Monday, 27 July 2015

Quincey Harker and the Vampires of Time Chapter One: 1917

It's taken me  while to get my mojo back. Work continues apace on something that is entirely my own, and the third episode of Bulldog and Panda is about to appear in Paragon (more on that in my next post). Here, however, is something a little different from me. Some time ago, I adapted Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' as a graphic novel. I also pitched to do an adaptation of HG Wells' 'The Time Machine', which was not taken up - one of many pitches that went nowhere.

It's not new to mash-up characters from different fictions - just see 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' and 'Penny Dreadful', but what always bothered me about those is that they fail to honour the originals and disregard what went before. What I wanted to play around with is a sequel - again, this is nothing new and I don't pretend to do it any better than anyone else. But this one is a sequel to both 'The Time Machine' and 'Dracula'. Sort of. Pulp fiction. Fan fiction? Maybe. Never done that before.

So, I tentatively hand this over to you to read. This is the first chapter. I have an idea that this could appear in print with some illustrations. More news on that as we have it...

‘Quincey Harker and the Vampires of Time’ by Jason Cobley
Based on characters created by Bram Stoker and HG Wells. No copyright infringement intended. But this manuscript is (c) Jason Cobley 2015.

Chapter One: 1917
Quincey Harker’s Journal 2nd March 1917
I was born on the same day that my namesake died. Quincey Morris fought through the flames of supernature and the claws of an evil demon. Battling gipsies in the snow over possession of the demon vampire’s casket, Quincey fell victim to the slicing blade of a wiry gipsy. He fell on the enemy and plunged his bowie knife into his gut, but his own blood was already spilling, red circles on the sparkling snow.
My father, Jonathan Harker, grey-haired from what the vampire had put him and my mother through, prised open the casket. Overcome by resistance from Lord Goldalming and Doctor Seward, the remaining gipsies fled into the hills and trees. The top of the box prised open, the vampire Dracula emerged. Time and again, my father has told me the tale, and remains haunted by that final image of the pale, waxen Count Dracula standing crookedly, facing the blades that sought to end his horrible existence.
Dracula’s eyes glared red, unambiguous vindictive intention burning through the cold air. The sun was beginning to sink. Time was against them. My father opened the monster’s throat with his knife and, with his life ebbing, Quincey Morris plunged his bowie knife deep into Dracula’s heart. The whole body crumbled into dust and was soon swept away on the icy wind. Quincey fell to the ground, and died peacefully and content that he had succeeded in lifting the curse of the vampire from the brow of my mother Mina.
Seven years later, in 1897, I was born on the anniversary of the death of Quincey Morris, a wealthy American adventurer who chose to put the needs of his English friends above his own. His legacy hung over my childhood, not just because I was given his first name as my own. Growing up, my parents were insistent that I would grow up able to defend myself, as if the fear that Dracula might rise again stalked them every day. But the dead stay dead.
Schooled in the skills of marksmanship and combat, as well as the best education that my parents could afford, I was ready to put my name forward when men were needed for the Great War. Now, in 1917, the Trench is my home. My mother held the belief that some of her brave American friend’s spirit would pass into me. As Private Quincey Abraham Harker, I try to face the mud and blood and horror of this war with as much bravery and gallantry as my forebears would expect of me.

The Time Traveller’s Log 802701AD
Weena is dead. Her poor little body left in the forest by the Morlocks, she had lived long enough to see me return from my own time to recover her. I nursed her with the meagre resources at the Eeloi’s disposal, but to little avail. With a short lifespan all that was available to these slight, keening people - more like children than men - it was no great loss to the rest of them. They moved on, but at least I had sparked some resistance to the Morlocks. There must have been other Eeloi tribes and other subterranean clusters of Morlocks preying on them. It was a cycle, a savage interdependency that was beyond my capability to change. I could only speculate, with the Time Machine at my disposal, how I might prevent this future from ever coming to pass. There had to be a way to set mankind on a path more glorious than this cannibalistic ignominy. I recalled how, on my first cautious push through time, I had observed war fall around my ears, mere short decades hence from my origin. This is how I resolved to set the gleaming dials and direct the crystal lever on my machine to the year 1917.

