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It’s baaaaaack: Den of Eek! Urban Legends

Den of Eek poster smallHey, remember when I hosted a night of spooky storytelling last year and spent the whole night being so terrified I thought I was going to throw up on my shoes? Well, it was so much fun I’m doing it again.

Seriously, last year’s Den of Eek! was awesome. A bunch of incredibly talented storytellers gathered together in a basement bar in central London to read original horror fiction to an increasingly creeped out audience, and the whole thing was just brilliant fun. We also raised a ton of money for charity, which is always good. So that’s the bit we’re doing again.

Last year’s event was all about ghost stories, but we didn’t want to repeat ourselves, so this year we’re doing urban legends. You know. Stories about the weird but absolutely true thing that definitely happened to your sister’s boyfriend’s brother. Stories about things they don’t want you to know. Stories that’ll make you shiver, and think, and look nervously over your shoulder all the way home.

Like last time, we’ve got a bunch of amazing people writing stories for the event: Sarah Pinborough, James Moran, Tom Pollock, Neil Jones, James Henry, Rosie Fletcher, Sarah Ditum, James Brogden, Natasha Duncan-Drake, Joff Brown, Aliya Whiteley, and Clayton Littlewood. (Yes, there are three Jameses, and three Sarahs, including me. It wasn’t intentional.) Also, like last time, we’re opening up some slots for new talent, and you’ve got just over a week left to enter that competition if you haven’t already.

So, yeah, the important bits: it’s going to be on Wednesday 18 September at 7.30pm, at the Phoenix on Cavendish Square. Tickets won’t be available on the door, so you will have to book in advance. They cost £5 (plus a booking fee) and all proceeds go to charity. And you can buy your tickets here. So, do that, maybe?

One last thing – the amazingly gorgeous poster art was created by James Freckingham, of Robotic Industries. He’s brilliant.

Interviewing Nicolas Cage

Nicolas Cage

I achieved a kind of personal ambition this week: I interviewed Nicolas Cage.

Okay, it was only a six minute slot as part of a junket promoting The Frozen Ground, but it was one-on-one, in person, and I sat across from him and made eye contact and shook his hand and everything. And it was awesome.

(And he said that, though he was done with Ghost Rider, he’d really like to see a female Ghost Rider, and — seriously? It’s like someone figured out the exact right thing to say to me to turn me into happy giggly jelly. I would love a badass female Ghost Rider movie. It’d be the best thing ever. EVER.)

Here’s the link to the interview write-up over on Den of Geek.

Den of Eek! A Collection of New Horror Fiction is out to buy now

Den of Eek ebook coverHey, remember when I put together an event where loads of amazing people came and read ghost stories in a London pub? Sure you do. It was brilliant.

Well, finally we got round to publishing an ebook collection of all the stories read that night. The twelve short stories in this book are completely original, created especially for the event, so you can’t get ’em anywhere else. The full contents list looks like this:

“Grindr” by Clayton Littlewood (author of Dirty White Boy and Goodbye to Soho)

“The Double Walkers” by Leila Johnston (editor of The Literary Platform and author of Enemy of Chaos)

“Siren” by CJ Lines (author of Filth Kiss and Cold Mirrors)

“Matron” by Sarah Pinborough (author of PoisonMayhem, and The Language of Dying)

“Death in the Modern World” by Natasha Duncan-Drake (chosen as part of the Den of Geek new talent showcase)

“The 34 Steps” by James Moran (screenwriter for Doctor WhoCockneys vs Zombies, and Tower Block)

“Ghosts in the Web” by Mary Hamilton (Guardian journalist and games designer)

“A Witch Killing” by Joff Brown (chosen as part of the Den of Geek new talent showcase)

“Unfriending” by Neil Jones (screenwriter for BedlamHouse of Anubis, and Hollyoaks Later)

“The Phantom Limb” by James Brogden (chosen as part of the Den of Geek new talent showcase)

“No Reason” by Johannes Roberts (director of Storage 24F, and Roadkill)

“Forever Death” by Kevin McNally (actor in SupernaturalPirates of the Caribbean, and Downton Abbey).

… Which, you’ve got to admit, is pretty incredible. All proceeds from sales of the ebook will go to Den of Geek’s Geeks vs Cancer appeal, so when you buy it you also get to experience the warm glow of doing something good for other people. Which is priceless, really.

