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The Year in Writing 2024

It’s New Year’s Eve 2023 (around 8am) which means it’s the ideal time for me to do my traditional recap of my writing efforts over the year.

The routine

I’ve already recapped the first half of the year right here, so I won’t retread that old ground suffice to say that things have mostly slipped into routine again but I do still need to nail down a proper writing schedule / habit / whatever. For the latter half of 2023 I more or less accepted that I was going to be able to write in the mornings on alternating weeks (for reasons that are far too domestic to bore you with here). While I did find a couple of suitable spots in my workplace I never truly settled on a single, ideal location—it didn’t help that sometimes other people had the audacity to already be sitting in the publically available location that I had preselected for my morning’s writing. People, eh?

So, while I got writing done during the year there was a continual distraction revolving around finding the right place to sit and write, or having to find an alternative place depending on the whims of the rest of the human race.

One thing I did find happening was the occasional urge to write in the evenings: something of a problem given I’d gotten rid of my writing desk. I considered a few possibilities, including writing at my main PC in the front room (oddly, I’ve never felt that comfortable writing on the PC; likely because there’s too much scope for distraction—something that doesn’t happen so much with the ipad). In the end the best solution appeared to be a slight rearrangement of the bedroom (really, the only place sufficiently free of interruption for me to write in) and the purchase of a suitably small desk that wouldn’t prove an obstruction. 

After a fair bit of research (and the disappointing lack of availability of what would have been the perfect desk) I settled for a small 60x40cm desk (my purchase decision helped by a healthy discount) and that’s what I’m writing at right now. 

If you noted the time at the top of this post you might have already concluded that I’m using this desk for morning writing as well. I’ve tried it out for the last couple of days and, yes, it looks like doing my morning writing before I leave for work may, again, be the best option. We do have some incoming changes to the household morning routine next year (primarily two kids starting high school) so flexibility is going to remain the order of the day for at least a few months yet.

The writing

As per 2022 I opted not to record my word counts in the traditional spreadsheet. I’m still reasonably happy with this approach, though not fully committed, and plan to continue not doing this for 2024. The disadvantage is that I lose the quick at-a-glance reference for all of my writing over the year, but the plus side is that I won’t punish myself when I see how (potentially) low my word counts were.

Starting with a brief summary:

  • Stories finished: 6
  • Stories started: 4

One of the major issues with Scrivener (my preferred writing tool) is that it doesn’t provide a revision history, so I get no visibility of the various dates and times that I might have worked on a story. That being noted, I’m fairly certain that all of these stories were started this year, so I’m pretty happy with that output.

Finished stories

Four of those finished stories would count as fan-fiction, inspired separately by Alien, The Thing, The Terminator and an episode of Cabinet of Curiosities on Netflix. During the earlier part of the year I found myself needing to write, but lacking the focus to properly develop new stories and characters so dabbling in pre-established universes helped take some of that load off. You can read three of these stories by following the links below:

The Terminator story is part of a planned collection (as outlined in my earlier blog post). There will be five stories—at least that’s the current plan—and I hope to wrap this project up (and release all the stories together) early in 2024. 

Of the two other stories one was an unplanned tale inspired by a Magritte painting. It’s predictable, but entertaining and you can read it by following the link below.

The Lover

The final story was, I believe, inspired by a book I read at the end of last year about the cosmos (The Universe in Your Hand by Christophe Galfard- very good, go and read it if that’s your sort of thing). I’m holding this one back as it’s probably the only story I’ve written this year that is actually submittable for publication anywhere. We’ll see …

Unfinished stories

Of the four unfinished stories, only one of them has been worked on with any degree of earnestness. This is the story I mentioned in my mid-year post about an explorer who discovers a deeply buried secret about the origin of his society. It’s ended up being two stories mashed together and has required a greater degree of world-building than I’m typically used to. And, because I need to make things as hard as possible I’ve opted to tell it using a non-linear narrative with the last half of the story being told backwards. You can probably blame all of the Christopher Nolan films I’ve watched this year for that.

I have written a reasonable chunk of this one and it’s my next writing priority, so keep your fingers crossed that I can pull this one off.

The other three stories were all random ideas that popped up during the year and I’ll share the prompts that got me started on these for your entertainment:

  • what if being ‘wishlisted’ meant something sinister? what if you were being wishlisted? and for what?
  • what if there was a literal price for death? a cost associated with every death that you cause, whether deliberate or accidental? (this one very much inspired by the movie In Time, which is pretty good!)
  • two people hunting each other across a remote planet, neither remembering why (this is the same story I referenced in my previous blog post)

Other projects and novels

I have three other projects that remain very close to my heart, and which I would also like to make progress on in 2024 (somehow this post has shifted from 2023 reflection into a 2024 resolution!)

My collection of short stories linked together by the end of the universe is still very much on the front burner. I mostly need to organise what I’ve done already and work out where the gaps are so I can plan to get those bits written.

The completed novel. Yes, I did complete a novel a year or two ago. While I’m 95% happy with it, I still want to do a final edit before I attempt to send it out. I enjoy editing, but I’m mindful that time spent editing is time not spent writing so I need to be wary of falling into an editing hole for weeks on end.

The sci-fi novel. I wrote about half of a sci-fi novel a few years back. The idea of it keeps on popping back onto my head demanding to be finished. I stalled on this one due to a few small issues with plot logistics, but those are mostly solved now so it’s just a case of refreshing my plans for it and knuckling down. Maybe something for the latter half of next year?

And that’s it! Tune in during 2024 for inevitable updates and wish me luck. In return, I wish you all the best for your writing endeavours or wherever your hobbies or passions take you in 2024.

A menagerie of Things

At some point in the recent past I was struck with an urge to read Who Goes There?, the John W. Campbell novella that inspired one of my favourite movies, The Thing. I can’t recall where that urge came from—maybe it was nothing more than a desire to read something new and yet also familiar—but it was suddenly very important that I read it. Unfortunately it turned out that I did not, in fact, own a copy of Who Goes There? nor could I find a sufficiently cheap copy online that would arrive quick enough to scratch the itch.

