Susi Qs – Week 22 – RJ Dark

This week’s guest is a very special treat! Spending his youth as an underground musician and occasional club promoter, RJ then moved on to stints as an advertising copywriter, trainer, playwright, music reviewer, amateur historian, TV cameraman, anarchist, contrarian, engineer and fraud investigator.

After a long battle with chronic illness, RJ finally settled on a career in writing. He lives in a crumbling ancient mansion somewhere in Yorkshire and is surrounded by books, music, animals and his family.

RJ is the author of the Mal & Jackie crime series – his debut novel A Numbers Game is published by Wavesback, and more will follow.

He looks suspiciously like award-winning fantasy author, RJ Barker.

Let’s hear it, RJ…

Who would you rather pay golf with? Michael McKintyre, Take That, or The Queen?

I think I would rather cut my hands off than play golf, and that’s only slightly hyperbolic. I have friends who play gold but they are WRONG, it’s an awful boring sport for people with too much money. I think you should commit, either go for a walk or do a sport don’t fence sit. If I REALLY HAD TO because you are some sort of Golf forcing monster, then the Queen is right out, as I’m not really a fan of the idea of hereditary power and I’d feel the need to tell her and she’s an old lady now, she doesn’t need that. I think walking round with a stand up comedian might make me a bit paranoid because you know they are always looking for material and I think I’d be gutted to be material for a middle of the road light entertainer.

So, now we’re left with Take That! Who I generally disagree with. BUT, I reckon Mark and Jason would be a bit of a laugh, Robbie would probably be quite needy but I can cope with that and then there’s Gary. A golf round takes a long time and I’d be stuck with Gary Barlow. 

There’s no good options and this is a mean question.

What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you?

I’m quite lucky in that I’m blessed with the ability to put things very much to the back of my mind so if something is likely to disturb me, it’s hidden away and hopefully never accessed again – except in my subconscious writer brain bit where it bubbles up later on. So, scariest thing, that’s been put in my mental waste basket and thrown away. However, I suppose the most scared I’ve ever been for myself was when I was really ill, it wasn’t the illness because that becomes normal quite quickly and you accept it as part of your life. The fear was from incredibly realistic nightmares where some terrifying dark thing was coming for me and I couldn’t switch on the lights. But the dream would repeat, I’d think I’d woken up and then try and switch on the lights and not be able to and it would all start again. That’s the closest I’ve felt to the pure terror someone must feel when their life is genuinely in danger.

Well, that went all Debbie Downer, didn’t it? Let’s up the mood a bit. ONWARDS TO THE CRUISER!

How many times have you seen Top Gun?

No one sees Top Gun, we experience it. It’s a transcendental thing, a shared state of mind – we are together riding on the highway dangerzone. And yes, we all think that we’re Maverick, that we’re cool and out there and edgy and riding our motorbike along a runway in contravention of the law cos we’re not wearing a helmet and TOM IF YOU REALLY LOVED KELLY YOU’D INSIST SHE TAKE SENSIBLE SAFETY PRECATIONS. But he doesn’t, because he’s a small man who excels at doing a serious running face in films, and he thinks that makes him immortal. Tom doesn’t, can’t, understand that other humans are not immortal in the same way as him. And we all wish for that sense of invulnerability that only the Cruiser has.

But we know the truth is that we’re Goose and we’re destined to crash and burn just to make our cooler friend look good.

It’s a cruel world.

Who’s your favourite cartoon character?

I thought about this for an INORDINATELY long time. My immediate go to is Hazel from Watership Down as I love him but is he really a cartoon character? Or is he a literary character that was in a cartoon of his adventures and besides I take Watership Down and Hazel way, way too seriously to write a flippant comment about him so I decided not to choose him, though he is very cool, for a rabbit anyway.