Extracts from The Letters of Private Glyndwr Davies, 3rd March 1917
Dear Mam,
It was raining when I woke in the middle of last night. I thought it was water from the sky, but we were being pelted by gunfire and the spray of grit and mud that fell on the roof of our shelter like a downpour. Through the curtain of rain, flashing silver like needles in the bursts of harsh explosive light, I could see distant men running, falling, splaying. German fire was knocking us down in the middle of the night.
I would like to have told you that I pulled my boots on quickly, but the truth is that we all sleep in our boots, fully clothed. Damp and cold as my toes were inside the socks you sent, we need the warmth and protection always. I have seen rats get to men’s toes quicker than the frostbite ever will. I stumbled out of my bunk, dragging Charlie Evans from his shelf. We had our rifles and headed through the tunnel, ankle deep in running mud.
When Charlie and I got to the ladder, our hands slipping on the muddy rungs, we paused, waiting to hear orders. Were we to go over the top again, or poke our heads out, rifles raised, ready to shoot randomly at whatever figure ran towards us? Amidst the mist and smoke and rain, it is not always easy to tell friend from enemy. There was shouting all around us. One of the voices was Sergeant Mills. I could not hear him properly over the din, but Charlie nudged me and nodded upwards. We had to go.
I took a breath. If I thought it would do any good, I would have said a quick prayer that I would get back safe. But if prayers did any good, we would not have been in this hell in the first place. Something zinged over my head as I climbed over the top of the ladder. By instinct, I ducked down, still looking forward. Charlie was with me, his rifle at shoulder height as he stepped into the open field.
The ground was rutted and torn, brown, black and run with red in places that were soft and sucked on my boots. It was hard going. Ahead of us, the mist was thick with smoke thrown up from shells crashing. It was hard to tell who was who. Our men, my friends, blurred alongside the enemy. I thought I saw limbs colliding, bayonets puncturing torsos, and bodies falling, but the air grew thicker and thicker around them, gradually turning from grey to a sickly yellow.
I scrabbled for my gas mask, tearing open buckles and straps to pull it on. Charlie was too slow, his eyes bulging as his tongue swelled and he fell to the bloody mud, clutching his throat. I am afraid to admit I had no idea what to do. I could not leave Charlie to die, his eyes staring into mine, so gulped as much air as I could and pulled off my mask. I must have thought that he could take in a few lungfuls then I could snatch it back, but as soon as my mask was off my face, the gas was upon me. My eyes fogged, my face burned from the gas or from the effort of holding my breath. I could not know.
The next thing I knew, I was beside Charlie on the ground, mud surging between my fingers, blood or snot or heaven knows what pouring from my nose or mouth or eyes. I could no longer tell. And then something was on my face. Cold. And I could breathe again.
When I awoke, the sun was streaming through a gap in the clouds. I was lying on a stretcher, looking up at the lightening sky. Others were milling about, carrying the dead away and the dying and moaning into tents. A nurse rushed past me, her apron spattered with blood.
Standing over me was another private, same as me, but taller and built like a garden wall. Even in the middle of all this blood and mud and snot, he was cleanly shaven, his hair slicked back, and a freshly lit cigarette dangling from his lips.
“You got another one of them, boy?” I asked.
“Boy? Oh, you're Welsh. I see,” he said, barely regarding me but passing me a cigarette all the same.
“Thank you,” I said, and he struck a match to get me started.
“I thought most of you were farmers and miners. You must have avoided the call-up, surely,” he said.
“Aye, but I wanted to do my bit. Enough of my brothers went down the pit. I signed up so I wouldn't have to go down into the darkness every day of my life,” I said.
“Ironic. You exchanged one hell for another, then, some might say. But in many ways, we make our own,” he said, staring into the distance.
I thought about things for a bit. “What happened last night?” I said at last.
“Gas attack. It seems you tried to help your pal by sharing your mask but both of you nearly copped it instead. Good thing I was there,” he said.
“Well, I'm grateful. Don't think I've seen you before. I know another regiment arrived yesterday,” I said, drawing on my cigarette.
“Private Quincey Harker,” he said, shaking my hand.
“Glyn Davies,” I said, pointing to myself. “Private? No disrespect, but you don't sound like one of us enlisted men. You got the looks and voice of an officer”.
“Well, I decided to sign up. My parents... My father may have wanted me to be an officer. We do not always see eye to eye. Besides, I thought if I am going to be an officer one day, I should start on the ground. See what it's like”.
“One way to see what death is like, that's for sure,” I said, swinging myself into a sitting position. “I don't think I need to ask but I will... did you see what happened to Charlie?”
“Your friend?”
“Aye”.
Harker just looked at me kindly and shook his head.

Quincey Harker’s Journal 3rd March 1917
We were thrown right into it last night. During a gas attack, I rescued a Welsh private named Glyn Davies, about the same age as me, who had pulled off his gas mask to give it to another man who was railing on the ground.
His friend was too far gone but I was relieved that I was able to save him. He was unconscious through the night but when he awoke we smoked and spoke at length. Getting to know these men is edifying and humbling as much as it is frightening to be amongst such horrid, grating death.
The air was clear all morning. We could even hear the birds in the trees that remained. On the far side of the field, the Germans were picking up their dismembered and suffocated dead just as we were, kicking the rats into touch and picking the lice out of hair. It was as if things were over, but we all knew it was just a lull, both sides simply waiting for the word to charge at each other again. That is our entire world here. A world charging each half at the other until one side collapses.
Hewn out of the walls of our earthen tunnels, our little timbered caves at least provided us with some sort of bunk in which to sleep. I collapsed into mine when I was permitted, and slept until it was time to prepare to push forward mindlessly into the gas-filled darkness again.

