You may have noticed that my homepage was overtaken by some unwelcome visitors for a short while. Unfortunately I was at Edge-Lit in Derby for the weekend, which made it difficult to deal with. However, it appears to have been sorted out now and will hopefully not recur.
They are not the only unwelcome visitors, though. I posted last time about Harriet (or Henry) but neglected to mention Marge (or perhaps Maurice).
Maurice (or Marge) decided that the snacks in our food cupboard were just too tempting and helped herself (or himself). As you can see, this unwelcome visitor was caught and you will be pleased to know that he (or she) was carefully transported to a new home in a local country park where there is plenty on offer for an aspiring mouse.
Hopefully, neither visitor will be back.
Edge-Lit, by the way, turned out to be an interesting and entertaining weekend with a chance to catch up with old friends and make some new ones. Thanks to all those who came along to my workshop on writing dialogue, and Hi to all those attending panels and readings or just hanging out in the bar.
Hopefully it will become a regular thing – the event, not the visitors.
Here at Shevdon Manor, we try to encourage the wildlife, not least because we’re in the middle of a town and the wildlife needs all the help it can get.
So this is Henry, or possibly Harriet, we’re not sure, and he (or she) is not normally seen in daytime, but rather heard, rootling about in the flower beds at dusk. However, in a brave moment, or possibly in search of another like-minded but oppositely gendered hedgehog, Henry (or Harriet) appeared on the lawn.
This is probably last year’s hedgehog. They only live two or three years, and need to be about the size of a Christmas pudding by the end of autumn to survive the winter.
They are much maligned creatures and have a reputation of having fleas, which is true, but not any more so than any of the neighborhood cats, and they are specific hedgehog fleas, and don’t bother humans or cats. Sadly, you sometimes see them as roadkill – cars are a major hazard where we are – as the cars run over them and rather than curl up they stand up on their legs and try to run away. They can run quite fast if the want to, but they can’t outrun a car.
They eat mainly slugs and worms, and other invertebrates, and are a friend to gardeners. If you find one, don’t feed them bread or milk – they can’t digest it – but in a dry spell, leaving a saucer of water where they might wander and on a warm day in winter they might be found foraging - a little cat food can be a welcome snack.
To celebrate the release of Strangeness and Charm in the UK, I thought I would follow up my previous post with some more on the church at Kilpeck. in Herefordshire.
I said in my post, Publication Day: Strangeness and Charm, that while he outside of the church was fascinating, the inside held even more surprises. The first thing of note is that the church is not exactly aligned along the east-west axis, as it normally would be, but is offset by a small amount. The reason for this is not obvious until you discover that an underground watercourse runs directly beneath the church, and the church is aligned with that, rather than the compass.
Inside, the church is in two distinct sections – the Nave is lined with dark wooden pews and is separated from the Apse, which was added later, by a high stone arch. Into the pillars of the arch are carved six monks and each monk holds a token. The tokens are: a cross, a key, a feather, a scourge or flail, an arrow, and a rod or sceptre. The carvings are quite clear and the monks do not look as if they carry their burdens with ease.
Beyond the arch, on the floor to the right hand side is a mark in the stone, normally covered by a mat or square of carpet. The mark shows a four-lobed shape, like a clover or a highly stylised cross. The origins and purpose of this mark are unknown. On visiting the site, I couldn’t avoid the impression that the monks are hiding or protecting what lies beyond in the apse, and that this duty weighed heavily upon them. Clearly, though, that protection worked, since the church and all the carvings are still there, while the neighbouring castle is not.
You might be able to discern from John Couthart’s beautiful cover that the six objects play a central part in the story of Strangeness and Charm, and that the church and the relics are bound in with the story. As a writer it led me to ask myself what it was that the monks were protecting, and why such a thing would be placed in a minor church when only twelve miles up the road there’s Hereford Cathedral.
I hope you will enjoy the discovery of what the strange mark is for, and why those particular objects are carved into the pillars of the arch.
Strangeness and Charm was released in the UK on 7th June 2012 and is available from all good bookshops.
