Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Movie Review: The Keep (1983)

Happy Halloween everyone! In honor of my favorite holiday, here's a little review of a diabolically underrated "Nazis and Demons" 80's horror flick.  Directed by Michael Mann - yup, the same guy who did Heat, and Last of the Mohicans - this adaptation of an F. Paul Wilson novel of the same name revolves around a mysterious keep in the Romanian mountains in 1941. A band of German soldiers is sent to garrison the keep, but when they start being killed off by a mysterious force, they have to turn to a Jewish scholar to help them figure out what's going on. Much demonic horror and gore ensues...

It is unfortunate that this film hasn't, as far as I can tell, had a DVD release, because although it does have its flaws, it is certainly a far better film than a lot of the direct-to-DVD schlock that have been vomited out over the last decade. I suppose Mann might be embarrassed by it's rather poor performance at the box office and general panning by critics at the time, but honestly I don't think it's that bad for an 80's supernatural horror film. Despite this being one of his earliest theatrical works, Mann's eye for direction and strong stylistic sensibilities give the film some very striking visuals, and the score - performed by Tangerine Dream - adds to the feeling of surreal supernatural horror.

Right now, I think the only place you'll be able to find this film is on Netflix, but fortunately the transfer looks very good - it's clear they didn't just dupe this off of an old VHS tape. Performances by Scott Glen, Gabriel Byrne, Jurgen Prochnow, Ian Mckellen, and William Morgan Sheppard, among many others, are quite strong. If you have Netflix Instant available to you, I really suggest you give this film a try.

Here's a poorly captured trailer for the film:

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Movie Review: Outpost (2008)

So I'm thinking this is just going to turn into a collection of WW2-themed horror movies...but hey, that's okay, right? World War Two was pretty damn horrific, so it's fitting.

Outpost is a creepy direct-to-video action horror film with a pretty simple premise. A bunch of mercenaries are hired to take someone out to an abandoned Nazi bunker in the wilderness. Once there, they discover that horrible scientific research was carried out on the Nazi soldiers themselves. Unfortunately for the mercs, that research has come back to haunt them...

This movie is a fun, low-budget, but serviceable flick. What pulled me to it was that it stars Ray Stevenson, one of my favorite actors right now ever since I saw him as one of the two main characters in HBO's series, ROME. Stevenson gives this movie just enough oomph to carry it through, without making himself seem like the only reason to watch it.

Here's the trailer for the film. If you catch it On Demand or somesuch, give it a go.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Movie Review: Dead Snow (2009)

Since Halloween is this week, I thought I'd review a few horror movies. To start things off, considering my WW2 kick over the last few months, I finally decided to watch a movie that's been sitting in my Netflix Instant Queue for a long while now, the Norwegian zombie horror-comedy Dead Snow.

The plot, like most zombie/slasher horror movies, is very straightforward. A bunch of young people go out to a remote cabin in the wilderness to party and enjoy themselves over a vacation weekend. The only problem is - surprise! - the area they are camping in is cursed by Nazi zombies. Apparently an SS Einsatzgruppe, or death squad, had been terrorizing this section of Occupied Norway for years during WW2. As the war drew to a close, and the Germans realized they would be eventually driven out, they looted from the locals all their gold and valuables, then fled into the snowy mountain wilderness with armed villagers at their heels. It was presumed that the Nazis all froze to death, but a pall of "evil" still hangs about the place.

Of course, if that's the case, one wonders how anyone was able to build a rather cozy-looking cabin up in those cursed woods, and apparently use it often enough for the cabin to be in a fairly good state of repair, and why, if the area had been cursed for decades, anyone who owned said cabin in the woods would think it a good idea to keep going back there. BUT, hey, if this made any sense, we wouldn't have a pack of marauding SS zombies to contend with, would we?

Overall, Dead Snow is a lot of gory, ghastly fun. I'm not a huge zombie movie fan - I think it is a schtick that's been done to death (no pun intended) and it's really just a gimmick for sucking in people who'll watch anything with zombies, no matter how good or bad it might be. But, this movie has just the right blend of gratuitous violence and bleak, gross-out humor, blended with some actual creepy moments (there's a rather disturbing dream sequence that I think should have been explored further).