The ebook costs £5.14 and is available for your Kindle (or the Kindle app on your PC, smartphone, or tablet) here. Go and buy it, please.

On zombies, survival, and making geeks exercise

Why are we so obsessed with the zombie apocalypse?

Let’s start with the most obvious point: stories about zombies are stories about our fear of death. After all, there’s no more potent reminder of the existence of death than a corpse. Zombies scare us for two reasons: one, because they’re predators that want to catch and eat us, but two, because they remind us that one day we’ll be dead too. Every one of us. Sooner or later, our bodies will fail us and we’ll stop thinking and moving and existing, and instead we’ll just decompose. It’s not a nice thought, so it’s one that we tend to avoid lingering on… except when we’re telling zombie stories.

Although horror movie monsters tend to come and go in phases, the current zombie trend seems to be sticking around. It’s already been a decade since Resident Evil, Dawn of the Dead, and Shaun of the Dead made the undead cool again, but a quick glance at any upcoming release schedule shows that there are plenty more zombie stories coming our way in the future. So what is it that continues to appeal to us about these narratives?

I think it’s the way that new zombie stories focus on survival. If you look back at zombie movies from the 60s, 70s, and even 80s, they tend to have downbeat endings. Night of the Living Dead is the obvious example, where getting through one night of zombie attacks is the least of our hero’s worries. And then there’s Zombie Flesh Eaters, the unofficial Italian sequel to Dawn of the Dead, a queasily claustrophobic movie in which the takeover of the living dead is presented as inevitable, because we’re all going to die sometime. Even Return of the Living Dead, in many ways a very silly film, ends with the dropping of a nuclear bomb. These are stories about the end of the world, and there’s something fatalistic about them.

Newer zombie stories, on the other hand, are more hopeful. They’re about finding ways to survive and, eventually, rebuild. The most explicit example is Max Brooks’s book, The Zombie Survival Guide, which sets out exactly how to stay alive when the dead are walking the Earth. Between that book, Shaun’s ‘have a cup of tea’ plan, and Zombieland’s numbered rules for survival, the idea that there’s a strategy to surviving the apocalypse has become firmly embedded in our consciousness. At this point, you can ask anyone in the pub where they’ll hide out once the dead rise and, chances are, they’ll actually have an answer rather than dismissing you as the weirdo you clearly are.

It’s kind of comforting to think that we might be able to survive the collapse of civilisation – and zombies make a tidier foe than, say, climate change, or the tanking economy. That’s why we’re still telling ourselves the same stories over and over again. If there are rules for surviving a zombie apocalypse, and we can memorise them, then we’ll be prepared for anything, won’t we?

We want to prove ourselves, too; it’s not enough to just watch other people surviving any more. Zombie themed videogames like Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead let us play through our survival strategies on screen, while live action roleplaying experiences like Zed Events’ zombie shopping mall and ZombieLARP let us test our physical prowess against the undead. Seriously – as a culture, we’re now so obsessed with the idea of being able to survive a zombie apocalypse that there are multiple companies running regular zombie survival events. Cultural historians of the future are gonna love us.

But perhaps there’s a way to put all this zombie-obsessing to good use. The fitness app Zombies, Run! uses a zombie story to encourage players to exercise – to run often, to run far, and to run fast – and, from personal experience, it works. The plot of the game is that, in the near future, the dead have risen and society has crumbled. You’re part of a small post-apocalyptic society, and it’s your job to run out beyond the settlement’s walls and collect supplies. Story clips play in between songs on your own playlist, as your radio operators encourage you to keep going, and warn you of any nearby zoms.

There’s even an option to turn on ‘zombie chases’, during which you need to speed up or risk losing precious supplies as the undead bear down on you. Somehow, just hearing zombies moaning through your headphones is terrifying enough to trigger an adrenaline-fuelled burst of speed, even in the slowest, laziest geeks. (Yup, guilty.)

By drip-feeding players just enough story to keep them hooked, by introducing them to characters it’s impossible not to care about, and by making the player feel like an integral part of the story, Zombies, Run! is hopelessly addictive. And by requiring them to actually go outside and exercise, Zombies, Run! lets players feel like they really are, in some way, preparing for the apocalypse. After all, if something’s trying to eat your brain, being able to run really fast is an important skill.

