The Pony Riders: Book of the Month – October 2016

“The Pony Riders” was certainly a departure from my horror novels. It is also my lengthiest novel at 380 pages.

Why, then, did I write a western? Since boyhood I have been an ardent fan of westerns, and tales of the pony express captivated my imagination, especially those featuring the notorious gunman J.A. Slade. Slade, though, was romanticised in some of the stories about him in boys’ papers. In reality he was a drunken gunman and murderer which is perhaps why he was appointed Road Boss on a section of the route ridden by those brave carriers of the U.S. mail.

Mark Twain wrote of him “He was so friendly and gentle spoken that I warmed to him in spite of his awful history. It was hardly possible to realise that this person was the pitiless scourge of the outlaws, the raw-headed-and-bloody-bones the mothers of the mountains terrified their children with. And to this day I can remember nothing remarkable about Slade except that his face was rather broad across and the cheek bones were low and the lips peculiarly thin and straight. But that was enough to leave something of an effect upon me, for since then I seldom see a face like that without fancying that the owner of it is a dangerous man.”

All of the pictures which I have seen of Slade portrayed him dressed in black with a matching brimmed hat.

As a boy, armed with a toy cap-firing pistol, I used to pretend that I was J.A. Slade, gunning down outlaws and Indians.

Moving on many years, Jean and I went to New York to meet my Zebra editors. We were taken to lunch and clearly they were looking to commission my next two horror books. That was when I dropped my bombshell announcing that “I would like to write a western!”

There was a stunned silence, then “well, let us have a synopsis and some sample chapters and we will give it every consideration.”

I did just that on my return home and “The Pony Riders” saw publication in 1997. It was a factual history with a fictional plot interwoven. Of course, one of the leading characters was J.A. Slade.

It was published under the Pinnacle imprint and did tolerably well. In fact I recently noticed that a copy was offered on the internet at £30!

For myself, J.A. Slade lives on.

I have it in mind to write another western sometime. I wonder how it would be received by my current fan base.

The Busker: Book of the Month – September 2016

By the mid-1990’s traditional genre publishing, including horror, had virtually disappeared. It was a trend which was not doing fans any favours.

At that time I was doing very well with Zebra/Kensington, USA, but out of the blue they informed me that they were discontinuing their horror list and concentrating on self-help books and romances. In view of my encouraging sales I was not pleased to put it mildly.

So I decided to try self-publishing. This was in the days before e-books and Print-on-Demand so I had to go down the traditional road and found a very reasonably priced printer in Ireland. There was much work involved in preparing a manuscript for the printers and I am indebted to Hal Astell for his help in this.

“The Busker” was published in 1998. It had already been short-listed for the Lichfield Prize and, following other short-listings in previous years, would have been published by Sphere who sponsored these awards. But, of course, Sphere were no longer interested in horror!

I had set this unusual horror novel in the City of Lichfield. A somewhat unusual dark fantasy theme, it was launched there at the James Redshaw bookshop with a very encouraging attendance on the evening.

The cover picture was provided by my good friend, Andrew Compton, a professional press photographer. As we decided upon a picture of the Busker, the central character, I decided to pose for this, clad in ragged garb, a hat pulled down over my face in order to hide my identity.

Then, one of the fans at the launch, raised a hand and asked “who’s the Busker then?”

I had my explanation ready, that there had been this tramp in the district for some time and I had paid him a quid to lie down in the grass and have his photo taken.

“Then why is he wearing your pullover?” the fan fired back at me!

Okay, I then had to admit to being the Busker on that photo shoot.

Night of the Crabs: Book of the Month – August 2016

By 1975 I had achieved my ambition to become a professional author and that year I left my job in banking to go full time. It was a nail-biting move, though, and my main concern was for the future. Would it be sufficient to provide an income which would sustain a wife and three children? Angus, our fourth child, was born in 1976.

I had already submitted the manuscript for “Night of the Crabs” to New English Library but they had not advised me of their publishing plans except that it was due to be released in the summer of 1976.

In July that year we went on holiday to Barmouth where the book was set. So, one balmy evening we were meandering through the town where most of the shops were still open. Gavin, our eldest son, wandered into W.H. Smith’s and suddenly there was a loud shout from him that had heads turning. “Dad, they’ve got hundreds of your books in here!”