What I did have, I soon remembered, was an ebook of Frozen Hell, the original version of Campbell’s novella which I had picked up through Kickstarter several years earlier. This version had been discovered among Campbell’s papers some years after his death. By all accounts it is largely the same as the eventual published version, the inclusion of three introductory chapters being the major difference from the novella.

Reading this triggered something of a descent into a rabbit hole during which I read almost everything Thing-related that I could get my hands on and—because this is how things work—my thoughts on all of them are below!

Frozen Hell

Frozen Hell book cover

You can read more about the backstory to this version of Campbell’s novel here. My completism doesn’t quite extend to needing to read the published version as well, so I consider it to be an acceptable substitute for Who Goes There? By all accounts it’s essentially the same piece of work: just a little longer and lacking a handful of edits. 

It was an interesting experience reading something hailing from the ‘Golden Age’ of American science fiction and I came away with two main thoughts:

  1. People really don’t write like this anymore (duh), and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
  2. Given the huge stylistic differences, there is a surprising amount of commonality with John Carpenter’s movie here.

On the first point this is really about the way that narrative styles have evolved over the last hundred years or so, veering away from a sense of artifice and drama towards something more naturalistic. Campbell’s characters are, nevertheless, very human—they react in predictable ways to the fact that there’s a creature among them that might not only kill them but destroy the entire world—but there were still moments that I found odd. Characters would often laugh or giggle, which seemed jarring given the situation they’re in. At other times they would come across as almost too blase. 

Furthermore, while Campbell’s descriptive writing is superb, there was an awful lot of talking—and I’m talking primarily about expository dialogue here. Despite the brevity of the tale, and the leanness of the plot, the narrative is very dense and I had the sense of having to wade through it to get to the end even though this is really a very short and enjoyable read.

Given the above, it was a pleasant surprise to discover quite how much Bill Lancaster had taken from the original novella when writing his screenplay for Carpenter’s adaptation. I’m not going to go into spoiler territory here, but a lot of the tentpoles are already in place—the blood test; the doctor going insane; the shape-changing. While Lancaster undeniably used Campbell’s blueprint and turned it into something fresh and new, it’s immediately clear that he took far more than just the basic concept from the novella.

The Adaptations

I’m not going to talk much about the 1982 version of The Thing; partly because there’s already so much written about it out there, but also because it’s such a part of my cinephile DNA that I’m not sure I can say anything objective about it at this point.

The Thing From Another World 1950 movie poster

What I can talk about instead is the Howard Hawks 1951 movie The Thing From Another World (which I will note was directed by Christian Nyby, but almost everyone considers it to be a Hawks movie). I had seen this movie before (as in several decades ago) but I purposefully rewatched it before writing this blog post because I am at least that much of a completist.

It’s a pretty good movie, albeit not one I would personally regard as essential viewing. It’s a surprisingly loose adaptation. Again, there are moments from the book—the discovery and subsequent blowing up of the spaceship; the creature’s first encounter involving dogs—but it mostly goes off in its own direction. One major change is the monster which, due to special effects limitations of the day, is just a man in a suit rather than the shape-changing terror of the novella. This is a shame in my view: I think the very same limitations would have produced a truly tense drama had they opted to retain the ‘trust no one’ foundation of the novella. One thing they did do, however, was work in a pretty clever way to ensure that the alien (despite being reduced to a simple monster) still posed a global threat.

Characterisation was once again interesting. A lot of work had clearly been put into the interpersonal relationships between some of the (large cast of) characters, but this again resulted in some unusual moments of levity. There’s a clear excess of joviality in some scenes given the likelihood of death and global extinction lurking around the corner. I’m not sure if this was a holdover from the novel, or simply the film-makers’ choice. 

One final thing that stood out is the frequency of scenes where characters would talk over each other—a naturalistic choice that was likely heralded by Orson Welles with 1941’s Citizen Kane, but which wouldn’t become a common dramatic choice for many more years to come. (Note: I have since been advised that it was His Girl Friday, released a year before Citizen Kane, that introduced overlapping dialogue. Given that was also a Howard Hawks’ film, it makes perfect sense that the technique would also be used here.)

Short Things

Short Things book cover

One interesting companion piece included within the Frozen Hell Kickstarter was Short Things, a short story collection inspired by the original novel (not, I repeat, not by the Carpenter movie or its 1951 predecessor). Most of the stories were pretty good fun, especially the opener by Alan Dean Foster which efficiently undoes the ‘happy’ ending of the novel. There are various direct follow ons and some more tangentially related tales. Most baffling was a story by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro which offered some fascinating ideas but seemed to have no relation to The Thing, and then simply stopped. Whatever that one was supposed to be, I’d love to read the rest of it! 

I wouldn’t say this collection is an essential read but it’s definitely a fun one so long as you’re familiar with the John W. Campbell inspiration.

The Return Of The Thing (TV Miniseries)

The Thing 1982 poster

What TV miniseries I hear you ask? Well, in 2005 there was lots of buzz around a proposed TV sequel (to John Carpenter’s movie) to be aired on the Sci-Fi channel. This eventually evaporated into nothing but through my Thing rabbit-hole I found a copy of the script!

… which was not great.

Had it been made it would have possibly been entertaining, but it would more likely have been terrible. The script reads as though the one takeaway the writer got from the 1982 movie was the idea that the creature can change into other lifeforms. The logic surrounding when and why the creature would do this is barely thought through and mostly seems to be there as an excuse to have a special-effects set-piece or action scene at regular intervals. There’s the kernel of a good story revolving around a remote US town succumbing to alien possession but with this setup there’s always the risk of simply repeating the Carpenter movie, or ending up retelling Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. In any case, any opportunity to recreate the paranoid dread of Carpenter’s movie is undermined at almost every opportunity by relatively illogical twists for the sake of having a twist.

