Uncle Chris’ Tales of Terror

This entry is dedicated to my new favourite author, Chris Priestley, the author of The Tales of Terror series, the first of which, Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror has recently been selected for the Booked Up list. The Booked Up project allows all Year 7 pupils in participating schools to select a free book. Here’s why you should choose Uncle Montague.

Each of the Tales of Terror series (Montague was soon followed by Tales of Terror from the Black Ship and Tales of Terror from the Tunnel’s Mouth) is an old fashioned horror anthology a la Tales of the Crypt. Short stories (with unnerving illustrations by David Roberts) linked together by an intriguing narrator with a dark story of his own. In the first book, a lonely little boy, Edgar, visits his mysterious Uncle Montague at his remote forest home. As Montague tells the tales of the chilling artefacts dotted around his home, Edgar becomes increasingly aware that they aren’t entirely alone…

The stories are scary. This should be reason enough to buy the book. Somewhere down the line, a bold publisher must have made the decision to let Priestley scare kids witless and this should be applauded. As a child I loved to be scared, there was almost a siren song to anything that I thought might freak me out. I remember sneaking over to my friends house to watch an illicit taped-off-TV version of A Nightmare on Elm Street when I was 9 years old. It was like playing Russian Roulette with my own nightmares, a challenge to see how far I could push myself. Through the day job, I know today’s children are much the same, only now they have the Internet and Saw movies to test their resolve.

But that’s what I love about the Tales of Terror series. The scares on offer are Gothic and sinister without ever being exploitative or sadistic. I would be happy for my ten year-old pupils to read these books. They’re scary, but appropriate. My personal favourite from Montague is a twisted tale called The Demon Bench End, which sees a poor boy, Thomas spellbound by a grotesque wooden carving. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t get rid of the evil gargoyle, unless someone willingly takes it from him. I seem to recall a similar ghost story about floating hermits on the moors from when I was little – whatever you do, don’t help him put his feet on the ground, or you’ll float the moors forever!

Each of the stories stayed with me after I’d finished them – I didn’t lose any sleep, but I did think “oooh, creepy!” Win! I’ve just finished Black Ship and made a start on Tunnel’s Mouth straight away. If anything, Black Ship is even more gory than the first offering. Sometimes, in the Tales of Terror universe, kids die, and I think that’s important. Death is shied away from far too often in children’s literature, how are children ever meant to understand peril in a world where everyone’s indestructible? (Doctor Who on TV is the worst offender for this). Satisfying children’s longing for body horror, Black Ship features cracked skulls, twisted limbs and flesh eating snails galore. Worry not, parents, with Priestley’s moral compass intact; anyone who gets it certainly had it coming!

Next week sees the release of Priestley’s new tale of terror (note lower-case), The Dead of Winter and mine should be arriving from Amazon any time now. If you’ve never read Priestley’s work, I urge you to do so, as the children’s horror genre may well have a new master. Well, that is until my book is published, of course!

Read Priestley’s blog, giving more information on the origins of each tale, here.

Musical Interlude 1

Before I was an author, or even a columnist, I was a part of the music team at my University newspaper – if Bangor is good enough for Bridget Jones, it’s good enough for me. I was always assigned any “Pop” content as I was the only student uncool enough to admit being a Spice Girls obsessive.

1999/2000 was a good semester for Pop – the rise of the Sugababes V2 (Freak Like Me) and Britney just starting out. But then came the fall…British pop packed away it’s head mics and gave way to endless dreary guitar acts, led by Coldplay and Keane. It was a grey time for Pop music, only imports from the States keeping Pop fans afloat (and even that was pretty much RnB based, but thank God for Destiny’s Child during those wilderness years).

But then, from a most unlikely stable, came a surprise success story – Girls Aloud. They shouldn’t have been good. We’re talking about a band assembled on live TV by Louis Walsh, Pete Waterman and Geri Halliwell for crying out loud! They should have sucked harder than a Dyson. But they didn’t..they really didn’t.

Cheryl, Nicola, Nadine, Kimberley and Sarah (the order they won their places in the band, fact fans) were five slightly rough-looking wannabes – very girl next door if you lived on a dodgy street in Bradford (which I did). They were seized by former Spice Girl stylist Kenny Ho and shoved into matching pink combat pants and side ponytails. Hideous, but this fashion catastrophe probably saved the fledgling band. Some years later, the rapid rise and fall of The Pussycat Dolls confirmed what I’ve always called the Holly Vallance syndrome, whereby writhing around naked will get you only so far before the target audience, teenage girls, labels you a nasty ho. Girls Aloud, on the other hand, were in no danger of becoming unattainable sex symbols, endearing them to both teenage girls and the dads who would accompany them to gigs.

