Today, I’m briefly paying homage to my creative inspiration over the early years. I’ve been quietly inspired in my life through all kinds of media.
The books of Roald Dahl
Author of the children’s books to have when I was growing up, ever accompanied by Quentin Blake’s frenzied illustrations.
The Twits and George’s Marvellous Medicine were my particular favourites. I must have found the nasty, gross characters of Mr and Mrs Twit and George’s grandmother funny. Maybe it was the overall grimness which appealed to me as a kid. Roald Dahl pushed the limits and crafted some very dark stories. I wonder if a book about a boy who is basically tying to poison his granny would be published today?
I had also had a tape cassette of Revolting Rhymes to listen to at bed time. Revamped tales were Red Riding Hide was armed with a pistol, and Goldie Locks was rightly eaten by the three bears in the end. There was a sense of dark justice in these versions, and I appreciated the humour.
Quentin Blake also illustrated a safety booklet for trains and railways, and was never shy about being comically gruesome – creating the kind of imagery that would stay with you.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
Fantastic stories with real humour, borrowing from real life and twisting our sometimes strange modern world into whimsy. I first read Discworld in our school library, and the cover art for Mort is what started it all. I was eleven years old at the time, and I remember my English teacher being impressed that I understood the narrative. I hope that was a compliment, anyway.
To me, Terry Pratchett personified smart, British humour. There is an interlacing cast of memorable characters throughout the series, who all star in their own stories and occasionally pop up as bit players in others. It created a fully realised, vivid world filled with tales. The Grim Reaper is a fan favourite, and his humanity easily inspired the concept of Ace Mcdagger.
Resident Evil 2
I never played the first game. I was too young at the time. When the sequel rolled around, everyone at school seemed to be playing it and I sneakily asked for this mysterious video game for my 14th birthday, just to join in. No regrets at all. Resident Evil 2 is considered a classic and the clear highlight of the series. A cloying atmosphere painted up by Japanese artisans, memorable monster encounters, all tied into a fairly straight forward story. Every moment of that game is a joy, and hugely influential with its visuals.
Final Fantasy VII
I had always wanted to make the Bloodfest series into a video game around the time of 1997. I imagined a stand alone arcade style, single player action game with maybe five stages and multiple characters. Those kinds of games used to exist during the first Playstation era.
A chance encounter with the game Final Fantasy VII showed me that an interactive story could pull together multiple characters on a huge, sprawling adventure that could take weeks to finish. The setting pulled me in at first, then the characters and the story; finally the sense of a huge world with its own rules unlike one I had experienced before. It inspired Bloodfest greatly, particularly in the involvement of magic in the series. But above that, it helped to keep the characters of the story together as a unified force. One of the big themes of the Bloodfest series is teamwork. The characters fight together. It makes the triumphs and losses all the more impactful. A Japanese RPG beloved by many helped me to realise that.
My dad advised me to watch this one night when it was on telly. I must have been about fifteenor sixteen. It’s funny to think that Peter Jackson is so well known now for the once thought of unfilmable Lord of the Rings movies, when this gem was making the rounds in the early 90’s. Known as Dead Alive in the USA, Braindead is gloriously gruesome. It’s disgusting and shocking and hilarious. It’s great. The lawnmower scene is the kind of moment I wish I could create; a bloody, violent, side splittingly funny visual that perhaps only the New Zealanders could pull off. This scene is something that has definitely stayed with me and I like to retain the humour even during the most violent moments of the Bloodfest series.
Children of Bodom
I stumbled upon Children of Bodom when I was about sixteen years old, somewhere between 2000 and 2001; tuning into a heavy metal radio station on a complete whim at one in the morning. They played Follow the Reaper, the title track from Bodom’s third album.
A little bit of research shows that it was released internationally in February 2001. I was working on the script of the old movie version of Bloodfest at the time, and so this song’s emergence and relevance put a huge smile on my face. It turned me into a fan of the band, and a lot of their songs come to mind when I’m writing even now.
Following their review, today I am interviewed by The Literary Titan on Typhoon of Fire.
“A Creepy Science-Gone-Wrong Scenario…”
In Typhoon of Fire we follow Ace Mcdagger who teams up with Captain Loxwell of November squad to rescue her teammates scattered in the forests of Malaysia. What was the inspiration for the setup to this thrilling novel?
