Category Archives: Writer Recommends

The Seven Year Hitch

photobThat’s right, seven years since Sarah and I got married at Newland Hall in Essex at 12.30pm.

It all started with the proposal in Central Park in New York on New Years Day, I did it in view of Essex House as it seemed quite fitting, it would be easy to pinpoint the ’roundabout’ spot in future and also meant I wouldn’t be proposing outside where John Lennon go shot dead! All very important things to remember.

The date hadn’t always been 23/3/08 and in fact this was third time lucky for organising it as our  first venue burnt down. Sarah told me over the phone at work when I exclaimed in a sonic boomed  “you have got to be shitting me!”

She wasn’t shitting me at all, still, that’s what wedding insurance is for and that had to be the best £40 ever spent and I believe we are still used as an example at my mum’ work as she works in insurance.

photo3The second date was pushed back when my mum became seriously ill (she’s fine now thanks) , which leaves us with our eventual date, Easter Sunday and it snowed…so you could say it was a nice day for a white wedding.

photo2It was a day full of fun, laughter and lots of fond memories. Alas, we look at those pictures and already there are those who are no longer with us but they will forever be a part of our memories of that special day.

We have a lovely montage of images from that day in a frame above our fireplace in the living room and it is something we still look at every day and so does Isabelle.

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I think she’s mostly perplexed that she isn’t in the pictures and can’t quite believe that we hadn’t invited her along as everyone else seems to be there. Iz often names people in the pictures.

Iz invited herself along on Christmas Eve the following year, well that was when she announced that she’d be crashing at our place the next August.

photo5And when she did arrive five days early – it just so happened to be on the anniversary of the day when Sarah and I first met (I did some Bagpuss impressions that time but left them out of the delivery room).

Isabelle was also born straight after Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol, which also just so happened to be our wedding song. Spooky!

photohBack at the wedding we took everyone by surprise as we’d been having dance lesson in secret and did not tell a soul,  so when it came to our first dance we at least had a couple of nifty moves between us. It was a rhumba and after that we could finally relax and have our first proper drinks and let our hair down, which including Sarah and maid of honour, Rachael, wallrolling (don’t ask) to Eye of The Tiger an requesting and astonishingly getting Atmosphere by Russ Abbott (don’t ask again).

Talking of music we had a harpist for the pre-ceremony and ceremony itself with Sarah coming down the aisle to ‘She’. I didn’t turn round, having forgot the protocol, which Sarah reminds me on a frequent basis.

photo1In retrospect perhaps I should have requested Don’t Turn Around by Aswad in the evening?

We also chose the songs that got played by our harpist whilst we waited, so it was nice to hear our personally selected hits that ranged from Nobody Does It Better (got to have a bit of Bond) and Everything I Do I Do It For You (got to have a bit of Robin Hood/Bryan) and it was like playing a giant version of name that tune for the guests. It all sounded very lovely and wa the perfect soundtrack to the perfect day.

photofIn my speech I quoted the immoral lines of one Ferris Bueller saying that “life moves pretty fast and if you don’t stop and take a look it can pass you by.”

That’s what I was doing in that moment, taking in my beautiful wife, my mum and dad, Sarah’s mum and dad, our families and friends who had travelled from all over the UK – as far a Cornwall, Nottinghamshire and South Wales – to be there to celebrate with us. In retrospect it was like that moment was passing by in bullet time.

And life does seem to have moved by pretty fast (and furious and full of fun) in those passing years.

Happy anniversary Sarah x

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James Herbert: The British King is Dead, long live the British King

domainBritish horror author, James Herbert, who has died at the age of 69, was often known as ‘the UK’s answer to Stephen King’. In actual fact the pair were fond friends and their careers began rather fittingly almost at the same moment, Herbert had his first novel, The Rats, published just a few months before King debuted with Carrie in 1974.

Over his 20-something books Herbert has sold over 50 million copies, a number only bettered in the horror genre by none other than King himself. But, Herbert was the undisputed number one British author of frightful fiction and he was certainly a big part of my growing up.

I tried getting into King, I really did, but his books just gathered dust on my shelf, Herbert was another matter entirely. Before you knew it you’d be half way through a book and half way through the night with dark circles under your eyes and a crick neck to boot.

I entered into Herbert’s vividly descriptive world, like most no doubt, through The Rats and its sequels Lair and arguably his magnum opus, Domain. The original’s locations were heavily inspired by Herbert’s childhood, and the latter, rather ironically seeing as it dealt with London after a nuclear attack, blew me away, the opening chapter with the melting policeman setting the tone of furry things to come.

james-herbert-48The Fog, no nothing to do with the John Carpenter film, was swiftly consumed after that, along with Jonah, The Survivor, Haunted, ’48, Portent and The Spear, a personal favourite which would make such a great film, all receiving well-worn spines and dog-eared covers. They were perfect for any teenager, full of glorious descriptions of death and full of just as glorious descriptions of sex, and as with most horror it didn’t generally end very well.  ’48 was a (then) rare purchase in hardback, I bought it when I was at University and it dealt with an alternate World War 2 reality, it was also written in the first person. I remember buying that hardback edition, probably my first. It almost seemed akin to Charlie buying his Wonka Bar.