Unfortunate assault episode swept under carpet, the girls defied expectations to follow up their début Sound of the Underground with the even better (arguably) No Good Advice. You’d be mad to assign this success to the band. Unofficial 6th and 7th band members Brian Higgins and Miranda Cooper from hit factory Xenomania deserve all the credit for this one. Already notable for work with Dannii Minogue, Cher and Sugababes, the pair really hit their stride with Girls Aloud: bizarre lyrics (‘Let’s go, Eskimo!’), hooky eighties surf guitar and electronic pulses created a distinctive “sound”. By second album, What Will the Neighbours Say, the blueprint for success was well established. If anything, as the years rolled by, the band built on their fanbase, winning new followers with anthemic songs like Love Machine, Biology and Something Kinda Ooooh.

Seven years in, riding on the back of their highest chart positions for a single (The Promise) and album (Out of Control), the inevitable happened. The band announced “a year off”. Did the girls never attend pop school? Spice Girls, Destinys Child, N*Sync…once you’ve left the box, you never want to get back in. Even if you do go back, it’s hardly worth it – Destinys Child’s contractual obligation fourth album should be rinsed from existence.

I suppose it was bound to happen. Cheryl Tweedy/Cole was a star in her own right now, judging on The X Factor (US readers, you’re about to get your very own version of the Simon Cowell talent show). Who wouldn’t want the freedom of a solo album, calling the shots and raising the bets? The answer is no-one – for every Justin Timberlake and Beyonce, there’s a Melanie B or an Abs from 5ive. Yes, Cheryl’s first album did well off the back of Fight For This Love, but 3 Words was not a good album. As much as she’s the new Princess Diana, Cheryl seems lost and frightened when performing alone – swallowed up by military stage costumes and autotune. A very different girl from the confident “dancer” of Girls Aloud.

That’s the problem with going solo. In a group, everyone plays their part. In Girls Aloud, Nadine was the voice, Sarah was the gob, Cheryl the dance powerhouse while Nicola has evolved into the fashion icon and Kimberley was always the “nice” one (look, I tried). Any solo output is therefore likely to be 1/5 of the product of Girls Aloud. It’s deceptive, as Cheryl has had so much money thrown at her campaign. It’s tempting to see it as “better” than Girls Aloud. It isn’t, she just has nicer pop videos – her latest Promise This being a prime example. Slick video, average song, maxi-autotune, girl looking a bit scared in the middle of it all.

Meanwhile Nadine “The Voice” Coyle is about to launch her own efforts on Tesco shoppers. It’s big, it’s bold, it showcases she’s a better singer than Cheryl (which one suspects is half the point), but again, if either Insatiable or Promise This had been on a Girls Aloud album, neither would have been released as singles. It’s lose/lose. The songs are average (at best – yes you, Parachute) and a loyal fanbase of Girls Aloud devotees will only stay at your side for so long. Just ask Geri Halliwell.

The UK needs a pop group that can take on Gaga and Rihanna. It’s not going to be Cheryl Cole and it’s not going to be Nadine Coyle. How about it Girls? One last album before bedtime?

How I Got My Agent

It was only at a recent writer’s convention that I realised how lucky I am to have an agent representing my book. Out of 250 delegates, I was the only one attached to an agency and was treated as a rare and beautiful specimen, not unlike an endangered species at a conservation zoo. Some of the people I spoke to had been going through the ‘write-submit-reject’ cycle for YEARS. While I was there to hob-nob and learn a bit about the industry, literally everyone else was there for a chance to mingle with the two agents present, with a view to being ‘discovered’. It was a blast of icy water – I wouldn’t say finding my agent was easy, but I now see that I never, ever had it difficult.

A number of delegates asked how I landed my agent, so here it is – maybe there are lessons to be learned within my story. I’ll start at the beginning. I started writing my first full-length novel in early 2009, with all sorts of motivations in mind (that’s a whole other blog post). By the summer, very naïve to how these things work, I decided to submit it to an agency. I did a bit of research and found the name of an agent who represents one of my favourite children’s/YA authors. Following their submission guidelines carefully, off the sample chapters went in a crisp, white envelope; full to the brim with hopes and dreams.

You can only imagine the joy when just two weeks later I had a request for the entire manuscript. It was a simple, polite, poker-face email: “We enjoyed the chapters you sent. We would be interested in reading the whole thing.” While this was brilliant, there was one small snag. The book wasn’t even nearly finished. Maybe just over half way done. I was suffering from what the wise publishing guru Lynn Price terms “premature submitulation”. I think the title speaks for itself. This is such a rookie error – I look back and could just die of shame. I did what I could. I polished up the chapters, had a couple of people do a line read and sent her what I had with a pitiful letter and an outline of the remaining chapters.

