Can’t be bothered with a pun for the header, here’s a nice review of Secret Histories over at the Obverse Books blog.
While there’s been some nice chat on various fora about Secret Histories, here’s the first full-length review of the book I’ve seen so far. Please don’t read my comment at the bottom of the review until you’ve read the book… it’s got some implicit spoilers in there, of sorts.
And here’s another review, not about Secret Histories but by me (everything is about me, in the end) in which I talk a bit about a recent Wolverine one-shot and the first couple of issues of SWORD, and get ridiculously excited about Death’s Head.
I love Death’s Head. As you’ll quickly gather.
Summerscale’s book captures a relatively brief moment between the creation of professional policing and the development of forensic science where real detectives and fictional detective work were not totally unrelated, where, without the analytical science now available, crimes were solved by a combination of intuition and reasoning. While there’s an intellectual romance about this form of crime fighting that appeals, the book doesn’t stint on how unreliable a method this was, of how dependent on the guilty party’s confession a conviction could be.
It’s interesting to compare Mr Whicher to the sections of Jonathan Stapleton’s original book on the Road Hill case quoted within. Stapleton expands out the known details – and as a first hand witness to the investigation and a friend of the victim’s father, he had access to more than most – with florid prose. Summerscale takes a different approach, one more consistent with current non-fiction, never hesitating to expand on any social or historical detail raised in the course of the story. It’s a fascinating series of digressions, ones which show that, in spite of great social change, how the behaviour of the public in regards to shocking crimes has always been insensitive, obsessive, fickle and crass.
Next up, a Doctor Who story (or stories). With Who dominating the airwaves over Christmas, any more might seem excessive, but Hornet’s Nest, a series of five CDs from BBC Audiobooks, is distinctly different from the all-ages bombast of the current TV show.
Thankfully, in spite of marking Tom Baker’s first proper return to the role after only brief appearances in telethons and theme nights, Hornet’s Nest isn’t a direct return to a version of the character and the show that played itself out over the actor’s long initial run and has been strip-mined in novels, short stories and comic strips ever since.
Paul Magrs story/stories – the five CDs are linked into one narrative, but are each distinct – is/are closer to being an imaginary BBC4 Who spin-off to sit alongside the ones on BBC3 and CBBC, a version of that universe aimed at an older audience that remembers Ghost Stories for Christmas with fondness, shot on a low budget and aiming for slow burning chills. It’s essentially a series of fireside tales exchanged between Baker’s Doctor and retired soldier Mike Yates, two old men sharing scary stories and going on one last big adventure.
The insistence on drawing a seventies period Tom on the covers, and placing it within that continuity in the dialogue, seems unnecessary and intrusive, a handwavy sop to obsessives and the BBC licensing department, who doubtless frown upon spin-offs chucking a brick through such continuity staples as which-Doctor-regenerated-when. This is an older Tom different to the one who descended into boggle-eyed tedium on-screen, and a different type of Who story tailored to its leads current tastes, a story full of the macabre and weird, as well as cottages, wolfhounds and whiskey.
Magrs makes a virtue of writing for his star’s tastes, and goes full-tilt with a story that’s genuinely creepy in places, and even manages to make that repetitive staple of early Tom stories, possession by aliens, work in a new and interesting way. The acting is fantastic, Tom being better here than a lot of his TV appearances, maybe better than he’s ever been and Richard Franklin’s older Captain Yates is certainly more interesting than the uncomfortable romantic lead he was cast as in the 70s. While a couple of the supporting cast hit the button marked ‘northern whimsy’ with a repetitive frenzy I could have lived without, there are great turns by the likes of Michael Maloney and Stephen Thorne – and in what other medium than radio could the towering Thorne play an Italian midget, hmm?
Hornet’s Nest is an entertaining, spooky new take on Who, and well worth investing in, an atmospheric treat for the cold winter months.
Just a quick reminder to anyone with gifts to buy or Christmas money to spend of two books out this month:
Firstly, Bernice Summerfield: Secret Histories, which I edited and wrote the framing sequence for is OUT NOW, and you can order it straight from Big Finish here.