A fun read, but I’m generally relieved this didn’t get made.

The Thing (2011)

The Thing 2011 movie poster

I’m likely in a minority of people who think that the 2011 prequel was not bad, although I’m far from alone in finding it almost completely ruined by the needless inclusion of CGI effects (which were used to replace the practical effects painstakingly created for the film in honour of its 1982 inspiration).

I chose not to rewatch the film on this occasion, but I did find a copy of Ronald D Moore’s original script. Now, my main complaint with the movie is that the occasions when the Thing reveals itself don’t always make sense. There’s a certain logic to Carpenter’s movie (and Lancaster’s script) wherein the creature will only expose itself if it either has an opportunity to imitate someone new (i.e. they’re alone) or if it’s threatened and the game is up. This logic is sometimes followed in the 2011 movie, but there are also several moments where it seems the creature is shown purely because the script demanded a set-piece.

To the best of my memory, the first half of the script is somewhat different than the movie, but once the Thing shows up it’s effectively the same plot, which is disappointing since this is where most of the issues are. Unlike Return Of The Thing, there is a good sense of paranoia and distrust which drives the latter sections of the narrative, but it is somewhat hobbled by needing to work as an authentic prequel to Carpenter’s movie.

I did not reread the Dark Horse comics for this. I recall being quite excited about them when they were first announced in the early 1990s but lost interest in them quite quickly due to the same lack of narrative consistency that plagued most of the attempted sequels described above. I understand there’s also a sequel novel to Who Goes There? in the works but I don’t plan to rush out and read that. I suspect The Thing is best left to rest (having already produced a genre-defining novel, a science-fiction classic, and an iconic sci-fi horror movie) but given the obvious franchise appeal I’m sure we’ll see more stories or movies sooner or later.

One more Thing

Actually, two more things. 

First, I wanted to give a quick plug to the awesome short story The Things by Peter Watts, which tells the story of The Thing (the 1982 version) from the perspective of the creature. A great read, which was nominated for a Hugo among various other accolades.

Also, in the process of reading all of the above my mind inevitably started pondering various other narrative threads and I found myself thinking “how does a creature like the Thing come into being?” Well, if you want to read what I came up with then check out my short story Imitations Of Life, which you can read for the high price of nothing over on my Slightly Odd Tales site.

Writing update: June 2023

In which I discuss my lack of writing updates …

So, without turning this into too much of a journal type post: it’s not been the most productive start to the year, But it’s fine. I remarried at the end of 2022 and the priority since then has been settling our new merged (double yolk) family (me, my wife, and four – count’em! – four kids). Plus we added a puppy to the mix and Puppywatch took up many of the scraps of spare time that were left for a while (albeit in the cutest way). The good news is the puppy needs less and less direct supervision by the day and the merged family is settling well, so I’ve recently been able to get back into something of a writing routine.

I mentioned a puppy, therefore there must be an obligatory puppy photo …

Inevitably with a big life change like this there are ripple effects and my writing routine was one of the things temporarily caught in the wake. For the last several years I’ve written at a small desk in my bedroom for about 40 minutes each day before leaving for work. However, with twice as many people sharing the house now, the environment is just a little too disruptive for me to be able to focus properly. The [obvious] solution ended up being to leave the house early and find somewhere else to write before starting work for the day. Fortunately I work in a university, which has numerous spots that are conducive to activities such as writing and study and, after trying out various locations, I found the one that worked best for me was [less obviously] a table near the canteen area of our library’s main study level. For various reasons, I’m now writing on alternate weeks but the main thing is that I have a routine again, which means I can get back into some of my writing projects.

I have two main projects that I’m hoping to focus on for now (well, three if you count finding an agent to help me get my novel published). I also have several short stories that I’m in the middle of working on—none of which have anything to do with the above-mentioned projects: I’m nothing if not all over the place.

The main project is one I alluded to in my last post: a collection of stories based around a common plot point: that plot point being the end of the universe. I’ve always wanted to write a collection of short stories that fit together into a larger whole—where each story stands on its own, but you also get something of an overarching beginning, middle, and end—and it seems that this particular idea of people on different worlds facing the impending end of existence in their different ways is The One. I have a few of the stories in the bag already, as well as a decent grasp on major ‘plot’. For the rest I have a shortlist of story prompts (13, including stories already completed) to work from. Maybe this one can reach fruition sometime next year.

Naturally I have been distracted from this project by various other ideas along the way. The second potential project is a short set of stories that might be considered “What If …?” tales inspired by the first Terminator movie. I watched Terminator: Dark Fate in the recentish past (a perfectly good Terminator movie that was perhaps a little too bogged down in the franchise’s iconography) and it prompted me to wonder: how do you tell a fresh story when the original is so effectively self-contained. And how do you avoid—unlike almost every spin-off and sequel— having it revolve around yet another terminator going back to a different point in time.

In the end I came up with three or four ideas that proved interesting enough that they wanted to be turned into stories. I’ve started one of them, but I’m currently debating whether I have this collection openly based on Terminator (and its characters); or whether I change the names and make the source of inspiration a little more vague. I’m leaning towards the latter but since these stories will be pretty transparently based on Terminator (and the reading will likely be more satisfying if you know that) I’ll likely just end up publishing them on my blog (as fanfic) rather than trying to do anything else with them.

And this leaves the two other stories that I’m working on, which I can talk even less about. One is a simple tale of an astronaut stranded on an alien planet with something hunting them—this is my ‘easy’ story that I return to when my mental capacity isn’t really up to solving major plot riddles. The other is a more complex tale about someone uncovering a dark secret from their civiliation’s past. This has been quite a challenge to develop but it’s been a lot of fun discovering the twists and turns of the plot. While I haven’t written a word on this one since last year, I did come up with an interesting twist to take me through the next section of the story which I’m really looking forward to writing.

