Tuesday, March 12, 2024

A Long-Cherished Ambition: *The River Quest*

 I wrote this novel in the 1970s, most likely the summer of '78, when I'd been through an English winter and discovered the joys of English spring, including not merely daffodils on the - hoof? wing? ground? but the glory of hyacinths - from the little wild blue grape type to the big cultivated white and purple and fuchsia/pink pinecone-shaped ones with the exquisite scent. So this novel, though it's a classic Quest that begins in a desert-land country in the crisis of a major drought, was first titled Hyacinths. 

Its earliest project was actually to write something that started, "Once Upon a Time," though it would be a kind of YA tale. As with The Lord of the Rings, that didn't survive the first chapter. Not only was I a strong devotee of said LotR, I was just through three years of researching a Punic War novel all round the Mediterranean. Gods, cosmologies and especially ancient Middle Eastern geography and history, were coming out my ears. TRQ was hence a delightfully stuffed compendium.  All that remained of the original project was a proposed tagline that promised "one monster per chapter."

Under whatever name, the novel languished in various formats, from type-written paper to various e-file incarnations, while I went on to write and eventually publish other fiction, until almost last year. It was never the right time, the right market, the right... Eventually, back with the writer's group of Book View Cafe, and determining to get as much of my fiction into view while I could, I returned to Hyacinths.

At that point I firmly decided the title wouldn't work, especially in the high -antasy-saturated 21st Century market, so after a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing I decided on the somewhat old-fashioned but accurate and identifiable new name of The River Quest. It did fit both the book and the illustration I eventually picked for the cover: somewhat old-fashioned, but striking, and not the usual current style.

Followed the protracted actual work of getting into print. First author edits, to sort out the punctuation and so on, then a beta reader, and more editing. Then, designing the actual cover - ie., with the text as well as the picture. Then the excitements of Ebook formatting, with which I was already somewhat familiar from Adventures with a Promethean. And the steeper learning curve of prepping a Print on Demand edition to go to Amazon, including working out the right paper size - in points of a centimeter -  for the interior material, and having someone design the full cover, with a spine, which is far beyond my modest abilities. 

Now, at last, it's out there. I look at the cover with some pleasure and more pride, and most of all, a deep satisfaction: that what began with, "Once upon a time" on a portable typewriter in a back room of a relation's house in Sussex, is now an actual novel, visible to readers. And the characters, who I rather disregarded in the original focus on monsters, are visible too. As an extra bonus, they have surprised me by remaining not merely credible, at least to me, but growing, nuanced, people in their own right. 

 You can find The River Quest in ebook form on Book View Cafe at 


You will need to Convert for a Kindle reader, and do NOT heed the outmoded label on the book page to choose Mobi for a Kindle. There isn't a Mobi edition, because Amazon don't use it any more.

 For the paper version, go direct to Amazon, here:


Thursday, March 7, 2024

Where the Cross Turns Over: Another Story Collection


The second and last short story collection for me. (There may be another novella omnibus, yet.) 

This one aimed to include all the stories that didn't make it into The Strangest Places for some reason, but largely because, as the sub-title states, they were in some way Australian-based.

As with Places, there's a mix of published and unpublished pieces. The back cover copy on the print edition explains the title, and describes the contents well enough:

"Old-time Australian drovers, walking cattle thousands of miles to market, are said to have planned their night-watches by the stars. 'Call me when the Cross turns over,' they would say, 'or when the Pointers are clear.'

These stories happen where the Cross turns over: a regional urban Australian backyard, a regional suburban housing development, a state capital, over a century ago; an Outback waterhole. Another regional townscape, whose characters end off-Earth, a future planed those fauna are, at the least, unusual. But even the Outback can prove . . . weird, here.

