Making Nasty Faces

As some children may be aware, it is Halloween. On Saturday night, Weird-Wide News received reports of ghosts, ghouls, zombies, vampires and other vile creatures stalking the streets of Ireland. Some fairies and princesses were spotted too, though they may not have lasted too long out in that chaos, magic wands or no magic wands.

Houses need protection on Halloween night, and nothing offers better protection from the undead and all those other creepy things than a good old-fashioned pumpkin-head.

Since obtaining a stepson, I now have an excuse to do things like help him make pumpkins and costumes. Here’s my quick guide to making a cool pumpkin.Pumpkin-1

Step 1: Cut off the top of its skull, making sure you cut it in one piece, so you can use it as a lid. The stem makes a good handle, if there’s enough of it left.

Step 2: Using a water-soluble marker (like a white-board marker), draw the face onto the best side, making it look suitably nasty.

Pumpkin-2Step 3: Scoop out its brains (the gunk and seeds inside). The pumpkin is easy to hollow out. Scrape the inside as clean as you can – I find a soup-spoon works best.

Step 4: Using a sharp, thin knife, cut out its eyes and nose. Be careful with the knife – if it can cut holes in a pumpkin, it can cut holes in you. Only fake wounds are cool on Halloween. If you’re a child, you may need adult supervision. If you’re an adult and you cut yourself, it’s your own damn fault.

Step 5: Cut out its mouth and knock out the teeth to make suitable gaps. Then use a damp cloth to wipe off all the pen marks.Pumpkin-3

Step 6: Light a candle or two and place them inside (tea-lights are best) and put the lid back on. It helps if you scoop out a little socket in the floor of the pumpkin for each candle. Now your pumpkin has come to life. Turn out the lights and see that spooky face emit an unearthly glow.

Pumpkin-5Step 7: For best effect, set up your staging with a cloak or costume to shine through the front window and scare trick-or-treaters. The less people call to your door, the more junk will be left for you – unless you’re the weird, health-conscious type who hands out apples and mandarins. That said, a nostalgic part of me does lament the loss in popularity of monkey nuts.Darth Maul

If you’re too old to go trick-or-treating yourself, find a child you can help with their costume on the condition that they share some of their takings with you afterwards. This year, my stepson and I found the Star Wars character, Darth Maul, proved very successful in parting people from their goodies.

Nineteenth Century Gothic

I’m listening to Patricia Cornwell’s forensic crime novel, ‘Cause of Death’ on audiobook on my phone at the moment, but I am otherwise on a nineteenth century kick, having recently finished ‘Flashman and the Redskins’, which, like other Flashman books, I read with relish. I’ve also just read the ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ by Washington Irving on my eReader. Sleepy Hollow PosterFor those who don’t know, this short story is the original tale of the headless horseman, and the basis for Tim Burton’s gloriously gothic film ‘Sleepy Hollow’.

My upcoming ebook, ‘The Vile Desire to Scream’, is now written and about to be edited. It’s a novella featuring the Wildenstern family from ‘Ancient Appetites’ and ‘The Wisdom of Dead Men’. It will be available, for free, on this site and blog soon. TWODM Cover-Low ResBut I’m also going back to work on the third Wildenstern novel, ‘Merciless Reason’ in the next couple of weeks (I had started it and got waylaid with a load of other stuff including ‘The-Project-That-Dare-Not-Speak-Its-Name’) and I’m immersing myself once again in those dark and deeply descriptive nineteenth century stories to get in the mood. I’ll be back on Edgar Allan Poe next. Wordy, rather linear in plot at times, but masterful exercises in atmosphere.

Runners, Books and Babies

Despite not having any events since my two laddish sessions in Lucan library last week, I’ve still been struggling to catch up on work. The car’s had to go in for some major work. Thanks to the trucks serving the M3 roadworks, the mutant pot-holes they cause along the back-roads in Meath have torn up no less than five tyres since I moved up here less than three years ago. The broken-up roads have damaged a wheel twice and now the shocks have had to be replaced too. But I love my car and it has served me well over the long miles. I don’t begrudge it the new (expensive) suspension.

But the biggest distraction over the last months has been my baby daughter. My wife, Maedhbh, has scraped together every last day of leave she can to stay at home as long as possible, but our little bundle of joy goes off to the childminder next week for the first time as the missus finally goes back to work. I’ll have less to distract me from work at home, but it’s hard for any parent to hand their baby over to someone else to mind.

Baby Finds BookshelfDespite the fact that she is still only just beginning to crawl (our baby, not Maedhbh) she got in behind one of the armchairs the other day, found the bookshelf and proceeded to demolish it. I hope this interest in books will carry on through her life, but that she will some day learn to put them back on their shelves . . .