(Author’s note: I had completely forgotten about these two stories until I came back to edit this blog post, which I started back in February – talk about getting distracted!!)

And then there’s also that unfinished science-fiction novel …

Anyway, there we go: a few projects on the boil, a lot of distractions, and limited capacity to get stuck into them, but I take the view that having some limits on my available time for writing means that I will be a bit more disciplined about taking up the opportunities that do fall across my path, and making the best use of them. Check back in a month or so to see how well that’s going …

Writing Update 2022

2022 was a comparatively big writing year for me: I had two stories published, finished a novel, and started another major writing project. It was also the first year (since I started writing regularly) that I didn’t routinely record my writing stats in a spreadsheet. This is because I, apparently, forgot to set up my spreadsheet for 2022 and not the result of some bold change in my psychological writing strategy. I did, however, jot down most of my writing stats in a notebook which means I still have some data to reflect on.

Broadly speaking (and I can’t easily compare 2022’s stats to previous years) my writing output was probably a bit less than it could have been. It was a weird year, and building more structure and discipline around my writing is a definite goal for 2023. That said, in addition to finishing the aforementioned novel, I also wrote seven new short stories (one of which was published), finished one that I started in 2021, and started three additional stories. That’s not bad.

The Stories

I had the pleasure of seeing one of my earlier stories, The Doorman, published in the Fourth Corona Book of Horror—which you can acquire at all good booksellers should you be curious. I also wrote a story specifically for the Camp Slasher Lake anthology and was delighted to have it selected for publication. You can buy a copy of Camp Slasher Lake Volume 2, which features Disassembler: The Revenge Of Billy Burns as its opening story, on the Fedowar Press website. While I also had three other stories rejected (two of which were shortlisted) by other publications, I’m still happy that my stories are slowly getting out there.

I self-published two new stories on my fiction blog, Slightly Odd Tales. The first is a Halloween-themed tale called Mr Farroway’s Cakes, which I challenged myself to write quite late in October. The second is a Christmas story, The Feast of Christmas, which is the 2021 story that I finished up late this year. I also published a handful of older stories to the blog over the course of the year.

Of the remaining stories that I worked on last year, two were random ideas that simply demanded to be written: one was inspired after watching Terminator: Dark Fate (a perfectly decent sequel which, coincidentally, ‘stole’ an idea I had years ago and never got around to writing concerning the domestic life of a Terminator after it completes its mission). The second story was a technology-related idea I’ve had bouncing around for several years and which, it seems, finally gestated this year—an expression which makes the writing process sound really quite strange and Cronenbergian, so don’t expect me to use that again.

I finished two other stories (and started two more) which were loosely based around a common theme. I’ve long wanted to write a themed short story collection, my original idea being to write a novel where each chapter also works as a standalone short story. That idea hasn’t … germinated, yet. However, something did come up which I’ll probably elaborate separately on in a separate blog post later in the year. For now, as they say, watch this space.

The Writing

In terms of the writing itself—as in, sitting down and actually writing words—I noticed two clear trends in my behaviour this year. The first is that when I do have a clear idea of a story, or a clearly defined project to work on (such as editing my novel) I can be satisfyingly productive. While my average writing session (a 30-35 minute session every morning) yielded around 500 words, there were some days where I drew comfortably close to 1,000 words. Ideally I’d like to get back to my previous average of around 700 words per session, but I still work on the basis that writing any words is better than writing no words.

The second thing I noticed (and which mostly explains the first) was a tendency to get distracted. I will frequently have to stop while writing and let my mind wander ahead through the plot so I know what to write next. In those spaces I found that I kept picking up my phone and getting distracted. The other day I deliberately left my phone out of reach (which will be part of the strategy going forward) and instead picked up a book that was sitting on my desk. While the resolution to this will largely come from self-discipline, I have ordered Johann Hari’s book, Stolen Focus, so I can hopefully better understand why this is happening.

A further element of this comes from my tendency not to overplot my stories—I always come to the blank page with an overall idea of the shape of the story (the main plot, the major events, the pace and tempo, sometimes even a beginning and an end) but it can take me a while to find the story. Some of them come out almost fully-formed, others I go back and forth on until I’ve found the right characters and tone of voice (and a few never quite get there). This can be fun, but it also means a lot more opportunities for me to sit there, stare into space, and get distracted. So, for next year I’m going to look at introducing a little more planning to my work. If all I do is get to the point where I can get up each morning and know exactly what I need to write, then that will count as job done.

Obviously I don’t have the whole year mapped out yet, but I know that my first goal will be structuring this short story project. I’m sure I will get distracted along the way with other tales that demand to be written, but let’s see how this goes for starters.

The Future

I will continue tracking my word counts this year, but in a change to the process I’m going to update my spreadsheet each morning when I finish my writing session. Previously I have scribbled my updates into a convenient notepad and have then, at some laborious point later in the year, transcribed them into my spreadsheet. This just makes the job harder than it needs to be and means I’ve sometimes forgotten what I was working on (especially if my notes aren’t up to scratch). It’s also useful for me to make additional notes if there’s a reason why I haven’t written on a particular day, or have written less than expected.

I’m also thinking of doing monthly writing updates (like this one) for no reason other than it’s a useful way for me to reflect on my progress (and process) and look at what might need changing.

I’m on the fence about whether I should submit more stories. For the most part I just write what I want to write, and not with any particular publication goal in mind. In 2022 I wrote two stories specifically for submission opportunities: one got published and one did not (though I’m very happy with the resulting story).

However, if I’m not going to submit stories regularly then I really need to put more effort into the self-publishing side of things (mostly promotion) which is a lot of work … especially for an introvert like me.