The 29th May is the official US publication day for Strangeness and Charm, the third in the series The Courts of the Feyre, and it’s cause for celebration here at Shevdon Manor. For your delectation, the kind folk at Angry Robot Books have posted a sample for you to whet your appetite upon, which I hope will encourage you to go out and acquire a copy.
To celebrate, I thought I would share with you a little of the research that inspired the book. This is the church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck in Herefordshire, a little south and west from Hereford itself. This is a remarkable building in many ways, not least for its age – it was built around 1140, replacing the saxon church that preceded it.
I’m not a geologist, but the archway appears to be carved from pink sandstone and is remarkably well preserved. Around the door are the most fantastic carvings – mythical creatures, angels, animals and looping vines, carved all around the doorway. You can see for yourself that it is a portal of significance.
The tops of the walls around the church are decorated with corbels – an architectural term for a bit sticking out to provide additional support – which are again carved into strange creatures, knights, animals and faces. The most rare of these is a sheila-na-gig – a female figure displaying exaggerated vulva. There are very few of these left in Europe and Kilpeck has one of the best examples still in existence.
That’s not the only significant thing about this particular church, though. The church stands next to what remains of a castle which was slighted (demolished to prevent further use) by the parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War, at around 1645. The castle is a grassy mound with a few remnants of a wall. The church, however, is untouched.
You might not think that was remarkable, given that it is a church, but these were puritans and were against the decoration and ornamentation of churches. There are any number of churches throughout England where statuary was pulled down, murals obliterated and stone carvings chiselled off.
Many of my stories begin with the questions: why and what-if, and in this case the obvious question – why was a church bearing pagan imagery and the naked and blatantly sexual image of a woman left completely untouched by a puritan army, while the castle right next door was utterly demolished?
What if the reason the church wasn’t touched was that it was protected? And what if the reason it was protected was that it held something that needed to be kept safe and hidden away?
What’s in the church then becomes interesting, but that will be the subject of my post for the UK launch on June 7th, when we will discover even more mysteries in this fine building.
From Good Friday until Easter Monday I shall be at EasterCon, which this year is being held at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel Heathrow. On Friday afternoon at 3pm I will be on stage with weapons. For reasons of safety and self-preservation, I will not be loading those weapons, but we will have some interesting pieces of video to entertain and amaze you, and I guarantee that if you see archery in a fantasy film after that, you will not see it in the same light again. It’s a promise.
I will also be around for book signings on Saturday and Sunday evening, so bring your copy along and I will be happy to sign it for you.
Hope to see you there!
Originally this article was going to be entitled “Why Care About eBook Piracy”, but that’s the wrong term. Piracy is what happens off the coast of Somalia, or in the South China Seas when armed men board your craft, kill your crew, and steal your cargo. Unfortunately the term also has a certain glamour borrowed from high adventure stories.
We should stop calling Copyright Theft, Piracy for the same reason that the police stopped using the term Joyriding and now use the term, Taking Without Consent. Joyriding makes it sound fun and cool, whereas it is actually reckless and destructive. Equally, there are no pirates boarding eBooks. It’s just people exploiting the hard work of others for their own benefit.
Let’s be clear, distributing copyright material without the consent of the copyright holder is illegal. It’s also extremely easy to do. In fact it’s so easy, many people have done it without realising. We also need to be conscious of the degree of illegality taking place, and of the harm caused. In this country we don’t generally prosecute people for exceeding the legal speed limit by 5% on the motorway because it’s within the margin for error and the harm done is minimal. Similarly, should we prosecute someone for sharing their favourite eBooks with their friends?
Consider these scenarios:
Bill reads an eBook and likes it so much he emails a copy to Jane with a note saying,”read this, you’ll love it.” – This is illegal, but it’s also a personal recommendation that most authors and publishers would value hugely. The scale of the illegality is tiny, and the harm done is negligible, right?