We all went to spectate at the Dublin Marathon on bank holiday Monday, as we knew a few people who were running. It turned out to be a perfect day for it, clear but cool. We watched in Phoenix Park (6 miles) and then on Fosters Avenue (21 miles) as people of all shapes, sizes and levels of fitness took on this mammoth run. I walk a lot and run (badly) when I can get my arse in gear, but I found it inspiring to see so many people getting out there, with so many charities represented. Maybe I’ll have a go at it myself some day.Marathon-the 21 Mile Point

My hands were sore and swollen from clapping, and I found the act of shouting support addictive – the runners and walkers are having such a tough time of it, when you cheer on one lot you feel you have to wait and cheer on the next lot . . . and the next lot . . . and the next lot . . .

Congratulations to everyone who took part. Fair play to yiz.

Fiscal Responsibility, Going Forward in the Medium to Long Term

Ah, the business of writing. Nothing yanks you out of the heady heights of imaginative flight like having to sort out your accounts and fill out your tax return. And this year, we have these new income levies to take into account when working out how much we owe in preliminary tax – and what dastardly financial maniac came up with the insidious idea of paying tax in ADVANCE? Where’s our preliminary health service, that’s what I want to know.

The government has brought in these new emergency levies to try and plug the holes in the financial Titanic that is the Irish economy. I knew they were going to cost me money (they’ll cost just about everyone money) but I didn’t understand them, so I went on the Revenue Commissioner’s website.

Their helpful explanations confused me even more, so I rang up the local tax office. The man there listened to my questions, wasn’t sure how to answer them, went on the website himself and then he got confused too. He put down the phone and went and talked to his boss. He came back and explained the levies to me in small words and I repeated it back in even smaller words. Then he directed me to a web page that explained how to do my preliminary tax.

I hung up the phone and read through the page. Then I read through it again. And then a third time, cursing through my tears. This is what they put on their website to help people understand what they’re looking for:

‘ . . . in calculating the amount of preliminary tax, the liability for 2008 must be increased by an amount which is equal to the income levy that would have been payable if income levy had applied for 2008 at the same rates and bands as apply for 2009. (Section 531H(3) TCA 1997).

‘In calculating the amount of income levy due, credit for levy on relevant emoluments should be allowed in the following manner:

‘Income levy as calculated on 2008 aggregate income using composite rates
‘Income Levy as calculated on 2008 relevant emoluments using composite rates’

Lamenting my obviously poor grasp of English, I rang the tax office. The same man replied, a note of trepidation in his voice when I told him who I was. I read out the excerpt to him. He read it himself. There was a long silence. Then he put the phone down and went and talked to his boss.

Eventually he came back and explained it as best he could, or at least in a manner that I was able to decipher meaning from in my own simple way. And as I put down the phone, feeling suddenly alone, I wondered how many Irish writers recoil from trying to make a living from writing because they’re reading skills aren’t up to the task.

Tomorrow, I’m going to finish ‘The Vile Desire to Scream’ and get it out to my reading circle and my editor. It’s about a murderous family of villains and their brooding, labyrinthine castle full of booby-traps and secrets. Because I need something to pick me up.

Animated, Dead and Ukrainian

I’ve been a fan of Pixar’s films ever since I first saw ‘Luxor Junior’, ‘Knick Knack’ and ‘Tin Toy’ in college (before Pixar was bought by Disney). I think John Lasseter’s company was the first to give computer generated imagery the human touch.Luxo Junior Since then, they have gone on to produce such varied wonders as the ‘Toy Story’ films, ‘Monsters Inc’. ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘Wall-E’.

There are very few film-making companies for whom it can be said that they have never put a foot wrong. With ‘Up’, Pixar have once again proven that beyond all the high-tech imagery, the flawless animation and Disney hype, they truly are master storytellers. I loved this film, from the light-hearted but moving opening, to the spectacular flight of the house, the mismatched heroes, the talking dogs, the weird bird and the hilarious action sequences (I nearly wet myself seeing the boy smeared across the windscreen of the airship). The people at Pixar are geniuses. Long may it last.

The Graveyard BookAnother master storyteller, though one with a very different style, who has also moved into the film medium more than once, is Neil Gaiman. His latest children’s novel, ‘The Graveyard Book’ is one of his best. Filled with his trademark imaginative magic and that sense of chilling child-like wonder which makes you wonder what kind of bedtime stories he tells his kids, ‘The Graveyard Book’ is a great story. I’ve just seen the movie version of ‘Coraline’ too, and though I thought the book told the story better, the end is proper spooky.