Those early works, in particular, still hold an amazing sway and power, the imagery they produced (even when you close your eyes) still remain. They are just so raw and nasty, almost primeval and totally unputdownable. Talking of imagery I always liked the covers, which were apparently all designed by Herbert himself as he used to work in an ad agency. I’ll always remember his folded arm stance in that black leather jacket as well for his book photos.

James_Herbert-4I’ve a sneaking suspicion that The Rats and Company will be padding their way back down from the loft, as I am sure they will be with lots of other people. Expect some of his old favourites to make reappearances on best-selling lists and on tube trains, The Rats ‘infesting’ London just like they did back in 1974 when the 100,000 run sold out in just three weeks.

When talking about his work, perhaps Stephen King put it best when he said: “James Herbert comes at us with both hands, not willing to simply engage our attention, he seizes us by the lapels and begins to scream in our faces.”

Even over 25 years after picking up my first Herbert novel I can still hear the screaming…long may it continue.

Machu He Wrote

IMG_0498He may not be Stephen King, JK Rowling or Dan Brown, nor is he breaking records on the New York Times Best Seller list but Dave Phillips does have a book bearing his name on book shelves. Two to be precise.

There was no multimillion pound deal, no pitching or pouring over manuscripts, this was self-publishing using a fantastic service and software from Blurb. They say that everyone has a book in them, with Blurb it couldn’t be easier to make it a reality.

And that reality is ‘The Last Picchu Show’.

Dave Phillips has been a keen blogger on WordPress for several years with his mix of reviews and acute observations. His blog, Writer on the Storm, began predominantly as a travel blog, charting his travels across America.

Peru_2011_424This odyssey was followed was followed by an even greater epic journey, one this time that would take him down the Amazon and into deepest, darkest Peru (marmalade sandwiches optional) and to Machu Picchu.

If adventure has a name then it must be David Phillips. It was this journey that I decided to take and put into print form, to produce it as an actual book.

It sounds like an easy cut and paste job, far from it. By the end of producing this ever so special limited edition book I almost felt that I had been on the actual journey with Dave as well.

IMG_0496I’d had to read each and every word, scour each picture and add ever so minor tweaks and edits to ensure it fit on the pages properly and looked the best it possibly could. I’d immersed myself in the work completely, it taking over whole evenings into early mornings in the race for a Christmas deadline. This was to be the ultimate gift for Christmas.

In many ways it was also the culmination of something that started over 20 years ago as when we were both aged 13 or so we attempted to write our own horror novel together.

Dave’s style drags you into his world of adventure, it’s a very likable prose and his regaling of events is enthusiastic and makes you feel a part of the experience as if it were your very own. It’s one part Michael Palin, one part Dave Gorman, one part Indiana Jones but unmistakably whole part Dave Phillips.

Of course I’d read it before as the adventure originally unfolded over time but I’d never consumed it all in such a short period of time. For me it was the equivalent of devouring a whole DVD series boxset in one weekend.

The original content my not have been my own work but important choices in size, font, which images to use, cover design and back cover blurb were all editorial decisions to be made by me. With great editorial power comes great responsibility, I guess, and for me it was only there to muck up.

I knew (hoped and prayed) Dave would be impressed by the end product but I’d set the bar high and wanted to do the work justice, I wanted to produce something that looked felt and smelt like a book you could buy on Amazon or in Waterstones.

There is the odd silly error (on my part) that I’ve noted but considering I was acting as a twilight one man publishing machine, with a helping hand from the Blurb design system, I think the book is something of a mini-triumph.

I was so impressed with how it looked online that I went and ordered myself a copy, there still isn’t anything much greater than seeing something you have helped create and nurture in physical print. Something that you can hold, touch and flick through. I knew all about it and I was still blown away by how good it looked.

peru backI think it is safe to say that Dave was rather taken aback with how good it looked, you’d swear some of his pics were library pictures, and read as well, it never fails to amaze me when you read back your own work and think, ‘how did I even think of that?’ After all, Dave hadn’t read much of his blog entries from that time since he had originally posted them.

It was great to hear that even after having it a while he was reading his own book on the train to York. With my copy there are currently only two copies of the book in existence. I’d love to see everyone on that train to York reading it.

That’s not as far-fetched as it sounds as with Blurb the more books you self publish the lower the price, there are a whole host of other print on demand possibilities as well. Bottom line is we can take another pass at it and republish it better, faster, stronger. Who knows Dave could go from sailing up the Amazon to selling his books on it.