But in a pure cartoon character way then I am here for Sylvester the Cat. Eat the bird, Sylvester, in fact, if I was your owner I would feed the bird to you. Sylvester is unfairly maligned, he’s simply an apex predator doing exactly what he evolved to do and being subject to scripts that constantly give the impression a canary would get the better of a cat which is a TRAVESTY and simply anti cat propaganda. It was probably written by a dog. EAT. THE. STUPID. BIRD.

When was the last time you were arrested?

I’ve never been arrested. Despite trying on a number of occasions. I once found myself a long walk from home without enough money to get back and I spent ages doing my best to look suspicious every time a Police Car went past; hiding in drives and all manner of nonsense. They never stopped, I guess that’s one of the disadvantages of being a white male is that it’s actually quite hard to get arrested.

The nearest I’ve ever come to actually being arrested was in my superhero persona, that of The Mighty Cone: friend to the weak, scourge of evil and redirector of Traffic, when some police told me that if I didn’t put The Mighty Cone’s superhero suit back on the roadworks I would be arrested.

Truthfully, my superhero career was very short lived.

Have you ever been punched in the face?

Remarkably. No.

Although I have always been a bit too ready to say something clever to the wrong people, and have never been the sort of person who was any use if there was violence, I’ve been remarkably lucky in my friends who were generally quite handy. I suppose that’s the genesis of Mal and Jackie in A Numbers Game. Useless friend with someone who knows how to look after themselves. I am remarkably good at hiding though.

Which actor do you fancy the most?

I don’t think I do. Cos they’re actors aren’t they? They are professionally not themselves and attraction is all about trust. They’re a bit shifty, if you ask me. I mean, imagine you’re married to someone and then they play Margaret Thatcher on TV and you see a clip. How would you ever find that person attractive again? No, it’s a minefield I’m unwilling to venture into.

Would you rather give up washing, smiling or reading?

How are any of these even possible. I worry about giving up smiling as that probably involves a stroke and you don’t know what else you are going to lose do you? And I KNOW I’m meant to say ‘I must keep reading!’ cos I write books and everything but I don’t care, it’s reading I’d give up. I’ve already read a lot and we live in a world where there are loads of different ways of experiencing story and words.

I am a very social person and where it might be a bit awkward explaining to other writers, ‘I can’t read your book because my friend Susi is some sort of witch stole reading from me,’ but I reckon being able to smile and not smelling would at least give me a head start on winning them over.

What’s your favourite kitchen appliance?

Well, we have a dry fryer and I wasn’t actually allowed to use it because it was my wife’s and I have a history of being a bit too adventurous with kitchen appliances, but I’m trusted with it now and have become slightly obsessed.

Is it the greatest thing ever?

Well, quite possibly.

Frozen chips? Dry Fryer. Chicken? Dry Fryer? Pizza? Oh yes you very much can dry fry it and don’t trust anyone who says you can’t. Salad? I’m frying it. Ice Cream? If my wife isn’t watching too closely, let’s give it a go.

Honestly, get a dry fryer, it will change your life.

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If you want to know more about RJ, you can find him on twitter @RJDarker. His books can be purchased HERE.


When an Agent Calls

Canopied Penny Farthing from The Prisoner
Image courtesy of David Stimpson

I don’t tend to post much about the novel I’m writing as I’m always scared that telling the world will jinx it and it won’t happen.

But it’s too late for that now… because I’m delighted to say that I have been signed up by a literary agent:

Phil Patterson of Marjacq.

As I can no longer hide, I thought I’d share a bit about how recent events have brought me to this point.

After several failed novel attempts – failed as in, not completed – over the last six years, I finally worked out what I wanted to write and how I was going to write it. The novel is called BLACK WOOD, and it falls under the genre of  ‘psychological suspense’, but that’s all I’m saying about it for now.

What finally got me to where I am today, was learning from my failures. My start-stop technique of writing did not help, but then everyone has ‘real life’ to deal with, so I couldn’t blame that forever… My main failing was having a big idea, then running out of steam. No, actually, that’s not true. My main failing was thinking that I couldn’t write.