 Included here are "Slick," the first short story I ever published, and which still astonishes me when I happen to glance through it, "The Cretaceous Border," which is probably my *most* published story - two separate re-prints -  and "An Offer You Couldn't Refuse," probably the most fun to write, with its glances at so many SF tropes, from Spielberg-type flying saucers to IT geniuses and on to ETs. Then there's "The Sharp-Shooter," written for an antho whose proposition was a spacefaring colony that wants to live as if in the 18th Century, and "Due Care and Attention," which is actually historical fiction, though based round a real person, the first woman doctor in Brisbane, my state capital. Last but by no means least, and again built on a "real life" base, is "Acreage": it takes a look, through something like a horror trope, at one of the most bloody of Queensland murder cases, which remains unsolved to this day.

Looking over this collection, my first thought is, somewhat selfishly, how much fun I had writing them. I hope any readers will find a lot of "fun" - if not all funny-type fun - in reading them.

You can find Cross at Bookview Cafe for an ebook - you will need to Convert for Kindle reader, and do NOT heed the outmoded bookshop injunction to use Mobi for Kindle. There isn't a Mobi edition, because Amazon don't use it any more.


 And for the paperback version, direct to Amazon:




Saturday, August 19, 2023

Re-writing Mary Shelley's Monster




The Monster from Frankenstein has far eclipsed knowledge or memory of his actual creator, Mary Shelley. Frankenstein has become embedded in Western mythology, popular or otherwise, with takes on and alternate versions of the novel and its film versions abounding. It's daunting to even contemplate producing yet another such.

To use Stephen King's word for Salem's Lot, my "riff" on Frankenstein began with an anthology proposal from Sarah Zettel, founder of Book View Cafe: that Byron and Percy Shelley had not merely discussed the possibility of artificially creating life, but had gone ahead and done so. And what, then, became of the resulting "automaton/s"?

Among enthusiastic responses, mine was one that foregrounded Mary Shelley herself, but it didn't reach the anthology. I was left with a half-written short story, titled "Spring in Geneva," first sketches of a modified Monster, and the narrator: M. Anton Zyli, a banker in Geneva in 1818. 

I had intended Anton as your stereotypic banker: conservative, cautious, constantly shocked by the gyrations of the other two. On first confronting the Monster, he would recoil in at least decorous shock. Alas. Anton's first response was to offer money to a presumed famine victim; the second, to ask his origins, and then respond enthusiastically to the reply of, "Tierra del Fuego." Every plan went astray from there, for to my horror, Anton wasn't a banker. He was that most insatiably curious and intrepidly enthusiastic of creatures, an SF geek. 

Consequently the Monster also left the proposed rails. I had described him in Shelley's literal words: seven feet high, lank black hair, livid complexion, straggling beard. No patch-work skin, no nuts or bolts. As in the 1984 cover above, those descend from the Boris Karloff 1930s film portrayal. Anton, however, was not only un-horrified, but instantly made his discovery speak: whereupon my story took its first giant step away from Shelley's, since despite his looks, the Monster presented as a civilized, educated man. When "Mary Godstone" entered in the next scene we took  the second step, for unlike anyone in Shelley's novel, my Mary addressed the Monster by a given name: "William," she said. 

In the characters' terms, this might have been either a delicate attention to Mary, or an unconscious wish from "William," since the name belonged to both Mary's father and son. I was still too far behind Anton to dispute even the potentially confusing correspondence. William the character became, and William he stayed. His very different backstory kept one crucial correspondence with Shelley's. "William" too was taught to read, but unlike the Monster, he was given rather than found books, and he became a positive knowledge sink. Otherwise, rather than a whole nested tale, he had only one scene to describe his creation, naturally to Anton. He retained the Monster's attributes of superhuman strength and potential violence, and evinced a positively volcanic hatred for his creator; but when he reappeared in the sequel, "The Waters of the Amazon," he had added a scientific career, a reputation among the tribes as a demi-god, and Anton, who once wondered if William, being "made," could have a soul, now joyfully acknowledged him to be not merely human, but a notable human: he had acquired "gravitas."