There have been more than a few horror movies based around Nazis - for good reason, I think - and I feel this one is rather well done. The monologue by the old hiker to the young folks that sets the tone for the rest of the movie is especially disturbing. The history of Norway during WW2 isn't all that well covered, but I think the history bears examining.

To conclude, if you want to watch a zombie movie this Halloween and want something other than your typical Romero rip-off, give Dead Snow a try.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Coming in November: The Train to Calais

In order to get myself back into the proper mindset to begin writing the second COMMANDO novel, I decided to light the fuse by writing a short story set during the three months separating the two novels. The Train to Calais tells the story of an attack by French partisans on a German train on its way to Calais. Chenot, Bouchard, and Marie, first encountered in Operation: Arrowhead, are the main characters, accompanied by a number of other partisans.

In 1941, especially up north and along the "Atlantic Wall", occupied France was not a friendly place for anyone trying to oppose the will of the Reich. While there were growing organizations of resisters within the Vichy-governed "free zone" to the south, up north any resistance was hunted and eliminated by the Nazis with extreme prejudice. Not only was the presence of German troops pervasive, but the populace in the occupied areas (and only to a slightly lesser degree in the south) knew that collaboration with the partisans would result in swift reprisals, often far out of proportion to any losses suffered by the Germans. With such barren soil, the flower of armed resistance found little sustenance, and most of its seeds failed to take root.

In this short story, I tried to look at a day in the life of a partisan band, fighting for what they believed in, while at the same time knowing that, not only were they doing little to disrupt the overall operation of the Nazi war machine, they were also earning the enmity of those they were trying to liberate from the Germans.

The Train to Calais is a short story of approximately 8,400 words. It'll be available in early November via Kindle Direct Publishing for $0.99.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Guns of COMMANDO: Operation Arrowhead

Just as I did with Killer Instincts, I want to dedicate a blog post to all the firearms that show up in Operation: Arrowhead. Rather than break it up into multiple posts, I'm just going to do one big post, so bear with me...

British Commandos

The most prominent weapon in the book is the Thompson 1928 submachine gun. As the book is set early in the war, the version of the Thompson is the basic 1928 model, with the vertical foregrip, compensator, and so forth. However, unlike the picture shown here, the characters all use 20-round magazines, as the drum mags were found to be unreliable, especially in battlefield conditions.

The other primary weapon carried by the Commandos is the SMLE, or Short Magazine Lee Enfield .303 caliber rifle. The Lee Enfield goes through multiple variations over the course of the war, but during 1941 the most likely variant would be the No. 1 MK III, as that was the pattern of rifle carried by most Commando units at the time of the Lotofen and Vaagso raids. The SMLE was a robust, reliable rifle with a ten-round magazine and would serve the British well in one variant or another throughout the war.

The Bren .303 caliber light machine gun was a common infantry support weapon throughout the war, serving the same purpose as the American BAR, both of which operating in a similar vein as the M249 SAW in the modern US military - that of the squad-level support weapon. In a typical Commando squad, one man would carry the Bren, another would serve as loader and assistant and carry spare ammunition as well as a spare barrel and tools, and each member of the squad would carry a couple of loaded Bren magazines in their kit.

The squad's sniper, Rhys Bowen, carries the Enfield Pattern 1914 .303 caliber rifle. This was an American manufactured rifle during the Great War, and saw use alongside the SMLE, although in much smaller numbers. It is generally considered a much better designed rifle and valued for its accuracy, but its cost to manufacture was too high for it to be a front-line weapon. In both the First and Second World Wars, it often found itself put to use as a sniper rifle.

Lieutenant Price comes from a respectable English family, and one of his relatives is a high-ranking officer in the Royal Navy. Because of this, he is able to get his hands on, and uses throughout the mission, a prototype Lanchester submachine gun. This is a high-quality British clone of the German MP28 submachine gun, itself a redesign of the MP18, one of the earliest battlefield SMGs. The Lanchester is extremely well-made, with a machined brass receiver and other quality parts. Interestingly, the Lanchester used a 50-round magazine, quite a high capacity for weapons of that (or even this) era, although it could use the later-designed 32-round Sten magazines.