So it was. A major instore display on shelves and a central revolving rack labelled “The No.1 Beach read.”

The shop manager approached me, enquired if I was the author, and then asked if I could possibly do a signing session – there and then! The outcome was that I ended up sitting at a table inside the doorway signing copies for a seemingly endless queue of buyers.

That was just the start. “Night of the Crabs” was on sale just about everywhere, had already been reprinted before publication, and saw 9 subsequent reprints and a number of foreign translation rights sold. Four months later the movie rights were purchased by Amicus.

A year later I fulfilled another of my ambitions, selling our house in Tamworth and moving to Black Hill, a remote area of the Shropshire/Welsh border hills where I already had the shooting rights and had been travelling here for the past 14 years.

Jean and I still live here today as my fans are well aware, many of them having attended my annual Fan Club Convention here. This year is a special occasion with my convention celebrating its 25th anniversary on Sunday, September 4th.

Bamboo Guerillas: Book of the Month – July 2016

As mentioned in last month’s Book of the Month, Mews Books, a newly formed small USA publisher in the 1970’s, commissioned me to write “The Truckers” series.  All their UK books were distributed by New English Library under the editorship of the late Peter Haining in 1977.  Hardly had I had time to change the ribbon in my manual typewriter before Peter phoned me to say that Mews wanted me to write a war series.  Peter told me to set it in Malaya, focusing on the inhumanities and cruelty inflicted on captured British servicemen and told me “go over the top, there are no boundaries in these books!”  So I did just that and both books were completed in about six weeks.

However, all was not well at Mews.  Series books were fast becoming unfashionable and they decided to close their project.  The outcome was that NEL took on the remaining books.

Soon after I received a phone call from a young editor at NEL.  She said that the violence and sex in Bamboo Guerillas was far too explicit and could I tone it down!  I said ‘no!’  I had been directed to write it as such and I was not prepared to spend time on a lengthy, unnecessary rewrite!

So in 1977 “Bamboo Guerillas” was published by NEL, with some editing (!), but no mention of it being no.1 of a series, no.2 never appeared.

It went to a reprint without mention of this in the latter.  The first edition has a red cover depicting an Allied Forces soldier gruesomely stabbing a Japanese soldier.  The front cover blurb is “Kill or be killed in a savage Jungle War.”  The reprint is in very slightly larger format showing a charging Japanese with extended bayonet.  The cover is predominantly white yet it is stated that this is a first edition!  Curious.

Some years ago I was introduced to the cover artist of the “reprint”, Tony Masero, who kindly signed my own copy for me.

I cannot find the copy manuscript of the books.  They probably got lost in our move from Tamworth to Black Hill and doubtless NEL destroyed the originals after publication of the first.  If I still had them then we would publish the second in the series.  The idea has crossed my mind to write a sequel.  “Bamboo Guerillas” is one of my most collectible titles, especially the “reprint.”  I guess the print run was small.  Copies do crop up from time to time, though, on the internet.

The Truckers: Book of the Month – June 2016

During the 1970’s series were big business in paperbacks publishing, usually featuring a main character whose adventures continued from book to book.

Mews Books were located in Connecticut, USA, small publishers who decided to concentrate solely on series and had an arrangement with my own publishers at that time, New English Library, to distribute the books in the UK.

Mews contacted me in 1976 requesting synopses for horror, western and war series. I submitted all 3 genres and was expecting to be commissioned a horror series. Surprise, surprise they asked me to write a Truckers series, so it was back to the drawing board, more synopses and then one of the fastest “go-aheads” I’ve ever had.

The result was 2 novels, published together, “The Truckers No.1 – The Black Knights” followed by No.2 – “Hi-Jack!” The reason for Mews’ choice of this genre came from a smash-hit television series “The Brothers.” They hoped that my books would follow its success, even mentioning the TV series in the rear cover blurb of both novels.

Well, they did not follow in the wake of “The Brothers” because this time the theme had been overdone. The TV series finished and “The Truckers” made little impact.

However, today these titles are scarce and are avidly sought after by GNS collectors, fetching high prices on e-bay and elsewhere.

