Friday, 7 July 2017

Welcome, to one of my sporadic blog posts, that I fire off about once every six months...

There was a full moon in the sky the night I died. I didn’t realise, because I was in a dark room, but as my spirit made its way home there it was, looking down at me, like a face glowering out of the darkness. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

John Robertson is a man who, like many men, does a stage show. Unlike many men (or, perhaps I should say, like many of the more unsavoury men), he invites you in a dark room, and demands many decisions of you, and should you make the wrong one, you’re dead.

It didn’t begin auspiciously. My phone battery had died not long after reaching the venue, and having failed to convince anyone to come along to the venue, was now unable to be contactable. Worse still, I was to enter the dark with no means of contacting the world outside. The future was looking bleak already.

It was made somewhat less bleak by the drinking of two pints.

We descended into the darkness. It’s a venue I’ve been to many times before, illuminated by a red neon sign, but now it was dark. Only the bar at the back of the room was lit, whilst jazz music played. The front row already claimed by people who were clearly fans, I opted for a seat in the second row.  Seated before the projections of words meant to calm the soul, to put the audience at ease. “The Dark Room,” it said, reassuring us that we were where we’d planned to be. “You are about to die,” it declared, reminding us of why we had come.

The audience filtered in slowly, many of the people clearly veterans of finding themselves in a dark room, greeting each other. We sat, in the darkness, old friends and total strangers, the same two messages flashing across the screen in front of us, music lulling us into a false sense of security. A man darted around, setting things up. A wizard of sorts, who eventually disappeared behind his curtain to do important things. Only once the room descended into a darker sort of darkness did the man reappear. A different sort of wizard, perhaps, for he was one who wore lights about the shoulders and shone a torch upon his face. And, indeed, with his long white hair, his mock English accent and a certain gleam in his eye he seemed to be channelling Gandalf himself, albeit a younger Gandalf who might’ve been a jock at university, and had never quite given up the wearing of impressive pads about the shoulders. He entered the Room with a villainous laugh, and strode around the room around as he explained how things worked. Which was good. I’ve never been in a Darkened Room with such pronounced initial letters, and so was eager to understand the rules. I’d descended into the darkness with a strategy, to see how people tackled the Dark Room, because I’d been warned by sage voices before hand. “It’s not horror,” those sage voices had told me, “but there will be many dead.” And indeed, there were, by the end of it.

If I were to evaluate my strategy, in retrospect, I would say that there were three fundamental flaws. Firstly, and you may have anticipated this one, was that I was sitting in the second row and, should participants be chosen from the audience rather than be volunteer (as, indeed, I had in the Werewolf Live show a week before*) then I was in a bad position.

Secondly, I had chosen to sit in an aisle seat.

Thirdly, and perhaps my biggest single mistake, was wearing a white shirt in a dark room.

The man’s face, suddenly very close to me and illuminated by torch-light, grinned down at me. “You,” it said, between grins, “What is your name?” And I answered. But, alas, my strategy having already fallen apart, I was unable to correctly answer. “Oh no,” said the illuminated face, suddenly not grinning. For there is only one correct answer to this question. And only now, having experienced The Dark Room, can I answer – truthfully and honestly – what my name is.

It will not do for me to reveal that answer to the unititated.

“You awake to find yourself in a dark room,” the face announced. I was pressed for an answer, a selection of one of four possible answers which were shown on the screen.  Four options: SLEEP, FIND LIGHT SWITCH, ABANDON HOPE or GO NORTH. This was familiar ground, at least. I’d seen these options on the website. “Go North” I declared, with some authority.

I was henceforth rebuked for my folly, the man’s voice echoed by those around us, no doubt familiar with fools who seek to venture north in the darkness. And so my brief adventure began.

And brief it was, though memorable. It ended shortly after I’d clicked my heels together three times, and clearly enunciated “There’s no place like Leningrad,” at which point Stalin appeared unto me. And you know what happens when Stalin appears to you?

You’re dead. And you will be told this several times. And everyone will tell you this.

I was the first to die. I was by no means the last.

And so other ‘brave adventurers’ (mostly people who cowered away from attention, but also at least one very enthusiastic girl), all with much the same name, ventured forth, awakening anew in a dark room. And so, as a room, we sought to exhaust the possible pathways out of the darkness, in the slim hope that one of us might walk away with £1,000. And though no-one did, some people unlocked Plot Points along the way. One person in the audience earned a plastic duck for interjecting with a well timed funny joke (whilst another was merely taunted with one, for a substandard joke). And finally many of those who walked the path in the darkness earned a ‘gift’ from the table of wondrous things. Such things as a box that may, or may not, have contained a cat, such things as a rare computer game, such things as a ‘flamboyant potato’ (again, you might just have to venture into The Dark Room to discover what this is. Or, I don’t know, do a Google search. It’s probably there). I didn’t win a gift, alas, but given that one of the gifts was a front headlight from a car that had been discovered lying in a street, I’m quite glad I didn’t have a trophy to take home with me.

And so, having all of us died (for, with the final democracy round the entire audience had all died collectively) we ascended once more from the dark, blinking in the daylight of a relatively light summer’s evening. Slightly less sure of ourselves. But maybe, just maybe, considering returning to that Dark Room, some day, wherever it appears.