I’ve had some success with short stories and flash, but the novel is a different beast entirely, and not everyone can do it. I admire anyone and everyone who has ever written a novel, even more if they’ve written more than one; and that’s irrespective of whether I’ve read or enjoyed their book(s). Writing a novel is a huge achievement for anyone.

My technique varied a little, but always ended the same way. I used to start with a brief outline, a snippet of an idea, some notes on the way. A few character ideas. The basic plot was always clear. How I was going to fill in the thousands of words to get there, less so.

Then in January 2013, a couple of things happened.

(1) I had a very strong idea. The most obvious one (as it was sparked by true events) but one I hadn’t considered before. So, I wrote a detailed outline, synopsis, and started writing full steam ahead

(2) I hooked up a critique partner – RJ Barker – and we started to chapter swap

This went ok for a while. Really well, actually. RJ was very encouraging, and I enjoyed reading and commenting on his work.  But sometimes the ideas that were tossed around led me to think too much, and while RJ finished his first draft, I floundered and eventually stopped again. Note: RJ has since signed with Rob Dinsdale of Dinsdale Imber and is working hard on his masterpiece as we speak…

I thought about giving it all up. Decided I could never write a full length novel. I enjoy writing short stories. Maybe I should stick with that? But then by putting the novel aside for a bit, it cleared my mind. I had a few plot epiphanies. The suggestions from RJ had shaped it into something else in my mind. Something better. Thank you, RJ (this will be one of the first thank yous of many… he just came up with a great blurb for me, too.)

But I digress… how did I end up with an agent, you may ask….

(1) I entered the CWA Debut Dagger and as an indirect result of that, got some feedback on early chapters (thank you Keith B Walters, Luca Veste and Keshini Naidoo) which boosted my confidence that the story wasn’t shit and that I wasn’t the worst writer in the world

(2) An author friend of mine, (again, that Luca Veste – who has his first novel DEAD GONE coming out in Jan 2014 and it looks bloody brilliant), someone who prophesied ‘You’ll have an agent by Harrogate’, spoke to his agent about me… his agent was Phil… and I was invited to ‘submit the full manuscript when complete’ – I was very excited about this, but doubted I was going to be ready for my (and Luca’s) deadline of Harrogate which is in two weeks time (but I was in no rush… I was biding my time, plugging away… dreaming…)

(3) I entered my prologue in the MR Hall crime writing comp; and got a runner up place, which I was thrilled about

(4) I attended Winchester Writers’ Conference on Friday 21st June, and realised (after doing a little course) that I didn’t really need any more ‘how to write’ advice (as my primary failing was losing faith in myself), but enjoyed the networking aspect, which included three one-to-one sessions with an editor, an agent and an author (Eileen Robertson, who wrote me a lovely note) – all three were extremely positive (in fact, all three said ‘this book will be published’) and this boosted my confidence further (note that at this point, I’d been writing like a demon and written over 10k in a week, which is a lot when you work full-time!)

(5) On Monday 24th June – I was contacted by Phil, who, after seeing my tweet about the MR Hall comp, asked if I was ready to send him something… The novel is not finished, but I had a well edited 10k and I had just tweaked the first chapter after the advice from the one-to-ones, so I decided to bite the bullet and send him what I had ready. I hoped he would like what he saw, and hoped he’d repeat his request to send me the full thing when it was finished.

I wasn’t really prepared for what happened next.

A bit of background – I’ve met Phil before, at Harrogate (Theakstons Crime). He seemed like a top bloke. He has an excellent reputation and an interesting and varied mix of clients. I always planned to submit to him (partly because of his agency being co-founded by George Markstein of The Prisoner fame… ), mainly because of the attention he clearly gives to his clients. I wanted an agent who could identify with me, see me as ‘me’, be flexible, supportive, excited about my work and, most of all, be honest (I am not a number… etc).