Fiend: Book of the Month – May 2016

During the 1980s & 1990s I became friendly with the late Craig Thomas, author of ‘Firefox’ (filmed and starring Clint Eastwood) and several other spy thrillers.  Jean and I used to visit Craig and his wife Jill whenever we were in the Lichfield area.

Craig was keen for me to write a thriller and in the late 1980s I conceded to his persuasion and wrote ‘Fiend’. In this instance I had to combine it with a horror theme or else my publishers at that time (Sphere) would not have been interested.

It is set in the Kremlin prior to an important conference in which the Russian leader’s presence is vital.  Unfortunately the latter had died shortly before.  The Soviets were in a state of panic and as a last resort they sought the help of a black magician to raise him from the dead, which he did successfully.

The outcome was an undead leader exerting his evil power over the Soviet delegation but not as they had planned!

I was rather shocked by the gory cover of the book but it proved its worth, the first printing selling out and going to a reprint.

In a strange way ‘Fiend’ reflects President Brezhnev’s final days.  In March 1982 it was reported by U.S. intelligence that Brezhnev had suffered a stroke while making a four-day trip to Tashkent, but there was a cover-up.  The Kremlin denied that he was gravely ill but just ‘on his regular winter rest!’  Brezhnev managed to hang on to power until his death eight months after he had fallen ill.

Truth is, as the saying goes, stranger than fiction.

Several of my books have been pirated in Russia but I doubt whether these underground ‘publishers’ would risk issuing ‘Fiend’.  They would probably be sentenced to a long stay in Siberia!

An Unholy Way To Die: Book of the Month – April 2016

I have written in numerous genres over the years but until ‘An Unholy Way to Die’ I had not penned an historical mystery.  I probably never would have done had I not attended the opening of a new bookshop in Telford Town Centre in 1998.  Here I met Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) author of the famous Cadfael series.

We had a very informative chat during which she suggested that I write a mystery set in a bygone age.  I thought long and hard about it and then decided to give it a go.

I settled for the Shakespearean era and set the book in Stratford-upon-Avon.  It required an enormous amount of research but a year later saw publication.

I decided to launch my novel in that town so hired the town hall for an evening.  In keeping with the occasion I dressed in an Elizabethan costume!

The launch was highly successful, well attended by friends and fans.  It was certainly a memorable evening.

I wrote this book under the Gavin Newman pseudonym which I used for my crime & mystery fiction.

An Unholy Way To Die Book Launch

An Unholy Way To Die Book Launch

Full photo caption: Shropshire novelist Guy Smith officially launched his latest book ‘An Unholy Way To Die’ in Stratford-on-Avon. Guy, from Black Hill between Knighton and Clun, has written the novel under the pseudonym of Gavin Newman. The book launch was held in the town hall where Guy and his family and friends donned medieval costume for the signing. Guy puts quill to paper for the Mayor of Stratford Councillor Angela Colbeck.

The Knighton Vampires: Book of the Month – March 2016

I had had it in mind for some time to write a vampire novel. I had given much thought to the idea but it needed to be different from all that had gone before; these blood suckers had been done to death in both books and movies, all spawned by the legendary Dracula. I needed a plot and characters that were refreshing, if that was possible.

Also, following the success of “The Black Fedora”, I had toyed with the idea of bringing back that strange character. So, why not write a vampire novel set around himself and with vampires that were a far cry from those that had gone before from the days of the Penny Dreadful up to the Hammer film portrayals?  Forget Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, icons of the genre as they had been.

Then came another idea. Why not set the book locally? I chose Knighton just over the border from my home in the hills.

So, I wrote “The Knighton Vampires” just a year after the publication of “The Black Fedora”. Sphere Books were thrilled with the idea. I had a proof cover within weeks for the paperback version and then everything sank, literally. Robert Maxwell, the publishing legend, was drowned, and Sphere and other publishers owned by him were put in receivership. “The Knighton Vampires” was snapped up by Piatkus who issued it in hardcover in 1993.