Now…how do I top that this Christmas?

peru-2011-763[2]Of course technically if his travels to the US get the book treatment that would be a prequel, so continuing the loose Indiana Jones thread that would make it his Temple of Doom (minus chilled monkey brains – although there was a Guinea Pig – and Short Round). Does that mean any third travel adventure would have to be with his dad?

The Snowman and the Snowdog

The-Snowman-and-The-Snowdog[1]It took over a year to make and included over 200,000 sheets of paper, with each cel painstakingly hand drawn, and is the sequel to a Christmas favourite, but does The Snowman and the Snowdog bark up the right tree?

The short answer is happily a yes. The original version of The Snowman, based on the Raymond Briggs classic book, is part of our Christmas DNA. It’s up there with Bond, Eric and Ernie and Del Boy as a Christmas perennial.

We know each beat, each pencil stroke almost, and still take that small leap with the boy and the Snowman when they leave the confines of the garden to those, quite literally, soaring chords.

The Snowman and the SnowdogIt’s a relationship we’ve had for 30 years so to return to something so well-known and so beloved was always going to be a challenge, at least you can’t call it a quick cash-in! Now, there is a new Snowman on the block…one Snowman and his Snowdog to be precise.

As much as The Snowman was part of my childhood, I was seven when it was first broadcast, I’m hoping this new Snowman will be as much a part of Isabelle’s.

Like most sequels it is bigger in scope, rather than flying over Brighton and the surrounding area, this time we have London and the OXO Tower, Big Ben and the London Eye.

pagebanner_dog[1]The moving sketchy pencil drawn backgrounds had an air of welcome familiarity about them as soon as it started, almost as if CGI had never happened. It was almost like a time machine and it was nice to have that look and retro feel of the original that allowed us to believe that the tale unfolding before us inhabited the same universe as the original.

Like the original it wasn’t without its heartache. I knew as soon as I saw the old dog lifted from the moving lorry coupled with lingering shots that we would soon be saying farewell to it in the back garden. I’m not sure what young kids made of this but being a dog owner this was harrowing enough for me on Christmas Eve (it was also repeated on Christmas Day).

After having moved into the house a young boy finds the original Snowman’s hat and scarf under the floorboards, passing on the baton to the next generation. Soon enough it is snowing and we find ourselves at the snowman building scene where we first meet the two characters of the title.

snowman[1]2012 may have been the Chinese year of the Dragon but when it came to film and TV it was certainly the year of the dog with Uggie at the Oscars and BAFTAs after his star turn in The Artist, Pudsey on Britain’s Got Talent and now, the Snowdog, prestigious cover star of the Christmas Radio Times no less (AKA the Christmas Bible).

Who could not help but fall in love with him and his ears made of socks. Nevermind flying through the air, he’ll be flying off shelves when his soft toy version arrives (and yes, I have been looking). It isn’t here yet but the question ‘where can I buy a Snowdog’ was ranking high on a Google search.

And, yes, as in the original it was exhilarating to see all three characters take flight. For me this is the stand out moment of the film and the animation is perfect, it gets me everytime. You can see the ‘take off’ moment here in the trailer.

Of course ‘Walking in the Air’ has become synonymous with the original flight sequence, it almost a character in its own right. The original was recorded by St Paul’s Cathedral choirboy Peter Auty and not Aled Jones, that was later for a Gas advert.

To try and emulate it (as they did of sorts with a young Charlotte Church with the animation of another Raymond Briggs piece, The Bear) would be wrong but they had to get it right as in the original that is the signature moment of the whole film.

For me, what accompanied The Snowman and the Snowdog taking flight captured the whole sequence perfectly. ‘Light the Night’ by former Razorlight drummer Andy Burrows is an instant classic and I don’t quite know what it is but I have to compose myself when hearing it or seeing that sequence to hold my emotions in check. I’ve found myself taking in a sharp breath several times when it starts, with its tinkling introduction, as it’s just so full of a whole myriad of feeling and rather melancholy. It just all  fits and captures the moment wonderfully with an ever-building crescendo and leaves it, deservedly, racing round your head.

Bringing back some traditional Christmas spirit in the music, to both ‘Light the Night’ and the rest of the film’s music is composer Ilan Eshkeri, who did an equally amazing string-heavy score for Stardust, both fantasies of course, and the score for this very much emulates that in its epic and soaring feel.

The original was nominated for an Oscar, the sequel may have been too light to gain anomination this year, but Academy Award nod or not it is already a winner in the eyes of my two-year old daughter. She must have seen it about ten times already and it was the very first thing she asked for after being away for New Year, the first think we did was ‘K’ it on our Sky +, deleting it in error at our peril!

The Snowman and the Snowdog has certainly melted this little girl’s heart, and her mum and dad’s along with it too. I think secretly we are quite pleased when she says she wants to watch it again.