So we’ll see …

Kingterval: Into Thin Air

(12-19 September 2022)

Despite having ‘owned’ Into Thin Air on Kindle for several years, and despite the heavy acclaim surrounding it, it’s taken me until this year to get around to reading Jon Krakauer’s account of his fateful Everest expedition. What ultimately prompted this was a recent episode of Tim Harford’s very excellent Cautionary Tales podcast—not an episode about Everest, but rather a short series of episodes covering Scott’s infamously doomed expedition to the Antarctic. I came away from that fascinated by the extremes some people put themselves through and keen to read more. While I was unable to find a book about Scott and the Antarctic that sufficiently appealed to me I did eventually stumble across that copy of Into Thin Air waiting patiently in my library and thought ‘ah!’

Now, mountaineering and/or climbing is not something that’s ever appealed to me. Not even a teeny bit. I’m not a particularly physical person and I also have what may be either mild vertigo or a realistic fear of falling to my death from a great height. So, yes, climbing is generally off my hobby list. I can sort of understand how some people get satisfaction from pushing their limits and conquering the unconquerable, but the thing that genuinely surprised me while reading Into Thin Air is how absolutely fucking miserable it all sounds.

That said, the author does make it reasonably clear that climbing Everest is unlike most other climbing expeditions he’s embarked upon. There’s a long journey simply to get to the base of Everest (not base camp: just the bottom of the mountain). There are huge costs involved, starting with the visa you need to buy before you will be allowed climb the mountain. Then there’s the acclimatisation, which takes place over several weeks and, judging by its depiction in this book, is among the more gruelling and debilitating processes one can voluntarily put one’s body through. Finally, there’s the climb itself, which judging by this account seems like a constant gamble against time. Can you make it to the top before the weather turns on you? Can you make it back down again before your body grows too frozen and exhausted to move?

The origin of this book comes from a journalist (and experienced climber) being commissioned to climb Everest for a magazine article. The reason it ended up being a book at all is because of the events that took place on the mountain during that particularly brutal expedition. There is some element of retrospect, but this book mostly puts us in the midst of an unfolding tragedy and introduces us to many of the people that it will claim. The author outlines a lot of contributing factors (and doesn’t avoid pointing the finger at himself at times) but at the end of the day this is another strangely compelling story about humans challenging nature and losing.


While not an adaptation of this book, the 2015 movie Everest depicts the same events. I could probably do with watching it again as I recall it being a perfectly competent movie but maybe I’ll get more from it a second time around, having now read an alternative account.

Oddly enough, though, reading this book makes me want to rewatch a completely different and, admittedly, pretty terrible movie about mountaineering: Vertical Limit. It’s dumb and it’s good fun. I hate it and I love it.

One movie I did end up checking out in the wake of reading Into Thin Air was the documentary Free Solo, which follows Alex Honnold’s bid to climb the 3,000 feet vertical rock face of El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, without the benefit of ropes or safety equipment of any kind.

As one of the reviewers on IMDB accurately states: “by far one of the best horror films I have ever seen.”

The Reading

Considering this was an impulse read, it was an agreeably swift and engaging one. Jon Krakuaer delivers some fine writing to help convey the experience and the narrative comes with the grim compulsion to keep turning the page and find out what terrible thing is going to happen next. If it’s your sort of thing, then it’s an easy recommendation.

Kingterval: Doctor Who novelisations

(July 2 – 12)

If you were a Doctor Who fan in the 1970s or 1980s there’s a near 100% chance you’ll be familiar with the Target novelisations that were, back in the dark ages, the only way for fans to revisit older Doctor Who adventures. As a major Who fan I used to collect and read these pocket sized books endlessly, and some of them remain imprinted on my memory even now. When one of the series’ most prolific authors, Terrance Dicks, died a while back it’s not for nothing that many people talked about the impact he had on children’s literacy back in the day.

Cut ahead to 2016: the newly revived TV series has been going strong for more than a decade already and BBC Books make the awesome decision to revive the old Target brand and reissue a select handful of seven of these original novels complete, in an essential step with the original artwork. Several more reissues followed over ensuing years and we eventually started to see novelisations of some new series stories, which was tremendously exciting.

I have a modest collection of about 80 of the original novels, so naturally I’ve been adding these new releases to my collection as they emerge. However, it wasn’t until recently that I thought maybe, perhaps, I could consider  reading some of these books that I keep buying. Radical idea, I know, but bear with me. To be honest it was more out of idle curiosity than a genuine commitment that I picked Dalek, by Robert Shearman, off the shelf. This one drew me on account of Robert Shearman being a writer that one of my good friends rates highly so it seemed a good place to start. 

Obviously I’d already seen the episode that the novelisation is based on, so I was pretty impressed to find that the first chapter bore absolutely no relation whatsoever to anything I had seen on screen and, adding further intrigue, it wasn’t immediately clear how it would eventually tie into the story. I needed to read more!

In keeping with the original Target novels, Dalek was an enjoyably swift read. However, unlike those old novelisations which often skewed very close to the televised story (sometimes to a fault) Shearman makes a few changes here and there and, perhaps most impressively, gives a detailed backstory to almost every speaking character in the story.

I enjoyed Dalek so much I decided to pick another one to read right away and went with Stephen Moffatt’s novelisation of his own 50th anniversary story Day Of The Doctor. This was a chunkier book than Dalek, but it’s one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had in years. Moffatt does some incredibly clever and funny things with his story and gives it a whole new lease of life in written form. I could write about this one for reams, but rather than do that I will urge you to read it if you have even the vaguest interest in Doctor Who. It’s like reading a Douglas Adams novel, but one with an actual plot.

For my final reading choice (because things always have to come in threes) I went with Russell T Davies’ novelisation of his triumphant first episode for New Who, Rose. Of all the books this one is closest to the original Target style, but still adds depth and backstory that you would rarely find in those old novelisations. Released 15 years after the episode first aired (15 years!! What even is time???) one of the most entertaining features about this book is how Russell T Davies manages to include all sorts of callbacks (call forwards?) to events and characters that would appear much, much later in the series. It’s a lovely way of tying this (re)introductory story into the glorious future that Davies would shepherd the revived series towards.

Adaptations …?