Everything was back on course and the Man in the Black Fedora returned, hunting some very unusual vampires in Knighton. The book enjoyed one of the best launches I have ever had at the town’s Community Centre with a hundred or so visitors including the mayor. I sold a lot of books that night and the library had to order extra copies in order to cope with the lending demand.

Knighton Vampires Book Signing

Knighton Vampires Book Signing

Locals were eagerly looking to see if they could recognise themselves amongst the many characters featured. One did, a pure coincidence on my part. One of the town’s police officers engaged in the investigation, I called Phil Morris. As it happened a Phil Morris had joined the local bobbies after my book was written. He thought it was great and even now, several years after his retirement, when we meet in the street we share a laugh about the coincidence!

Piatkus, like most other publishers, followed the trade’s trend to discontinue horror, so “The Knighton Vampires” remains one of my most collectible titles. I still hear from fans who are excited because they have found a copy somewhere, perhaps in a charity shop priced at 50p or on e-bay at £20 plus.

All of which has me thinking about resurrecting The Man in the Back Fedora in another novel of strange intrigue with a horror theme.

The Black Fedora: Book of the Month – February 2016

“The Black Fedora” was one of those ideas which came about in the most unusual and unexpected situations, handed to me on a plate as the saying goes.

I had been invited to a wedding in a small Welsh town back in 1990.  The church was crowded but one of the congregation immediately attracted my attention, a chap in his twenties, dressed in black from the tip of a wide brimmed fedora down to his boots.  Unbelievably a cigarette dangled from his mouth!  Before the service started the vicar came down the aisle and asked him to remove his headgear and sternly told him that smoking was forbidden in church.  I discovered later that the “cigarette” was just a slip of rolled up paper!

Later at the reception I made a point of singling out this black clad guy.  The fedora was back on his head and the imitation cigarette in his mouth.  I had already designated him as a character for a book but had no idea in what role nor a plot.  His name was Martin and he was absolutely delighted at my idea.  In fact, he insisted on loaning me his fedora for an unspecified length of time.

So I worked on a plot and “The Black Fedora” was published by Sphere in 1991.  It was highly successful and was reprinted in the same year.

However, there was a real life sequel about a year later.  I was invited to take part in a stage show in Llanidloes, Powys, a mixture of various unrelated portrayals.  They wanted me to act the part of the “Man in the Black Fedora.”  Martin was behind this idea and he wanted his hat back in the most dramatic fashion.  As I stepped on stage he appeared with a pistol in his hand, demanding the return of his headgear.  I handed it over and then, from out of the small audience, another black fedora whizzed and landed at my feet amidst cheers from those watching.  This time the hat was mine for keeps, the drama arranged by Martin unknown to myself.  What a night!

Guy Wearing a Black Fedora

Guy Wearing a Black Fedora

This novel is a mixture of crime, mystery and horror.  One of my favourite characters was born and next month we shall look at its sequel.

The Lurkers: Book of the Month – January 2016

 

On a number of occasions during my writing career I have not had to look far from my home for a plot and a suitable location.  ‘The Lurkers’ (Hamlyn 1982) was one of these.

Highly convenient for my purpose was a stone circle, believed to have been used by druids centuries ago, just a field away from my house.  The huge stones are almost sunken out of sight nowadays, with just surrounding undergrowth and a couple of stunted pine trees.  Although the farmer cultivates this field he is not allowed under by-laws to disturb this ancient site.

Around a quarter of an acre in size, it is as it has always been, on the brow of the land, the stones ideally placed to catch the first rays of the rising sun.

Possibly human sacrifices took place here.  Were those who used it druids or some ancient sect who worshipped Satan?

In ‘The Lurkers’ the undead return to their stone circle.  The farmer finds some of his livestock mutilated there.  After dark white robed figures gather there, watching and waiting.  For what?  Is it some human malice at work or has some past evil returned to claim its ancient domain?

Alone in his remote snowbound cottage, his wife and son having fled to a place of safety, Peter Fogg is beset by the fear of intangible evil.  Will he be the next victim of a blood sacrifice?  All is revealed in the final chapter, the climax to the terror in a place of ancient dread.

Some years ago at one of my Fan Club Conventions I took the fans on a tour of this mysterious stone circle.  All were of the opinion that they would not care to be up there after darkness had fallen.