Avril Lavigne is dead

Yup, that’s right. In fact, Avril Lavigne’s been dead for years. A lookalike called Melissa Vandella has been impersonating the Canadian ‘Pop Punk Queen’ since 2002…

2002 was the year Avril Lavigne blew up the teen music scene. Her debut album Let Go was certified 6 x platinum in the US while hitting the number 1 spot in Canada, the UK, Australia, Argentina and a bunch of other places. She was winning awards left, right and centre. Meanwhile teens the world over were warbling the words to catchy smash hit singles Complicated and Sk8er Boi.

Ah, but that was the problem. According to a popular conspiracy theory that recently saw a wild resurgence online, Lavigne decided before 2002 was done that she just couldn’t handle the attention, the pressure, or the fame. And so her record label, Arista, hired lookalike and ‘best friend’ Melissa Vandella to pretend to be her in public.

Things went from bad to worse for Ms Lavigne. In 2003, she killed herself while at the very height of her fame. The money-hungry bosses at Arista Records weren’t about to let all that profit go down the crapper, so they decided to cover up her death and continue recording and releasing songs using Melissa.

Now where have I heard this before? Ah yes, a similar thing is said to have happened to Paul McCartney. Some people believe that he was killed in a car crash in 1966 and secretly replaced with a lookalike to maintain the Beatles’ continued success. They cite hidden clues in song lyrics and album covers, cryptic statements made by Heather Mills, and even the assassination of John Lennon as evidence for the conspiracy. (It’s a legend that forms the basis of my short story Paul, one of the Million Eyes Short Stories.)

There’s also the Hillary Clinton conspiracy from last year, in which it was alleged that she’d been replaced by a body double after collapsing and dying at a 9/11 Memorial ceremony.

But let’s get back to poor Avril and take a look at the evidence for her untimely demise…

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How I deal with writer’s block + “Million Eyes” updates

Wikipedia calls writer’s block a “condition” and an “affliction” and the Wiki gods are absolutely right. Writer’s block is an illness that only writers suffer from. To recover from an illness, you either need to ride it out or combat it with various treatments and remedies. It’s a perfectly curable illness, but some writers are more successful at beating it (Stephen King) than others (George R. R. Martin).

This month I wanted to write an article about how I cope with writer’s block, something that affects me a lot more now that I’m a full-time professional copywriter as well as an author. Next month I’ll be writing a sequel article about some of the best/weirdest/funniest writer’s block cures that are available to poorly wordsmiths.

But before all that, let me share with you a handful of Million Eyes updates…

Million Eyes is complete! Currently being proofread…

The final edit of Million Eyes is complete and being proofread in its entirety by two of the writers at Rushmoor Writers, and by my bookworm girlfriend. One has already come back to me with a ton of positive comments and a handful of minor changes to have a think about. Another has very helpfully pointed out a few minor historical inaccuracies (with all the research I’ve had to do for this novel, it’s very difficult to catch them all, so I’m very grateful to her for spotting them).

One of my proofers has also pointed out that because further changes will be required, I shouldn’t be calling this the final edit. However, the reason I’m calling it that — and still calling it that — is because I am at a point where I am happy with the plot, the characters, and the style. I have asked my proofreaders for error-spotting, sense-checking, and overall impressions, but I’m not planning to make any fundamental changes to the characters or plot at this point. That’s what the final edit was for. Taking all the feedback I’ve received over the last 2-3 years and producing a new draft.

At the end of the day, an author can edit the same novel forever. When I started the final edit at South House Retreat in February, owner Tracy Willoughby made a very good point: at some point you have to stop. Otherwise you’ll just never finish, and no one will ever publish it. She’s right.

So this is me stopping. Once my proofers have finished, I’m expecting to have a slew of corrections to make and minor changes to think about. And yes, if there’s a whopping time travel-related continuity error or logistical problem that I’ve missed and has a major overarching effect on the plot or character arcs, it’s something I will need to work on. I’m just hoping I’ve caught most of those!

In short, Million Eyes is nearly there. Nearly ready to be pumped out to literary agents, with fingers, toes and tongues tightly crossed that one of them recognises Million Eyes as a book people want to read.

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The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz — visual trick, ancient magic, or aliens?

When I next take a trip to California, there’s somewhere I HAVE to go. It’s a place in the redwood forests of Santa Cruz that has been baffling and astonishing tourists for decades. A place where the laws of gravity and physics don’t apply…

Behold, the Mystery Spot. It was first discovered in 1939 by George Prather. When climbing a steep hill on the site, his compass started jittering and he felt dizzy, light-headed and top-heavy, as if something was trying to force him off the hill.