The Time Traveller’s Log departing 802701AD into Time
1917 was my destination, and the world spun around me, suns rising and falling in a blur; forests growing and burning and growing again; buildings growing younger and people a busy smudge at the edge of my senses. I remained in one place, the earth spinning with me on it but the business of life carrying on around me as, unseen, I traversed the dimension of time.
This was going back, but never back to where I began. There was nothing for me at home until I had assured a better future for mankind. On my furthest foray, I had pushed on to the end of the Earth itself, as far as I dared go, and what I saw on that dull and stale beach I could never contemplate again. There was something malevolent there, something perhaps even intelligent that was reaching out to me. I escaped it but I knew then that, if that was what the Earth would one day become, the beginnings of it lay in the year 802701, when the human race had become split into predator and prey, Morlock and Eloi. And, I surmised, war and the division of society was where it had its roots.
I knew that I would never be able to prevent the war happening at all, but perhaps if I could arrive during that great conflict and reveal what I had learned about the future, perhaps I could affect the thinking of some great minds who may be willing to listen as my friends had over dinner when I related my adventure with the Eloi to them. They were at first sceptical I know, but Filby I know would have convinced them, especially when I did not return.
On my previous journeys into Time, I had been cocooned in the protective field generated by my machine. I sat in the chair, safe from whatever raged around me as I was not physically present for whatever I witnessed as I sped through the years. However, as I moved the lever to slow my progress to my destination, sudden darkness enveloped me. A rush of wind and what felt like a wave in a storm at sea slammed into the side of my machine. I lost my equilibrium and pitched to one side.
Dazed, I peered into the darkness. Depth and distance were impossible to measure in this state where depth and distance have no meaning, but somewhere beyond the edge of the machine, I saw what first seemed to me to be stars. Harsh and white, I soon perceived them to be eyes. How many pairs I was uncertain, but there were figures in the darkness regarding me with an icy coldness.
The machine lurched again, as if shunted by a locomotive, and the impact hurtled me into unconsciousness.
I awoke to the sound of distant explosions. I opened my eyes to the sight of a battlefield unlike any I could ever have envisaged before I began traversing Time. Mud, metal, stone, blood and bone vomited into the air as a shell dropped just beyond a ridge of barbed wire. As I dragged myself from my machine, I saw that the brass frame of its fragile structure was buckled along one side from the impact of whatever invisible force had attacked me in my journey through Time.
My equilibrium scattered, I fell to my knees in the mud.
Looking up, the sounds of muffled choking and shouts of panic filled my ears and a strange, thick, green cloud of gas approached the edges of my vision. As I grasped desperately for air, my vision clouded into green darkness.

Extracts from The Letters of Private Glyndwr Davies, 5th March 1917
Dear Mam,
I think I mentioned in my last letter that I have made a new friend. The trench is in disarray and two regiments have had to bunk together. Quincey Harker and I have shared a lookout duty and have become fast friends. He is a bit quiet about his family but he seems a good man. There is a big difference between a Welsh valley boy like me and Quincey. He comes from a London family. His father is a lawyer, and his mother has been poorly, and they are very acquainted with central Europe. I confess to my ignorance beyond Wales and here in France, so enjoy the informal lessons he is giving me in geography and the tales he tells me of his parents' travels into darkest Transylvania. Quincey himself hopes to travel there someday but first he is here, like me, to do our bit for King and Country, even if his is England and mine is Wales.
This morning, when we visited the medical tent on the back lines, for we had to administer some disgusting mixture on to our burns, we encountered another man who was not from either regiment. We had been lucky; the gas had barely got to us before we were masked, and fortunately I was covered well, but a blister on my neck needed treating.
Lying on a stretcher in the far corner was a man who seemed to me to be twp! He was mad, raving on about a machine and all kinds of madness. He went mostly unheeded, despite his old fashioned clothing. He wore breeches, a waistcoat and a starched collar that, although travel-stained, were decades out of fashion. As I said, he was ignored by most of us until he started muttering about pale figures in the mist, with glowing eyes and teeth that glinted in the darkness. Quincey started at this, and went over to the strange man.
Other duties called me elsewhere, and I left Quincey and our strange traveller together, talking. An hour passed before I saw them again, running through grey rain, sprays of dirt and grit falling through the air as a shell exploded just yards from where the stranger's mysterious machine lay.