The success of Zombies, Run! – now in its second season, it’s been downloaded by over 450,000 people – demonstrates that our obsession with zombies, and running away from them, is far from over. It’d be great if someone could figure out more ways of using that obsession productively, though. If anyone ever develops a Zombies, Clean Your Flat! or Zombies, Stop Arsing Around On Tumblr And Do Some Work app, I’ll be the first to download it.

(I wrote this for The Literary Platform, but it’s now gone, so I’ve reposted it here.)

Stalking Daphne du Maurier through Cornwall

I’ve mentioned before that I’m an obsessive kind of person. One of my more recent fascinations is Daphne du Maurier. I read Rebecca and fell in love with her writing. There’s something incredibly powerful about the way she writes; a darkness  and melancholy that’s present even in her most romantic stories, but also wit and intelligence. I think I’d assumed she was just a romance writer, but she’s so much more than that. Over the last year or so, I’ve devoured six of her novels and four compilations of short stories, and my to-read pile currently has another three of her novels on it. I think she’s probably my favourite author, ever.

Readymoney Cove, Cornwall

 Most of du Maurier’s novels are set in Cornwall, and reading so many of them in such a short space of time made me really want to go and visit; to walk in her footsteps, to see the places she lived and the places she wrote about. As well as reading her fiction, I’d also read her autobiography, and found her an inspiring and fascinating person. I guess I wanted to see the places that had led her to write her novels, and soak up the atmosphere.

Ferryside from across Fowey Harbour

So, last week, I went to Cornwall on holiday. I’d wanted to go to the Du Maurier Literary Festival, but this year it became the Fowey Festival of Words and Music, which was a bit less appealing. Instead, I mapped out a list of du Maurier-related sites and decided to go on my own pilgrimage. I started in Fowey, where the Tourist Information Centre has a room dedicated to all things Daphne, including maps of where her key novels are set, so I picked up a guidebook to help on my quest. I wandered up through the high street to the harbour, and looked across to Ferryside, the house Daphne’s parents bought that first led her to fall in love with the county. It’s not hard to see how.

Gribben Head from Polridmouth beach

The guidebook recommended several walks through du Maurier countryside, and my boyfriend and I decided we’d do the Rebecca walk, a circular four mile trek that starts at Menabilly Barton farm, near du Maurier’s beloved Menabilly. It led us down to Polridmouth beach, possibly the inspiration for certain scenes in Rebecca, then up to Gribben Head, along the coastal path to Polkerris, up past Kilmarth, another of the houses Daphne lived in, and back past Tregaminion church, where her memorial service was held. The walk was quite hard going, with a lot of very steep hills (and steeper drops off the side of the cliff, if you weren’t careful), but the sun shone and the landscape was gorgeous. It’s such an isolated place that, for miles at a stretch, you can’t see any sign of human life or civilisation; you could almost have travelled back in time, see things as they were hundreds of years ago.

Stormy skies at Jamaica Inn

After that first day, the weather changed, and walking around outdoors lost a bit of its appeal. But considering some of the other stops on my list – including, obviously, Jamaica Inn – that seemed kind of fitting. Over the few days I spent in Cornwall, I visited the church where du Maurier got married (which is terrifyingly difficult to get to, even by car); Readymoney Cove, another place she lived for a while; Castle Dore, the setting for another of her novels; and the town of Tywardreath, aka the House on the Strand. (I also managed to cram in some Arthurian tourism, by visiting Tintagel Castle and Dozmary Pool, because, well, it would’ve been rude not to, right?)

On the Rebecca walk

Sometimes, I think it’s probably a bit weird that I take fandom to such extremes. But my week in Cornwall was amazing, and, if I can be a bit wanky about this, exactly the kind of creative battery charging I needed. I’ve been kind of thinking that I needed a role model, or a heroine, or a mentor, and in the absence of one I can actually talk to and interact with, I think Daphne du Maurier makes a good one. I’d like to be even a fraction as awesome as she was.

Den of Eek! A Night of Spooky Stories

Last night I did one of the scariest things I’ve ever done: I hosted a live storytelling event that I’d organised. And it was amazing.

