hunger in the belly and the certainty of betrayal. It's drinking alone at 4 AM. It's dragging the dark rivers of the heart. It's just the black. That's all it needs to be.

Here's five Strange Noir I like. You might like them too.

1. Hoodtown by Christa Faust

Faust is probably best known for Money Shot, a fiercely written story of an ex-porn queen on a bloody path of revenge. And make no mistake, if violent vengeance and a remarkably lurid cast are your thing, it's aces.

But Hoodtown is, I think, a minor masterpiece of fantastic crime. Anyone can give you hunting down scumbags but here's something fiercely original.  X is a rudo luchador, baddie wrestler. But it all went wrong and now she deals out punishment to masochist pervs for cash in the dark rooms of Hoodtown, a ghetto for Luchas. Someone is preying on the hookers of Hoodtown, killing them and taking their masks. The skin police, the unmasked upper class, treat Luchas like scum so it's up to X to solve all of this. But she's no investigator.

A genuinely weird book that draws on both the rich mythology and ethics of Mexican wrestling, as well as being a strongly plotted crime novel, it always gives me the impression of some weird animated film you watched drunk late at night and try to describe to a disbelieving audience. It's alive and tigerish with violence and sex and anger. I pay it that rarest of compliments: I can think of nothing else like it.

2. Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey

Unusual choice because, well, it was written more than a hundred years before the noir tradition rocked up. It's also a, probably at least partially, fictionalised diary about a kid who runs away from home and winds up on the gear. Well, in this case, laudanum. This is the original tale of opium dens and a city gone weird and savage under the influence of drugs. Of a broken psychology that gives birth to hungers that only madness can assuage. Of what it's like to go days without sleep, and to sleep only in nightmares. De Quincey was devoted in showing what the junkie life was, the invitation to crime and the sexy purr of self-annihilation nearly a century before Burroughs was born. 'Oh, the sublime attractions of the grave.'

3. And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave

Noir is often a thing that lurks in cities but there's a whole other tradition. Empty farmhouses. Long highways. Petrol stations in the desert and the circle of cigarette butts in the clearing on the mountain top.

Nick Cave might sing songs about flowers and the newspaper these days but once, his American Gothic and Biblical obsessions ran deep and found perfection here. Euchrid Eucrow, born from the baddest of blood, stealing some mythological juju from Elvis, is a mute. Down amongst the canefields, he communes with the angel spirit of his dead twin, navigates the cruel hobos and his crueller, utterly broken parents, spies on the local, doomed prostitute and falls in love with a little girl the religiously delirious community are grooming for some special destiny.

Written with a few voices, it mainly stays with Euchrid. A boy who cannot speak, who has only read the Bible to give him a language. Obsession, God, death and an aching promise of some terrible violences hang over the narrative. Genuinely brilliant.

4. The Man Who by Reed Stephens (Stephen Donaldson)

Pretty much my favourite fantasy novels are the remarkable Thomas Covenenant books by Stephen Donaldson. Donaldson is famous for two things. Demanding empathy for very, very damaged and fraught and unlikeable characters and remarkable language. Monsters and spirits are anile and telic and spit formications. There's a great interview where he says that the words shape the story, the ideas exist to support the language. 

In The Man Who books, he takes a fairly basic noir set up. A former policeman who drunk a career away, with a tragic past. He's halfway in love with his tough partner. What makes it interesting though, is the same demands for empathy for even the lowest of low lives and, eased down, but nevertheless, still extravagant language. A private detective thinking in terms like exigent and despite seems to rattle at first but soon hits a unique groove.

Hitting up some interesting cases, a rivalry between two kung fu schools being my favourite, it's as interested in being faithful to literature as it is to the harboiled genre.

5. Slow Chocolate Autopsy by Iain Sinclair and Dave McKean

Norton is trapped in London. He can never leave. But his consolation is that London is eager to share it's past. And secrets.

This is not a crime novel. But nevertheless, its grim and strange and deals with the same passions as any other noir. I'm not the first person to note the landscape as an actor in Noir but that's an overt theme here. Sinclair is the master of psychogeography, discussing and exploring how locale effects the emotions and thoughts.

