Into the Darkness

These days, Dark and Gritty has become pretty much a default setting for most television, especially out of the US, regardless of genre – sci-fi, fantasy, procedural, superhero, medical, and more besides, most strive for a vision of ‘realism’ that is fixedly downbeat, grim, violent, and, ironically enough, not actually that realistic at all.  It’s a rare new adaptation of a classic property that isn’t, in some way and to some degree, ‘darker’ and ‘grittier’.  It’s bordering on an obsession at this point, and I have to wonder if it’s actually worth it…

To wit: the new BBC/Amazon adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders.  Curious it should have her name in the title considering how much it deviates from the book (strong echoes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was actually much more Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula) in plot and tone.  The new approach to Poirot might have been interesting, and John Malkovitch is far too good an actor to not be worthwhile, but it layers on the Dark and Gritty so thickly it practically suffocates the characters and story.  I assume it was trying to capture some of the flavour of quiet, meditative Scandinavian dramas with its controlled, mininal camerawork and painterly aesthetic, but here it’s actually counter-productive, weighing things down so much there’s barely any momentum.

It has the same issue that hamstrings Endeavour, namely that the dark, shadowy, desaturated cinematography and low-key, mostly atmospheric music and slow, stolid directing leave things so heavy and gloomy it’s devoid of real depth or texture.  The murders have to be graphic to even stand out amidst such unvarying gloom, and even then it’s only just.  The lack of visual and tonal contrast in both shows – slightly worse in Endeavour thanks to them lowering the register of the actors voices in post-production, so even mellifluous Patrick Malahide sounds like he’s gargling gravel – is doing them a grave disservice.  How’s the darkness supposed to be effective when there’s no light to show it against?

Even the latest incarnation of Doctor Who suffers a bit from this kind of tonal flattening, as does the new Watership Down, one of many reasons it’s much less potent than the 1978 film (haunting and visceral and definitely not ‘suitable for all’, despite what the BBFC might have you believe) or the original book.  In fact, the 1978 film is a great example of the value of contrast, since its moments of brutality wouldn’t be half so powerful if they didn’t so sharply go against the tonal grain; you could even make an argument it’s too effective.

All of this is not to say there isn’t a place for programmes of this nature, just that when these settings, if you will, are being applied to things just because they can be, just because that’s what counts as ‘modern’ or ‘realistic’ or ‘adapting for current audiences’, then maybe they’ve become too much of a crutch.  Certainly, ‘realism’ must stop being used as an excuse, as real life isn’t so relentlessly one-dimensional, so unvarying in mood, so consistently drained of colour and light and definition.  At worst, going Dark and Gritty is lazy, cheap and hurts far more than it helps, and flags up a serious lack of imagination, something we’re sorely in need of right now.

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Perils of Social Media Engagement

Stuart Aken

Okay, I shouldn’t have done it. I know. But, sometimes, my passion for an issue overcomes my internal common-sense policeman and I get involved.

A short while ago, I posted a Tweet relating to Climate Change, an issue dear to my heart long before I joined Greenpeace in the 1980s. It reached some deniers on Twitter; I received a number of responses and, not surprisingly, a few insults from that particular group of nay-sayers.

And I responded.

I know.

I should’ve let them get on with their fear-driven tirades; ignored them. But, buried deep within me dwells an eagerness to employ reason, and I allowed it out for a few moments. I answered their objections to my post more in hope than expectation. The process grabbed my attention for longer than intended, resulting in numerous arguments and counter-arguments. I must’ve spent a good two hours in the involvement.

And that…

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Local Ancient Sites

I recently read a fascinating book, The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins, that discussed the subject of what the author termed ‘leys’ – physical, dead-straight tracks connecting sites of antiquity and importance.  Wanting to explore the concept a little myself, I cobbled together, via Bing, an Ordnance Survey map of an area roughly 10-15 miles around my home, and set to seeing if I could find any ‘leys’ using Watkins criteria.

I discovered a couple of strong alignments around Wotton-Under-Edge, and some possibles further south.  Moreover, I discovered first-hand just how subjective an exercise this can be, and how tempting it is to try and force alignments from locations that almost-but-not-quite line up.  Arguably most interesting of all, though, was that there are a lot more ancient sites – forts, barrows, tumuli, but, curiously, no monoliths or stone circles – in the area than I’d thought.

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Every red circle on this map is an ancient site.  They cluster around the edges of the map, to the east, north and north-west, with a couple to the south-west, on the fringes of Bristol.  The middle strip running up from Yate to Charfield being so empty likely has something to do with it being generally lower-lying than the surrounding areas.  Visibility certainly mattered to the creators of these places.