And finally, for now, you should check out this video of Ukrainian artist Kseniya Simonova’s fantastic sand painting. A kind of performance illustration, it is hugely impressive to watch and very moving in places. Amazing what you can do with sand and a light-box.

Taking the Cold on the Road

My nose is blocked, my chest is tight, I’ve been getting dizzy spells and I’m suffering a severe lack of concentration. It’s hard to hold the attention of a gang of kids when  you can’t even hold our OWN attention. Every now and then I cough, but it’s not very satisfying. It’s not swine flu, because I can still stand up, walk around and do my usual pacing, ranting and squealing in front the kids. It’s amazing what passes for entertainment these days.

There have been a lot of frightened rumours about the swine flu, but if you ask me, the way we’re going, we’re more likely to die of antiseptic. Soon, they’ll have us wading through pools of the stuff like sheep in a dip.

It’s been a busy week, with sessions in Navan, Dunboyne, Ashbourne and Dunshauglin in County Meath. In Leitrim, I visited Manorhamilton and Dromahair – a tiny, but pleasant, library where the audience squeezed in like sardines that would prefer to be vacuum-packed than return to school. I also did sessions in the libraries in Dundalk and Ardee in the wee county of Louth. I think Dundalk has one of the finest library buildings in the country, combining the best of old and new.

In all the venues, the kids were bright, lively, good-natured souls who never suspected the man doing the funny voices and drawing scribbly pictures was trying not to exhale too many germs.  If you work in schools, you get used to hearing a chorus of coughs and sneezes and wondering which ones you’ll catch, but that didn’t make me feel any less guilty as I spread my own evil germs across the country.

Doppelganger-SketchI did get to do the pencils for the cover of ‘Mad Grandad’s Doppelganger’ this week, you can see part of the sketch here. This will be discussed in a meeting in O’Brien Press, the publisher, in case it needs any changes before it goes to finished artwork. So once everybody’s happy with it, I’ll trace it onto a new sheet of painting paper and finish it up with ink and paint. The back and front covers are drawn up at the same time, because the frame on the front of the book is taken from the ‘wallpaper’ illustration on the back cover.

Klepto Spotted – Llamas Missing

Old Mother Klepto-GalwayIt is the mission of the Weird-Wide News to protect the country – and young readers – from strange and supernatural threats. I will be using my network of contacts across the country to keep a watch out for news of anything out-of-the-ordinary.

Not long ago, Old Mother Klepto was spotted hanging from a ceiling in Gortjordan school in Galway. When last seen, she was heading east, towards County Meath. Missing Llamas ClippingIn a strange coincidence, I discovered a report this week in ‘The Weekender’ a local newspaper in Meath: ‘Garda Appeal on Missing Llamas’. It is my duty to ask: Could the monstrous thief be responsible? Who else would want to steal five llamas (and three goats)?

Real Life Science Fiction

It doesn’t matter if you’re not a fan of science fiction. If you’re reading this blog, you’re living in a sci-fi world.

What’s your favourite kind of reading? Which way do you read most? Think about it – do you really spend most of your reading time on books? Or maybe  you read more emails, or posts on networking sites, or magazines, newspapers or comics. Or maybe you read cereal boxes or DVD boxes. Maybe you spend most of your time reading road-signs. It’s all reading, and whatever type of reading you do, it’s probably important in your life. I’m fascinated with the different ways we have of feeding on text.

It seems that the Amazon Kindle is finally going global, having been restricted to the US since its release. This is good, because it’ll give Sony and Google a kick up the arse. I like seeing the giants sweat a little, I like seeing them butt heads. They can’t be allowed to have too much control over what and how we read and the way things are going, they could.

If you don’t know what the Kindle is, or you’ve never heard of eReaders, you should check them out. I don’t think there’s going to be a single format that text will be consumed in the future – instead, everyone’s going to have a favourite way of reading, and publishers will have to become more dynamic in providing these different formats.

I still read books. I also spend a lot of time reading websites, online articles, blogs and, of course, emails. Juliet CartoonBut my favourite type of text is stories, and most of the best stories are told in books. And on the web, pictures are respected more than they often are in publishing, and I love good pictures.

I can now browse the web and even read books on my phone  – I also have my events schedule,  a dictionary, a thesaurus and the entire Irish phone directory on this one small device, which has more processing power than the first spacecraft to land on the moon. It also has the usual camera, alarm clock, calculator etc. I can access the astounding wealth of knowledge that the web offers with a device that’s smaller than my hand. And I have to be careful of that information, because now anybody can just put stuff out there. Nobody’s checking it for me. It’s up to me to make sure I’m not getting fooled.