The idea for Den of Eek! had come months ago, after watching a reading of a short horror story elsewhere. I wanted to recreate the idea of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve, and I thought it would be fun to get together a bunch of interesting people – not just horror writers – to see what kinds of stories they’d tell. I pitched the idea to Den of Geek and they were enthusiastic, and then I spent a frantic couple of months making it happen.

It’s kind of incredible to me that it all went as smoothly as it did. Everyone I asked was into the idea, and they all wrote new, original, spooky stories for it. We ran a reader competition on Den of Geek looking for new talent, and managed to find three genuinely great stories to include as part of the event. We booked the function room of the Phoenix on Cavendish Square, and the lovely Mark Mitchell designed a fantastic poster for us to use to promote the event. Within a day of tickets going on sale, we’d sold half of them; two weeks ago, we sold out completely. Somehow, everything came together perfectly.

Last night, we had both an amazing line-up of speakers and stories, and a brilliant audience. Clayton Littlewood opened the evening with a creepy tale of being stalked on Grindr, followed by Leila Johnston’s account of doppelgangers (which even included a reference to the death of my least favourite Romantic poet). CJ Lines told an oddly convincing story about a haunted videotape, Sarah Pinborough turned the reassuring tick of a grandfather clock into the terrifying noise of a monster, and Natasha Duncan-Drake used slasher tropes and Twitter formatting to create an almost poetic nightmare. The last story in the first half was James Moran’s, which featured a haunted staircase and might have given me a whole new neurosis to deal with for the rest of my life.

After a brief interval, we came back with another six stories: Mary Hamilton’s story turned the whole internet into a horrifying, ghost-filled wasteland; Joff Brown’s tale of a witch-killing was delightfully creepy; and Neil Jones’s story of Facebook betrayal was wonderfully told, a slow unfolding mystery with a killer last line. James Brogden’s eerie story about a phantom limb was a really imaginative take on the idea of a ghost story, while Johannes Roberts’s harrowing tale of bullying and revenge was probably the darkest story of the night. Finally, we wrapped up with Kevin McNally’s gorgeously delivered tale of cursed treasure, all atmosphere and decadent descriptive language (a couple of people commented that they thought he must’ve been reading Lovecraft or Poe, but nope, that was an original!). Everyone brought something of their own personality and interests to their story, and it was kind of fascinating watching how it played out.

I thought I’d be sitting here this morning dissecting the night and thinking of things I’d’ve liked to change. But honestly, I think it was great. (I mean, I’m biased, maybe, but still!) My hosting skills were probably the weak link of the night, but I managed to get everyone’s name right and didn’t actually fall over, so I’m calling that a win. Keeping every story to around 5 minutes, and making sure the running order shuffled up the ultra-modern social media stories with the more traditional ones, seemed to keep the audience engaged. Everyone reading was just brilliant; I’ve said thank you to all of them a thousand times already, but I really couldn’t have wished for a nicer, more creative bunch of people to work with. And the audience were so lovely, just warm and attentive, and it seemed like they were really having fun. I could’ve hugged everyone.

On a slightly more serious note, probably the best thing about the Den of Eek! night was that we decided to put all the proceeds from the ticket sales towards the Geeks vs Cancer appeal. We managed to raise a decent chunk of money, and it’ll go to a genuinely good cause. We’re looking into turning the recording of the stories into a podcast, or maybe putting together an ebook, so that even more people get to enjoy them – more news on that when I have it.

Right now, I’m just… really, really happy. Once again, I just want to say a massive thank you to everyone involved. You’re all amazing.

Ready, steady, quack

Capt Mallard and Lt Wharf

I’ve never been to the races. I’m not really interested in watching either horses or dogs run around a track while spectators bet on the outcome; I feel, distantly, like it’s maybe sort of cruel? But to be honest, I’ve never really paid enough attention to have an informed opinion. Rubber duck races, on the other hand? Count me in.

Last weekend, a nearby village held its annual fun day – and one of the main events was a duck race. To enter, you had to go to a nearby pub, hand over £2.50 to register and buy a duck, then decorate it, and turn up on the day to see it thrown in the canal.