So this section is a bit backwards this time given that the books themselves are adaptations of the original TV episodes. However, in keeping with the house style I still feel obliged to include brief mentions of the televisual counterparts here.

Clearly Dalek was one of the more exciting debut episodes of the new series (new Doctor, new series, and the Daleks were back!). It’s a solid episode. I remember at the time thinking how strange it was hearing a Dalek that was more than a monosyllabic monster but, of course, it didn’t take long for them to fall back into their old ways.

Even more hyped was Day Of The Doctor. At the time I was a little underwhelmed; perhaps I was expecting more fan service. Over subsequent rewatches I’ve come away thinking it’s easily among the best episodes that New Who has delivered.

Finally, Rose. Could there possibly have ever been a more anticipated episode of Doctor Who. Rose, in my view, absolutely nailed it. It’s a vision of Doctor Who that never could have happened in the original run, but was absolutely what the show needed to bring it up to date and make it work for both new and old audiences. I have my gripes with some of Davies’ later episodes, but I will forever bring him credit for bringing Who back and making it work.

The Reading

Not a whole lot to add here. I read Dalek over two nights. Day Of The Doctor took a bit longer (perhaps four nights) but was one of those books I only reluctantly put down when sleep beckoned. Rose, I think, was a three-nighter.

And all were thoroughly enjoyable!

Revisiting King: Needful Things

7 March – 8 May

I fittingly reach the end of my current stage of Stephen King rereads with a novel that marked the end of a certain phase of Stephen King’s career—or, specifically, the end of a certain home for his tales. Needful Things, first published in 1991, was heavily marketed as being the final Castle Rock novel: the tale in which he would destroy, once and for all, the small American town in which many of his novels and stories had been set. Cinephiles may also recognise it as the name of Rob Reiner’s production company (Reiner having directed Stand By Me, which is chronologically the earliest Castle Rock tale if I’m not mistaken).

For me, the most interesting thing about Needful Things is the position it takes in Stephen King’s life and career. As such, both the start and end points for the second stage of my Revisiting King reread project were carefully selected and encompass the following five novels.

Right here we have what would have almost certainly been the most tumultuous phase of Stephen King’s life had a certain van driver not been paying more attention to the road a few years later. It’s no secret anymore that King was an alcoholic, and also had the money for a decent cocaine habit. Given this framing, it’s fitting that one of his earliest Castle Rock novels, Cujo, is the one that he famously has no memory of writing. However, we’re jumping ahead of ourselves a little here. Or maybe backwards.

You see, Stephen King never set out to be a horror writer: he just happened to end up writing horror stories that sold really, really well. He broke the mould to an extent with his Dark Tower series, but his first mainstream attempt to dabble in another genre, The Eyes Of The Dragon, was (reportedly) not well accepted by fans. King promptly followed this up with Misery, a story about a writer who endures horrific abuse after trying to end a popular series of novels so he can concentrate on the less popular works that he actually wants to write. Along the way he becomes addicted to painkillers. It doesn’t exactly sound unfamiliar.

His next novel, The Tommyknockers—a tale of insidious alien invasion—seems something of an outlier … until you read it and realise that it’s all about the people of Haven becoming hooked on a form of alien influence and losing their sense of responsibility as they become more and more powerful, and wreak more and more damage on those around them. As an analogy for being drunk it’s pretty on the nose.

It was in the wake of this novel that King’s wife, Tabitha, intervened and King finally sought help for his addictions. I’ve read conflicting reports on whether The Dark Half or Needful Things is the first book he wrote while sober, but both bring a deep sense of purging with their narratives. The Dark Half (as you’ll almost certainly be aware) echoes Misery in its story of a writer trying to rid himself of a far more successful pen-name / alter-ego. Like Paul Sheldon, Thad Beaumont finds that some facets of his life are not so easily buried. Literally. Symbolically, this reflected some of King’s experiences surrounding the decision to finish off his own pseudonym, Richard Bachman—yet another aspect of King’s life and career that had recently been excised.

So finally we come to Needful Things (which acts as a slight continuation of The Dark Half in that it features one of the main characters from that novel and refers back to its events on occasion). In Needful Things, the citizens of Castle Rock are beset upon by Leland Gaunt, a devilish figure who offers each person who visits his shop the thing they desire most in the world … all in return for a simple favour. It is the nature of these favours that eventually tears the town apart, but only because of the obsessive, hypnotic—and, one would say, addictive—effect these objects of desire have on their owners.

For me Needful Things represents King tearing down one of his final crutches: a familiar, cosy setting for his stories—a place that needs little establishment or introduction. A home. We’ve already seen him attempt to move away from the financially secure trapping of the horror genre. We’ve seen him put a less successful pseudonym to rest. Off-screen, as it were, we’ve also seen him overcome his addictions. 

While I have no experience in this area, I gather it’s a thing that those recovering from addiction will often excise parts of their life from before their recovery—I guess it’s the mental equivalent of starting from a clean slate. King kept his marriage, but apparently fired his agent as part of this purging process. The destruction of a small fictional American town might be small-fry in comparison to the real-life events going on, but it surely marks a final step in Stephen King’s transformation towards the next phase of his career.

The Adaptation

There is one movie adaptation of Needful Things that was released in 1993. Like many King adaptations of this era it comes with the non-essential feel of a TV movie, as if the latest King adaptation was just something that had to be done and gotten out of the way. That’s really just my way of saying that I’ve never felt any urge to watch it.

That being said, the casting has some elements of perfection. Max Von Sydow as the sinister shop owner Leland Gaunt probably couldn’t be topped, while I can absolutely see Ed Harris as Sheriff Pangborn. Without going too far into spoiler or plot territory, Amanda Plummer and J.T.Walsh are both well, if a little predictably, cast according to their screen personas. The other notable cast member is Bonnie Bedelia, who I can well imagine delivering the strength and independence, but also the vulnerability, that her character would require.

But I’m still not gonna watch it.