But, like most people, I spend a lot of time using these technological miracles  for entertainment. I am a member of South Dublin County Libraries’ Download Zone, where I can download ebooks and audio-books for free (and legally).  I do a lot of long walks and I can now listen to audio-books on my phone. I also do a lot of long drives. My phone can connect to my car stereo using Bluetooth, so the same audio-book I was listening to on my walk can continue playing in the car.  If a call comes in, the audio-book pauses while I answer the call, and my stereo acts as a hands-free system.

I take a call from someone asking me to send a photo, or a document, or a piece of video. I can do that and go straight back to listening to my audio-book. All while I’m stuck in traffic. If I lose my way, I can look up a map on the phone (but I still prefer the type that fold out nice and big). It’s a little unnerving though, when I go to the maps section, and IT ALREADY KNOWS WHERE I AM. I decide to turn off that function. But there’s no escaping the fact that I am living in a science fiction world.

It would be easy to get used to all this, and in a way I have to, if I’m to manage my life in an increasingly complicated world. But I wonder if we’ll ever reach a point where we’ll be helpless without this stuff? Where, if you detach us from our access points, our flow of information and stimulation, we will be unable to survive? Will there come  a day in the distant future when, if I lose my phone, and I’m away from home, from familiar surroundings, from internet access, I could be lost forever? My God, what if I just forget my dozens of passwords?

Suddenly, my luddite brain is muttering suspiciously to me about the little piece of plastic, metal and silicon in my pocket.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Sci-Fi Scene

My article on life on planet Con is now online on the Sci-Fi London website, along with an interview with literary editor Robert Grant. Sci-Fi London is the UK’s biggest annual genre film festival, and there are also loads of features on this excellent site for genre fans, with no shortage of articles, interviews and other bits and pieces. sci-fi london logoYou can also check out Robert’s filmed interview with me last year and his review of ‘Strangled Silence‘.

The Oisin McGann Travelling Show

This being Children’s Book Festival, I’m out doing my variety act a lot. If you want to make a living from children’s books, it’s not enough to sit at home and write your stories; you’ve got to go back to the roots of storytelling, to the oral tradition, learning how to tell tales out loud again, so you can take it on tour.

Yesterday it was talking to 5th and 6th class kids in libraries in Dundrum and Stillorgan. To get there, I can either set out and catch rush hour and sit in traffic, or head out a little after 6am, beat the worst of the traffic, have a leisurely breakfast in Dundrum and catch up on my reading. I haven’t slept too well, so I wake up like a corpse and drive in a near-hallucinatory state, promising myself I’ll skip the decaf and indulge in a high octane coffee at breakfast. When you drink decaf most of the time, a real coffee is like a cattle-prod to the brain.Farewell My Lovely Cover

I listen to Raymond Chandler’s book,  ‘Farewell My Lovely’  all the way there, played on my phone through the car stereo. For those who don’t know, he set the standard for the hard-boiled crime novel. I’ve been reading a lot of his stuff lately and I love it, but this time I’ve opted for the audio-book, read by serrated voice of Elliot Gould.

The Dundrum session goes fine, but in the Stillorgan library, my fine oration is interrupted by a woman driving up and down the road beeping her horn. Perhaps she’s trying to get someone’s attention, but doesn’t know which house they’re in. But it looks more like she’s lost, and she’s beeping the horn as if it will tell her the way to go, like some kind of satnav for the perpetually frustrated. BEEP BEEP! Where am I?! As if she can find her way by echo location or something. Like a silly bat. It can be hard enough to keep kids’ attention as it is, without that racket, so I take the mickey out of her instead, (though not in nasty way, of course) which goes down well. They’re a nice bunch of lads (just one girl in a group of nearly sixty boys, for reasons that are never explained). I’m flattered when one kid says to me that I could be a comedian, but he advises me that I should jump up and down more, like Lee Evans.

I have events over most of next week, in Meath, Leitrim and Louth. I’ll fuel up the car, start a new audio-book, work out my routes and load up my session case. I’ll probably leave each morning while my wife and kids are still asleep. All over Ireland, writers and illustrators will be doing the same. There is a buzz across the country, a hectic connection of professional imaginations and young, hungry minds. Writing is only part of this game. If we have one really useful purpose during this book season, it’s to convince the writers of tomorrow that books are written by normal people and that anyone can do it if they try hard enough and get just a little bit lucky. And if we can have a bit of a laugh along the way, all well and good.