Now aware of so many local ancient sites, I want to find out more about them, especially the ones closest to me.  The very nearest is Tytherington Castle, a small fort, which is within decent walking distance, and easy cycling/bus range; it’s a fairly generic name for such a site, but maybe there’s a tale attached.  The nameless, decent-sized fort at Little Sodbury I’ve visited before, and hope to again, via bus and foot, and the adjacent pillow mounds may well be worth a look.

The fort just a short way north of the last mentioned, at Horton, is also accessible – tempted to do them both in the same trip.  A little north-east of Tytherington, and fractionally south of Thornbury, is a third fort without title, this one bisected by the A38, well within reach.  Lastly, and most of interest, is a large, rambling fort neighboured by Cromhall to the south, Bibstone to the west, and Leyhill to the north, possessed of the ominous name Bloody Acres – if there are no tales of battle, murder, sacrifice or other such dark deeds attending it, I’ll be quite disappointed!

My hope is to visit them, experience them and photograph them, either from distance, or, preferably, up close and personal.  I also hope to be able to dig out some folklore via online research, and maybe I’ll even pluck up the courage to ask any locals I might encounter should I manage to reach these sites.  If anyone reading this knows of any stories regarding the mentioned sites, or others on the map above, please reply with them.  Sharing of this blog would also be appreciated.

My curiosity has been thoroughly aroused by the sites around me – what are they like, what tales are told of them, and why so many forts? – and I intend to sate it as best I can, and share what I discover here. 🙂

Personal Writing Whims

Every writer has their quirks, their peccadillos.  Here are some of mine…

Never use ‘said’ or ‘suddenly’ outside of dialogue: The first is simply because I find it boring, lacking in substance, flat and uninteresting; ditching it forces me to be more creative in describing conversations.  While I’m not nearly as averse to adverbs as Stephen King, ‘suddenly’ is an exception, as to me it feels like the easy option, too obvious a choice; again, it’s about challenging myself to find another way.  The only place I’ll use them is in dialogue, spoken by characters, as we tend not to be so picky when we talk – there the obvious option is the one we usually go for.

Rarely use similes: This is because I worry they could end up becoming a crutch, relied upon too often, and because of potential anachronisms.  Imagine a character thundering along; an obvious simile there is ‘like a juggernaut’, but if you’re writing a medieval-based fantasy, it strongly risks jarring people out of it; they’re far more likely to imagine a lorry than a powerful warrior, and that’s an anachronism.  A little pedantic, perhaps, but details really matter to me.  When I do use a simile, it invariably references something already established in the world, and familiar to the reader, and usually it’s spoken by a character.

Paragraph etiquette: I’m particularly picky when it comes to my paragraphs.  I try to limit them to six lines, eight at most, with only very rare exceptions when I see no other option, when it can’t be tidily broken down.  I also avoid lines finishing on full stops; commas and semi-colons are fine, but for some reason full stops feel awkward to me.  I also avoid words being broken over two lines, split with a dash, as again it feels awkward.  Lastly, I have a special distaste for stretched-out lines, with large gaps between words, something you’ll see even in professsionally published books sometimes.  All this means I probably sweat over paragraphs more than most.  Worth the effort?  You decide.

Word repetition: A common writing rule, I know, but I’m especially strict about it, ensuring I always have two or more, preferably more, ways to refer to someone during a conversation, for example.  The anthropomorphic characters I prefer certainly help in this regard.

Semi-colons: I love them; adore them; almost worship them; and almost certainly overuse them.  I genuinely find them to be one of the most useful punctuation marks around, helping provide rhythm and interest to prose, and dialogue especially, expressing those pauses longer than a comma, but not as long as a full stop.  When it comes to fragmented and stream-of-consciousness speech, they’re the only choice.

Italics: When I want a word to be stressed, italics are my go-to option.  Capitals make it seem like shouting, to me, while italics are emphasis.  That distinction then allows me to combine them for those moments a character REALLY loses their composure.  Again, as with semi-colons, I worry I overuse them, but I’m determined to provide as much texture as possible.

Running exposition: I hate this.  I mean hate this.  Positively loathe it.  Explaining everything as you’re going along ruins pacing and rhythm, and also risks treating the reader as an idiot, like they need their hand held at all times.  The worst kind is that during conversations; one character speaks, then there’s a lengthy paragraph detailing them, then another character speaks, then there’s two lengthy paragraphs detailing them and the events they’ve referred to, and before you know it a few lines of dialogue have taken three pages to play out.  It’s hugely inefficient, frustrating and off-putting, so I avoid it strenuously.  Exposition in my work is exclusively delivered through appropriate characters, in measured amounts, at suitable times.

