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Sunday, 31 October 2010

One night in Bangkok

A short story for Halloween today, and it's one with an interesting inception. Back in the 1980s, my friend and Dragon Warriors co-author, Oliver Johnson, was working at Random House. They were sketching out plans for a "Clive Barker book of monsters" - this was to be a ghost-written project with Mr Barker's name on the cover. Oliver's idea is that we'd take a look at all the old traditional horror tropes with the USP that they'd all be given an urban twist. As a fan of Fritz Leiber's stories of urban horror I was up for that, so much so that I jumped the gun and started work on the vampire and werewolf chapters right away. Unfortunately, Random House couldn't reach a deal with Clive Barker so I was left with this story and nowhere to use it.

A mere decade or so later, another friend Dermot Bolton was producing a short horror movie. The only snag was, he didn't have a script - or indeed a story. I recalled "Death Sucks", presciently narrated by a scuzzy English adventurer who turned out to sound a lot like John Constantine. I didn't want anybody thinking I'd ripped off Hellblazer, so the main character became a woman and, as the budget didn't stretch to Bangkok, the script for A Dying Trade moved the action to Yorkshire. The illustration above is from when Russ and I thought of turning the script into a comic book, but it was never completed.

You can watch the movie here. But I recommend reading the story first. There's also an essay on the undead over on the Mirabilis blog today. In the book, that would have been a companion piece to the story. If it strikes you as a bit taxonomically reductive, remember that it's a mock-academic essay by an unreliable narrator, not gospel.

Death Sucks

As usual Bangkok had a smell midway between a stale fart and a pervert's breath. There'd been a fan in the taxi - real luxury - but when I stepped out onto the pavement it was straight into a hot wet haze. Like one of those steaming towels they give you in Thai restaurants. Only this wasn't wiping the filth out of my pores, it was rubbing it in.

A thousand glaring streetlights haloed in the shroud of fumes overhead - fumes left behind by the rush hour traffic a couple of hours earlier. Two slim-hipped girls swept by in front of a crowd of German sailors. All lipstick, high heels and tight silk, they moved with the grace of teenage boys. There was a good reason for that, but I don't think the sailors had twigged yet. I stubbed out my cigarette, only half smoked, and spat on the pavement. You don't have time to worry about lung cancer in my line of work.

Off Sukhumvit there are a dozen streets with no name. Off those a hundred more. I followed my instincts for a block or more, past a bar and a street corner temple and down an alley with a pink neon sign at the end. It blinked on and off with a sound like a moth's wing batting on a screen, illuminating a carved wooden doorway where more girls in cheap silk waited on the slick cobblestones.

"Good time, all ways," breathed one of the girls as I got close. In Bangkok you can buy anything except a decent pint of bitter. She slid beside me with a rustle of silk, and the stench of the city got washed out by her cloud of musky perfume. "You name it," she said.

A perfect setup for the old leech, you have to admit. Sex and death have always been two peas in a pod, and how better to entice your prey than with the Brides of Drac ploy? Where better to disguise a genuine threat than in a city where danger is just a game played out between pussy, gin and dollars? I cracked a smile and nodded to the door. "In there," I said.

She glanced back, hesitation showing for just a moment under her frozen-on smile, then looked me up and down. I hadn't dressed like a businessman or even a tourist, just a typical cosmopolitan barfly. Cherry ripe for leech, I figured.

"Sure," she said. Must've figured right. She slid a stone-cold hand under my arm and moved me that way. The door seemed to open of its own accord, and we were in a small foyer where everything seemed to have a gauze of shadow over it. It reeked of perfume and incense - beauty concealing decay, like the painted smile of the bought body beside me. She took me down the passage and around a corner, then fiddled with a door under a forty watt bulb. In its light I could just make out where the corridor turned back to the foyer, forming three sides of a square.