After a bit of deliberation, I decided to paint my ducks with Starfleet uniforms. As you do. I bought way too many tubes of acrylic paint from Hobbycraft, and spent several hours in a not-quite-ventilated-enough room painting them up. And, y’know, not to brag or anything, but I think they look pretty awesome. I felt sure that, by sheer geekery, they were guaranteed to win the race.

Sadly, they didn’t. The duck of a small child, covered with glitter glue and a fluffy pink headdress, finished several minutes before mine. Still, it’s the taking part that counts, right?

A year of freelancing

This post is a bit late, really; we’re already three weeks into January, which means I’ve been freelancing, full time, for a year and three weeks. Ish. But work and birthday parties have kept me busy throughout January so far (not that I’m complaining!). Here goes, then.

This time last year, I was terrified. I’d been working in local government for just over a year, and my contract had expired, so it felt like time to finally find out whether freelancing would work for me. So January rolled around, and an expanse of time opened up in front of me, and the only person who could fill it was me. That terror actually turned out to be pretty useful, because it drove me to approach tons of people, and lots of interesting projects came out of it.

Over the past year, I’ve worked with lots of new people… and I’ve also worked with people and companies I’ve worked with before. I’ve written for websites, like Asylum, Popjustice, and Den of Geek; I’ve written for magazines, including ComputerActive, Micro Mart, SFX, and SciFiNow. I ran the website for the first ever London International Technology Show, and I ran a YouTube channel for Grapevine Digital. I worked on a polling station, acted in a short film, sub-edited a book, learned how to do stop-motion animation, and visited a special effects workshop. I’ve done all kinds of things that, this time last year, I wouldn’t have even thought of doing, and it’s been great.

Slowly, over the last year, the terror started to ebb away. There’s still a little of it left, of course, because freelancing means no guarantees, but it’s not all-consuming any more. Actually, I think I’m happier and less stressed than I’ve ever been. Just getting rid of the daily commute helped enormously. Suddenly, I’ve got so much more time for everything – for work, for cooking, for walking in the sunshine, or working on personal projects. Admittedly, there have been some things that I’ve neglected a little – I haven’t even looked at the book I’m working on for months – but overall, there’s not much I’d want to change.

I hope 2012 will be just as surprising, and interesting, and (can I say fulfilling without sounding like too much of a dick? I think I’m gonna try!) fulfilling as 2011 turned out to be. I’d like to work on my book some more; I’d like to work on a game, if possible; and I’d like to, well, just do more of everything, really. I’ve really loved this last year, and I hope the next year will be just as good.

So there we go.

Launching a book is fun!

The Pineapple Thai Kitchen menu

So, my boyfriend wrote a book! (Actually, he’s written more than one, but the most recent one is the important one here.) It’s called Cold Mirrors, and it’s a collection of short stories. Last night, we went to the Pineapple in Kentish Town to celebrate the book’s release.

Honestly, I was a little nervous about it: months and months of hard work had gone into creating this book, and, finally, it was ready to be shown to the world. We got to the Pineapple early, admired the decor, and got ourselves set up in a cosy upstairs room. Amazingly, despite being early ourselves, some of our friends had already arrived, which was reassuring (thanks guys!).

CJ Lines signing autographs The Adramelech Books design team

Before long, the room was packed; CJ was signing books pretty much non-stop for about three hours. No mean feat, considering he usually complains about having to handwrite a shopping list.

Between going on drinks and change runs (it turns out most people don’t carry exactly £7.99 in change on their person!) I stationed myself in a corner, talking to the intrepid Adramelech Books design team and snapping photos. The hours passed incredibly quickly.

Spoon Leffe

I think I might actually like to move into the Pineapple. It has everything I’d ever need: delicious Thai food, board games, soft sofas, and strong Belgian beer.

This was about the point in the evening where some of my friends decided to find out whether Fuck Yeah Spoons existed on Tumblr (it does!) so maybe there was a little too much strong Belgian beer involved. It was great to be able to actually enjoy the evening, though, after worrying about it so much for so long!

Budweiser Brownies and blondies

We got home around midnight, and CJ and I decided to extend our celebrations with more beer and home-made brownies. I think we eventually went to sleep around 2am. All in all, it was a brilliant night, so thank you to everyone who came and supported us!

Now seems like a good time to fit in the obligatory plug, so here goes: you can pick up a copy of Cold Mirrors here, or enter The Independent’s competition to win a signed copy here.