During Call of the Conjurer, when the characters were new recruits to the hidden world of modern, magical combat; they spent a lot of time in a regulated, clean environments. The characters were usually safe. I wanted to go the opposite way in Typhoon of Fire. I wanted the situation throughout to be very rough, challenging and dangerous. My very first thought, visually, was of Vietnam era war films like “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now”.
The jungle is wild and hostile, and Malaysia is a location brimming with different environments which greatly inspired the events throughout. The characters explore flat, arid plains and damp rainforests, a rundown laboratory overrun by plants, an abandoned mine, a floating fortress above the clouds… I had a great time using colour schemes to set the mood. The use of natural environments also helped me to emphasise major themes in the book. Subjects such as ‘corruption of life’, ‘man versus nature’ and ‘Hell on Earth’.
I felt that the novel was very well paced and kept me engaged throughout. Did you plan the novel as you wrote or did it all happen organically?
It happened organically, for the most part. From my perspective, Typhoon of Fire is a prequel to another book I have written – but I decided it would be better to publish them chronologically. Certain events had to happen in Typhoon of Fire, and with that in mind I just had fun writing what I wanted: a creepy science-gone-wrong scenario!
Developing the supporting cast and their stories happened organically as well. They were new characters, who would not necessarily be seen again; so their personalities, roles and fates were all blank slates. I enjoyed unravelling these characters, adding little twists to their personalities to surprise the reader. A lot of the characters are very different people by the end of the story, for better or for worse. I suppose in essence, the main plot of Typhoon of Fire was an after thought for me. The subplots, however; the individual character arcs which pave the way for future instalments, are the real meat and bones of the book. Away from all the magic and sci-fi, this is a book about humanity and frailty.
Ace, Shimon, Tiffany, and Loxwell have brilliant dialogue and they feel like living characters. What things did you focus your character development on to bring your characters to life?
I absolutely adore writing flawed characters. I like my characters fumble their dialogue, on occasion, or misunderstand information given to them. It makes them more human, to be far from perfect. I enjoy the concept of the “unreliable protagonist” and bear that in mind when I write. Sometimes the characters make mistakes, and sometimes they lie, even to themselves. They are supposed to be human, despite any super human magical powers they possess. Careful dialogue keeps them grounded and relatable.
What is the next novel that you are working on and when will it be available?
Tricky one! I actually have two books in the proof reading stage now. One is a direct follow up to Typhoon of Fire, called Bloodfest, which was the book I had written before this one but decided to release later. The other book I’ve completed is a supplementary story called The Sardonyc, which focuses on the Science Department mentioned throughout Typhoon of Fire. The Sardonyc is a very different book to what I have written before, but it is still within the same self contained universe.
Bloodfest will be a straight up action horror / macabre comedy, continuing the adventures of Ace Mcdagger. He is more grown up and world weary by now, and is deployed to a mysterious island to dispatch a rising army of the undead. Definitely one for zombie fans!
The Sardonyc is more of a psychological thriller, about a troubled new character named Sidney. He is part of a research team stuck on a ship in the middle of the ocean, and everybody is slowly going mad. Sidney must figure out why it is happening before he succumbs as well, and there are plenty of twists along the way.
I hope the Literary Titan will review my next book soon – whichever one is out first!
Steely, long serving captain of HGA November Squad. She demands strict control, especially over herself.
Rafaela Loxwell was born in 1968 into a wealthy Brazilian family. She lived in a secure, isolated mansion outside of Rio de Janeiro, where her parents had already planned out her life. They were both members in the Hidden Government Army, and their daughter was going to follow in their footsteps.
Rafaela had other ideas. Through a combination of teenage rebellion and a warm desire to help people less fortunate than her, Rafaela often travelled deep into Rio’s slums. She knew orphans lived on the streets, and wanted to help them any way she could. Rafaela gave herself the responsibility of taking care of them all.
She still has fond memories of the friends she made, though the memories are often mired by sadness. A lot of the children she met – some only a few years younger than her – disappeared without explanation.