The door gave a click and opened into a musty cubicle - one of a dozen lining the corridor. I returned her smile coolly enough, but my breathing was getting shallow by now. I can always feel it when leech is near. I lit a cigarette to cover it and went in, blinking in the hot white stare of a halogen lamp. Now, why in here if not out there - ?

The door shut behind me with the girl still outside, but I didn't waste time on a backward glance while she locked it. The fact that she hadn't come in with me meant I'd been pegged for an extreme prejudice number. I could get it any number of ways, all right; she'd been telling it straight when she said that. I flicked away the cigarette and put a handkerchief over my mouth. I keep a patch of odour eater folded inside it, and that's worthwhile insurance I can tell you. Your Siamese leech is not above using his tarts to spread a bit of pox, but when he really wants to fuck you over he'll use a garrote or a whiff of the old Mama Cass.

I could see straight away what the spotlight was for. The back wall of the room was one big mirror. Must have been the same in the other dozen rooms - from this side, all erotic furnishings. But from the other...

I broke it with a chair and followed the chair through into a tiny courtyard all overgrown with weeds. Seven years bad luck was worth it for the gulp of almost-fresh air and the sight of leech standing there waiting for me. The building completely enclosed the courtyard - was probably built up around it bit by bit over the years - and three stories up I could see the night sky where the city lights shone fever-yellow on low cloud. The courtyard was no bigger than one of the cubicles in the whorehouse, and there was a kind of round tombstone in the middle that could've been a hundred years old. At least.

The leech was dressed in white brocade pajamas like Yul Brynner's in The King and I. You could have mistaken him for any thin old Thai geezer except for the way he seemed to flicker like a flame in the darkness. That, and the smile like a fistful of tiger's teeth that he gave me as I moved forward. He said something in French, but I was too high on adrenaline to take it in. His smile broadened as he saw the silver-plated stiletto I pulled from my boot.

"I'm glad one of us is enjoying this, old mate," I said to him. "Personally, I feel as sick as a poodle." I lunged at him with the knife but somehow it missed him, passing between his arm and his side. Of course. You never can land a hit on leech until you've got him reeling.

He made a sound somewhere between a snarl and a laugh and caught my wrist, turning it with a flick of his scrawny old fingers. I had to do a forward flip or he'd have broken it. That put me flat on my back on one side of the courtyard, and my knife somewhere in the weeds on the other. I glanced up at one of the one-way mirrors to see some poor fat sod getting his last bonk with one of the Brides. He didn't seem to be enjoying it much, but then he'd enjoy it less when she sank the fangs in.

"You're a bleeding voyeur, you know that?" I panted at leech as he glided over to finish me. "Well cop a look at this."

I pulled my shirt open, showing him the Sanskrit characters I'd had painted there that afternoon. He stopped as if a wrecking ball had hit him between the eyes, goggling while I staggered to my feet. The priest who'd painted the characters swore he was using indelible ink, but some of them had smudged a bit even so. Maybe that was how come leech was able to twitch his fingers and even whisper a few curses in French while I retrieved my knife and did the necessary.

I'll cut a long story short. The Brides bought it when leech did. I hadn't exactly counted on that, but it did make the job a whole lot easier. Two of three of them must have been with him since the beginning - 1860s or thereabouts - so when I pulled the plug on them it gave the punters they were humping a sight to carry to their graves. You've got to laugh.

You're wondering about the Sanskrit trick? It just goes to show what I always say, that you've got to treat each case on its own merits. This time round it was a fair bet leech would've been a Buddhist when he was alive, so I found someone to paint the Pragna-Paramita sutra on my chest. That's the one about how nothing is real. Airport bestseller stuff if you ask me, but it certainly gives your Oriental vamp pause for thought. Tracking down the priest to do it wasn't easy, mind you, but in the end it's like I said.

There isn't anything you can't buy in Bangkok.


  1. Murray Head would say/sing:
    " Bangkok, Oriental setting
    And the city don't know that the city is getting
    The creme de la creme of the gamebook world in a
    Show with everything and even Yul Brynner (...)"
    And don't forget that Murray Head speaks perfect French...