Bill takes his entire eBook Library of 200 eBooks and copies it to Jane’s PC, so that she can read his books if she wants to. Actually Jane’s taste differs hugely from Bill’s, but she takes them anyway because it’s easier than sorting through them. – The scale here is slightly larger, but the harm done is still small. Jane may only read one or two of Bill’s books and it may result in her discovering a ‘new’ author. To an extent Jane has simply mitigated the risk of spending money on a book she wouldn’t normally buy.
One million people do what Bill did and copy their eBook Library to their friend’s PC. Now the scale of the problem is much larger. Even if they only read 1% of the books, we are talking about 2,000,000 copies (200 books x 1M people x 1%) – ask any author or publisher whether they can afford to lose even 10,000 sales and your answer will be clear. The trouble is that it’s not 10,000 sales – those people would not have bought that book. They only read it because it was there. They would have bought something, though. There was a sale lost somewhere.
Now take Bob, no relation to Bill or Jane, who sets up a website hosting uploads from his clients. Bob has 100,000 clients who pay $5 a month to access his ‘Premium Content” which is 70% material for which he is not the copyright holder. Bob doesn’t upload the material – please note – his client’s do, and as there are 100,000 of them he can’t possibly keep up with what they are doing. Nevertheless, Bob is hosting well over 100,000 eBooks (and videos and music) and he’s receiving half a million dollars a month to run a website. With revenues of $6M a year, Bob is thinking of retiring, but actually his business takes so little time and effort, why bother.
Those of you old enough to remember the eighties in the days before MP3 players will recall the Sony Walkman, a portable player which used cassette tape. You will also remember the campaign, Home Taping is Killing Music – People would record their favorite tracks from the radio onto tape and play them while they were out and about. This was, of course, illegal but a lot of people did it, so it became acceptable behaviour. The Home Taping campaign was about raising awareness that this was affecting record sales. It was a drop in the ocean compared to what MP3 and home broadband did to record sales a few years later. By the end of the century the music business was in serious trouble. It’s interesting to note that most successful bands now make money from touring, not from selling records.
If we roll that example forward to the world of eBooks, we can see that it won’t be long before book publishers will be forced to change or disappear. You might see that as a good thing, venting your frustrations on media giants like News Corp (owner of HarperCollins) or Bertelsmann (owner of Random House) but those businesses are diversified and if there’s no money in books they will find something else. Most often, it’s the smaller enterprises that suffer most. If you’re a publisher with a staff of 500 you can make cuts. If you’re a publisher with a staff of two, that’s a lot harder.
By copying their eBook Libraries, Bill and Jane are undermining the system they rely on for new material. If you don’t think that’s true, look at how the earnings of mid-list authors have fallen over the past ten years. Look at how booksellers have been forced to focus on the sales of material with TV tie-ins or cross-media promotion – they simply can’t afford to market books for their own sake.
It used to be the case that publishers could only afford to pick winners, simply because the costs of publication meant that if your books didn’t sell you had to absorb the costs of editing, production, printing, marketing and distribution – most of which were incurred before you’d sold a single copy. Nowadays it’s possible to launch a book with minimal production costs – to test the market before you commit to print. That means that publishers don’t have to be as discriminating, and equally they can afford to take more risks. The flip-side is that selling 5,000 copies of a book becomes economic for the publisher who can simply move on to the next book. Unfortunately, 5,000 copies isn’t economic for the author, unless it’s a hobby and they’re not expecting to make any kind of living from it.
And with 10,000 ‘new authors’ for every existing author waiting in the wings for their chance at publication, expect to see a boom in the number of new books being published and a crash in the author’s earnings from their work. That’s without self-publishing, where it really is about publishing the maximum number of people possible, at their own expense.
I hate to be pessimistic, but this game hasn’t played out yet. It’s likely to get much worse before it gets better.
Bob’s not worried about that though. There are plenty of people willing to upload their own material. He doesn’t need the publishers; all he needs is an endless supply of new writers who want to be ‘published’ and will therefore upload their own material for free in order to achieve their fifteen minutes of fame. And the best bit is, because they are the copyright holders – it isn’t even illegal.