Quincey Harker’s Journal 5th March 1917
It is with some incredulity that I record the events of this day. Without the hindsight of knowing the adventures that my namesake and parents undertook in Transylvania so many years, I would dismiss the Time Traveller's story as the ravings of a madman if later I had not seen evidence with my own eyes.
The stranger, a man in his thirties, clad as if he had stepped straight out of the end of the nineteenth century, laid on a stretcher in a medical tent, recovering from a head wound sustained when he fell against a brass balustrade that encircled his vehicle. The machine laid out there in the mud, buckled and sinking by degrees, useless and limp. It was in appearance nothing so much as an elaborate chair with a construction at the rear that spun like a the blades of a crystal windmill. It was quite a beautiful sight, and none of us could account for it.
Officers had spent some time questioning the stranger. Giving up, they had left him under armed guard. As the guard was Archie Perkins, with whom I had shared my cigarette ration when his was eaten by rats, it was no great task to get to speak to him.
“Excuse me, sir,” I began, “but I could not help but overhear what you were saying. The creatures you described...”
“Come to lock me up, have you?” he said.
“No, sir,” I said, taking a seat beside his stretcher. “My name is Quincey Harker. I...”
He looked at me, suddenly more sober and aware. “Harker? Not Harker as in Ven Helsing and...”
“Yes! You are thinking of my father and a dear friend of the family. The stories are well known, but most dismiss them as urban legend or fiction. I, however, am testament to the truth...”
He put his hand up. “You do not have to justify anything to me, young man. I have seen things in the future that lend credence to your parents' claims. This is a bizarre coincidence that our paths should cross here in... in... surely this is still London?”
“No, sir. This is France”.
He looked at me aghast. “But that is not possible,” he said. “My machine can travel in the fourth dimension but not in the other three at the same time. Something has... intervened. Something has moved my machine spatially whilst I travelled in the fourth dimension”.
“I did not think such a thing possible. I had read a paper on the theory in my father's study, but...”
“A paper? Who was the author?”
“I recall... perhaps... would the name be 'Filby'?” I ventured.
Sitting up, the stranger laughed heartily. “Oh, bless him! My great friend Filby, with whom I entrusted my story of future travels before I set off again to find my... friend in the future. He is probably still there, standing guard over my house and my work. Such a friend is rare. You, Private Harker, do not seem surprised at any of these notions”.
“No. Very little surprises me, sir, even at my young age. May I ask, did you find your friend in the future?”
His face darkened and he bent forward to lace his boots. “No. She is lost to me now, but I... sought to change the future”.
“How?”
“By coming here, to this time. I sought to speak my mind in London, bring my knowledge to ministers and generals, to show them the future that this conflict and the divisions in society that it would inevitably lead to in the future, with the rich preying on the poor until revolt leads to the future I saw...”
“What did you see?”
“The Morlocks, a savage and pale race, driven underground, evolved over many generations to prey on the indolent Eeloi above, one race food for the other. I see the beginnings of that here, in the way that we are not heeding the warning signs that will give way to greater inequalities in society”.
“The Morlocks sound like vampires”.
“Perhaps they are what vampires may evolve into. But, with the exception of your Count Dracula, are they not confined to the far past and superstitious enclaves in Eastern Europe?”
“I do not know. What did you see when you were... pushed off course? Where they Morlocks of vampires?”
The stranger stood, straightened his collar, secured the bandage about his head, buttoned his waistcoat purposefully. “I do not know but I propose to find out. My machine is out there, languishing in the mire. Will you accompany me, Private Harker?”
Archie Perkins, instructed as he was to guard the stranger and watch his every move, sighed with reluctance but came anyway, equally reluctant to engage the time traveller. Archie and I took our rifles and led the stranger into No-Man's Land where his machine awaited, pelted by debris and rain.
Rain descended like a sheet of nails, piercing the air and carrying with it the sharpest of stones, grit, dirt and chits of bone thrown up by an explosion a mere few yards away. Beyond the noise, I dimly heard Glyn calling out a belated warning. Having thrown ourselves to the ground, we crawled forward to the machine.
Clouds of smoke billowed toward us, shielding our view from that of our fellows, and indeed the enemy. Cracks of rifle fire and indistinct voices formed a curtain of sound beyond the smoke. The stranger climbed aboard his machine, producing a crystal lever from his waist pocket. He inserted it into a panel facing his chair, and it hummed into life. Its great disc began to turn slowly as he peered at a dial.
“This is not right,” he said. “This has been interfered with”.
I stepped up beside him to inspect his array of controls, none of which made sense to my experience. He seemed to be in a panic, sweating, hands trembling.
I coughed as the smoke drifted over us. Behind me, Archie called out, “Quincey! Germans approaching!” and he discharged his rifle into the smoke.
I turned to see his target. There were at least three figures, wider than any German, their definition threadbare through the veil of smoke. Their eyes glowed, harsh points of light. There was a whiteness through the gauze of smoke, but was it skin or some kind of matted hair? The smoke billowed over us, and my eyes stung with the polluted air.
I clawed for the trigger on my rifle too late, as a hand – or paw – of clammy flesh enclosed my wrist. Its strength wrenched me to the ground. Archie's rifle cracked the air and he screamed. His scream was cut off by a pale fist into his throat. He fell, his head cracking against the machine's brass balustrade. On my knees, I grabbed for him, but his open, staring eyes and lolling mouth told me the worst.
My finger was on the trigger now and I fired into the smoke.

Extracts from The Letters of Private Glyndwr Davies, 5th March 1917 (continued)
I was running towards Quincey and the stranger, but the smoke billowed around them, propelled by wind. A clear view of them was obscured even further by driving rain. I heard a hum that increased in pitch to a whine as the mysterious traveller's machine spun into life. Quincey was firing into the smoke at what I tried to warn him were advancing Germans, but now as I drew closer, they seemed to be something less worldly, something pallid. Quincey's bullets seemed to have no effect and the uncanny, inhuman frames closed in around the machine.
The mechanical whine reached a pitch where it was less of a sound and more of a discomfort, and then it was gone. All that remained was the dissipating smoke amid the steely rain where once there was a machine, two men and things that were not men.

Quincey Harker and the stranger were gone, as were the pale creatures and the machine. It sounds too fantastical to be true, I know, but if it is true, they had vanished into Time.