Of course, like the original, there has to be a somewhat downbeat ending (I won’t give it away for anyone that hasn’t seen it yet) but perhaps the saddest ending of all is the dedication in the credits to Producer, John Coates. He Produced the original and was instrumental in getting The Snowman and the Snowdog (quite literally) off the ground but sadly passed away before completion.

His legacy will live on each and every Christmas though…or throughout the whole year in our house if Isabelle continues watching it at her current rate of knots..

xmas12640[1]For me The Snowman and the Snowdog echoes the original whilst leaving its own set of paw prints to produce a successful and pleasing continuation of a classic. Isabelle was transfixed by it and it really filled her with a sense of awe and wonder. It was nice to have something new yet felt traditional at the same time. It’s an instant Christmas classic.

Jaws – still top of the blockbuster food chain

Jaws is released on Bluray for the first time in the UK on Monday 3rd September, I look back to my first viewing of this newly spruced up print of the classic Spielberg thriller on the big screen back in June. And yes, I’ll be buying it again, adding it to my pan and scan VHS copy, my widescreen VHS copy and both the 25th and 30th anniversary DVDs.

My journey to see Jaws, my all time favourite film, has been 10 years in the making and after all that time, all those viewings, it didn’t disappoint. Put simply it was Jawsome.

It is somewhat fitting that Jaws has been re released as part of the centenary celebrations of Universal Studios in June, smack bang in the middle of the summer blockbuster season, as Jaws is the grandaddy of them all, the first film to have such a large (at the time) opening, and the first to hit that magic $100 million mark. In more ways than one it is the big fish.

37 years have passed since Jaws first swam onto our screens but it still more than holds its own against today’s output, in fact it is the filmic equivalent of what Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) calls the shark, ‘the perfect eating machine’.

As a piece of cinema Jaws was always the near perfect piece of cinema and now, cleaned up frame by frame and looking like it was practically shot last week, this lean mean thriller machine became the closest to cinematic perfection it has ever got.

Put simply, you can forget your Star Wars, forget your toying with special effects, nipping, tucking or even adding here and there (yes you Mr Cameron, Mr Lucas – sounds like Are You Being Served – and Mr Scott), this is cleaned up but otherwise untouched, and still has the same shark and still has that primal fear in buckets, along with the chum.

Spielberg has clearly learnt from his ‘walky talky’ medling with E.T. and left Jaws exactly as it was, save for giving it a fresh lick of paint and thankfully modification free.

It may sound obvious but never having seen the film on the big screen the first thing that hit me was that it all looked so big, from the (thankfully) old fashioned Universal logo to each and every character introduction, counting the fictional Amity Island in that.

With such a large canvas, that had also expertly been cleaned up, we are able to feel even closer to that (really rather sunny and bright for the most part) world and see and notice so many small things in the background that I hadn’t done before. It was practically like seeing the film for the very first time.

Jaws still packs a punch (or should that be bite radius) of a juggernaut. The opening Chrissie attack sequence has never looked so uncomfortably clear, her nakedness making you almost feel voyeur like – making it even closer akin to the shower scene it Psycho in that respect – right up until that moment of impact when the John Williams score and sound effects really kick into high gear. If anything its heightened more than ever with the Alex Kitner lilo attack, which in many ways seemed even more powerful. They both form part of my article, Death Becomes Them, charting the ‘best’ death scenes in the Jaws series.

It’s not the 25 foot shark, all three tonnes of it, that dominates the film though, each and every piece of the film he is in is dominated by Robert Shaw as Quint. Scheider and Dreyfuss are no slouches for sure and the way the threesome ping off each other is a joy to behold (the script coupled with the beauty of the extra rehearsal time due to operating problems with the shark et al – read Man vs Beast for my take on the making of) but Quint has never been so dominant, so alive. He chews scenery like the shark chews his boat, the Orca, at the end of the film and his eyes, his eyes are just so piercing a blue that they make Daniel Craig’s look practically dull in comparison. It confirmed to me that more classic Shaw films should be viewed on the big screen but also left a genuine feeling of loss, for the man, Shaw died only three years after the release of Jaws, and for cinema generally as he carved such an impression up their on the big screen, seen as he should be and not on a box – no matter what its size – in the corner of the room.

Jaws never puts a foot wrong, it still has fantastic pace, still thrills and scares a little in all the right places and also makes people laugh in all the places that it is meant to do. Rubber shark or no rubber shark it, like Alien after it, which after all was pitched as Jaws in Space, still taps into that primeval fear and when each and every person bringing that to life is working at the top of their game you can’t go wrong, critically,commercially or for longevity.

The decade wait was well worth it, and I’m pleased that Bruce, as the shark was nicknamed by Spielberg, came back for his noon feeding to mark the hundredth anniversary of Jaws,it mattered not that most of us in that small screening room had seen it hundreds of times, knew exactly what shot or line of dialogue came next we were all in awe of the remastered Jaws and to paraphrase Chief Brody at the end of the film as he blows the great white shark out of the water as it races toward him, we were all smiling like sons of bitches. 