The Reading

I have to admit I found this a pretty tedious read. I’m fairly convinced there was potential for a great novel here—the setup of Gaunt coming to town, giving the citizens what they most desire, and then using his hold over them to pit them against one another and destroy the town could provide the basis for a remarkable novel. Unfortunately, King’s structure, which mostly devolves into scene after scene of this person plotting in increasingly paranoid fashion against that person quickly becomes repetitive. As a quick read this could still work, but this is one of the those novels where King gets a bit carried away and consequently the build up to the climax proves excruciatingly slow.

Up Next: I’ll be taking a break from King for a while (most likely to read Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X trilogy) but I’ll be back eventually with Gerald’s Game which, at the very least, comes with an excellent film adaptation.

Revisiting King: The Dark Half

(Jan 17 – Feb 20)

The Dark Half is an interesting read, and arguably one of King’s most personal novels. Written in 1989, it concerns an author of literary novels, Thad Beaumont, who secretly writes violent (and far more successful) pulp novels under the pseudonym of George Stark. When his double life is discovered, Beaumont chooses to kill off Stark rather than be blackmailed. Unfortunately Stark, who proves to be every bit as violent and unpleasant as the novels he writes, doesn’t want to stay dead.

Most people who know Stephen King will know that he also wrote a handful of novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. And that King was eventually found out and  also decided to retire his alter ego—a process which went far more gracefully for him than it did for Beaumont. Nevertheless, this event clearly provided the spark for The Dark Half.

(Intriguingly, King was writing Misery as a prospective Bachman novel when he was found out. Given the subject matter of Misery and that it was written as a response to the negative audience reaction after King ‘dared’ to step beyond his genre confines with Eyes Of The Dragon, this adds a fascinating layer to an already exceptional novel).

The other aspect of The Dark Half that draws heavily from King’s personal life is that of family. This was the last book King wrote and released before he went sober (he started going to AA meetings the same year that The Dark Half was published). I’m not across the timeline of King’s personal life, but my understanding is that his wife, Tabitha, staged an intervention at some point after the writing of The Tommyknockers—and with that novel’s themes of addiction and loss of control, there’s a reasonably valid reading of it as a cry for help. Equally, The Dark Half can be read as a manifestation of King’s fears about what could happen if his addicted self—his own dark half—got out of control, and how his family would contend with and suffer from that.

So, The Dark Half belongs to a long tradition of King novels that feature a writer as the main character (Salem’s Lot, The Shining, etc). However, very few of those come as close as this one does to featuring Stephen King as the main character. With no pun intended, it’s one of King’s darkest novels. Things turn out ok by the end of the story (oh: spoiler!), but in later works we eventually find out that not only did Thad Beaumont’s wife leave him following their encounter with George Stark, but that he later killed himself. Yikes! Luckily things turned out far better in King’s real life. He’s still writing, still married and, one assumes, still sober.

The Adaptations

There’s one adaptation of The Dark Half (filmed in 1991 and released in 1993, which I haven’t seen). Despite it boasting George Romero as director, I remember being a little deterred at the time by the casting of Timothy Hutton in the twin lead roles. I had generally liked Hutton in the few films of his I had seen (at the time) but he seemed a little too ‘light’ for this one. Given the film didn’t exactly get the box office or critics very excited, I mostly forgot about it. However, having more recently seen Hutton in the very excellent Haunting Of Hill House I’m now considering putting aside my misgivings and giving The Dark Half a watch sometime.

In a fun bit of trivia, The Dark Half introduces the character of Sheriff Alan Pangborn (played here by Michael Rooker), who also appears in the movie of Needful Things (played by Ed Harris) which was released in the same year. Alan Pangborn’s predecessor as Sheriff of Castle Rock was George Bannerman, who also appeared in two films (The Dead Zone and Cujo) released in the same year (1983, exactly a decade earlier, in fact) and played by two different actors (Tom Skerritt and Sandy Ward). I should have a residency on IMDb with this sort of stuff …

The Reading

As you will deduce from the dates at the top, this wasn’t a particularly swift read for me (and there were a couple of big pauses early in February). It started off well, but then I hit a bit of a narrative wall. See, the plot can be roughly broken up into three acts. There’s Act One, with George Stark coming to life and causing all sorts of mayhem—this is the sort of thing that narratives thrive on; you can have all sorts of things happen and, because it’s Act One, there’s no need for any sort of payoff, it’s all just build up. Act Three is the inevitable confrontation between Stark and Beaumont; the resolution. The problem here is Act Two, which can be mostly summarised as follows:

Beaumont: “George Stark is going to come for me.”

Stark: “No, I’ve had my fun now—I’m not coming for you.”

Beaumont: “I think he’s lying. He’s still coming for me.”

Stark: “Guess what? I lied: I’m still coming for you.”

You can probably guess that Act Two commits that very worst of all narrative crimes: it’s lots of people sitting around waiting for something to happen. Because it’s Stephen King it’s highly readable nothing, with lots of great character work going on. However, given the excellent setup of Act One it’s hard to sustain the tension; indeed, this is most likely King trying to give us a breather before ramping things up again. Sadly, it didn’t quite work for me.

Outside of that, however, there is still a lot to recommend in The Dark Half. Legacy King fans will appreciate the regular bouts of violence and gore, as well as the simmering menace that George Stark provides throughout. Stark himself is a fantastic character; brutal, terrible and perversely charming.

Overall a perfectly fine novel, but one that somehow falls short of essential King for me.

Next time: there’s a new store opening in town …

Revisiting King: The Tommyknockers

(Nov 16 – Dec 20)

The Tommyknockers may be a much maligned book among King fans, but turns out to be a very significant book in the life of the man itself. On the surface, it’s a story about a group of people who get exposed to a toxic substance and start turning irretrievably into monsters. It’s also a story about a globally successful author whose addiction to booze and cocaine finally reaches crisis point.