Anyway, he called me less than 24h later. I was in the toilets at work. ‘Is this a good time,’ he said. I didn’t realise until I got into the car after work that my zip had been undone all day…

(6) On Friday we met at the Marjacq offices in London. We talked books – other peoples, and my own. We discussed my plans. We talked about ghosts… and we sealed the deal.

So I have an agent.

Surreal. Exciting. Unbelievable.

This is only STEP ONE in the ‘Getting Published’ saga. But it has happened a lot quicker than I expected. Don’t worry though, I am under no illusions. Having an agent does not guarantee success. But it’s definitely a nudge in the right direction… And it certainly gave me a bit of credibility when talking to dozens of authors at last night’s Crime in The Court party!

I have a lot of work to do now to get my manuscript ready for Phil’s red pen, but I am completely and utterly ready for the challenge.

I’ll keep you posted on the journey 🙂

The Boy Who Listened in at Doors by RJ Barker

So… while you all eagerly await the announcement of the longlist for the #SJIBFS competition (which is a tough job, incidentally…) I’d like to share with you a brilliant flash fiction from a writer I am very glad to call a friend. Not only does he write brilliant fantasy, crime and horror of his own, he has also been an invaluable sounding board for my work, giving encouragement and constructive criticism and a kick up the arse when required. So, without further ado –  please read, enjoy and let us know what you think in the comments. RJ is one to watch. You can say you saw him here first…

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The Boy Who Listened in at Doors
by RJ Barker

There are Witches out there, with skull faces.

On windy nights they gather in the tree outside his window and huddle together on branches winter-shorn of leaves. They chatter and laugh, flap their cloaks and watch him with beady black eyes.

All witches, all watching. Laughing black leaves on the cold oak’s boughs.

“They’re just crows,” says Mother with her half-sad mouth. “Just crows, my boy, just crows.”

The Boy pulls his curtains together tightly.
not even the mercurial moon
can peek into his room.
Better the dark than peeking Witches,
with skull faces.
Hard, black, leather-skin carapaces
Long dead grimaces.
Grinding and eating and cawing and gnawing.

He has protectors, many and varied.
Can’t, doubt the bravery of Flying Fred Ted nor Keemo the duck that Daddy brought him from the hospital.
When Daddy was still here.
Stick thin on the bed.
The bears hate the witches with Skull faces and he hugs his small army close.

He should feel safe.

Witches talk
And squawk
And screech and cackle and yatter and caw-caw the night away.
Outside those thick black curtains that Mummy, with the half-sad mouth, fitted.

“They’re just crows, My boy, just crows,” she had said as she hung the curtains, shoulders slumping, a pale hand covering tearfilled eyes.

When they first visited – black flecks falling out the dusky sky to populate the bare oak –  Raggedy capes making excellent wings for those who wish to be something else.

The same night the Terminal took Daddy went away.

Witches have guile, they know people would spot birds with skull faces straight away.
(Make a fuss.
Call animal protection.
Or the newspapers
Get the T.V. People
Or maybe write a book.)

Witches don’t want that.

So they slip their black pointy hats down over their shiny-leathered skulls.
Hard black beaks
Cover hard black faces.

“Just crows my boy, just crows. Where do you get these things from, my son?”

Sometimes, the caw-cawing and yattering starts to swirl in his head, stops being squawks and screeches and becomes words.

Always the same.

Taunting, teasing, sneering, squealing, high pitched, rakkety-ratchet old-hag, warty-chinned voices

“Shall we eat the boy tonight? Good and plump he is. Who’d miss the lonely little scrap? Our bellies would be full and his mother not be sad.”

Again they say it.
Again and again.
Each time more teeth-on-glass voices join the chorus until eventually, in a great taunting, teasing, sneering, squealing, high pitched, rakkety-ratchet old-hag, warty-chinned wail the whole flock of skull-faced, witch-crows takes to the sky.

Raggedy capes flap. Hat mouths croak. A dark spiral rising up and out over the city.