 

Strange, Iz on a train

Isabelle’s first train journey was to be  a memorable affair as it also marked her first trip into London, our destination, the shopping centre at Canary Wharf.

Sarah, Grandma, Iz and I set off for our epic journey, ably assisted by a lift to Chalkwell Station by Grandad. It looked as if it was going to be a lovely day weather wise so armed with pushchair, having carried Iz in it down the platform steps, somewhat like the Odessa steps sequence in The Untouchables, minus the hail of bullets you understand, we waited for our train to arrive at the station…and Iz was very, very excited when it did.

Isabelle’s green coat rather complemented the decor of our carriage and looking more adorable than ever she loved the information overload that her inaugural train journey presented to her from the scenery outside flashing by at great speed, to trying out sitting on the table, trying out sitting on a chair (little miss fidget bum) to taking a stroll up and down the train and taking the opportunity to be nosey about everyone else onboard.

Mostly she just enjoyed watching the world outside go by.

Cars and planes never phased her so why should trains I guess, as you can see she was more than at home, all of which made us release that is growing as a person and in confidence at an expediential rate and it was something you could see unfolding in front of your very eyes on that day.

This was the first time that any of us had really ever been to Canary Wharf and after hitting Tiffany’s we had all developed something of an appetite and made our way to Pizza Express, which Grandma and Iz managed to sniff out. This particular Pizza Express had some rather nifty doors that more than echoed those in Jurassic Park.

By this time Iz had felt that she had had her hair in bunches for plenty long enough thanks so took her bands out of her hair so that she could enjoy her drawing – well it was the weekend Daddy and a girl has to let her hair down once in a while.

Iz really enjoyed her dough balls, although the same can’t really be said about the cherry tomatoes which must have been a little bit tart judging by the reaction.

After lunch and me going the wrong way up or is that down an escalator in true Mr Bean style (I was trying to help with the pushchair on the escalators) which was met with guffaws by Sarah and her mum – thanks ladies!

After such tomfoolery we did make it outside and the overriding feeling was that it really didn’t feel like we were in London, it had more of  a feel of say New York, especially with the building that just seem to go up and up and up.

We did make it back inside and hit the shops where we found GAP were having a rather splendid sale, so Iz came away with a few essential purchases for the season , she also met a few familiar characters.

By this time Iz had grown tired of wandering round the store so she ended up in the arms of Daddy so that it was easier to watch Mummy as she paid for said items and proceeded to have something of a little boogie to the instore music, it’s amazing what you can get away with if you are carrying a toddler than if you aren’t.

After the limited moves I was busting we started on our journey back home and Isabelle took some time to look out of the window and reflect on all she had packed into her first trip into London.

It was at this point that she also decided she was still peckish so got her doggy bag of pizza out for some real pizza express as we zoomed home.

All that walking, pointing, talking, eating and looking out of windows made for one tired little girl as we entered back into the station (by the way ladies I had the tickets but couldn’t tell you as I was busy filming).

Getting ready to leave the train it was of course Isabelle who had the honour of opening the doors onto Chalkwell Station, ending our journey where it had begun that morning but returning with full bellies, full of memories and bags full of clothes from GAP. Isabelle had grown to love her train and waved it a fond goodbye as it grew ever smaller as it raced away to deliver more people home, but both it and Isabelle knew that their paths would cross again one day again soon.

Tales from the Crypt

I see dead people

“If you do feel the need to run, please turn your torch on before you do so.” So enthused our Medium, Paul Roberts, he’s obviously been busy since he left The Stranglers, not that one clearly.

Now, when you think of Mediums you most probably think of Tangina from Poltergeist or most likely Derek Acorah, not forgetting his spirit guide Sam. Paul was like neither, he wasn’t short or a silver fox with an earring for a start. He did however have a long leather coat, which he could swish dramatically.

At the bottom of the tower we stood in our first circle and Paul gave a great ghost hunting 101 on the difference between a ghost and a spirit, according to Paul a ghost is like a recording in time that is on constant replay, like a paranormal sky +, that does not alter or change. A spirit on the other hand has can interact and be interacted with. Oxford Castle was open to both.

Paul said: “A ghost energy, a tape recording, can’t interact with us; they don’t know we are here. The stone tape theory basically says your aura is laid down in the fabric of the building, the stonework, the floor. So, if you did something at the same time in the same place for say 40 years the stone tape theory says that in a hundred years time a group like this could see a ghost of you doing that very action. But it’s just a recording.”

“ If you Sky + EastEnders and have Pat Evans walking through a door, if you wave at her she will not wave back because she is just a recording, that is a ghost. “

Pat Evans is a ghost .Check.

He went onto say that a spirit, of which we had one in there, is the opposite. “They are aware of us, aware of the environment and they can interact with us, touch us, pull hair, whisper into our ears or even say their names out loud. They can even move things, throw things or show themselves as apparitions.”