There have been a number of King’s other novels that have reflected his addictions (Cujo, for one, springs to mind) but few as explicitly as this one. In this story, the inhabitants of the town of Haven know that they are losing their humanity, but are too hooked on the process to do anything to stop it. In several scenes it’s made pretty explicit that there are voices talking to them, telling them why to do, urging them to continue letting themselves get corrupted.

On the other side of the page, there’s reasonable speculation that this novel was King’s ‘cry for help’—a potentially final message that his addictions were consuming him and threatening to transform him into one of the monsters he typically writes about. The narrative goes that King’s wife staged an intervention, King finally went dry and it was a couple of years before he was able to get writing again.

Fittingly, for a novel that played so significantly into King’s future, The Tommyknockers is intriguing for how much it looks into the past. It is very clearly inspired (and ‘inspired’ might even be an overly generous term) by two classics of the sci-fi/horror genre: Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and Quatermass & The Pit (with various generic references to the works of Lovecraft also thrown in). Structurally it also harks back to King’s own earlier works. The overall concept of a town falling prey to a great evil brought back fond memories of Salem’s Lot, while the introduction to our main protagonist, Gard, would have slotted very nicely into the early chapters of The Stand. If nothing else, The Tommyknockers reads a lot like a man trying to escape his past by taking one step after another into an uncertain future; one where there’s no guarantee that the demons won’t eventually claim his soul too.

The Adaptations

There is one adaptation of The Tommyknockers; a 1993 TV miniseries which I have never watched. TV in the early 1990s was capable of producing good stuff, but was still mired in a world of budget constraints and broadcasting standards which meant adapting Stephen King novels, especially ones as visually demanding as The Tommyknockers, was a bit of a fool’s errand.

If they were to do an adaptation now, I think there’s fantastic scope for a “limited series”, as they call them now. However, I suspect the novel isn’t sufficiently well regarded to make it worthwhile.

The Reading

Unlike most of the other King novels I’ve previously read, I vividly remember my first reading of The Tommyknockers. It was while on a holiday in France, and my girlfriend of the time was (rightfully) put out that I was spending much of my time glued to the pages of this book. I literally couldn’t put it down; I had to keep reading to see what would happen next. It’s possibly the fusion of sci-fi and horror that so grabbed me back then, because the narrative isn’t really a classic page-turner.

I believe this is my third reading of the novel (when and where the second reading took place is a lost memory) and I really enjoyed it. There were bits I remembered vividly, and bits I had totally forgotten were in the book at all. There were also a number of references to It, and even a reappearance of the sinister government outfit The Shop, from Firestarter.

I can’t really get on board with the criticisms of this novel. Yes it’s bloated and indulgent, but so is It and various other King novels that get otherwise lauded. Yes, it’s derivative, but King wears his influences so openly that you have to be quite the curmudgeon not to take some delight in it. It’s true that the plot is a bit thin (it’s mostly about the gradual disintegration of the town of Haven, and the looming yet questionable potential for salvation of our main character), but King has frequently focused more on the way horrific events affect his characters than on building a solid plot structure around them.

In short, while not one of his best, The Tommyknockers is an archetypal Stephen King novel, and if you’re like me you may well have a lot of fun with it.

Up next: sometimes alter egos come back …

Revisiting King: The Eyes Of The Dragon

(Nov 1 – 15)

A fantasy book? For kids?? By horror maestro Stephen King??? Jeez, no thanks!

Yep, that more or less summed up my thoughts when approaching this outlier in King’s canon (both in my days of yore and somewhat more recently). It also reflects the thoughts of legions of King’s number one fans, many of whom were reluctant to let their favourite author leave his horror-shaped cage.

In itself there’s nothing particularly deep or interesting about The Eyes Of The Dragon—it’s simply a lovely little fantasy tale (almost a fairy tale, in fact) that you could sit down and read with your kids. It’s got princes, kings, an evil wizard, and various heroic characters, alongside others who touch darkness and may or may not get their shot at redemption.

What’s perhaps more interesting about The Eyes Of The Dragon is that the reception of this novel is what prompted King to write Misery (probably one of his best novels). Something I’ve learned from my research during this project is that King never intended to become a horror writer: he just wanted to be a writer. Carrie, the novel that kickstarted his career, more or less happened by accident (it was a short story that ended up running long and was only published after King’s wife pulled it out of the trash and saw its potential). By the time King approached his third novel, he was already conscious of being labelled and considered writing something different. He was eventually persuaded to stick with horror by his publisher and released The Shining. Several years later, When The Eyes Of The Dragon came along, that horror key was firmly in the lock.

Ironically, for King fans one of the most intriguing elements of The Eyes Of The Dragon is a link back to one of his most iconic and arguably horrific novels: the use of Randall Flagg as the villain. He’s a very different character here than in The Stand but it’s still fun to discover a new (or maybe older) facet of this.

The Adaptations

Tellingly, there are no adaptations of The Eyes Of The Dragon. I can only assume that people are not up to the marketing challenge (and also wary after the failure of The Dark Tower). It has been optioned a few times, and most recently came close to being adapted for Hulu, who eventually backed out due to budgetary concerns.

I’m not totally sure an adaptation would work—there’s a narrative structure in the book that would be challenging to present onscreen—but there’s possibly scope for a Princess Bride style retelling.

Who knows. Maybe one day.

The Reading

This was easily one of my favourites reads so far (leaving me kicking myself for ignoring it for so long; and also determined to read the Dark Tower series at some point). I had automatically slid right past it while compiling my reread list—for no reason other than it didn’t ‘fit’—but reading the background to Misery prompted me to backtrack and give it a try. So, for chronology’s sake: The Eyes Of The Dragon was released before Misery, but since I was late to the party I ended up reading it afterwards.

I read it over two weeks (which seems to be my standard reading window) and it quickly became one of those books that I looked forward to curling up with every night.

It might not be for everyone, but if you like the genre and/or if you like King I urge you to at least give it a try.

Next time: Quatermass visits Maine …

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