End of Chapter One.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

New edition of 'Moving Targets' now available!

A new edition of my 2008 short story collection 'Moving Targets' is now available from www.lulu.com - just in time for Christmas!

Moving Targets
Paperback, 137 Pages
Price: £5.99
Ships in 3–5 business days
This is a collection of short stories from Jason Cobley, author of children's novel 'The Legend of Tom Hickathrift' and graphic novel 'Frontier', as well as adaptations of 'Frankenstein', 'Dracula' and an 'An Inspector Calls'. 'Moving Targets' collects interconnected short stories based around one tragic events. Characters are tangentially connected by theme, idea or the crossing of paths. In 'Zombie of the Great Unwashed', Hugo attempts to claim welfare for his undead state; in 'Memory of Water', a boy's near-drowning connects past to his future; in 'The Wedding', young Jamie discovers there may be some truth to the legends of Selkies; in 'The Lyrebird on the Doorstep', another legend intersects with the life of young Neomie in Australia. Nine short stories altogether, showing how lives past, present and future interconnect through life, death and memory. General readership.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Sunday Story: 'Missiles'

It's back: The Sunday Short Story. This one is 1000 words as the subject matter and development of the story needed it. It is inspired by recent events, but it is fiction:

'Missiles' by Jason Cobley

My family came here when our nation was youthful and full of hope. Everything seemed balanced. All kinds of foreign businesses were here, investing in infrastructure, building roads, houses; more businesses. Government was focused on efficient and productive education and healthcare systems: the best life we could achieve for all of us. We felt as if we were the chosen people. Like all good things in life, though, it came at a cost. This is our land, there can be doubt. We were displaced by history many centuries ago, and others had settled here, built their own cities full of their own ways that were not ours and, we believed, defiled the land that was bequeathed to us. When history turned full circle and it was time for us to be resettled in our homeland, they had to move. History shows that we have the right, and that their tenancy was only ever going to be temporary. You cannot blame those who lacked our education for not knowing and for reacting so badly to resettlement. Their leaders have to carry the blame for what followed. Years of bloodshed, people fighting for possession of land that they knew was not theirs to fight over but ours. Years of them defying our will and provoking us into war.

I joined the army when I was seventeen, happy to sign up to do my duty. Initially unsure, I was swayed by the images of them in their concrete shacks, firing rockets from home-made emplacements, surrounded by their laughing children, at our land. The stories of young soldiers lost to this war and their weeping mothers and girlfriends did not stop me. I signed up to train for what I do now.

I sit at a bank of screens, controller in hand, a calibrated joystick that precisely identifies targets. We have our satellites and drones that bring us pictures of where they hide, and the buildings in which they plan their attacks, store their weapons and make their bombs. Some of them masquerade as schools or hospitals, and each time we strike, they parade injured women and children in front of the cameras to make it seem as if we are deliberately killing their families. My orders are clear: I am not to zoom in any closer than to verify the shape of the building and its structural weaknesses, then press the button – more like a trigger on my joystick – that sends our missiles to the targets. We are almost always successful. But that doesn’t stop the international media relaying their images of murdered children. We are not murdering children. We are targeting munitions and terrorists to protect ourselves.

This time, I have decided to prove it, if only to myself. It is against orders, but I tell myself it will be understood once I can share the recording with my commanding officer. I calibrate the software to show the highest magnification and zoom in as I send the missile towards a street on their side of the divide. On the face of it, this seems to be a residential area, but our intelligence tells us that it hides an entrance to an underground bomb-making facility.

We have given warning. The siren sounds. People run. Not just women and children – the terrorists too. The missile comes closer. The whine as it descends through the air must be deafening. The impact is slightly off-target, taking away the side of a neighbouring building as well as the roof of the facility. I watch longer than I should. Instead of reporting success straight away, I wait. I wait for the dust to clear. Through my grainy video image on the bank of screens before me, I see rubble. I see twisted metal that may be girders, or rocket launchers. It is hard to tell. Torn fabric shows me that one of them was simply a curtain pole. Lying under the metal and amongst the rubble are bodies. I count at least twelve, none of them moving, some in strange positions. They are all small, short people. Children.

I scan the recording, the live image, all the data, carefully. There may be weapons there, but I have missed them. I have killed children. This building was a legitimate target. We have the right. But this is out of balance. I had thought the propaganda that we were killing children was a lie. I was wrong. Thousands of their civilians dead, ours only in single figures. Dozens of our soldiers killed in the line of fire, as many of their terrorists as we can find. But their terrorists look the same as their civilians on my screens. I cannot tell. Things are out of balance.

I send the data back up the line to my superiors. They seem content with my work. Nothing is questioned. The live feed is still showing on one of the screens. I cannot hear, but there is screaming, weeping, anger. But also there are people wandering amongst the rubble retrieving belongings. No one seems to be searching for weapons. One man picks up a teddy bear, holds it to his chest. A child sits on a lump of concrete, alone, crying. A man seemingly around my age looks up. He cannot possibly see the camera from where he is, but he seems to be looking into the lens from this massive distance. I wonder what he is thinking. No, I know what he is thinking.