Point of view: Here’s an area where I’m a lot more flexible than many writers.  I rarely ever present things through a character’s eyes, and even more rarely while streaming their thoughts about events.  I prefer a looser approach, that I tend to envision in terms of a camera.  A scene would start with one character, following what they do; then, when they meet a group of others, it would pull out, attempting to ensure everyone gets equal attention; at close of encounter, it may refocus on the original person, or zero in on another, taking things in a different direction.  The hope is this provides a fluid, natural, adaptable kind of storytelling.  Again, you decide if it works.

What are yours?  Do mine make sense, or are they pointless?  Productive, or counter-productive?  I’m fascinated to know.  This is my passion, after all. 🙂

Strange Encounter

I had a most peculiar encounter last night (11/09/2017) and have decided to note it down here as clearly as I can remember it.  Maybe someone reading can help shed some light.

I left my friend’s house a little after 10pm to walk home.  It’s a short journey along an L-shaped section of the sole road through the village, my house at the end of the long arm, as it were.  Not long after I’d rounded the bend of the L, and descended the short slope beyond it, a car slowed down as it approached me from behind.

It stopped just past me, opposite a house, making me believe it would turn in, but proceeded to do nothing, just sit silent and dark as I walked beyond it, no doors opening, no cabin lights turning on, no windows sliding down.  I got about 15 yards further on when it moved again, rolling up alongside me.

This time I directed my headlight toward it – I usually avoid that, for fear of dazzling the driver – and saw an elderly gentleman, silver-haired and tidy, gesturing for my attention.  Why he didn’t lower the passenger window and call is the first of many oddities.

I opened the door, and politely enquired if I could help.  He told me he was lost, had been for a while, and wanted my help getting his bearings.  I told him where he was – Bagstone – and mentioned other villages along the road to the north – Cromhall, Charfield, Wotton-Under-Edge, only the last of which gained any reaction, a comment about it “being too far” – and the south – our immediate neighbour Rangeworthy, and Iron Acton further on.  His response to those was to ask a vague question about their direction, and then request I get in to his car and show him.

That’s when confusion really set in for me – who would ask someone, a total stranger, to do that?  What, exactly, did he mean?  I did sit, to try and make conversation easier, noticing how smart and modern his car was, but kept the door open.  I asked where he was going, more than once, and got no answer, beyond needing to get to the main road.  Twice during this exchange he moved the car forward slightly, startling me enough to exclaim both times.

By this point I was thoroughly confused and a little worried.  His behaviour didn’t add up.  His manner was pleasant and clear, he spoke well, but little I said registered, and the information he gave me was incredibly limited and vague.  He didn’t seem confused or distressed.  The best analogy I can give is a phone support operator with a thin script, who either ignore you, or pauses awkwardly, then just picks right back up with the same lines.  He appeared unable to compute anything beyond a few simple details – lost, home, main road – which made it impossible to help him.

In the end, I got out of the car, apologising, and he started to drive off without closing his door; thankfully he pulled away very steadily, or I wouldn’t have been able to.  I then stood, and watched, confounded and, I’ll admit, distressed, as he rolled out of sight, into the darkness past my house, wondering about his strange behaviour and if I could have helped more, if there was something else I could have done.

I can recall the last three letters of his registration – POP – but have no idea as to the make or model of his car, beyond it being a hatchback, and of quality.  It was notably quiet.  A Golf, possibly?  I can’t remember his face at all, except it being clean-shaven and maybe a little on the professorial side.

Try as I might, I cannot make sense of this experience.  I remain somewhat disturbed by it even now.  Any help in explaining it greatly appreciated.

My Parents Took Me to a Naked Place

The Meandering Naturist

I’m in France right now, as is my 20-something daughter, but she is not traveling with us at the moment. In fact, she took a beach trip today with several friends and acquaintances – all of whom I know – to just an ordinary beach on the Cote d’Azur. Not long into their stay, off came her bikini top. Hardly necessary on any beach in France, so why not?

Our daughter is what I would call naturist friendly. Would she drive 300 miles to get to a naturist beach (as I would) just to add it to her bucket list? Probably not. But given the choice to swim naked or adorn herself in wet nylon – well, that’s a no-brainer! Nylon and lycra be gone! As one of her naturist-friendly peers so aptly stated, “What’s the big deal? We all know what’s down there!”

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The big deal, at least…

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Book Release: The Tower and the Fox

Writing and Other Afflictions

I’ve been working on this book for some seven years, which is a record for me unless I dig up one of my trunk novels and try to publish that (spoiler: my trunk novels would need to be rewritten and no, that is not happening). What happened was that I started writing this story, and then it got too big and became two books, and then there wasn’t a lot happening in the first book so I got dissatisfied with it and shelved it, and then one friend said, “You can write better now than you did when you wrote that,” and so I started from scratch and rewrote the whole thing (keeping a few passages I really liked), which is also by the way what I’m doing now with the second book. Along the way I had an idea for a sequel, which became the third book when the first one…

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