Paul certainly had the crowd hanging on his every word; it was almost like watching a magician on stage as he took command of the audience. Apparently, one of our spirits was male, about 5 “3 and from 1347, the year, not the time obviously. A Norman type figure.

Surprisingly awake at 2am, the two fuel stops for coffee helped for sure, most people were still in high spirits, no pun intended.

Feeling a little like Ten Little Indians we were divided into two smaller groups of about 15 people, which helped give the proceedings a more intimate affair, which was a neat touch as it helped keep the evening’s exploits fresh. The vigil in the crypt with the medium was an interesting space and experience

As instructed we turned out our torchlights one by one until blackness remained, not dark in your hallway dark but complete. By taking out your primary sense, your eye sight your other senses are heightened, including your hearing.

Holding hands of men I’ve never met, well even men I’ve met generally as a rule, is not a common occurrence for me but when told the one thing you must not do in a vigil is to break the circle, you grip that hand like you aren’t going to let go. I was concerned in the darkness that I might sneeze in such a dusty environment, but my sneeze (and boy can mine be loud) reverberating never materialised.

Glowsbusters

Although it was pitch black in the crypt I was the only one that anyone was able to pinpoint where I was owing to me wearing my glow in the dark Ghostbusters hooded top, from those nice folk at Last Exit to Nowhere. Initially some people mentioned this floating apparition to the medium when I chipped in.

Seeing as I was one of the only people that could be located I was an obvious choice for the medium to use as a reference point every so often, all the time me thinking, yes Dean, that was clever I may as well have come down there covered in glow sticks and a sandwich board saying please haunt me.

Paul asked the spirit to talk “as lively and loudly as it could” into my tape machine. Upon reviewing it, only the voices that were there at the time of recording could be detected. Phew! He did admit in the 17 years he’s been involved in this world of the paranormal he has never seen anyone harmed by a spirit.

Alas I was also guilty of dashing other members’ of the groups’ hopes of paranormal proof after they heard inhuman type noises reverberating around the stone walls, it was just my stomach growling and squeaking as if I had swallowed a dolphin.

However, Sarah was blown on the neck twice, the first time she dismissed it as just her mind playing tricks and the environment we were in but the second sent her arm body popping and almost wrenching Shona’s out of her socket, fair play though, the circle remained complete. Shona’s legs also went extremely hot at one point and it was certainly interesting that Paul mentioned, after the fact, that people are more prone to feeling hotspots, insert own Michael Barrymore joke here, rather than Hollywood’s more traditional cold spots

Two members of the circle, who’d been a little annoying all night with their quips, mentioned sensations of having their ribs be squeezed and a jabbing in the ribs, to be honest I scoffed at this and it seemed to smack of playing up to the crowd. However, it turned out that the medium revealed at the very end that one of the spirits in that room specials in poking people in the ribs just above their waistband…

He was very careful not to lead us so didn’t give very much away in the way of what these spirits generally did to anyone in the space they inhabited.

GSI: Ghost Scene Investigation

The evening of paranormal investigation flew by and was extremely varied so it becoming mundane or boring was never an option. It wasn’t just stumbling round with torches a la The X Files, we also tried moving glasses and using a pendulum, and I had very little success with divining rods, which are meant to be effected by ley lines.

Noises were heard in other parts of the building but with it being night, another team several floors up, who can tell if it just wasn’t noises from them carrying through?

Later that same morning and a hearty breakfast is the first order of the day, which gives us chance to the events of earlier that morning. We played our dictaphone back in the hope that we might have picked up some EVP. The hiss from the dictaphone is quite distinct, no Amityville Horror-style ‘get out’ noises or anything like that to report, our voices and the mediums alone.

The night was a great experience that lets you be both the investigator as well as the participant with the freedom to explore on your own in the darkness – worth the price for the sheer Hardy Boysness of it all alone.

fastest finger first

The glass moving with the finger on top, divination, was something of a none event as it didn’t really move or even shuffle for anyone, which I guess is at least better that way than someone just forcing it, it did however make it seem more like an even lamer version of Touch the Truck, if such a thing is even possible.

Although we left without anything conclusive, as dawn approached the earlier words of Medium, Paul Roberts, echoed in our thoughts. He said: “At the age of two you don’t know that ghosts exist, because you don’t know what they are, you don’t know the difference. Later, every time you mention seeing a ‘ghost’, you are repeatedly told again and again that there are no such things and you are conditioned to believe that they don’t exist.”

He added: “I’m not the type of Medium that runs round saying that you will believe, as far as I’m concerned you have to make your own individual decision, whether that is based on tonight or based on other nights as to whether or not there is anything there. I love sceptics. If we here a stone drop a sceptic will not say. ‘we’ve got a ghost’, they’ll wonder what it was that could have made that noise and that is the way everyone should be, everyone should be on the fence.”