Norton is thrown into history and becomes involved with the Ripper murders, with the death of morbid playwright Marlowe, the old territories of William Blake through an underclass impoverish by centuries of aristocracy.

The book is broken up by both elegant design and comic scripts designed by Dave McKean, at the height of his powers. Unsentimental with it's characters, with sex, with murder. Historical with contempt for nostalgia, this is a bit hard to find but it will reward anyone who likes it lightless and uncomfortable. For those who like their sentences delicious and brutal. And for anyone who ever wandered London, battered by ghosts.

Christian Read is a writer of novels, comics, computer games and other things beside. As you read this, is he is probably drinking whisky and writing some more. Find more about the 'Lark Case Files' books Black City and Devil City.

 

Author Top 5s - Sophie Masson's Top 5 Urban Fantasies

In Author Top 5s I'm inviting a number of authors to share top 5 lists somehow related to the genre they write. They'll be discussing things they love and how they've been influenced by them. Should prove to be interesting and hopefully we'll all pick up a few recommendations of good stuff to check out.

Joining me today is the author I share my Momentum Books release day with (just a few days away now!), Sophie Masson. Sophie has stopped by to tell us her top 5 urban fantasy novels, I have to say that a few of these are my favourites as well, good choices Sophie!

 

Ever since I can remember, and long before I had a clue as to what urban fantasy was, I've always been attracted by the kind of story that mixes magic and the real world. Fairy tales, where you are just as likely to meet everyday characters like soldiers, woodcutters and farmers as supernatural ones like fairies and goblins, were my first childhood reading, followed very soon by books such as the Narnia series, which mixes trains and fauns, lamp-posts and witches, with happy unconcern, and I always looked for books like that. Growing up, I also liked a dash of the thriller and a spice of romance added to the brew as well—and that's persisted into my adult reading, when I discovered that what I loved might well be classified as 'urban fantasy'! Even if not all the settings are, ahem, urban in fact :)

1. Night Watch series by Sergei Lukyanenko

This amazing, gripping and unusual series of five books(so far!): Night Watch, Day Watch, Twilight Watch, Last Watch and New Watch—is my top urban fantasy series because not only has it given me huge pleasure as a reader, it has also influenced me greatly as a writer. 

The Russian author's depiction of a magical hidden Moscow, complete with vampires, wizards, shapeshifters, dastardly plots, where supernatural law and order is maintained by the twin forces of Light—the Night Watch-- and Dark—the Day Watch—bowled me over and made my already strong fascination with Russia even stronger. With fabulous plots, wonderful inventiveness, lively writing, vivid characters and lovely touches of humor, this is truly a gem of urban fantasy, one not to be missed! I might add that the books are way better than the films, which miss out on much of the books' lovely side-plots, character sketches and humor.

2. The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher

This is the American variety of the supernatural-law-and-order-force meme, only, unlike the collective counter-intelligence units of magical Moscow, magical Chicago makes do with Harry Dresden, private eye wizard extraordinaire, who with the help of his trusty or not so trusty sidekicks—a spirit called Bob who lives in a skull, a dog named Mouse, a grouchy cat named Mister, and a police contact, Karrin Murphy —has to solve any amount of supernatural skulduggery and keep warring forces apart. Like Lukyanenko's, this series has a lovely blend of action, adventure, mystery and humor. Fantastic escapist reading in the best sense of the term!

3. Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton

This series is one of the great classics of the genre, with the first book, Guilty Pleasures, coming out in 1993 and introducing Anita Blake, vampire hunter and consultant on all matters magical to the police. Anita cuts a swathe not only through various supernatural pests and solves magical crimes but also has a very busy and tumultuous love life. Combining romance, humor, action and mystery, this series, like the others above, creates a wonderfully-realised world that has attracted millions of fans.

4. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This amazing novel by one of the great masters of modern fantasy imagines what would happen if the ancestral gods and spirits of all the many diverse peoples who inhabit America had come along with them but then found themselves homeless and forgotten as the modern age progressed. The Old Gods live out shadow lives as drifters and grifters, con-men and bag-ladies. Meanwhile, new gods have arisen, who want to drive out and destroy the old. And so the stage is set for an epic confrontation—where nothing is quite what it seems. An extraordinary blend of adventure and philosophy, myth and realism, it's won numerous awards.