‘They’re just crows, my boy, just crows’ she says but the tears in her eyes and the tremble of his lip won’t leave.

‘Daddy would scare them away.’

‘I’m sure he would,’ she looks at the floor to hide her tears as she tucks him in. ‘There are no monsters, my son. Nothing eats people They’re just crows, my boy, just crows.’ Her voice a strangled sob.

He tries to be brave but he knows she lies and pulls the covers over his head and curls up, folding in his fear and pain with ganglion arms.

Monsters are real.

‘I’m sorry, Mrs Taylor,’ said the doctor. ‘There’s nothing we can do. It’s eating him away.’

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RJ Barker is slightly eccentric and lives in Yorkshire with his wife, two year old son and a constantly growing collection of poor quality taxidermy. His short fiction has been published in all manner of places (including charity anthology ‘Off the Record 2: At the Movies‘) and received three honourable mentions in, ‘The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror’. RJ’s illustrated poems (together with Mikko Sovijarvi) ‘Interment’ and ‘The Social Diary of A Ghoul’ have received pretty good reviews (like, here) and are available through Amazon for electronic readers. A paper version is planned soon.

He’s recently signed with Literary agent Robert Dinsdale of Dinsdale Imber and is working on something a bit longer.

You can find RJ on Twitter as @dedbutdrmng or read more of his work on his blog at

When not writing, RJ dreams of growing a huge pair of antlers and hiring himself out as a novelty coat-rack.

Three things to read at Halloween #review

To celebrate Halloween, I thought I’d share my views on the latest creepy things I’ve read…


SHORT STORY: ‘The Companion’ by Ramsey Campbell

When something is described by Stephen King as ‘maybe the best horror tale to be written in English the last thirty years’  how could I not read it? In fact, how could I not have read it already?!  To my shame, I have only recently discovered the works of British horror writer Ramsey Campbell… better late than never!

Stone goes to visit an old fairground but soon discovers it’s not the original one he visited as a boy. He is directed to the ‘real’ old fairground, which is deserted and scary and still houses an old ghost train, and Stone (who clearly hadn’t read the rules of horror movies) decides to climb into one of the cars, which promptly sets off on its tracks…

The writing is beautifully atmospheric and my heart was pounding with anticipation throughout. The incredible last sentence really did send shivers down my spine.

This story is included in the collection ‘Dark Feasts‘ (which you might have to buy second hand as I’m not sure it’s in print.)


POETRY: ‘Interment’ by RJ Barker (illustrated by Mikko Sovijarvi)

This is a beautifully illustrated horror poem with a strong repetitive style and a definite hint of Poe. Told from a child’s point of view, the story is creepy and disturbing; and coupled with the black and white images and unusual fonts the whole thing really comes to life  – although the indication of never-ending suffering does make it feel very sad. It’s only a few pages long but I found myself reading it over and over again.

Also, from the same author and illustrator: The Social Diary of a Ghoul – a twisted food diary, with some fabulously descriptive language: Monday is soup day and fiendish nails clikker clack…

I don’t read a lot of poetry but I really enjoyed reading both of these.


NOVEL(LA): ‘The Small Hand’ by Susan Hill

When you’ve written something as bone-chillingly terrifying as The Woman in Black, coming up with another scary ghost story is a tall order. This is only the second of the Hill’s books that I’ve read but the style and tone of this book felt similar in some ways, making me wonder initially if it was set in the same era, but it is actually just an upper class and slightly ‘stuffy’ modern day.

The author is a great scene setter, I love the sparseness of the prose and the initial premise of the ghostly hand gripping the hand of antiquarian bookseller, Adam, is brilliantly creepy. However, what follows doesn’t quite push up the tension as much as I’d hoped and I did guess the ending. This is a quick read and the book is beautifully laid out but I feel there is something missing from it that I can’t quite put my finger on. I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts on this one as the Amazon reviews are very mixed but there is an excellent review at the Guardian here.