And that was certainly where we remained, but eager to try out another Fright Night location and see if we have any luck in capturing things that (may or may not) go bump in the night.

 
 
Did you hear that?

A Haunting We Will Go

The cloudless sky and warmth of the sun didn’t exactly scream a night of ghostly goings on to come. We’re we being lulled into a false sense of security? But then it was hardly going to be Scooby Doo with grotesque shaped trees or fork lightning on cue. One thing was for sure though, with all those murders on Inspector Morse, no wonder Oxford is meant to be so haunted!

Seven hours of ghost hunting awaited us on our first Fright Night’s ghost hunt, but first we enjoyed a few spirits of another kind in a couple of pubs dotted round near the castle. Established in 1999, Fright Nights is the oldest ghost hunting company in the UK with such evenings taking place at over 100 locations across the country

To say my brother, Gavin, came prepared was an understatement, deep breath,  seven torches, including a wind up one, you know, just in case the spirits sap all the energy, a night vision camcorder, a dictaphone and some crystals to keep us from harm. He’s pretty much the Tackleberry of the paranormal!

Sarah and I had already discussed what would make a successful evening, moving glasses and a wobbling table not being part of the equation. Noises and footsteps in such an old building where groups were split up, not to mention the hordes of drunken students roaming the town like Zombie extras, were also not conclusive.

We wanted items moving or being moved, or even good old orbs. Not too much to ask of somewhere with such a history is it?

Sarah said she was even going to do a Yvette Fielding and ask a spirit to throw something, not Gavin with his bulging rucksack though. I’d like to see them try.

EXT. OXFORD CASTLE - NIGHT

And so, as day became night, we began our night locked in Oxford Castle…

The Castle itself dates back to Saxon times, 1004 to be precise, and has a rich and sumptuous history as it was both a court and a prison, part of it now forming the rather posh and plush Mal Maison, although I’m not sure if the guests realise they might be sharing their beds with some uninvited guests. It was a prison until the 90s and was utilised as one for the screen in everything from Bad Girls to 101 Dalmatians and The Italian Job.

Tantalizingly, as we stood outside the dark foreboding walls of the castle we were told that it would take all night to recount all the paranormal activities witnessed here. Our guide went onto say that her most unnerving experience took place right here at the castle and spooked her so much that she did not return to the castle for six months!

To the back of us a mound where seven human remains were excavated, a mound that was also fondly referred to as hangman’s hill, as this was where the locals got the best vantage point of where the executions took place, which is now, rather ironically, a swish restaurant we were a stone’s throw away from called The Living Room. Tales of floaty mist were also recounted before we finally entered the dark, dark castle and headed up the dark, dark tower. The evening had begun and the stench of death was definitely in the air, or was that just the nearby peri peri chicken van parked nearby?

A winding staicase

The sounds of heavy breathing filled the cramped winding staircase of the tower as we headed to its very top and the clear Oxford night air, an area not normally accessible to the public in the day, one woman even getting strange orbs in a few snaps taken from the top. Surely is was too early for capturing any activity yet?

"I'll get you Butler!"

As we were getting acclimatised to the surrounding, firstly in light before we were plunged into darkness we made mental notes of where the liberal numbers of mannequins were so we didn’t getting spooked by the dancing shadows created by torch lights bouncing off them would make, truth be told, even then it took us all a while to be totally at ease in spotting them.

A particularly interesting area we scoped out was D Wing, otherwise known as the hospital prison, complete with a padded cell no less and the ghostly shadow of a tall stocky man, surely that’s just my brother? A story goes that a security guard had a dog with him that heard a noise, it broke free and entered the room only to be heard whimpering, a day later the dog died. Don’t hold back with their tales do they?

The cells

We then travelled through the cells, it almost like being on a film set or a nocturnal version of the Crystal Maze, minus the gaudy jump suits, on our way to the area most hotly anticipated the crypt. The name said it all really, it was dark obviously but it never felt foreboding, it was just rather a cool setting.

This is where our guide had her experience that saw her not return to the Castle for six months. The back wall of the crypt is where the experience took place, where our guide felt her arm be grabbed. Of course, throughout the rest of the evening the crypt and its wall were a popular location, bring on the wall appeared to be the mantra of the night.

Shona and Sarah in the Crypt

It was no surprise then once we told we could break off until small groups, surely the one thing you should never do in a haunted house, that this location was a popular choice as we wielded our mini torches left and right as the walls came to life like a giant zoetrope. Once a larger group of people had moved on only five of us remained and one by one we extinguished our light sources to be left in the pitch black with only our own breathing and the whirring of recording equipment for company, interjected with trying to talk to the spirits.

Forget Sam and Dean Winchester, make way for Gav and Dean Newman, minus the rock salt and sawn off shotgun you understand, wouldn’t have minded that car though.