When the order comes to send another missile to the same target, to make sure we achieve our objective, I hesitate. There is no longer any doubt that civilians would be hurt, and if we are slightly off-target again, will we try a third time? And a fourth, before they can respond? 

The order comes again. I calibrate the system. I make sure the missile launcher is armed. I set the coordinates. They are not the same coordinates I was given. This time, the outcome might be more balanced.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Another Bulldog Preview - a page from episode 2 in next issue of Paragon

I hope you've all seen part 1 of Bulldog & Panda in Paragon. Here's a page from part 2 that Stephen Prestwood has released for us to see: a good action-packed moment.

Photo: Final page of Bulldog part two done! This page took a bit longer than some of the others but I enjoyed drawing it! :) Hope Davey Candlish and Jason Cobblers likes it!?!
Episode 3 is written. I'll get on to writing the remaining episodes once Stephen's had a chance to draw episode 3. At the moment, I'm pretty sure it'll bring the whole thing to a conclusion you won't expect...

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Bulldog Returns

Thirty years ago, when I was a teenager, I created a comic character. I could tell even back then I was on to something. The strip first appeared in 'Amalgam' fanzine but eventually, after some changes and me handing the art duties over to the awesome James Croasdale, Captain Winston Bulldog debuted in his own comic. Self-published, photocopied, A4, it was typical of small press at the time, and actually, even if I do say so myself, a cut above the rest. Fast forward many years and printing is more accessible and higher quality, more brilliant creators are empowered to create their own comics and smaller niche publishers flourish. The notion of amateur small press is almost gone, colliding with print on demand, artisan publishers and mainstream publishers who operate on a relatively small scale but can penetrate the market successfully. There were some forays into attempting to land a publisher for Captain Winston Bulldog, but all unsuccessful apart from the epic 'Bulldog Empire' appearing in 'The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga' volume 1 with Winston's colleague Samurai Commander Keiko Panda on the cover. That was our zenith, and artist Neill Cameron went on to bigger and better things, most notably at The DFC and The Phoenix children's weeklies. Such an array of artists have illustrated my scripts over the years, from 2000AD stalwart PJ Holden to underappreciated geniuses such as Paul Harrison Davies, Mitzi and Kieran Macdonald.
Bulldog by PJ Holden - pinup from Paragon 16

After 'Bulldog: Empire', I wound up the main anthology BAM! (Bulldog Adventure Magazine) with artist Stephen Prestwood briefly taking over the magazine after drawing many of the latter stories. He's great. Where Neill was Bulldog's Alan Davis, he was Bulldog's Ian Gibson. Such a great talent. Apart from the Best Of collections and the one-off short strip collection 'Bulldog Clips' (which are all still available in print from Lulu and as free e-books from Lulu), the character has been in hiatus... until now. Stephen kindly agreed to illustrate a new series for Davey Candlish's 'Paragon', and anthology very much in the BAM! mould. Bulldog is only part of a line-up that includes time-travelling demon hunter Jikan and undead Mexican bandit El Bigote. It's eclectic, it's fun, it's what a British anthology comic should be.
art by Stephen Prestwood from Paragon 16
You can go to Lulu and download the free e-book version or get it in print with its beautiful glossy colour covers. Either way, do head on over to Davey's site to find out more! I was really pleased when he agreed to publish Bulldog. Winston could have been a contender at bigger publishers, but none of the attempts ever worked out. It's a pity - he's iconic and could hold his own beside Judge Dredd or Hellboy on the comic racks. I think the character will always be with me and crop up now and again though, standing as he does for fairness, an unashamedly socialist comic hero working for the military with all the moral conflicts that contains. But, above that, it's FUN. Join Bulldog in his ongoing war against dimension-hopping totalitarians, human-hating vegetable races and... oh, but that would be giving away the villains in 'Paragon'. Buy and find out where it's going.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Reading Role Models and the new English GCSEs

We'll leave talking about the way the new GCSE English Language looks for another day. The topic of the moment is GCSE English Literature, separate and distinct qualifications, lest we not forget. Any good school curriculum will have them being taught together - we learn language through literature. Being a good reader helps you be a good writer. It really is that simple. I don't know of a single writer who doesn't read extensively, and who isn't a fan of particular other writers. On the other hand, over the years I've known a fair few teachers of English who don't read. They are marked out by those who do. The latter are able to give a wider context and deeper experience to any study of literature with the pupils in their charge. If you're an English teacher, you need to have half an eye on the Whitbreads, the Bookers and so on each year, and always have a book on the go. If teachers don't model reading, how can any of them expect pupils to read beyond what we give them in the classroom?