With the publication of book 3 of The Courts of the Feyre: Strangeness and Charm, the series is getting an upgrade. The books will be available in larger format and will have new covers – designed by artist John Coulthart. The covers speak for themselves; beautifully detailed and incorporating symbols from the books to create stunning images. I took the opportunity to contact John, and ask him about his background and his work.
Interview with John Coulthart, Artist
Q: What made you decide to be an artist? What made you begin?
My mother was (and still is, when she gets the paints out) very talented when it comes to drawing or painting, so she was an inspiration from a very early age. She left a job in textile design to start a family but her art school sketchbooks were an example right there in our home that “you too can do this”. We also had a few art books in the house so art in general was never a remote world. Once it became evident that I had a certain drawing talent of my own there was never any question for me that I wasn’t going to be doing something creative for the rest of my life, the only question was what the nature of the work might be
Q: What motivates and inspires you? Why create?
I think the earliest impetus was always “This work picture/story excites me…can I do something like it?” I’ve always had a very visual imagination so reading or listening to music would often conjure vivid images that I’d feel compelled to set down on paper. This sounds very pompous but “creativity” was a key word for me when when I was 16. If someone asked what I wanted to do with my life the answer was always about being creative rather than a specific career. This attitude was consciously vocational, I was prepared to forego everything else in order to pursue a creative goal, however self-indulgent that seemed. I knew I was good at drawing, painting and writing so it was never enough to passively enjoy what other people did in those areas, I wanted to be doing it myself. As well as drawing I was writing fiction throughout my late teens and early twenties, mostly derivative genre things. If I hadn’t got an early start as an illustrator I’d have pursued the writing more assiduously.
Q: To me, your work is incredibly detailed and finely drawn. Is that a deliberate stylistic choice, a product of your technique, or something else?
It’s partly choice and partly accident. The choice is that I’ve always liked very fine cross-hatching and engraved illustrations although I can’t quite say what the attraction is to the latter. It’s not so much that they’re old, it’s more the atmosphere they create, they’re obviously hand-done yet are often almost photographic in their rendering.
I used to enjoy drawing minuscule details which led to using finer and finer ink pens. The accident side of things came when I was poverty-stricken but had some money to buy a rather expensive Rapidograph drawing pen. I’d no idea which to choose so I picked one with a 0.2mm nib (The finest nib they made was 0.1mm.) As a result of this, many of the drawings I did in the 1980s–including the HP Lovecraft story adaptations–were drawn with this insanely fine pen whose lines are a lot more fine than those found in wood engraving. Later on I acquired some more reasonable pens of 0.5mm and higher which I used for the Lord Horror comics.
I should note I no longer draw like that, aside from it being immensely time-consuming my eyes wouldn’t stand the strain. Since I’ve taken to using a computer for illustration I’ve been able to produce collages of old engravings in a manner which harks back in part to the ink drawings but which is also inspired by the collage engraving style of Max Ernst and Wilfried Sätty.
I’ll make time to read the books if I’m sent an MS. In the case of the Jeter covers I did for Angry Robot, they were reprints so I was sent copies of the novels to read before making any sketches. This isn’t always possible with smaller publishers, however, since the text is often still in preparation when they need a cover design to send to distributors. In those instances you rely on the editor (and often the author as well) to ensure you’re going in the right direction. I’ve seen enough favourite novels blighted by unsympathetic cover art to want to avoid spoiling a book.
It’s obviously easier to work in advance of the text if your style is more graphic or symbolic in nature. Artists whose covers involve painting a specific scene or character need a lot more guidance to make sure they produce something that honours the story.
Q: Do you have a particular process you go through for a piece? If so, can you explain how it works for you?
First thing for me is always to try and find a strong central image or focus. Sometimes this may involve doing sketches but I’ve always been resistant to over-sketching. I like to surprise myself whilst the work is in progress, and I also don’t want to drain the excitement of creating something new with too much preparation. If publishers ask to see sketches beforehand I’ll happily supply them but for myself I set to work once I’ve got a rough design worked out in my head.