Secondly, The Panda Book of Horror has just gone to press over at Obverse Books. It features my short story Channel 666, and is due out on the twelfth of this month. You can pre-order it here.
That’s your lot,
I’m about to go up North for a few days, to visit family and go to Thought Bubble in Leeds, so for now here’s a couple of images. This first one you know about:
Secret Histories is out in December! You can pre-order it by clicking here.
I was amused to find, flicking through a copy of Simon Guerrier’s comprehensive Inside Story book on Bernice, that the premise of the framing sequence of Secret Histories is mentioned when I’m talking about books I’d have proposed if Virgin had kept the New Adventures going. Well, I got to it eventually – it only took ten years.
So, Secret Histories: A Decade In The Making. Surely worth an investment on that basis alone?
The next one will be new to virtually everyone, is for a collection I’ve just been told I’m contributing to, and I’ll explain it a bit more in a later post. For now, I’ll just let it stand for itself:
Yesterday I wrote, in maddeningly-opaque-spoiler-free fashion, about the general ideas behind Secret Histories and what kind of book I wanted it to be. Today, a little bit about how, knowing what book I wanted, I arrived at the stories and authors in the book.
Putting together a book is like bringing together a team to do any big job – even though the authors wouldn’t be working with each other, they bring different contributions to the whole.
Firstly, I knew there were a list of people who, should I ask and should they accept, would deliver good stories to length and deadline and to whatever specifications I tossed their way, who were also popular, critically acclaimed authors of Who and related stuff in their own right who could write Benny and co in character and continuity without any real guidance. Basically, the absolute pros. They would provide the core of the book, and allow me to take a few risks on my other commissions, knowing that I had a handful of good stories in the bank that would need limited editorial input.
Having been around the Who writing block for a decade, I was in the useful (albeit frankly tragic) position of having a social circle rammed with writers for the Who books, Benny range etc. As this was my first book as editor, I also had the newbie’s luxury of pulling in a few favours, knowing that my friends would want to help me out on my first collection. However, I didn’t want to press gang in anyone who genuinely didn’t want to do the book, so my invite was pretty open and clear that I was happy to be turned down – you don’t get good stories out of people who aren’t creatively inspired by what they’re doing, after all.
In the end, a few people did turn me down politely, mainly on the grounds that they didn’t feel they had anything to say with the Bennyverse, or were concentrating on other creative avenues.
However, I did get a good stable of great writers with good track records to provide the spine of the book – Lance Parkin, who has been a friend of mine since around the time he was pitching Just War and whose vision of Benny overlaps with mine almost totally; Eddie Robson, at that time producer of the range and a fan of the character since the late 90s; Mark Michalowski, whose first Doctor Who book came out the same month as my first solo novel, Hope; and Nick Wallace, who had written two excellent Bernice Summerfield scripts in recent years as well as editing a well-reviewed short story collection, Collected Works.
With all four on board, that was more than half of the book in the bank. More, if you counted the framing sequence I was planning to write. That still left a substantial chunk of words still to commission.
I talked in the previous post about the New Adventures editorial ethos, and one of the best remembered parts of that was the commitment to new or less well-established writers. I knew from the start any short story collection I did was going to include writers that were perhaps less well-known than the names above, but who deserved wider exposure. A couple sprang to mind relatively early:
I’ve known Jim Smith since we were both at university in Central London, had flat-shared with him for absolutely ages, and (along with the aforementioned Eddie Robson and my Twilight of the Gods co-writer Jon de Burgh Miller) co-founded Shiny Shelf with him. Jim had recently penned The Adventure of the Diogenes Damsel, an audio where Bernice had teamed up with Mycroft Holmes (played by David Warner in full effect), and it had received a rapturous critical response from the fans. I’d liked it a lot, with the minor caveat that the plot didn’t have room for us to actually see (or rather hear) Mycroft and Benny solve a mystery. I’d been reading a lot of Case Closed at the time, and so was very keen on the classic locked room mystery story.
So, in one of those cases where self interest (both in terms of what I wanted to read, and adding a good selling point to Secret Histories that would attract fan attention) and altruism (in terms of giving Jim a stage to show what he could do as a prose fiction writer) collide perfectly, I was determined to get Jim to write a new Mycroft and Benny story, the only stipulation being that they should solve a mystery. I’m glad to say that my hunch was right, and interest in this story so far has been high – interest which will be rewarded, as the final story is great.