 

It's what we give them in the classroom that's been the big issue of discussion on Twitter and the world of educational bloggers all week. Last time, I blogged about Gove 'banning' US books from the new GCSE specifications, which had the odd distinction of being both a storm in a teacup and a dark portent of stormy waters ahead. Nothing's been 'banned', but certain books - or types of books - are no longer specified. In such a high stakes system, schools are going to teach to the minimum that they are expected to do. This always happens. Why take risks when pupils' performance at GCSE affects the status of the school and individual career prospects? For example, in the current GCSE English Literature coursework unit, pupils have to study a Shakespeare play (of the teacher's choosing) and compare it to something from the 'English Literary Heritage', which could be another Shakespeare play (could even be Marlowe), a novel, or a selection of poems. What too many teachers have done is compare the play to one or two poems and make glancing references to some others. That means, for many schools, pupils get through GCSE and don't read any prose other than Of Mice and Men (the other prose that could be chosen is in a section where the play - as brilliant as it is - An Inspector Calls is a choice, so most go for that). Expediency aside, this has always bothered me. On the other hand, I've seen some brilliant teaching comparing Macbeth to Great Expectations, and myself I have compared Hamlet and Henry V, and Henry V and Jekyll & Hyde. I've even used Jane Eyre. It is possible but not every teacher has the confidence to put a good cultural education and exposure to literature above expediency.

I once introduced a wider reading list for pupils, which a colleague refused to give them, saying "It might work in a private school but not here". 'Here' was a middle class comprehensive in a semi-rural middle class area. I wonder how she responds now, knowing that, in order to teach the new GCSE English Literature course well, pupils are going to have to read more widely than ever before. The school at which I currently work is one where we are reinventing our English curriculum through from Year (age 11) up to and including GCSE. Experience has taught me that the key to improving pupils' facility with reading and writing is to: read whole texts with them; concentrate on developing as many opportunities as possible for extended writing; show them how enriching, exciting and excellent books can be. That's it. It's not rocket science. That's for the science department to deal with.

So, teachers need to be Reading Role Models. I don't hold myself up as a paragon, but at the moment I'm reading: 'Pigeon English' by Stephen Kelman (it was on the shelf - I hadn't gotten around to it yet but it's now on the new GCSE spec so I have to do my research); 'More Than This' by Patrick Ness (a present from my wife - she knows me well); 'The Sunset Limited' by Cormac McCarthy and 'Supergods' by Grant Morrison (both from the library). I dip in and out but will probably finish one before the end of the weekend. With my primary school age daughter, I'm reading 'To The River Sea' by Eva Ibbotson that we got from the library, and it's enthralling. I talk to kids about my favourite books; when we study 'Of Mice and Men' I talk to them about similar or contrasting scenes and characters in 'The Red Pony', 'Grapes of Wrath' and so on. Sometimes they stare at me wide-eyed as if the notion of reading a book voluntarily for enjoyment is something that no one has introduced them to before. Sometimes they nod sagely. Sometimes they bury their heads in 'The Hunger Games' and ignore me. Me being a published writer is of mild interest only, which is as it should be.



So that brings, then, to the new GCSE specifications. We're probably going to go with AQA for lots of reasons, not least being that it's the most logically laid out and I can see a clear route for choosing good set texts and for developing wider reading. GCSE is usually taught in Years 10 and 11, but along with many schools, we will be starting the new course for our pupils in Year 9. They still can't sit any exams until the end of Year 11 at age 16, but we will start them on developing the skills and studying in the right way to prepare for that as early as possible. We're starting again with Years 7 and 8 as well to make sure there's proper range and progression. Every incoming Year 6/7 gets a free book from us to kick off our wider reading plan, including a fairly diverse group of authors, taking in Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, Roald Dahl, Charlie Higson, Neil Gaiman, David Walliams and Dave Shelton, to name just a few. Each half term pupils will study a whole text. Year 9 will have 'Of Mice and Men' and a Shakespeare. We're about to look at whether we're starting the GCSE set texts in Year 9 so that pupils can read more than one from each section of the specification or whether we will use our imagination and bring in something of our own choice but of equal merit. One thing is for sure, as there is a requirement to compare texts and to respond to 'unseen' extracts, the most widely-read pupils will be the best prepared.

As for the set texts, across the three years we may well plump for Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet for our Shakespeares (they need to do one in Year 9 anyway). An Inspector Calls is a no-brainer, but it's in the same section as the aforesaid Pigeon English, Animal Farm, A Taste of Honey, Never Let Me Go and others - all great books. So the dilemma is whether to make a different choice or study more of these anyway. Most schools will take the view that there's no point as they'll only do an exam question on one of them. With three years to work with, I think we can do at least two and then narrow down closer to the exams. We no longer have course work to punctuate our time, so I think there is time. There's a lot of poetry too, as there currently is - and that's fine. It's impossible to judge the range of poems yet as we don't know what they are, but we will get there.

We also need to choose one from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, A Christmas Carol (nice but short and many schools do it lower down the school), Great Expectations, Jane Eyre (too long - great first ten or so chapters, boring middle, great ending), Pride and Prejudice, The Sign of Four (not quiiiiiiite enough to it although I love a bit of Holmes) - and Frankenstein (usually an 'A' level text - actually quite complicated but I know it inside out as I've - ahem - adapted it before). There's a big discussion to be had here. We need to cover male and female writers, male and female protagonists, whether it's any good or not. We'll get there.

We will get there. We just have to do some reading.




Monday, 26 May 2014

Calm Down. The Gove Bashing is Slightly Premature: Of Mice, Crucibles and Mockingbirds.