After that it depends on the nature of the art or design. I use Photoshop for collage work or pictorial things. Sometimes Photoshop pieces are constructed by collaging many minute elements from different photos which are then blended to create a coherent picture. Other times I draw an outline on paper as a guide which I then scan and paint over using Photoshop’s brush tool. For line art and graphic things like your own covers I use Illustrator. I’ve been using the latter application more and more over the past couple of years, I like the hard-edged nature of the graphics, it’s like working in a more flexible pen-and-ink technique and I feel I’m gradually evolving my own style with it.
In the case of your covers the process was fairly straightforward. Marc (the editor) had suggested using an arrangement of old graphics. I felt there needed to be a frame to contain everything but I also wanted to make it eye-catching somehow which is what led to placing a square rotated through 45 degrees in the centre of each cover. That way there’d be a strong graphic element present that would register at a distance (or shrunk down to a webpage thumbnail), whilst a closer view would deliver the smaller details. I have a large collection of copyright-free motifs and printer’s ornaments but for your covers I wanted to avoid scanning things from popular sources. I’d recently been downloading old printer’s catalogues from the Internet Archive so I used a selection of ornaments from those. In that respect the covers are quite unique.
Q: Do you read for pleasure, and if so, what authors do you read? Do you have a favourite book?
Yes, I read a great deal, mostly fiction but I also read a fair amount of art history. Just recently I’ve been getting back into the history of Surrealism, something I was passionate about as a teenager but which got shunted aside in a kind of “yeah, I know all that” impulse later on. I read literary fiction as well as genre work. Before Christmas I had a great time re-reading Robert Aickman’s short stories, pieces that get classed as horror but which he simply labelled “strange”. Aickman is a superb writer, many of his stories begin as quite mundane descriptions of ordinary middle-class lives which by very slow degrees turn into nightmares. It astonishes me he’s still so underrated, he really ought to be classed with MR James and Arthur Machen as one of the great British writers of weird fiction.
I enjoy work like this that’s often a hybrid of some sort, I’ve never been very keen on straightforward genre material unless it’s the primary examples. So I love Bram Stoker’s Dracula but don’t really want to read any contemporary vampire things. My favourite writer when I was 11 was HG Wells, and something I enjoyed when working through his collected short stories was not knowing whether a story would be fantasy, sf, horror, comedy, or an amalgam of one or more of these. He was adept in all these areas yet never felt constrained to stay in one place. Through Wells I got on to Mike Moorcock, then through Moorcock I fell heavily for the New Worlds school of sf, especially JG Ballard and M. John Harrison. New Worlds led to Jorge Luis Borges, William Burroughs, all kinds of Modernist fiction and the wilder ends of the literary spectrum.
These days my favourite living writer is Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read everything he’s written, and have to stop myself re-reading the novels one after the other. I’ve always liked “opaque” writing, where the arrangement and cadence of the words is as important as what the words are saying. James Joyce is a favourite opaque writer, as is Nabokov. Joyce’s Ulysses would be my desert island book if I could only choose one, although I wouldn’t enjoy having to choose that over Blood Meridian or a selection of Borges.
Q: Do you have particular works of art that are your favourites – yours or other people’s?
I’m not the first person to feel embarrassed about their early work but I’m pleased with the Lovecraft book even though some of the drawing looks a little awkward now. More recently I was very pleased with the cover I did for Alan Moore’s Dodgem Logic magazine: it’s a pastiche of different styles blending Art Nouveau with psychedelic art, some imitation Roger Dean lettering for the title, and a calmly provocative central image of two butterfly boys kissing.