5. Wolfhound Century series by Peter Higgins

This fantastic series by a new British author is a bit of a ring-in, because very strictly speaking, it's not 'urban fantasy' as it is set in an alternative world. But that alternative world is so close to the real world, though a blend of different historical periods, that I think it's okay to have in this list. Plus, it's one of my great discoveries of the last year or so, and I just have to bring it to other readers' attention! This series, set in a city called Mirgorod, in a country called Vlast, is based on Russian history and culture—the world of the books feels like a blend of the pre-Revolutionary period of the early 1900's, and the late Stalinist period of the early 1950's.

But along with secret police, bomb-throwing terrorists, industrial machines, revolutionary conspiracies and strange scientific experiments, there are enslaved giants pulling vast vehicles, cities built from the bones of fallen angels, and spirits roaming the land. Centred around the tough, enigmatic secret policeman Vissarion Lom, the dangerous schemer Joseph Kantor and the girl Lom falls in love with, Maroussia Shaumian, this, dark, violent, but incredibly inventive series creates an unforgettable and pungent world. I've read the first—Wolfhound Century—and the second—Truth and Fear—and I can't wait for the third, Radiant State, which comes out next year!

Born in Indonesia of French parents, and brought up in Australia and France, Sophie Masson is the award-winning author of more than 60 novels for readers of all ages, published in Australia and many other countries. Her adult novels include the popular historical fantasy trilogy, Forest of Dreams (Random House Australia). Sophie has always had a great interest in Russian myth and history, an interest reflected in several of her books for younger readers. Her new adult novel, Trinity: Koldun Code (Momentum), is the first in an exciting urban fantasy series set in modern Russia.

I am in a world deeply strange and strangely deep, a world as different from my old life as it’s possible to be, and it feels completely natural.

An unexpected encounter with a handsome stranger in a Russian wood changes the life of 22-year-old traveler Helen Clement forever, catapulting her into a high-stakes world of passion, danger, and mystery. Tested in ways she could never have imagined, she must keep her own integrity in a world where dark forces threaten and ruthlessness and betrayal haunt every day.

Set against a rising tide of magic and the paranormal in a modern Russia where the terrifying past continually leaks into the turbulent present, Trinity is a unique and gripping blend of conspiracy thriller, erotically charged romance and urban fantasy, laced with a murderous dose of company politics. With its roots deep in the fertile soil of Russian myth, legend, and history, it is also a fascinating glimpse into an extraordinary, distinctive country and amazingly rich culture.

Author Top 5s - Jason Franks's Top 5 Horror Comics

In Author Top 5s I'm inviting a number of authors to share top 5 lists somehow related to the genre they write. They'll be discussing things they love and how they've been influenced by them. Should prove to be interesting and hopefully we'll all pick up a few recommendations of good stuff to check out.

We're still sticking with the horror theme today as we've got Jason Franks, fellow Melbourne author, comic writer and all-round good guy on to let us know his top 5 horror comics. Jason, you're up.

Horror is probably the biggest genre in Anglophone comics outside of the superhero mainstream, and has been so since the 1950s. From EC to Warren Publishing, from Steve Bissette's pioneering Taboo anthology to Alan Moore's early work at DC, from the Vertigo renaissance of the 1990 to today's market, where the Walking Dead and Attack on Titan are massive cross-media and phenomena, horror has always stood a bit taller in comics than it has in other media.

With so much history there are a lot of books to consider when trying to noodle out a list of essentials, but these are my five favourite horror comics. You should read them all.

5. The Sandman by Neil Gaiman and various. 

This is the book that got me reading comics. Sandman is an extended mediation on the nature and importance of dreams, and Gaiman's imagination proves quite vast enough to fill such a huge canvas. Brimming with literary allusions, the Sandman builds its mythology from every kind of horror story: serial killers, ghost stories, black magic, and demons, both personal and literal. Gaiman and his collaborators work all of these into a single coherent tapestry and it is a masterpiece. 