Her forthright disobedience was not unsupervised, either. Rafaela thought she was being clever, sneaking in and out of her home while her parents were constantly busy, but over the years Rafaela realised that the Hidden Government had always kept a close eye on her. By the time of Typhoon of Fire, Rafaella Loxwell is Captain of November Squad and has been so for several years. She likes her position; because despite the heavily monitored military she belongs to, Rafaela is able to exert some control and influence to get her own way. She still chooses carries to carry responsibility, and to stand up against any opposition.
Loxwell may come across as mean on first impressions, but she always has the welfare and safety of everybody around her foremost in her mind. She does not abide by sloppiness. Sloppiness leads to mistakes, and mistakes can lead to trouble. She gives everybody a chance to prove themselves, and her ways of encouragement are brash, but fair.
The powers which made her eligible for the Hidden Government Army are remarkable. For as long as she could remember, Loxwell has been able to heal wounds with self control. This adept self control ability extends to every small function of her body; from maintaining steady heart rate and breathing, to forcing certain muscles to immediately overwork or relax through conscious command. She can force herself not to perspire, and control her own fatigue and hunger, holding them back with steady regulation. Her ability clearly plays into Loxwell’s formal, take-charge personality. She is a woman who can make herself relax, but refuses to. In fact, she rather likes staying constantly alert and on her toes. She has massive responsibility after all, as captain of her squad.
In combat, Loxwell favours physical, close range attacking. She uses a unique sword, named Fulvia – named after the ambitious Roman political figure and the electromagnetic substance. A technological weapon powered by Thunder magic, Fulvia can be charged with electricity to cause shock and burn damage. Or may seem viol, but Loxwell prefers a job taken care of.
She rarely uses Combat Magic, or fire arms unless necessary. Loxwell’s sword is enough, and she expects her team to contribute. Loxwell’s prowess and command have see her offered many promotions to become an officer, but she consistently declines. The battlefield is her place, where she can keep a close eye on everyone and everything.
Let’s talk about Typhoon of Fire, the sequel to Call of the Conjurer.
This book was always in the back of my mind. At the very least, I had drafted some of the major plot points as early as 1999.
Another prequel before the Bloodfest series really begins, Typhoon of Fire is a notable mark in the lives of the leading characters in the series. New soldiers Ace Mcdagger, Shimon Akasone and Tiffany Milich have been through a lot more combat since their graduation in Call of the Conjurer, and have enjoyed a gentle, serene tour with Sierra Squad ever since.
But things had to change.
In retrospect, I would like to write more about the cast of Sierra Squad more. They get a brief look in during one of the Typhoon of Fire‘s flashback chapters, but the morose collective in November Squad and their head strong leader Captain Rafaella Loxwell were the more battered, despondent, colourful bunch to tell a story about. Newbies Ace and co – including plucky unlucky fellow “green” soldier Gill Pillson – are dropped into the ‘fire’ of the sweltering Malaysian wilderness and put to the test by their stern new captain.
Captain Loxwell is a marked change from Captain Mason in Call of the Conjurer. She is strict and intimidating, and doesn’t seem to understand the ‘fuss’ over Ace Mcdagger. He tries hard to impress, but not as hard as he should do. Tiffany shines at least; Captain Loxwell regards her highly as fellow woman in the military. It’s a highly pro-feminist attitude, and one I’m glad to encourage. Where Ace had Captain Mason beforehand, Tiffany is given a mentor in Captain Loxwell.
Several new components to the Bloodfest series lore are introduced in this book, including other branches of the Hidden Government Army and a better examination of the way Magic works. At the start of the story, November Squad have lost a large number of their team mates following an unprepared assault on black listed Hidden Government facility, only known as the “D” Laboratory. The blame for the failure is constantly passed around between the leading officers of November Squad and the higher command; the Air Force soldiers, who are introduced in this book as the secret armed force’s own “Eyes in the Sky”. The Air Force wield a lot of power and authority over the Ground Forces, which keeps November Squad as the respected underdogs. I love an underdog tale, and the Bloodfest series is full of them.
Ace’s desire to prove himself before Captain Loxwell is tested further with the introduction of his estranged cousin (or should that be strange cousin) Damian Hassler. The young lad is a handful. He’s arrogant, destructive, disobedient, and perhaps even insane; but he looks up to Ace as an older brother. It’s a new dynamic, creating a great duo pairing to coincide with Ace and Shimon, and Shimon and Tiffany.
In fact “duos” is a major theme of Typhoon of Fire. Close bounds form the story together, from friends, lovers, comrades and rivals. All the characters meet their match both good or bad in this book. Ace stresses over Damian, the lovers Shimon and Tiffany face relationship turmoil as they juggle duty and romance, Loxwell and her trusted ally Lieutenant Bordestein keep each other grounded. Even the villains and their motivations are driven by the common theme of “duos”. Trying to spot them all in the story will take some time.
The other major theme of the book is Hell – fire and discomfort, suffering and tragedy. The river journey early on was the first part of the book I wrote, as a starting point for the visuals: the general colour palette and mood I wanted for the book. There’s a lot of orange haze and burned out decay, in-between scenes of vibrant green life. Admittedly I was heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now and other Vietnam war films for the setting – which in turn was based on the book Heart of Darkness. The Kalimantan region of Malaysia is beautiful and wild, but also dangerous and unfamiliar. When draped in a constantly fire scorched sky, it can be quite a daunting landscape. The jungle setting of the Kalimantan is also a far cry away form the clean comforts of Myrtle Beach in Call of the Conjurer. In the Kalimantan the soldiers are truly living – surviving – day to day on rations and requiring to be on guard at all times.
Malaysia is not the only backdrop to the story. The cast venture off all over the world, reaching as far as Canada, New York, Warsaw, and the Huayna Potosi mountain range in Bolivia. These soldiers do get around.
There’s another theme throughout the book – life, and whether ‘Life’ is always a wondrous miracle. Sometimes ‘Death’ may be the kindest alternative, but I’ll leave this interpretation to the readers. I’m not inciting an anti-life movement here, but I enjoy a skewed look on the world.
A sequel needs to raise the stakes, but this book is still a prequel to what is to come. The main cast are still young and inexperienced, and their adversaries need to be a raised threat, but still not as bad as what may come in the future. Juggling this balance was an interesting challenge. The immediate antagonists; the mad scientist Dr Weiss and traitorous witch soldier Nathan Edgrech, are only human despite their dangerous capabilities. Dr Weiss is a man spoken about in legend, and Edgrech stirs nothing but contempt among his former comrades. He’s sick in the head and deviously cruel, but he can only fight dirty, which shows how much of a coward he is.
Even the early monsters encountered; the Mirezyns and Towermen, are relatively docile and easy to defeat. It’s when the story reaches a point-of-no-return around chapters 16 and 17 that the stakes are unevenly raised, and by chapter 20 all hell is literally breaking loose. The encounters are more visceral, mixing science, nature and magic in ways it should not. If Call of the Conjurer seemed tame on the horror aspect, Typhoon of Fire kicks it up a notch. It kicks its teeth out.
Overall, Typhoon of Fire is a story about challenge and change. There are several moments for the characters to take a breather away from the battlefield and relax. There are always moments of light comedy throughout (and some moments of dark comedy), but things tend to get harder before they get any better, and there is a tremendous tonal shift by the end of the story. I’m proud of how it came out, and preliminary reviews say it is better than Call of the Conjurer.
For the full experience, you’ll just have to read on.
A Reflection on Call of the Conjurer.
“It is always fun to drop a bunch of people into a small room and see what happens.”
Call of the Conjurer was released nearly two years ago and went through a number of iterations to get it just right. I realise how much more fluid I have become as a writer; ,y later books have required less editing. I have received plenty of feedback since then; I know my problems and plus points; what people liked with Call of the Conjurer and what they disagreed with. Overall, hearing opinions about your own work is amazing. Today, I decided to put my thoughts down on how and why the book was written in the first place.
As I’ve said at the start of this blog, Bloodfest originated in the late 90’s as an amateur animated film about a bunch of soldiers fighting the Grim Reaper and his army of zombies for some reason. Back then it was just a bunch of eleven year olds spouting off funny lines (or what we thought were funny) and pushing a Lego coach into a crowd of plasticine zombies. The film couldn’t even be animated with a standard home camcorder. God knows I tried but recording 1/24 frames a second with only a pause button was impossible.
I might look back with disdain, but it was fun. I can still recall the smell of modelling clay and red acrylic paint.
The Bloodfest series stuck with me over the years as a collection of sequels, drawings and models, all improving over time. I had made (most of) an RPG based on the film and kept my mind afloat by coming up with short side stories. It might sound weird, but I wanted to hold on to this made-up world. Sometimes the real world doesn’t compare to the ones we imagine. You know what I mean?
About 2010, after one joyful day playing through the entirety of the Metal Slug series at a friend’s house, I wondered how Bloodfest would fare as an old school arcade shoot-em up game. Something really Contra-like; pixelated violence where every-goddamned-thing explodes. It would have totally worked, and as I considered a plot I began to think about the origins of the characters from Bloodfest, which I had never really considered before. What was the first mission for the veteran, magically enhanced soldiers Ace Mcdagger and Shimon Arkasone, with their respective shotgun and sword prowess? What did they do long before the rest of the Bloodfest team came along, long before they faced the Grim Reaper and his zombies?
For a game, Ace and Shimon would be players one and two, of course. And this origin story would have been how they met Tiffany Milich too. I needed a fourth character, and immediately pictured Captain Mason. The superior officer, someone who Ace would look up to. Mason was armed with a shotgun, to indicate the inevitable passing of the torch to ‘Shotgun’ Ace Mcdagger. Maybe Mason would have to be an unlockable, secret character. He would be too powerful, perhaps.
Characters in mind, I envisioned a straight forward plot to keep things simple: there are monsters, shoot them all. In my mind the enemies would have to be straight forward and instantly recognisable. They would be humanoid monsters; medieval ghouls, perhaps. Occasionally a skeletal ghost or an orge shows up.
I pictured the game clearly, and what would essentially become the second half of Call of the Conjurer. Video games in the 90’s usually started Level One with a hilly, grassy stage. Level Two is in the woods, or a misty mountain, or a factory for some reason. Level Three is the Water Stage and Level Four is the Volcano, obviously.
For my Level One I imagined a cave; and I instantly remembered visiting the Valkenburg Municipal Caves a school trip in 1998. A warm, inviting cavern of carvings and Christmas lights. In my head I filled that location with ghouls and stuck a giant, tree ghost as the end of stage boss. The Waldgeist; a step up from the regular foes but nothing too daunting.
Waldgeist sketch from 2010.
The end of the story (which in my non-existent arcade shooter is Level Six) takes place in a haunted castle. Everything is chaotic; a red storm scrolls past the windows, the enemies are leaping from the ceiling and floors. There’s a boss rush, right before the final encounter with the most evil of all; a person. An unexpected instigator – a young woman, a teenage girl, perhaps, going full blown sorcerer and about to end the world.
That was about all I had for the game for now. My brain shifted to focus on the actual story – because the first mission couldn’t be the start of things. Ace, Shimon and Tiffany needed training, and that was where Call of the Conjurer truly began.
I was out of work at the time, only ever taking up short Animation jobs or contracted labour roles. I knew I wanted to do something more, and my confidence had reached a stage where I decided to write a Bloodfest novel. Instead of re-writing the old films, I thought it best to introduce Bloodfest to the world by starting right at the beginning, and set about writing “Bloodfest 0”, also code named “Training Days”.
Old character sketches from around 2010.
Right from the beginning I wanted to invoke that feeling we get when we start in a new place. The first day of school, college, work; being in a room surrounded by unfamiliar faces. It’s a moment of potential. You look around and wonder who all these people are, who you’re going to get to know; maybe some of them will become your best friends, maybe you’ll meet a lifelong partner, or an enemy. Maybe you’ll get to know some people quickly, drift apart, and get to know the others even more.
Maybe you’ll stay distant and none of them will know you well, but it’s impossible not to learn a little bit about somebody new in a day, even in an hour.
I felt this was a good starting point for the characters. The audience knows nothing about who these people are except for what is given to them, and more details filter in over time. It was a perfect way to introduce the world of Bloodfest – the set up or magic soldiers, working for a secret organisation who rule the world.
We had always set the first Bloodfest film in the year 2012. Back when we made the home movie in 1996, that date seemed like a long way off – a time when futuristic technology might be readily available; when laser rifles and robots might be common place, but not so far into the future that everything is laser rifles and robots.
I worked out that Call of the Conjurer would have taken place in 2003. That was a lot to look back on. The world was different 13 years ago, although it doesn’t feel that way. Back then, tablet computers and iPhones were less prevalent. People still used CD players… at least I did. I wanted the characters in the story to be using ordinary, time relevant equipment. Although it is suggested that the Hidden Government possess advanced technology, I didn’t think that recruits would have access to the best stuff right away, and the training facility seemed more homely and familiar with ordinary, every day items. I didn’t want the place to be flashy and alien, so it was all conceived to be rustic and plain, like an average office or public school.
I did, at the same time, want to take the main two British characters away from home. I established the training base in America, because it seemed like the right place for it to exist. I also wanted to set it in a warm, welcoming location, somewhere that might feel like a holiday; a step up from the normal world, somewhere quite vibrant and well off. The east coast came to mind amd I eventually decided upon Myrtle Beach in South Carolina.
I kept the cast to a minimal. There were a few who I knew had to exist; such as Lieutenant Baker to act as Captain Mason’s counterpoint, and Gretel Salneth to help Ace show his humanity. My preference of character creation is to envision them and go with that initial concept – it goes back to my ‘first day of work’ ideology; the people you met are already there. I don’t want to build a world where it seems like everybody has been placed purposely (unless the story calls for a situation like that). I would rather populate my stories with natural people, maybe even ugly and broken ones, than a selection of checkboxes. I actually feel that with Call of the Conjurer you could remove or replace a lot of the characters and the ending would always be the same – it had to be, it was written as a prequel, after all – but that would only serve to reduce the overall story. It could have worked with just Ace, Shimon, Tiffany as the recruits and Mason showing them what to do, but it would have been a very short book. I wanted to involve more characters. It is always fun to drop a bunch of people into a small room and see what happens. I think that even the most minimal, one line characters need a bit of back story or a vivid description. The other recruits, soldiers and civilian characters all developed organically. Again, I just went with initial ideas and eventually everybody settled into place. I quite like how the character Cheng takes a long time to open up, and you only really get to know him right before the end.
Various concepts for cover art.
Call of the Conjurer for me is a collection of ideas. It is potential; it is the first day at work where the job is selling the Bloodfest series to the general public. I hope it holds up to that, even if the going has been very slow. Writing the book was a great learning experience, and now it exists.
A large hearted medic and mage who talks little about himself, leaving many to wonder just how on earth he qualified for military service.
Leum Tollard was born in Oklahoma, and has a well documented family tree. He is well aware of having Cherokee and Scandinavian roots, and has a keen interest in world history and culture. Staying faithful to his family upbringing, Leum is a devoted Unitarian Christian and has maintained a quiet, hopeful attitude throughout his life.
Leum is a soft, weebly sort of fellow. He has a light, ‘airy’ voice and a gentleness unsuited for the battlefield. He possesses the power of Healing Hands – the ability to mend wounds and treat small illnesses with his palms – and a strong affinity to Wind magic. Given his preference pacifism and obviously weight / health problems; the details of his Awakening and recruitment into the Hidden Government Army remain a closely guarded secret…
Ever since the character’s creation for the original home movie in 1998, myself and James were in agreement that Leum’s backstory should remain a mystery. Small snippets will occasionally slip out throughout the series, but they will only serve to add more confusion.
Naturally, Leum clashes with team mate Damian Hassler frequently; the latter hurling insults about Leum’s obesity, positive outlook and haircut; while Leum quietly ignores him. He seems infested, even finding humour in the abuse, but no one is sure how he really feels.
Damian will admit that he likes Leum really. Everybody likes Leum. He is a natural healer who wishes to help everyone and stay upbeat, though Leum can be meandering and clumsy at times. Despite the occasional blunder, Delta Squad know they are lucky to have him around and will readily side Leum to support him.
- In the original movie, Leum was more of a comic foil.
He was really stupid, basically.
That’s all been wiped away, and Leum in the book series in considerably smarter. He may or may not have a diploma in some kind of culture histories study.
- I don’t know honestly.
- Leum is a complete enigma.
- Some of his backstory involves being part of a biker gang, being an Aid Worker in Africa, having a wife, and being an alcoholic.
- He is twenty six years old during Typhoon of Fire
- Leum has had the same haircut his entire life.