Before we get into this, let's establish some facts.
The Sunday Times have published this:

 

OCR have been slightly disingenuous here, as it's AQA, their competitor exam board, who have had Of Mice And Men, To Kill A Mockingbird and The Crucible as set texts at GCSE English Literature. I don't think OCR has them all as set texts currently. 90% of kids have studied Of Mice And Men maybe because the majority do AQA?

Before we get to my thoughts on this, below is the summary of the DFE (i.e. Gove) requirements that all exam boards are expected to follow in their new specifications (what we now call syllabuses):

GCSE English Language
  • The new English Language GCSE will encourage students to read a greater range of high quality, challenging literature and non-fiction text from a range of genres and types (from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries).
  • Reading and writing will be equally weighted in the new English Language GCSE.
  • The new English Language GCSE will have a greater focus on making sure that students are able to write clearly and accurately, in good Standard English. There will be an increased emphasis on spelling, punctuation and grammar including the use of vocabulary.
  • Tiers will be removed from GCSE English Language. This means that specifications and question papers will have to cover the full range of abilities.
  • Speaking and Listening will be assessed through endorsement (this change is being introduced to exams from summer 2014).  There will be a bigger emphasis on teaching students to become more confident in formal speaking.
GCSE English Literature
  • The new English Literature GCSE will encourage students to read a wide range of classic literature fluently with the assessment of:
    • A 19th century novel
    • A Shakespeare play
    • A selection of poetry since 1789 including representative Romantic poems
    • British fiction or drama from 1914 onwards.
  • Tiers will be removed from GCSE English Literature.  This means that specifications and question papers will have to cover the full range of abilities.
  • There will be increased assessment of unseen texts.
  • The quality of writing in the response to texts will be assessed.
Changes to both new English GCSEs
  • The study of literature will remain a compulsory part of the Key Stage 4 curriculum.
  • There will be new requirements to use more diverse and challenging writing skills, such as narrating and arguing.
  • All English GCSEs will have terminal assessment with no controlled assessment.    
  • a new grading system will be introduced. Students will be awarded a grade from 1 to 9, with 9 being the highest. Students will get a U where performance is below the minimum required to pass the GCSE
The above is all public and was published a few months ago. Teachers are currently waiting (and have been for over a year, after delays and delays and delays) for exam boards to publish their new specifications for GCSE, which will comply with the above rules.

Note that, yes, Gove has announced that he doesn't like 'Of Mice and Men' blah blah blah. I'm not going to bash Gove endlessly here. You can guess what my feelings are about what he does and how he says it. This post is Rumour Control. As ever, whenever any of the media report on education, they are spectacularly poorly informed (especially the BBC) and put the wrong twist on it.

The real 'scandal' is not that 'Of Mice and Men', 'To Kill A Mockingbird' and 'the Crucible' will no longer be set texts, but that Gove wants GCSE students to have a literary diet skewed far too much in the direction of the 18th and 19th century. We now live in the 21st. There's a 100 years of excellent literature that may be overlooked here, but the proof of the pudding will be when the specifications are actually published later this week.

Like a rock band's set list, sometimes you have to rest a classic. Two generations of people have studied and enjoyed 'Of Mice and Men' at school and they will continue to do so. But - and I say this from experience without judgement - a generation of English teachers have come up who have a fairly narrow experience of what has been and can be taught.

Romantic poetry? Great - bring it on. Blake is mental. Coleridge rocks. 19th century novels? Yes! There's a loophole in the current AQA English Literature spec where this can be avoided, so bring it on. Jane Eyre - gothic horror! Frankenstein, Dracula ditto! Dickens - a master of characterisation. Great Expectations - can't go wrong. I'll draw the line at Silas Marner or The Mill On The Floss but I'll give it a go. A good English teacher can make anything accessible and interesting. My Year 10 students loved comparing Hamlet and Henry V for their Eng Lit coursework. It's all in how you do it.

A completely unnecessary plug for mine and Staz Johnson's graphic novel adaptation of Dracula. You can get it from Amazon or direct from www.classicalcomics.com or, y'know, all good bookshops.


There's nothing yet that suggests there won't be non-British authors in the specifications, despite what the Sunday Times have scaremongered. What if we get Animal Farm? Great - as powerful an allegory for government suppression as any. Lord of the Flies? That's already there and may well stay, we don't know yet. What about more recent British classics? The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time? Already on some syllabuses. All is not lost, folks.

What we've actually lost is that 'The Crucible' is great for engaging bright girls, and 'To Kill A Mockingbird' has one of the best realised female narrators in literature. I'm more worried that we're going to lose strong narratives for females (not that girls don't like Lord of the Flies but hopefully you see what I mean).

Atticus Finch (the great Gregory Peck) and Scout, the narrator of 'To Kill A Mockingbird' - not only a moving treatise on bigotry but a powerful portrait of parenting and growing up without a mother.

Besides, kids are at school a long time. GCSE courses start in Year 10. Why not teach 'Of Mice and Men' and 'To Kill A Mockingbird' in Year 9?

After all, they haven't been banned.

Thanks, Mike.