Each Commando carries a sidearm during the mission, and for most of them, that sidearm is the .38 caliber Enfield No. 2 MK 1 revolver. This is a break-open revolver that hinges in front of the cylinder, and snaps open vertically like a double-barrel shotgun. Compared to modern ammunition in this same relative size, the .38 caliber loads used in the Enfield revolver are pretty weak, but European handguns for most of the early 20th century were notoriously under-powered compared to what we here in the States would consider a "military grade" handgun cartridge. Even so, the Enfield sees use several times throughout the novel.

The main character, Thomas Lynch, carries a Colt 1903 pocket pistol with him through most of the novel. He originally bought the weapon as a non-regulation backup for his rifle before he shipped over to France with the British Expeditionary Force in 1939. In the prologue, Lynch uses the pistol to kill several Germans, and it reappears near the end of the book...

Sergeant McTeague, the enormous Scotsman, carries a Webley MK Vi .455 caliber revolver. Although this weapon is an older service revolver, it fires a much more authoritative cartridge than the Enfield revolver. Even so, the most powerful issue ammunition in .455 Webley is still underpowered compared to the American .45 ACP. However, it must be noted that the Colt cartridge was built for a whole new generation of firearms, while the Webley is essentially a 19th century pistol that survived into the mid-20th century.

German Troops

The Kar 98K was a shorter-barreled version of the Kar 98 carried by most German forces in World War One. In WW2, it was the standard infantry rifle throughout the war. It was a well-built, reliable design, and although outclassed in terms of firepower by the advanced M1 Garand, the 98K's Mauser action lives on in many American sporting rifles today.

The MP-38 (and its redesigned clone, the MP-40) is carried by various German non-commissioned officers as well as a number of French partisans. One of the most recognizable weapons of WW2, the "Schmeisser" as it was inaccurately called was overall an excellent weapon, the biggest problem being the Germans never had enough of them. The weapon is a prized find for the partisans, as its firepower is a great force multiplier, allowing partisans armed with SMGs to ambush and wipe out much larger numbers of Germans.

The MG-34 was the precursor to the infamous MG-42, and although it had a slightly lower rate of fire (only ~900 RPM), it was definitely more dangerous than the Bren or BAR, able to fire continuous bursts from 75 or 150-round belts. The MG-34 was carried by men and mounted on vehicles, and when the MG-42 replaced it's older sibling in infantry units, the '34 lived on in its vehicular role. Both German and Partisan forces put the MG-34 to use in the novel.

Leutnant Bieber, one of the German officers encountered in the novel, carries a P38 9mm automatic as his personal sidearm. As the Luger was by this time several decades old, and an extremely expensive pistol to manufacture, the cheaper P38 was the official issued sidearm of the German army by this point.

Hauptmann Krieger carries a Browning Hi-Power P35, a Belgian-manufactured high-capacity 9mm pistol. This was originally an Allied weapon, but when Belgium was captured by the Germans, the pistols were issued to the Germans as well as the P38 (although FN, the arms manufacturer, moved to Canada and the Canadians used them during the war). It is a formidable pistol, with a 13-round magazine capacity.

The Mauser C96 was a near-antique by the Second World War, but like the Luger, it soldiered on in the possession of officers and other units, particularly the SS. The 7.63x25mm Mauser cartridge is actually fairly powerful by European pistols standards, with a high muzzle velocity and flat trajectory. This, coupled with the weapon's long barrel and excellent sights, was one of the reasons the pistol was typically carried with a wooden holster/attachable stock, converting the pistol into a type of pseudo-carbine for long-ranged shooting. In the novel, the C96 appears at the very end, on the hip of the SS partisan hunter Johann Faust.

French Partisans

Rene Chenot and several other partisans start the novel carrying French military MAS-36 rifles. This was the newest (and last) bolt-action rifle to enter military service, and although it has a somewhat inelegant appearance, is reported to be a fairly sturdy rifle, certainly handier-looking than a long Lebel rifle or a full-sized Mauser 98.

The Lebel Model 1886 is a fascinating weapon. This is the first military rifle to fire a smokeless cartridge, the 8mm Lebel round. The rifle has a capacity of 8 rounds in a tube magazine below the barrel, which gives it a nice capacity but means the weapon must be reloaded with individual rounds, rather than using chargers or stripper clips. Interestingly, one of the standard military cartridge loads for the Lebel uses a bullet machined out of solid brass, which I think is pretty cool but so at odds with mid-20th century wartime production. The brass bullet was also the first to use a "spitzer boat-tail" design, giving it that classic rifle bullet look, meaning the Lebel had not one but two innovations that went on to become universal standards in military firearms. The Lebel was the standard French rifle of WW1, and there were no doubt plenty kicking around 20 years later. Several partisans, including Monsieur Souliere, carry Lebel rifles in the book.

