Turning the Tide

Turning the Tide

Dear reader,

as I write this, I’m feeling pretty great. I’m looking forward to seeing my two sons tomorrow and across the weekend. I’ve enjoyed the best part of two weeks out in some really lovely sunshine and it’s done wonders for my state of mind – sunshine always works, but sometimes I can be so low that I can’t force myself out the door to drink it in.

I’ve made some changes. About two weeks ago, I forced myself to enjoy salad. Yes, you read correctly. I had to force myself to like it. And for two weeks I have had a salad as my main meal every single day. This week, I have embarked upon intermittent fasting – fitting any food I am to consume into an 8-hour window, leaving me 16 hours to rest my digestive system and burn some residual calories. No cheating. No snacks. I’m looking to do this 3 or 4 days a week. Already, some of the fat I was carrying in my face has started to burn off. I’ve even started a kettle-bell workout at home – nothing too strenuous, but interesting enough to keep me invested, and easy enough that I can do it at home.

And this feeling of well-being comes even as my downstairs neighbour has commenced a campaign of sleep-depriving anti-social behaviour. Poor sleep is one of the main triggers of my anxiety, and yet, so far and touch wood, not even that idiot is bringing me down. Oh, and I’ve decided to start weening myself off my prescribed medication. I’ve dropped down to a tablet every second day instead of every day. And yet still, nothing is bringing me down.

Keep your fingers crossed for me. The comeback trail is long, but I’m no longer crawling along it – I just started to jog it and the urge to break into a sprint is swelling up in my chest.

I can’t believe it, and yet I can feel it. I’m almost back.

I’ve got the plot of my next novel laid out, with just a few more little pieces of the puzzle to set in place. I can’t wait to get into it properly, but the planning process is fun, digging out this new version of a story I’ve known for years.

While it’s not the sort of thing I usually go in for, I watched an motivational talk delivered by Arnold Schwarzenegger that popped up in my YouTube feed. Apparently, it broke the internet at the time it was released, so I suppose I’m probably the last person on the internet to watch that thing – and in the event I’m not the last, you can find it here.

Right away, he talks about the importance of identifying your goal. And I always thought my goal was clear: I want to write dark fiction. Seems simple, right? But I’ve realised that is way too vague – it’s vague, and it’s inaccurate. And it took another writer of horror to spell it out for me.

The fantastic Adam Nevill (The Ritual, Apartment 16, Last Days), in his book Cries From The Crypt, reveals his approach to writing in various interviews and exercises. He is incredibly well-read across the horror canon and has made it his business, his goal, to elevate horror fiction to the level of literature, rather than becoming bogged down by the genre’s tropes and stylings that have ensure horror is often seen as the poor relation in genre fiction.

I’ll talk about Adam Nevill more in future posts, I’m certain, if for no other reason than for me to tell you exactly why he has become my absolute favourite horror writer. But he and Arnie have unknowingly teamed up and made me focus on what my goal really is. Learning of Nevill’s quest for horror perfection – and having read some of the fruits of this quest (and let me assure you, he’s nailing it), I’ve come to understand my own desires and stumbling blocks. Sometimes, in prepping stories I wanted to write, I’d get lost in wondering, “Is this horror?” But Nevill says a writer must write what he or she is compelled to. And all of a sudden, after reading that, I realised that I is okay for me to write dark fiction that tells a horrific tale, but which takes us down a path perhaps more familiar to readers of other genres.

It’s not about what it looks like. It’s about the nuts and bolts, how I do it, and how I lead the reader into this new world and convince them it is utterly real.

And so I have decided that the time has come to solidify the overall goal, and I will spend the rest of my writing career working towards that goal:

to take you into the darkest fictional corners of our world and deliver it as a new reality – as convincingly as a Booker Prize-winning author would deliver a straight-out literary piece.

No, that’s not me declaring that I want to take the Booker Prize. I just think that Adam Nevill is right: horror doesn’t need to be that overlooked, underappreciated genre that it is, and my writing doesn’t have to play ball. I can take the time to craft thoughtful tales that will shock, stun and seem terrifyingly real, while at the same time being like nothing else and nowhere else on earth. And every new piece I release from now on will be measured against that goal.

It won’t be easy. I have a ton of writing to do, but most importantly, I have got a lot of reading to catch up on.

Right after Stranger Things Season 3.

Sorry. But it has to be done.