  2. That's pretty cool! Bit of a period piece for 80s Bangkok! As someone who's been living here for 15+ (? I can't remember off hand!) years, I can tell you the taxis have been aircon for at least that length of time, you don't see sailors here anymore, German or otherwise, and restaurants give you a cold towel not a steaming one (which is presumably what you get in a Thai restaurant in the UK). Plus you can get a decent pint or three of bitter! :-)



  3. Plus the doorgirl would say "Hello handsome man, come inside please!"

  4. Andy, I have fond memories of Bangkok circa 1984 so I certainly wouldn't want to give anybody the impression it was all like this. My own experiences were more in the way of long cool cocktails in air-conditioned luxury at the Peninsula!

    Olivier, you spotted the inspiration :) and the interestingly prescient detail is that Murray Head's brother has since become famous for fighting vampires on TV in the role of Rupert "Ripper" Giles.

  5. It's certainly a very diverse city! After 13 years living around Sukhumvit the better half and I are now encamped in a green and peaceful if rather swampy outer suburb, and the pace out here is a little less hectic!

    I could be wrong, but from a Fabled Lands perspective, I always thought Hagashin was a dead ringer for either early Bangkok, or Ayuddhya prior to the Siamese Revolution

  6. Well spotted, Andy. It was certainly my intention that Akatsurai wasn't only drawn from Japanese culture, and Hagashin in particular is supposed to have Siamese elements. On top of which, the Japanese stuff I swiped comes from Heian times - hence none of the usual samurai-&-ninja stuff derived from James Clavell's distinctly Western 20th century vision of medieval Japan.

  7. Dave, I never quite understood how ghostwriting works. Does the actual author of the work sit down and have a session with the requester? how can you prove that you wrote something that way? Look at certain manuscripts, both current and past works. The one with their name on the title acts smug when they sell multi-millions, and remark "Yeah, it truly is a remarkable piece, isn't it?"; when in all actuality,they just affixed their name I realize that ghostwriters get paid to relinquish the rights, but do they also receive royalties, or is all null and void at that point? If I were to devise the grandest piece, capable of selling multi-millions, it would be foolish of I to set up compensation that way. The way I view it, a ghostwriter should have their name typeset along side the "author", or make the journey on their own. I guess your average writer may not have the means or the skill to pitch their work to prospective publishers, and publishers are only looking for pre-established works, or am I off the mark here?

  8. Hi Mike - you want ghostwriting tips, head over to my wife's blog She's ghostwritten for one or two famous names and she does usually get a small royalty - not as much as you'd get if you write your own book, but balance that against the fact that a celebrity name sells more copies.

    There are no fixed rules, but typically a ghostwriter might get 1% or 2% (compare that to a 7%-12% royalty for your own work). Usually you'll spend time with the guy whose name is going on the cover, and in some cases they come up with a lot of good story ideas. Roz has been lucky in that way - the celebrity she did the most ghostwriting for has a great storytelling sense and loads of real experiences to draw on.

    I would think that *only* ghostwriting would be a pretty soul-destroying experience (the hero of the recent Polanski movie seems to be suffering from that) but, as in movies, a writer is well advised to do "one for himself, one for them." The ghostwriters I know use the certainty of their ghostwriting paychecks to fund their own-name novels. I wouldn't do that myself because I'm only interested in writing my own books - but circumstances vary.

  9. I've learnt a new English word today. In France, we say "nègre", though it sounds less well, maybe a little racist, since it reminds of the poor "negroes" who worked as slaves for a master. The most famous "nègre" of French litterature was Auguste Maquet, who worked for Alexandre Dumas. He had published his own works under the name of "Mac Kay", but don't get success. Nowadays, Erik Orsenna, who sits at the Académie Française, is well-known for having been such a "nègre".
    To be complete with this topic in France, we even had a successful "writer" who never wrote any of his books: Paul-Loup Sulitzer