It’s true what they say, you can’t polish a turd, you can only roll it in glitter. Needless to say, I received a polite form rejection, explaining that while my manuscript had clear “quality”, they wouldn’t be taking it any further. I can’t say I was surprised, but it hurt like Hell. The first rejection is the worst.

But the request to see the full manuscript filled me with fire. It couldn’t suck. They wouldn’t have asked to see the whole thing if it stank. It gave me the drive to keep going. I gave myself a new target – finish the book. It stopped being about the dream of being published and became a personal quest to complete a project (something which I’ve struggled with my whole life). The novel was finished in October 2009 and I started rewriting and polishing at once, with help from the lovely people at Litopia.

The submissions that followed were much less successful. I think the lesson learned is choose your targets carefully. Looking at my list, I’m now unsure that the agencies I sent samples to would have been the best homes for my work. I sent partial manuscripts out in blocks of three, so I could keep track of where it was and who I was dealing with. The first six came back as rejections (well mostly, it took one six months to reject it, by which time I was with my current agent!). However I entered discussions with another agent who seemed keen, and although these talks came to nothing, it once again gave me enough sustenance to keep going.

The agency I’m now represented by was part of my third attempt in April 2010. Initially uncertain of whether to submit (because their client list is predominantly literary fiction, and while I am many things, literary is not one of them), I saw the magic words…building a new list of children’s and teenage fiction. Lesson two, then – read the small print. My agent was actively building her list. The agent mentioned above rejected me because she had too many authors to manage already, simple as that.

As I had learned from the first brush, things can happen lightning fast. The day after I sent my agent the first three chapters, she asked to see the whole thing, and this time it was ready. But as with any story worth telling, there has to be some drama, and this was no different. Somehow, possibly because of an ancient curse, when attaching the files via email, the wrong version (complete with clichéd, Inception style “or is it..?” ending) was sent.

It took 24 hours to realise I’d sent the wrong version, by which time she was already reading it. I quickly sent the right version with a grovelling email and got drunk. Three days later, I got my reply… “I really loved (YOUR BOOK) and would be keen on discussing it further with a view to offering you representation.” I was at my day job and promptly cried on a co-worker.

A phone call later and that was that. Done and dusted. My letter of agreement arrived about a week later. That was just the beginning – some other time I’d like to blog about the work my agent has done for me over the last six months, because it’s been immense and I’m very grateful. Writing this blog entry has left me a bit emotional (possibly because I had two glasses of wine earlier), and again, feeling lucky. Yes, at the moment it’s nerve-wracking waiting on news of “the sale”, but I think I need to recognise the years and years some writers have spent on securing an agent and count my blessings.

Final lesson – Focus on the positives and don’t give up. Class dismissed. That’s only my story, I hope there’s something helpful in that.

Dear Heat…

Dear Heat Magazine,

I’m sorry it’s come to this, I wish there’d been another way, but I can’t do this any more. Please don’t hate me.

I’ll try to put my feelings into words, although I’m finding it hard. I’ve been reading you for ten years, and we’ve had some really good times together. The little captions with the photos are always funny, I really liked how you described Fearne Cotton’s outfit as “witch’s curtains”, for instance. I’ll always thinking fondly of scrolling through the “Spotted” section to see if any celebs had been to Brighton!

But it’s over. It’s not you, it’s me. I’ve changed. Things which didn’t used to bother me have started to irk me. I see now that it’s unpleasant to repeatedly print unflattering pictures of women in bikinis and, even though you always say you’re “celebrating their curves”, I mainly think you’re drawing attention to their flaws. I used to think it was funny to mock how fat or thin people were, but now I don’t. It just makes me feel spiteful. You talk a lot about positive body image, but all I can see is pictures of stick thin models, diet tips and how to achieve the perfect body.

More than that, it’s become boring…we seem to have the same conversations week after week. I can’t take any more “best and worst bikini bodies”. I feel that by buying you, I’m saying “it’s okay”, when really we need to change our relationship.

Okay, it pains me to say this, but it’s important to be honest. I hate your friends. There, I said it. Katie, Peter, Kerry, those Hills girls. I can’t listen to you talk about their hollow little lives any more. Frankly, I don’t care if Jennifer Aniston never has kids. I remember when you used to hang out with actors and musicians, why can’t we go back to that?

The last straw came last week when I had to buy you in a double pack with More Magazine. That was plain humiliating. No 29 year-old man should ever have to shuffle away with the “position of the fortnight” in his arms.

I hope you understand why I can’t buy you any more. It’s best for both of us. I’ll read something else, and you can go on doing your thing. I like to think that when my book comes out you’ll still review it. I promise I’ll still flick through you at the hairdresser.

I’m sorry, no hard feelings,

James xxx