I remain,

Your humble dark fiction writer,

Jack Rollins

Hey characters, you don’t blank me – I blank you!

Hey characters, you don’t blank me – I blank you!

Picking things up where I left off is not easy at all. I think I might have figured out why Carsun keeps stalling…

… and I think I know how to put it right.

Almost twenty years ago, a character came into my mind, and with him, a group of friends, enemies, an entire town and a religion. I was fit to burst with ideas, but I didn’t write the story until I’d been writing notes and building characters for over a year.

I then retold the story as Matt Carsun: Saturnine, shifting the timescales slightly. I reconfigured the story so that the characters were back in high school, rather than have sequences of flashbacks snapping into the current narrative. I broke the story into parts, so that I could essentially tell three stories in one, shifting time by a fortnight, or six months, between parts.

Many years later, I stitched three stories together to make The Cabinet of Dr Blessing. These individual stories had their own time jumps – one picks up the next day, another takes place six months later.

Looking back on Saturnine, it’s as amateurish as you’d expect from a writer who was 22 at the time. It was important though. I banged that thing out in record time – the first draft took 4 weeks to write. I learned that with enough planning, I could have a project that essentially wrote itself.

Plus a lot of the main character’s friends were based on my friends. A lot of the feelings I tried to capture in there, were feelings I had been feeling around that time – moving away from being a child and into adulthood (even though I realise now, nobody’s really an adult until they’re about 27).

I put together a sequel, one much larger in scope than Saturnine was. A story in six parts, where the sixth part was essentially that very first Matt Carsun story with the flashbacks stripped out, keeping and rewriting the current narrative from that episode in the characters’ lives.

Then came that tricky third book. The one I started, but could not for the life of me finish. I was about 27 then, funnily enough. And I felt very different to how I did when I first got to know those characters. And I was chewing it out. So I stopped. If it isn’t fun to write, it won’t be fun to read, that’s what I think.

And then back in 2011 or something, I decided it was time to bring the old boy back. I had a good idea about how to do it, and coming off the back of writing Doctor Blessing, I was full of energy and enthusiasm and ready to bring something new to something older. Something like 10 chapters in, and it fell apart. I lost momentum, lost sight of what I was trying to do.

Carsun has limped and stalled, limped and stalled ever since.

Until a few weeks ago. In the latest round of trying to find the angle for this thing to work, I managed to add a few aspects and some additional depth to some parts of the story, but once again I hit a sticking point.

Some of the characters didn’t know what to do, what to say. They didn’t have a life anymore. Even Carsun himself, who isn’t based on me as much as he features some things that I wish could be true about me (successful businessman probably being chief among them), couldn’t motivate himself anymore.

I had resolved years ago to condense the cast list down and streamline the characters – making composites of characters who, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t have all that much to do. But it wasn’t enough. So I started looking at it again. And something clicked.

I’ve bloody sussed it out, haven’t I? Well, I think I have.

You see, what Carsun is, is what I want. What he wants is nothing I’ve ever wanted, so I needed to crack into new motivations that were purely his. I needed to understand him again, and what he wants.

But it goes way beyond that. All those friends he had in those earlier stories… they are friends I used to have. I don’t know those particular lads anymore. Haven’t got a clue where they are, what they’re doing. Can’t say I give much of a shit, either.

I’ve fallen out of touch with the characters. They’ve moved on with their lives, they can’t be a part of this story. They could work only in a story where Matt Carsun is in High School. I can’t see them as men, I can’t visualise it in any way that feels authentic. They’ve just up and left.

Carsun is going to play with adults now. That’s how it has to be. That’s how I can make it work.

In working through the new character sheets, I feel more productive than I have in years. I’m excited to meet these new people – to get to know them and their motives. And those characters I’m keeping? Well, I’m back to scratch with them, too. From a name and a date of birth. Then their jobs, their religious and political stances (remember, Tilwick doesn’t work like everywhere else), hobbies, interests, disposition and personality. I am finding out who these characters are now. And I’m discovering new things about old characters that breathes new life into them and gives them new angles. They have bad habits, secret talents, gripes and proud remembrances. Carsun himself has a timeline, a history, and a family tree dating back (so far) to 1855.

So I haven’t written a single sentence within this new vision of the story – nothing that will make it to the book. Just scenes as exercises, the outtakes, filler. Just getting them talking to each other about stuff. Literally last night I wrote four pages of just dialogue between Matt and his friend, discussing an event that takes place years before this book kicks off.