4. Preacher by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon

Garth Ennis takes on the church and the old west in this book about Jesse Custer, a fallen preacher who is gifted with the Word of God. Accompanied by his hitman girlfriend, Tulip, and the Irish vampire, Cassidy, Jesse makes it his mission to find God and hold him accountable for the state of the world. He is pursued by an undead gunslinger, the Saint of Killers, and the ruthless Herr Starr, who represents a mysterious organization known as the Grail. Oh, and then there's Arseface, a teenage boy who tried to kill himself like Kurt Cobain but succeeded only in blowing his own face off. Preacher is violent and blasphemous and depraved and hilarious. Steve Dillon is one of the best storytelling artists in comics, and while his style is not at all showy there are few who can match his ability to make his characters act. This book sits at #4 on this list of horror comics, but it's perhaps my personal favourite comic in any genre.

3. Hellblazer by various

The magician/con artist John Constantine graduated from Alan Moore's Swamp Thing to his own title and damn if it wasn't the best horror comic on the shelves for a very long time. My favourite stories are from Garth Ennis' run (yeah, him again), which is also the longest stint any writer has served on the title. In Garth's hands John takes initiative, rather than simply reacting to whatever supernatural danger crops up each month; running a confidence job on the rulers of Hell and masterminding the downfall of the angel Gabriel. But it's Constantine's conflict with the National Front--and ordinary bunch of racist assholes--that provides the moments of purest horror. Skip the movie; read the books.

2. From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

It's difficult to argue that there has been a more talented or influential comics writer in the English language than Alan Moore. I believe that From Hell, Moore’s account of Jack the Ripper, is his masterwork in the medium. I cannot imagine this comic illustrated by anybody but Eddie Campbell, whose textured, nervous artwork and crystal-clear storytelling give the book exactly the atmosphere it needs. The effect is visceral: the squalour of the victims’ lives, the stench of the London air, the terror of the Ripper's awful deeds lies thick on the pages. Rather than being a whodunit, this book is more interested in laying open the Ripper's crazed intellect and it does so with surgical precision. From Hell is perhaps the most important comic on this list and you should read it, regardless of your interest in the horror genre.

1. Uzumaki by Junji Ito

I have already identified the comic on this list that I consider my favourite. I’ve identified another which I think is the most important. So quality is it that that makes Uzumaki my #1 horror comic? Easy:

Uzumaki is fucking terrifying. 

Despite the prevalence of the horror genre in the medium, it is extremely difficult to imbue a comic with the pants-shitting terror that a good horror movie or novel is capable of inducing. This, I think, is because comics afford the reader more control of the pacing than they have of stories told in prose or film. In comics, unlike in film, the reader can suck in the images as quickly as they like. In comics, unlike in prose, the reader can follow the story without having to read every line. But none of this matters in Uzumaki.

Junji Ito controls your reading experience with utter mastery. He draws you out with suspense, twists you up with psychological horror, and then he obliterates you with perfectly executed visual shocks. Coupled with a genius for storytelling and a vision that is both original and unpredictable, Uzumaki is just not like anything you've read before. There is nobody who does pure horror comics better than Junji Ito, and Uzumaki is his finest work.

Jason Franks writes comics, prose and source code. His first novel, BLOODY WATERS, was short-listed for the 2012 Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel. He is the writer of the graphic novel THE SIXSMITHS and the short story collection UNGENRED.  Franks is currently working with artist Paul Abstruse on a horror comic series called LEFT HAND PATH.

Author Top 5s - Alan Baxter's Indispensable Horror Novels

In Author Top 5s I'm inviting a number of authors to share top 5 lists somehow related to the genre they write. They'll be discussing things they love and how they've been influenced by them. Should prove to be interesting and hopefully we'll all pick up a few recommendations of good stuff to check out.

First up we've got Alan Baxter, horror, dark fantasy and sci-fi author along with, kind of awesomely, a Kung Fu instructor. Alan's sharing with us his 5 indispensable horror novels. Perfect timing in the lead up to Halloween. Thanks Alan.