As the short story expanded into a novella, Anton's viewpoint was crucial to William's evolution. I did not foresee how Anton's perspective would affect "Mary." Early on I gave her a number of Shelley's own words, outside the novel proper, and I first envisioned her in the journal's terms: the mute devoted listener to Byron and Percy's debates. Within Anton's orbit all that changed. Her ethereal appearance, her aura of "melancholy" captivated Anton, that closet romantic, at first glance. Yet in this version she was already a single mother, abandoned when Percy left for Italy, who for two whole years had fended for William, her son and herself. She very soon displayed a formidable composure and a most steely intellect, adding physical courage to the time's much admired quality of "address" - what we would call "gumption" nowadays. This ability to meet peril and crisis with speed and resource very soon morphed Anton's semi-attraction into admiration and beyond.

In this process "Mary" also evolved a feminist dimension, so to speak. Much recent foregrounding has focused on the "female" aspects of Shelley's daughterhood and motherhood, notably in the famous reading of Frankenstein as a birth myth generated by the loss of her own newborn child. My Mary, however, turned to the father-daughter relationship. One of the strongest links to Frankenstein is a scene, ostensibly of concern about the violent side of William's nature, in which Mary echoes the ambivalence of loss and hate Walton briefly discerned in the Monster after Frankenstein's death. My Mary echoes this waver in describing her own relationship with William Godwin, her "Creator." Given Godwin's overall treatment of his daughter, such a view seemed very plausible, though in this plot's context, so much introspection was a surprise.

The plot indeed developed with plenty of action and skulduggery, dismissing Percy Shelley, villainising Byron as the creation's mastermind, now determined to reclaim William, doubtless for sinister ends, and imperilling the principals with night-time potshots, daytime attempts at abduction, hand-to-hand scrimmages, and outcrops of the original Monster's superhuman strength, rage, and violence. But Anton increasingly shifted the Frankenstein ambience, as another influence filtered in. 

Unlike Frankenstein, the Victorian popular favourite, Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) is now all but forgotten, though "Ruritania," as a wild and wacky Eastern European scene for outrageous adventure, still survives. In 1897 it had already migrated to Dracula, with Stoker's Transylvania. I met it first in Margery Allingham's Sweet Danger (1933), when Albert Campion masquerades as the "Paladin of Averna," then in Eva Ibbotson's The Dragonfly Pool (2008), and most recently in Sherwood Smith's 2010-12 Dobrenika series. All these descendants preserve the original's swash-buckling, sword-fighting, and often melodramatic romantic elements. Zenda's hero Rudolph Rassendyll falls desperately in love with the heroine, whom he can never marry, and the novel ends with a single red rose sent annually as token of his devotion. Here, I had barely adjusted to Anton's SF geekness before he began to "Rassendyll." 

First his admiration increased to the point of a capitalised "She" every time Mary displayed wits or address, and amid the rising violence he grew increasingly melodramatic. When he fell on his knees after a crisis, crying, "Madame, Madame, I have betrayed you! ... I have ruined all!" I realised with - sort-of, shock-and-horror - that we were skidding in and out of what I can only call anti-climax comedy.  At one point I even managed to fulfill a lifetime ambition, of having someone exclaim, "By heavens, I will crush you all!" This vein climaxed in Anton's eventual proposal, only slightly less disastrous than Mr. Darcy's first, where his rapturous catalogue of Mary's virtues concludes with, "You were born to be a banker's wife!"

Zenda itself never touched comedy; nevertheless, its closure produced a very strong echo at the end of "Spring in Geneva," where, if Anton isn't sending annual red roses, he is resolved to answer a summons from Mary, from anywhere, any time in the years ahead. And ten years later, it comes. But that's a subject for another post.  

To find a copy in ebook head to Bookview Cafe:


To find a paperback copy, head direct to Amazon: