Out Now – Splashdown in the Pacific

You know what’s good? Pictures. You know what’s even better? Words. You know what’s best of all? Shoving them together to make comics.

Which is my way of saying that I have a new comic out – an issue of Commando titled Splashdown in the Pacific, it’s the story of an American reconnaissance pilot who’s enjoying the quiet of the early Pacific campaign until he meets an Australian officer with a taste for adventure. When they set out on a mission to look for the Japanese fleet, things go downhill fast. There’s a dogfight, a shark attack, a jungle trek, and more.

This story was originally inspired by a photo Commando shared on their Twitter feed, showing the crew escaping from a plane that had been shot down over the ocean. That got me thinking about what that crew might encounter and especially what could make the situation worse. Pretty much everything that crossed my mind is thrown in here, from the aforementioned sharks to Japanese patrols and deadly snakes.

The early stages of the Pacific war were a tense time. After Pearl Harbor and the Japanese seizure of European colonies in the Pacific, it was clear that they were going to head south for an invasion of Australia. The Allies knew that they were coming, but not when and where.

There, as elsewhere in the war, aerial reconnaissance was vital. As Ralph Bennett explains in his book Behind the Battle, there had been a mad scramble to rebuild military intelligence services internationally due to their neglect between the wars. Aerial reconnaissance was a vital part of this work, especially in the wide expanse of the Pacific. A story about two guys taking photos wouldn’t be very exciting, but by putting them in peril, I’ve found a way to make the action centre on them.

As is often the case in war stories, the conflict doesn’t just come from facing the enemy. Being on the same side can trap people together and exacerbate their differences, creating huge tensions. It’s why Richard Sharpe is constantly arguing with the officers on his own side. Stories get dull if everybody’s working well together.

Which is where Mike Anderson comes in. Mike is one of the characters I’ve most enjoyed writing over the past year, and not just because I had fun throwing in Australian dialect. He’s confident, entertaining, and outspoken, which comes across as annoying and abrasive to someone who’s stressed out and just wants a chance to think. Can you see where this is going?

Like most Commando comics, Splashdown in the Pacific is a pulpy action adventure. But like all the best pulp adventures, it’s not the sharks and the snakes and the crashes that make it – it’s the characters and how they relate.

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If you like Splashdown in the Pacific then you might also enjoy my collection of history and alternate history stories…

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Gremlin in the Gears – a flash fantasy story

“Get your bally plane into the fight, Houghton!”

A Spitfire in flight

Squadron Leader Royce’s voice rattled from the radio of Arthur Houghton’s Spitfire. The air ahead was full of planes, twisting and tumbling through the late summer sky. The squadron were fighting for their lives and Houghton was stuck, his plane refusing to accelerate to full speed or to make more than the slowest of climbs.

“I’m trying, sir,” Houghton replied over the roar of the engine. “I swear, there are gremlins in my gears.”

“Stop blaming your machine and get stuck in.”

Houghton gritted his teeth as he wrestled with the trembling controls. Why was it always his plane that failed? No wonder the others whispered about cowardice just on the edge of his hearing.

He tilted his head and peered out of the cockpit. A green head with bulbous eyes stared back at him. Something was peeling back the housing of his engine, something with jagged teeth, an oil-stained arm, and a fistful of frayed wires.

“It can’t be.” Houghton stared wide-eyed at the creature. “It’s a gremlin. An honest to goodness gremlin.”

“I swear to God, Houghton, I’m going to have you on a charge,” Royce snarled.

Houghton yanked the stick, turning the Spitfire into a sudden roll. The gremlin swung loose, hung for a moment by one hand, and then vanished from view.

Grinning, Houghton straightened out and accelerated towards the fight.

“I’m on my way, sir.”

A Messerschmitt 109 loomed in the sky ahead of him. He pressed the trigger on his guns and bullets tore through the air, missing the enemy by inches. The 109 started to turn. Houghton followed, lining up his guns, almost ready…

A green face plastered itself across his view. He yelled in alarm as the gremlin gnashed its teeth.

Then the creature turned and ran down the front of the engine. Somehow, the speed of the plane and turbulence of the air didn’t shake it off. It bent open the engine housing and thrust a hand inside.

The engine sputtered and failed. Houghton found himself drifting into a terrifying glide with no power and little control. He hammered at the started, but got only the most fleeting of growls.

The 109 had completed its turn and was hurtling towards him. Bullets tore through Houghton’s wingtip, then crept closer as the pilot narrowed his aim.

The 109 was nearly on top of Houghton. The gremlin stood by the open engine panel, grinning as it stuffed something oil-covered into its mouth, then came running back along the plane to jump up and down on top of the cockpit, smearing Houghton’s view with its oily feet.

In desperation, he punched the instrument panel. Something shook loose and the engine gave a strained growl.

Seizing on that brief moment of power, Houghton flew up into the path of the 109. The German turned to avoid a collision. Houghton spun his plane and pushed the stick. For a moment, the underbelly of the enemy was inches from the top of his cockpit.

There was a thud, a shriek, and the two planes peeled away from each other. When Houghton looked back, he saw something green clinging to the front of the 109. Smoke was streaming from the 109’s engine.

He pressed his starter. The engine roared into life – not healthy, but working.

He reached for the radio, about to tell the others what he’d seen, to prove that he wasn’t a coward. Then he realised how it would sound.

“Sorry, Squadron Leader,” he said as he turned to join the dogfight. “Lost my nerve for a minute there, but I’m with you now.”

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The myth of gremlins, malicious creatures that stop machines working, originated with the Royal Air Force in the 1920s and ’30s. By the Second World War, it had become common to blame unexplained mechanical failures on gremlins, a better way of venting frustrations than blaming colleagues in the heat of war. Roald Dahl popularised the idea beyond Britain, and so a legend was born.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

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By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

History and Proximity

By Alessandro Nassiri - Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia "Leonardo da Vinci", CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47910919
By Alessandro Nassiri – Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci”, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47910919

My dad recently gave me a huge stack of magazines about the Second World War. They were published in the 1960s and cover most of the main events over thousands of pages. As Dad suggested, they’re a potentially valuable resource for me as a history writer. The fact that they were published so soon after the war helps, as much of the writing is based on recollections of people who were there.

But that proximity can also be a problem for history. The closer we are to an event, the harder it is to be objective. Feelings still run strong, biases are still relevant. And there’s the hidden information. The incredible work of Polish and British analysts in decrypting the German Enigma code was vital to the Second World War, but wasn’t made public for decades. These 1960s accounts were written without knowledge of this intelligence work.

Judging history, or even current events, is a balancing act. Proximity to events can provide vital insight. But sometimes distance is needed to see a bigger picture of the truth.

A Dark and Compelling Thriller – Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male

I don’t often read a book in a single day. It happened when I first read The Great Gatsby at the age of seventeen, and it happened this weekend with Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. That something can keep my attention for that long is high praise in itself, and this book is well worth that attention.

Telling of its Time

Written in 1939, Rogue Male is very much a product of pre-war Europe. An unnamed British hunter finds himself stalking a European dictator, convinced that he doesn’t intend to kill the man, only prove to himself that he could. Caught in the act, he is almost killed and quickly ends up on the run from the dictator’s sinister operatives. Unable to go to any authorities for support, he flees across Europe and then hides out in the English countryside, trying to avoid a violent showdown that bears in upon him with terrible inevitability.

It’s easy for us to forget the perspective of the time, given the moral certainties now attached to our view of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and the other far right regimes of that era. There was a tension in the treatment of those regimes by the British and other nations who would end up opposing them. Appalled as many people were by the aggression of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini, the thought of another European-wide industrialised war was also appalling. Individuals as well as nations were deeply torn on which was worse, to act politically and militarily or to accept the consequences of inaction. That tension, and the strained international peace beneath which it sat, sets up the circumstances of Rogue Male, and the hunter’s inability to seek official help. It also runs a thread of tension through the background of events.

In retrospect, the hunter’s struggle also acts as a powerful metaphor for the era. He tries for as long as possible to avoid a confrontation with forces he feels ill prepared to fight, despite his own background of traditional skilled and ritualised violence in the hunt. Yet that potential violence gains a sense of terrible inevitability, like the war that would break out in the same year the book was published.

Telling That’s Showing

By modern standards there’s a lot of telling rather than showing in this book. Yet that telling keeps the momentum up, giving the story a feeling of swift movement even at points when the character is going nowhere.

Writing from the hunter’s first person point of view, Household cleverly uses gaps in this telling to create tensions between the hunter’s understanding of himself and our understanding of him, and to show his psychological reactions. The most dramatic and violent incidents are passed over in fleeting moments, their nature revealed by the details of their aftermath. Violence is brief but its consequences endure, and there’s a feeling that the hunter does not want to linger on the thrill of his actions, but rather on the darkness of their consequences. For him, there is no longer any joy in the chase, whether as hunter or prey.

It’s a subtle, powerful form of showing, made all the more so for its limited deployment in the book.

The Power of Perspective

That restricted perspective is also used to explore the hunter’s motives. Because of the way that the story is told, he can plausibly hold back on this – not deliberately, but because of what he himself does not want to think about. As the truth is gradually revealed, it adds an extra sense of dread and tension. The revelation of the past gains the same terrible inevitability as the future.

This book isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s outside of my usual science fiction and fantasy reading, and I doubt I would have read it if my mum hadn’t given me a copy. But even if thrillers aren’t usually your thing, I recommend giving it a go. It’s dark, powerful, and strangely fascinating.