But, before addressing the conflict that Matt has to overcome as he sets out to achieve his goals, I had to face myself. I wrote about my own conflicts, what’s going on right now. What I need. What I want. And what’s standing in my way.

And so, you lovely reader, things are moving. Slowly, but with certainty. It really hasn’t been plain sailing this week, but I won’t go into the details – I wrote my self-indulgent moan last week. This week is about gathering momentum. Because I feel like I’m onto something here. And when this story begins to solidify again, it feels like it’s going to be unstoppable.

You might even get to read it one day.

War Without End

War Without End

It’s been a while. I hope I can remember how this works. Let’s see, shall we?

For the good readers who enjoyed my stories, I am not a great writer to follow. I absolutely shouldn’t say that, but it is true. Many people want to see what happens next in the world of Doctor Blessing, others are waiting for the unfinishable Carsun. I’m pretty sure patience has worn thin and those lovely people have long since abandoned hope and scattered, to follow productive writers who churn out new works regularly.

As I type this, I feel like I’m hunched over a radio in some post-apocalyptic movie, broadcasting a message, hoping that someone, anyone, will hear it and know that I am still alive. But maybe everyone’s gone.

I don’t know why I had to have a brain that doesn’t pump out all the chemicals it’s supposed to. All I know is that a job I loved a few years back, took a turn under new leadership. Work I had been proud of became a corrosive shackle – locked in place and burning deeper with every second. And everything since that point has been loss.

Any creative momentum I had gathered up plummeted in the exhaustion of running around with two young children in the house. Exhaustion and fear, as the youngest gave his mum and I a real fright when he was only 3 weeks old. I don’t want to share the specifics, but it’s enough to say we thought we were going to lose him. Thank God we didn’t, of course (and he’s a healthy, happy, tough little boy who is very much bonded onto me, from time we spent together in the hospital together).

I got involved with another company, providing training again, and actually became a director in it, but very quickly, it became clear that all was not as it seemed in this other organisation and before very long I packed it in and went freelance. The problem was, my heart was no longer in the training work. Something fundamentally changed in me in the dying days of the job that turned corrosive, and it put me off that line of work forever.

With one of my brothers, I formed a company selling geeky merchandise, and we built it from a market stall up to a good little comic shop. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough money going around and we found ourselves constantly trying to plug holes in cash flow and desperately trying to hold the business together. Along the way, I had to sink my beloved Dark Chapter Press, which felt like chopping a hand off. I’d been so excited about Dark Chapter Press and was pleased to bring some friends into the company. I hoped I would be able to reward their hard work handsomely, but in the end it all proved to be too much. I had bitten off more than I could chew, the pressure became unbearable and even the slightest knocks seemed to leave horrific bruises on my psyche.

This whole mess cost me dearly. And I don’t just mean financially (but I don’t dare try to put a definitive figure on all this). The heaviest toll was when I lost my family, and had to leave the home I had made for the boys with their mum. Being away from those little guys inflicted upon me the kind of blinding pain that often saw me holding myself, eyes streaming while my mouth hung open, fixed in a silent scream. I saw them as often as I could, and still do. Earlier this year, I managed to get a flat with two bedrooms and they enjoy staying over every other weekend, and we have a great time together.

Maybe one day I’ll detail some of the darkest moments of the endless war I wage against the tide of depression that breaks against my mind every day. Maybe one day I’ll share with you the times the illness made me think that failure could be infectious, and perhaps the boys should not be exposed to it – that my living is a danger to their future. But today I’ll share with you that no matter how bad things have been, I’ve managed to mine deep down into reserves of willpower I didn’t know I possessed. And I’m glad I discovered them.

I have so much to be thankful for, so much to look forward to, and so much still to fight for.

And some stories I still have to tell. I’ve been working on one a lot lately. I might share it with you, hopefully before very much more time passes.

I hope someone out there finds this. It’s terrible out there. But I am still here. Trying desperately to reach you.

Guest Blog: Cursed Horror Stars by Mark Iveson — Dark Chapter Press

Jack: While David Basnett and I manned the Dark Chapter Press stand at Screen-Con, a small, family-oriented convention up here in the North East, at North Shields, we listened to a talk from Mark Iveson. Mark took the stage to deliver a fascinating introduction to some of the horror movie stars of yesteryear, and how […]

via Guest Blog: Cursed Horror Stars by Mark Iveson — Dark Chapter Press