The Dark Room will be materialising, very soon, at the Soho Theatre. Check it out HERE!

* That’s another blog, one I’ve not yet got around to writing. Sorry Ghost Master.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Behind Her Eyes

So, here's a book that's been exploding all over my social media since the end of last year (admittedly because I'm a friend of the author on Facebook and have mutual Twitter buddies too), but only came out this Friday (27th January). I picked up my own copy last night, started reading it on the journey home, and then ploughed through it most of today.

The hype has been all about the twist in the end, and I love a good twist in the ending (it's exactly the sort of thing I like to build into my short stories and game scenarios). The Twitter hashtag used to promote the book has been #wtfthatending - which, of course, means you pick the book up expecting things to not be exactly what they might appear from first impressions. It also means that a whole lot of the fun is in the speculation and theorising of what might be this ending that has summoned forth such swathes of WTF across the internet, but as a result it's very hard to say a great deal about what goes on beyond a certain point, or how easy or difficult it is to anticipate the ending. Here though, to get you in the mood, are a blurb or seven from the dust jacket.

"Sarah Pinborough is a literary chameleon of astonishing power and grace."
Neil Gaiman

"Lean and mean, dark and disturbing, this is the kind of novel that takes over your life."
Joe Hill

"Twisty and twisted. Jealousy, lies, betrayal, guilt, toxic, spouses, madness. They're all in here."
Adam Nevill

"Just when you think you've nailed it, Pinborough pulls the rug out from underneath you."
Sam Baker

"Fully realised characters, peerless writing, a tank of a plot that sustains the suspense right to the end, and a whammy of a finale. It takes a lot to catch me out, but this one did."
Joanne Harris

"When you close the book, with paper cuts from turning pages so fast, you'll want everyone you know to read it too so you can talk about it."
Simon Toyne

"The most unsettling thriller of the year... Read it now before someone spoils the end for you."
John Connolly

I have to be honest and say I really enjoyed it. I love getting into the heads of characters, especially when it's clear that there are mysteries to be solved and that the characters you may be spending time in the head of may be keeping secrets of their own. There was much in common with Sarah's YA book '13 Minutes', with the two female points of view throughout, though the book is also peppered with flashbacks to a third person perspective of event back 'Then'. These add context to events as we learn more from the perspective of our main protagonist Louise, as she slowly learns more about the man who has become her new boss at a clinic, David, and his reclusive wife, Adele, whose life appears to be somewhat under her husband's thumb. Developing relationships of the two independently, keeping each relationship secret from the other, we have Louise slowly unpicking at the seams of their lives, of their secretive pasts, of the reasons for the routines they've established. And then, from Adele's perspective, we see a fragile character trying to take control of her own life, though she is economic with the details of her past, only hinting of what she must do.

The story unfolds much like a dramatic thriller, focussing mostly on the contrast of the chaotic life of single-mother Louise, and the simpler, almost mechanical routine of Adele. Louise has friends she can turn to, open up to, and we see how she struggles to get on with her life as those around her, those in couples, seem to be moving on, living their more exciting lives. Adele, by contrast, has no friends until she bumps into Louise, just the routine of being housewife to David, and of going to the gym. These worlds collide, and a strong friendship develops between the two, even as they maintain secrets from each other. David is often a presence just off centre stage, and enigmatic figure - as we don't get into his head for most of the book, we never really know his motives - pretty much til the final pages.

Suffice to say, with the promise of plot twists and WTF that ending, it didn't take long before I was starting to see potential truths peeking from behind curtains all over the place, to see common interests between characters, or common phrases spoken by different characters, as hinting at something greater (and, ultimately, whilst some of these are great signposts, some of them are enticing distractions). There's a brief hint of things to come, from the opening passage of the book, which is later revealed to be a passage written in another book, a journal about dreams. And so, from my first WTF moment at the end of page 60, the story meanders through the possibilities of the twist being psychological, to fantastical, to maybe something even more than that.

I won't say any more about the story as such, but will linger briefly on the aspect of dreams. Adele reminded me, at times, of some of the darker interpretations of Alice and her Wonderland, although one of the characters in the book instead thinks of her more as a Sleeping Beauty. It was interesting to see how lucid dreaming was portrayed in the book, as the description didn't really match anything I've heard of before, and yet it falls into place nicer, and is reassuringly consistent for the purposes of driving the story forward. There's perhaps a slight jolt from going from going from darker psychological territory into talk of dreams (and, god knows, I've bored countless Facebook followers with my own dream recollections*), but it's a minor thing.

Ultimately I have to say I loved this book. Yes, there was a degree of hype that made me rush through to the end of the story, to be able to converse with like minded souls but, seriously, when the details were all revealed at the end, as the curtain was pulled back and we were exposed to the truth, I had a big grin on my face. I can't ask for much more than that from a book.

Four and a half out of five. Or nine out of ten. :-) I think I marginally preferred '13 Minutes' more, because it's more subtle and less fantastic in its execution, plus has the vibrancy of teenaged relationships, and several different perspectives throughout.

* The weirdest coincidence, upon reading this book, was finding the suggestion of dreams about Robert Downey Jr in Chapter 27. On the morning of the 27th January I wrote a Facebook post about my dream, which featured Robert Downey Jr. Another WTF moment in the book, but I don't think one the author had anticipated. :-)