Another writer I wanted to work with was Richard Freeman, who I’d met at one of Exeter University’s Microcons, where he would give fascinating presentations on his career as a Fortean zoologist, travelling the world hunting for monsters. Richard has a voice and concerns that are different to the average Doctor Who fan writer – he’s highly knowledgeable in regards to myths from around the world, and has a fine grasp of anthropological detail. Richard’s contribution is completely different to most Bernice stories, and provides a fascinating insight into a long lost culture. It’s also a tense adventure story, packed with vivid imagery. Richard is also, to the best of my knowledge, the only author in the book whose fee went into paying for an expedition to Sumatra.
Paul Farnsworth is one of my absolute favourite writers of Who fan fiction, from back when ‘fan fiction’ just meant stories written by fans, rather than outpourings of adolescent romantic fantasies. His contributions to zines like Matrix, Circus, Silver Carrier and others were smart, well-written, endlessly inventive and often laugh-out-loud funny. When I approached Paul, who I’ve never known personally, Secret Histories was high on historical and war stories, and low on punchy, funny, weird SF stuff. That was what I asked Paul to bring to the book. I wasn’t to be disappointed.
Finally, I’d heard rumours on the grape vine that Stuart Douglas and Paul Magrs, who were editing Iris Wildthyme and the Celestial Omnibus, had found someone great in their slush pile, a writer who had instantly stood out from the other submissions as a funny, clever new voice. As the Omnibus had yet to be published at the time, I shamelessly asked Stuart if I could take a look at this story as I was very interested in finding new, preferably slightly crazed voices for Secret Histories. Stuart kindly agreed, sending me Cody Schell’s story of masked wrestling superheroes and killer pinatas, and I realised this was exactly the kind of bloody lunatic I wanted, a writer whose ideas were big, but who also wrote with charm and character.
While he was at it, Stuart also put me in touch with Jonathan Dennis, a writer who I had been aware of but whose work I’d never read. Having seen Jonathan’s story for the Omnibus, I also approached him. My brief for both Cody and Jonathan was the same as it was for Paul – I wanted weird, alien shit. Cody and Jonathan both delivered stories that portray distinct alien cultures, each with a high concept that has character consequences for Benny. They’re both very funny as well.
With that, the writing crew for Secret Histories was complete. I think it’s a good mix – some familiar, popular contributors to the Bernice Summerfield range (all of whom who have also written acclaimed Doctor Who stories, which doesn’t do any harm), and some distinct, newer voices who the Benny readership may not have heard of.
There’s some war stories, some history, some anthropology, and a mystery. There’s Earth, a weird part of deep space, and a few odd alien planets with their own interesting cultures.
There are adventures not just for Bernice, but for Adrian and Peter (one of my favourite characters in the range, by the way) too.
There’s young Benny, Braxiatel Collection-era Benny, and some material that’s set right between Secret Origins and whatever comes next.
(Although I hasten to add that you need to know absolutely no continuity to enjoy the book – all relationships and references are fully explained for the complete newbie, and both the book and individual stories stand alone.)
A while ago, I mentioned Secret Histories, the short-story collection I’ve been editing for Big Finish’s Bernice Summerfield range. As the book is out in a few weeks time, and I’ve just finished working through the proofs (cover coming soon, promise, although you can see a little preview of Adrian Salmon’s cover art in issue 8 of BF’s free pdf mag Vortex), now seemed like a good time to talk a bit more about the book, provide some background and do a little sales pitch.
As with all these things, the ideas for Secret Histories came from various places and had been stewing for varying periods of time.
There was an idea for a Benny novel that I’d had since the Virgin New Adventures featuring the character in the late 90s, which I’d dabbled with as a possible audio or novella in the last couple of years but which, in the end, became the framing sequence for this book, a vehicle to tell stories within as well as a story in its own right. As is also typical of my writing, what had started out as a deeply serious idea about deeply serious things ended up turning into something a lot lighter, still with drama but a bit more optimistic and fantastical. So that was my framing sequence and hook for the book, as described in the blurb.