The second chapter of the evening would raise the paranormal stakes, with the introduction of a Medium…

I ain’t fraid of no ghosts

So mused Ray Parker Jr, ghosts may have not given him sleepless nights but Huey Lewis and the News did when they sued him for the Ghostbusters theme sounding uncannily like one of their tunes.

We’ve got our first ever Fright Nights ghost hunting experience lined up at Oxford Castle, this was penned prior to but posted after that experience, and like the Ghostbusters we, myself, Sarah, my brother, Gavin, and his partner, Shona, are taking on the paranormal as a foursome, albeit minus matching jump suits.

Of course we will have maglites aplenty, doffing of cap to Mulder and Scully, along with some trusty chocolate and caffeine fuelled soft drinks, Mountain Dew with their luminous green bottles, a subconscious nod to Slimer no doubt, to get us through the night. We aired on the side of caution and decided to stay clear away from Stafpuft Marshmallows, just as a precaution you understand.

So, am I a believer or sceptic? Neither really, I’m not expecting rattling chains or Hollywood Paranormal Activity shenanigans, of course who hasn’t seen Most Haunted, who have even spent the night at Oxford Castle in the same areas we are set to tread in the dead of night, or programmes of that ilk.

I spent huge chunks of my childhood mesmerised by the likes of the Usborne Book of Ghosts, Peter Haining’s Book of Hauntings and Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, so am faintly aware of my Borley Rectory to the Enfield Poltergeist, not to mention all things Amityville Horror.

Dean and Gav Winchester, I mean Newman

Back to the Ghostbusters side of things, my brother is certainly the Ray Stanz of the group, equipped with his night vision camcorder and several torches, including a wind up one if the spirits zap the energy in all the others. Not to be outdone, I’d like to think of myself as the Peter Venkman of the group, but with slightly better skin, although am sure the glasses and quiff is more Egon in nature, I’ve got a dictaphone and two stills cameras packed.

I’ll be leaving the likes of Poltergeist and White Noise at the door with the sceptical but open to possibilities me taking those steps into the darkness of Oxford Castle and the secrets that await…the only white light I plan to be walking into is the one into the burgeoning daylight of 4am in the morning.

Horror hits high gear: remembering Maximum Overdrive

Stephen King adaptations have been part and parcel of the horror movie-going experience for more than 30 years and the results have been somewhat patchy, with The Shining and The Dead Zone at one end of the spectrum and the likes of Cujo at the other.

Also sitting pretty at this end of the line is Maximum Overdrive, a film based on a King short story (as so many are) featuring Emilio Estevez. But what sets this apart from other King fodder is that this was the first, and to date, only time that the bespeckled Maine writer has stepped from behind his typewriter to behind the lens to direct.

It’s a mess of a movie sure, but as always with ‘the King of horror’ there are intriguing ideas and interesting images to be had along the way, and to be honest it’s a gloriously fun B-movie in the same vein as Night of the Comet, Cat’s Eye and Creepshow, the latter two of which King was also involved in.

In many ways this is Transformers without the machines transforming into robots but what it does share with its Cybertron cousins is that is has plenty of explosions as pretty much everything you see on screen is blown to smithereens.  Unlike those robots in disguise there are also several rather cool and memorable death scenes including death by lawn mower, a cold drink machine that fires its cans of drink with deadly accuracy and a steam roller that makes a squidgy mess of a baseball team.

With a premise such as this, the emphasis is purely on the fun factor rather than the fear factor, which no doubt disappointed many, but when it’s someone like King running the show there is always some fun to be had. Sure, Emilio Estevez is the only character we give two hoots about (also look out for an appearance by Yeardley Smith AKA Lisa Simpson).

The ‘story’, as little of it there is, unfolds as thus: After a comet passes over earth it leaves a haze surrounding the planet which takes control of machines, making them deadly killers (no reason for this is given but we don’t really need or want one as it would only get in the way), it’s almost a homage to the likes of Day of the Triffids with machines running amuck instead of those pesky plants. A group of people try to stay alive hold up at the Dixie Boy truck stop, think of it as The Alamo with articulated lorries, including the particularly memorable ‘leader’ which has a face not too dissimilar to The Green Goblin.

Released in 1986, this was also the year that Halley’s Comet passed by close to Earth, so it could be seen as a reaction of that as being a supposed harbinger of doom, as it was allegedly sighted before The Battle of Hastings. It could also be seen as a pre-curser to the worry, even though it never materialised, over the likes of Y2K. For all of its comedy and its big bangs it certainly takes a tiny leaf out of the James Cameron book of doom mongering in posing questions about our over reliance on new technology and how we would cope if it bit back.

Before the days of mobile phones and our devotion to all things technology you can’t help but wonder whether it wouldn’t be the right time for a remake of sorts, like all geniuses perhaps King was just ahead of his time with this particular tale?

The mindless mayhem and death and destruction are worth a peek on its own and surely a film with little leaguers getting neatly pressed by a steamroller can’t all be bad!! A bonafide cult classic.