As for other work, I’ve mentioned Surrealist art. I also like the Symbolists a great deal, the group of European artists who were precursors of the Surrealists. And Fantastic (as distinct from fantasy) art, ie: painters such as Mati Klarwein, Sibylle Ruppert, HR Giger, Leonor Fini, Ernst Fuchs, Zdzislaw Beksinski, etc. No one will be surprised to hear I enjoy Art Nouveau and all kinds of black-and-white illustration, especially the work produced by Aubrey Beardsley and Harry Clarke. When it comes to etching and engraving, Gustave Doré and Piranesi have been favourites for years, both of whom have influenced my drawing. And I should mention Tom Phillips, a British artist who’s roughly the same age as David Hockney and who I regard as the superior artist although few critics seem to agree.
Q: I see you’ve drawn inspiration from and have written about ‘Weird’ fiction. What does ‘Weird’ mean for you?
It’s a term that isn’t always easy to define which is one reason I like it. Fantasy, horror and science fiction evolved quite naturally as descriptive terms then ended up being co-opted by the imperatives of marketing. If you drew a Venn diagram you’d find the Weird intersecting with familiar genres, and with the wider literary world, but never quite matching any particular area. Weird Tales magazine used to publish anything that suited its title: this might be horror, sf, heroic fantasy (both CL Moore and Robert E Howard could dip into the weird stuff), and even detective fiction in the case of all those “psychic detectives”. Weird for me defines a quotient of the uncanny or the fantastical that lies beyond the usual stereotypes of the genres. It’s often present in places where there’s no overt generic reference at all: David Lynch’s Eraserhead is a good example.
Q: I note that you’ve collaborated with Alan Moore – how did that come about?
When I was hovering on the margins of the UK comics scene in the late 80s and early 90s I got to meet a lot of notable comic creators such as Bryan Talbot, Neil Gaiman, Melinda Gebbie, and others. I’d met Alan a couple of times before Creation Books brought us together with a suggestion that I illustrate some of the Lovecraft-related stories he’d been writing. That project fell through but we found we had a good rapport, partly because I was very familiar with all the occult stuff he was immersed in at the time. Eventually we produced another Lovecraft-inspired piece for my Haunter of the Dark book based on Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. After that I designed some of the CDs of Alan’s readings with musician Tim Perkins.
Q: What is your ambition as an artist? What would you really love to do?
I’m in a curious position compared to many illustrators or designers in that a large portion of what I regard as my best work is currently inaccessible. So the main ambition is to get this work before an audience. There are two more books I’d like to see in print: Reverbstorm is the first, the 300-page comic strip I produced with writer David Britton based on his Lord Horror character. This appeared in serial form throughout the 1990s and we now want to collect the separate comics into a definitive book edition. This is my major (and final) statement in the comics medium, and a quite intense and furious collection of horror and grotesquery.
Then there’s my grand project, Axiom, which is a novel I was writing from 2001 to 2007 that forms the basis of an ambitious multi-media project I’d had in mind since the mid-1990s. I’d spent much of the 1980s adapting Lovecraft, and much of the 1990s collaborating with Dave Britton so I wanted to get back to my own imagination and obsessions. The idea was to create a fictional space of my own that I could explore in whatever medium I desired. I have an agent for the book but so far publishers have been resistant. We did actually get a deal last year with a small UK imprint; things went right up to the contract stage whereupon the publisher went out of business. So getting the novel published is a persistent concern at the moment. I’ve spent the past five years working on a follow-up novel that excites me a great deal since it’s a lot better than the first book. Then I have a third book planned that’ll be some hybrid of fiction, graphic design and illustration that I’ve barely begun to contemplate. If I get all that finished I may have a day off.
Q: What are you working on now?
I’ve been designed a lot of CDs lately, some for regular employers Savoy, and some for various small music labels. The latter work is mostly dubstep or avant garde electronic stuff which I’m pleased to be associated with since the music is very much to my taste. On the book side I’m roughing out a cover design for a new anthology from Tachyon. And I’ve just finished a very unusual commission for a confectionery firm based in London who asked me to design a can for a new line of “Steampunk cola”. They do novelty lines of sweets and things with sf or fantasy themes. The design has worked out well so I’m looking forward to seeing the manufactured article.
Thanks, John, for agreeing to be interviewed – you can see more if his work at http://johncoulthart.com/