Then there was a bundle of ideas for short stories spread across a period of late 19th/early 20th century history: at one point I was considering whether the whole book should be about Benny and her friends being lost in time, having different adventures in the same year and finally coming together, but that was too restrictive, at least partially because of the next paragraph, and so the visit into time is a mini-arc threaded through a few stories in the book rather than the whole focus. (The macguffin I used for this section came from a Fortean Times article I’d read a while ago, and which had really stayed with me. I also had a couple of very loose images and ideas for stories in this bit which I doled out to writers to take or discard as they wished.)
I wanted to avoid standard SF adventure stories, and encourage the writers to be more creative than doing familiar Doctor Who story types with a female archeologist instead of a Time Lord. Bernice is a character who may fall into adventures, but she isn’t a superhero or detective who saves worlds and solves murders as her bread and butter – she’s a smart, normal person who works for money to feed her kid, and whose line of work just happens to take her to dangerous and odd places around the universe, frequently getting her into trouble. That, to me, is a lot more freeing than the requirement to have epic heroism and massive baddies to take down. There should be action, and drama, and threat, of course, but there could also be weird stuff that pushed the button marked ‘imagination’ rather than ‘action’.
(If that last one sounds like a hark back to the New Adventures and the editorial ethos of those books, then yes, that was entirely deliberate.)
Because I wanted the authors to let their imaginations run a bit, as well as having the space to do the kind of characterisation, travelogue and observational humour that Bernice does best, I wanted longer stories. Initially, the plan was to have six or seven long stories that would have more depth than the usual 4000/5000 word short stories, but not feel like the truncated novels that the novella format can often lead to. (That a smaller list of contributors to wrangle would make the project a bit easier to manage wouldn’t do any harm either.) In the end for various reasons including the time constraints of some contributors, and a wealth of good pitches to choose from, we ended up with nine stories not including the framing sequence.
(As is the way of these things the stories found their own length – some proved to be very tight narratives built around a strong central idea that came in quite compactly written, while others expanded and some hit their wordcount dead on. In the end I got what I wanted – a set of more substantial stories that are long enough to make their mark but are still very much well-formed stories rather than bonzai novels.)
So that was the format. All it needed was authors and stories. I had ideas about that, which I’ll discuss in part 2 tomorrow.
In the meantime, you can pre-order Secret Histories from here, or get it in a bundle with the rest of this year’s Bernice output (including CD plays by a lot of Secret Histories contributors, including myself!) here.
PS – Bonus content for the day is a little ramble about the dominant art style of 1990s 2000AD.
Apparently I don’t update this blog enough. Which I don’t, so that’s fair comment.
Readers will recall that ten weeks and an embarrassingly small number of updates ago I posted about Venus Mantrap, the Bernice Summerfield audio play that Lance Parkin and I wrote.
Well, I’m not finished with Bernice just yet. Out in December this year is Secret Histories, a short story collection edited by myself with contributions from… well, see below about that. Click on the link to read the blurb. Rather than an over-arching theme which might tie the authors down, I opted for a framing sequence which threads the stories into a larger narrative. The framing sequence is written by myself, but doesn’t lock the stories so tightly together that the reader can’t dip in and out and read the actual stories in whatever order they please.
I’m delighted by how the book is coming together. By way of an easter egg hunt, and to try and fan the flames a little in advance of the book coming out, I’m announcing the stories and authors one-by-one across various Who fora, starting with the soon to be dead Outpost Gallifrey Forum. You can read that announcement here. More to come, on Outpost Who, via an agent of chaos on my behalf on this place, and possibly even the Jade Pagoda if I feel like it – they could do with a post or two now and again. If you don’t care to chase these up, worry not – full details will be on the appropriate page of the BF website in due course.
As well as being able to pre-order Secret Histories on its own, you can also buy it, along with Venus Mantrap and the other audios in this season, as a 2009 bundle with this excellent Special Offer. That’s a mere £40 for not only Histories and Mantrap, but also three other audios.
You. Know. You. Want. To.
Anyway, that’s enough for now. I’ll try not to leave it so long next time.