The Berthier carbine and rifle were slightly younger contemporaries of the Lebel rifle, chambering the same 8mm Lebel round, but using an integral box magazine rather than the Lebel's tube. Several partisans are noted to be carrying Berthier rifles when first encountered by the Commandos.

The French MAB Model D .32 ACP pistol was a military and police pistol manufactured starting in the 1930s. It has a 9-round magazine, and operates in a similar manner to the Browning .32 shown above. In the novel, this pistol is carried by Andre Bouchard, the infamous partisan leader known as "Butcher of Calais" for his execution of German soldiers. The MAB pistol was how he delivered his coup de grace after his favored tactic of machine-gunning the enemy across the legs with a captured MP-38.

And that is the full tally of all the firearms that appear in the novel! It's quite the list, and I don't think I've missed anything. There will be a few new entries for the second book, Operation: Bedlam, so I'll write a follow-up post when that book is published.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Coming in 2013, COMMANDO: Operation Bedlam

France, July 1941

The French resistance leader Andre Bouchard, the "Butcher of Calais", has finally been captured by the SS colonel Johann Faust. The famed Nazi partisan hunter is determined to break the will of his captive and tear apart Bouchard's fledgling network of freedom fighters. Despite the Frenchman's determination to give Faust nothing, each man knows it is only a matter of time before the SS will have what it needs to eradicate the last of the resistance.

However, all is not lost. Word of Bouchard's capture has reached the British government, and the decision is made to launch a desperate rescue mission before Faust succeeds in his plan. Once again, Corporal Thomas Lynch of His Majesty's No. 3 Commando is being sent with the rest of his squad to rendezvous with the few surviving partisans and either free Bouchard from his imprisonment in Calais...or make sure he's silenced forever.

The Commandos know this is all but a suicide mission, slipping into the heart of an occupied city to snatch one man from the clutches of a crack unit of SS. But the fate of the French resistance movement, and with it the success of any Allied invasion of France, hangs in the balance. With Thompsons and Lee-Enfields, Sten guns and grenades, knives and knuckle dusters, the men of 3 Commando will do whatever it takes to see the mission through.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Quick Writing Update

September was a great month. I keep a spreadsheet to track all my sales and tally totals by month and by book, as well as adding up royalties. The last two months have made up almost half of all my sales in the last fifteen months, and in September I made three times more in royalties than I did in all of 2011. Now, while that's not even all that much money, at least compared to a "real job", it is enough money for me to feel at least somewhat legitimized as a writer. Before, when I was making perhaps $10 a month in royalties, writing and self-publishing felt more like an experiment than a second job. Now, making ten or twenty times that in a month, I can say something like "my writing pays my utility bills every month". Someday it might be enough to pay my rent - who knows?

The trends are interesting to see. COMMANDO is easily outselling KILLER INSTINCTS, at a ratio of roughly two to one. COMMANDO is also selling twice as well in the UK as it is in the US, a pattern that started almost as soon as it went on sale and has continued ever since. I'm also seeing more sales in general in the UK, and I'm attributing that to both COMMANDO and my book promotions.

Speaking of which, in September I switched all my titles over to Kindle Select. It means I can't sell the ebooks anywhere other than Amazon, but since I hadn't been doing that anyhow, I didn't really care. Honestly, I think it's worth it to have those free promotion days. Being able to get hundreds of copies of your work into people's hands for free might seem foolish because you don't make any money off of it, but the potential word of mouth, plus the way that those "purchases" populate Amazon's "also bought" algorithms, makes it worthwhile in my book.

The biggest thing I've learned in the last two months is that my next project needs to be a second COMMANDO novel. Not only will this mean that those people who read the first book (and liked it) will hopefully buy the second, but I think it will lend legitimacy to the series to actually have, you know, more than one book, and I think that will help attract new readers. Right now my tentative schedule is to have the second book, Operation Bedlam, out in January. Gotta earn off of all those holiday Kindle reader gifts and Amazon gift cards...