Justin asked if I’d like to contribute a “Top 5…” post for his blog. I responded that I simply can’t pick the 5 best of anything because my view will change from day to day. Hell, I can change my mind about items 1 to 3 by the time I get to item 4. But I said, “How about I give you a list of 5 indispensable horror novels? They may or may not be among the best, and it’s all subjective anyway, but they will be 5 horror novels that every fan of the genre absolutely should read.” Justin liked that idea, so here, in no particular order, are five horror novels you absolutely must read and why:

The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker

Barker has had more of an influence on me than any other writer. He’s probably my all-time favourite author. I received the highest praise ever recently when someone compared my latest novel, Bound, to Barker’s work. I preened about that for weeks. And this book is my favourite of his. It’s a tough call between this one and Cabal, in fact, but the story in this novel is epic. It’s an incredibly imaginative piece of work, with amazing ideas and scope and some truly frightening concepts at its core. Some might consider it a dark fantasy more than a horror, but for me those two genres bleed into each other so much that I rarely call a distinction between them.

At The Mountains of Madness by H P Lovecraft

Another author who has had a profound influence on my own writing, Lovecrcaft’s work is essential to the horror genre of today. This is actually a novella, but many of the best works in dark fiction are (like Cabal mentioned above and another Barker classic, The Hellbound Heart, which was made into the cult classic movie, Hellraiser.) At The Mountains of Madness is probably the most far-reaching of Lovecraft’s works in terms of its development of the man’s own mythos. It’s a tremendous example of something that is still directly influencing writers to this day. Lovecraft’s descriptive prose, while florid and overblown a lot of the time, is still among the best in the business. And he always makes us small and insignificant in the face of his horrors.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

This novel is a subject lesson in creeping, subtle horror. Jackson builds a situation with such amazing characters, not least of which is the house itself, and imbues it all with such a masterful sense of unease that you often forget you’re reading a horror story and wonder why you’re so unsettled. Her short fiction is also essential reading – she really is one of the best writers any genre has ever seen.

It by Stephen King

This is the book that made me sleep with the light on for a week as a teenager and confirmed my sure conviction that clowns are just fucked in every way. King displays his talents for characterisation better in this story than any other, I think, and builds a truly terrifying sequence of events. It has to be said that King almost always falls over with endings – he’s truly rubbish at them and the end of this book, the big reveal, is lamer than a duck with both legs cut off. Which is a bloody shame. However, everything until just before the end is so amazing, you need to read it anyway. King is an incredible writer, even if he does drop the ball at the end so often.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Still one of my favourite books ever. If you’ve only seen the film with Wil Smith, kick yourself hard in a soft spot right now. That film is a travesty and it craps all over what this book is actually about. The film utterly misses the point of the very title of the godsdamned story. This book (another that’s more novella than novel, really, by today’s standards) is simply brilliant. The world Matheson builds and the course the protagonist takes is so eloquently drawn that you don’t question a single word of it. And the ending is absolute genius. They’ve never done a good job of filming this (even with at least three attempts that I know of) so you absolutely must read the book.

So there you go. And I’ve already thought of five more indispensable novels, but thankfully Justin only wanted five, so I’ll stick with those above. I could probably do a list of fifty or more if necessary. The horror genre is amazingly diverse and enthralling. And don’t be fooled by the word horror and only think of blood and slasher movies. Of course there is blood and death in the novels above, but not one of them is cheap shock and gore. Every one is an amazing example of writing, character, story and varying degrees of creeping dread. I hope you enjoy them!

Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author who writes dark fantasy, horror and sci-fi, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. He is the author of the dark urban fantasy trilogy, Bound, Obsidian and Abduction (The Alex Caine Series) published by HarperVoyager Australia, and the dark urban fantasy duology, RealmShift and MageSign (The Balance 1 and 2) from Gryphonwood Press. He co-authored the short horror novel, Dark Rite, with David Wood. Alan also writes short fiction with more than 50 stories published in a variety of journals and anthologies in Australia, the US, the UK and France. His short fiction has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction (forthcoming), Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Postscripts, and Midnight Echo, among many others, and more than twenty anthologies, including the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror (2010 and 2012). He has twice been a finalist in the Ditmar Awards. He lives among dairy paddocks on the  beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia, with his wife, son, dog and cat. Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website – www.warriorscribe.com – or find him on Twitter @AlanBaxter and Facebook, and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.