Realising he was onto something, Prather purchased the site and decided to build a house on it, which opened to the public in 1940 and was named a historical landmark in 2014.

What’s so weird about Prather’s enigmatic little cabin in the woods? Well, in it, balls roll uphill. Chairs cling to walls without support. Water flows in the wrong direction. People can hang off walls, lean backwards off stairs, or lean forwards so far they can’t see their toes — all without falling over. Even the trees around the house defy gravity, growing at bizarre angles.

The cabin is referred to a “gravity house” on a “gravity hill” or “magnetic hill” (of which there are a number of others). The website for the Mystery Spot calls it a “gravitational anomaly” with “puzzling variations of gravity, perspective and height”.

Insane. Insane, but very real. Question is, what’s causing it?

Just a visual trick?

For centuries gravity hills have bewildered scientists and their half-baked theories left considerable room for doubt and mystery. However, scientists now seem to agree that the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz (and others throughout the world) are optical illusions. Gravity and physics do not behave differently at the Mystery Spot. We just think they do. It’s all to do with the way our brains orient themselves, and the way they use horizontal and vertical cues to establish up and down. When we can’t see the earth’s horizon, we take those cues from our immediate context.

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TV Review: Designated Survivor — Season 1

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a TV series so gripping that I just couldn’t turn it off. The sort of series that, when you start catching up, you panic that you’re going to run out of episodes, and you’re not entirely sure what you’re going to do with your life after you do. (Wait, is it just me? Do I need to get out more?)

Enter Season 1 of Designated Survivor, the new conspiracy thriller from ABC. It’s not perfect. The writing’s a little up and down. Some of it is a bit silly/overblown/disjointed. Nobody swears (a failing of all American network television). But its chief strength is clear: it’s bloody riveting.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ALL OF SEASON 1.

It begins with a massive explosion at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. that kills the president, the vice-president and virtually all of the government, apart from the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland). He’s the ‘designated survivor’ (a real thing in the States — means you’re the last resort if the rest of the government is killed).

Kirkman is suddenly sworn in as president and he and his family are moved into the White House, two things they never thought would happen since Kirkman was only twelfth in the presidential line of succession.

The show then focuses on two main storylines: the Capitol bombing and those behind it, and Kirkman and his family and advisers adjusting to life in America’s highest office. What we have here is half a conspiracy thriller, half a political drama.

For the vast majority of the season, the two genres marry together well. At the forefront of the conspiracy thriller storyline is FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), who is investigating the Capitol bombing. In a show that has definite parallels with 24 (political conspiracies, terrorists, high-stakes action, Kiefer Sutherland), Hannah Wells is the Jack Bauer of Designated Survivor. She tends to dominate the action and suspense elements of the show and the epic cliffhangers that leave you hankering to watch the next one. Meanwhile, Kiefer Sutherland plays a very different, action-less role as Kirkman. (However, the similarities with 24 mean that he sometimes strays awkwardly into Jack Bauer mode, a much more gung-ho character than the more reflective, more reasonable Kirkman.)

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Secret snake discovered in Elizabeth I painting – what was she hiding?

In 2010, scientists investigating a 400-year-old portrait of Queen Elizabeth I made a very curious discovery — a hidden snake in the queen’s hand…

The mysterious painting was created in the late 1580s or early 1590s by an unknown artist. In it, Elizabeth I is depicted in a magnificent, jewel-laden gown with a faint smile and a small posy of flowers in her hand, a conventional symbol of virginity and virtue. The painting’s deterioration over time has caused an image beneath the posy to resurface, that of a dark-coloured snake coiled around the queen’s fingers.

Scientists believe that the artist originally painted Elizabeth holding a snake, then painted over it shortly afterwards with the posy. Since nobody knows who the artist was or what the circumstances surrounding the painting were, we can’t be sure what their motivations were for drawing the snake, or for removing it.

What we do know is that snakes and serpents were highly ambiguous in their symbolism. Sometimes they were used as a symbol of wisdom, prudence and good judgment, all good traits for a queen. However, in Christian iconography, their symbolism was a lot darker. Christians associated snakes with evil, original sin and Satan himself, and Elizabeth I was a devout Protestant.

What does this say about how the artist viewed Elizabeth? If they intended to paint her with a symbol of the Devil in her hand, did they see her as evil? As a sinner? As hiding something?

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Trump fired Comey to cover up Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election

Donald Trump spent much of his election campaign propagating conspiracy theories. Now he’s right in the middle of one. A big one.

Hot off the press, ink still wet, is a theory that Trump fired FBI director James Comey because Comey was on the verge of unveiling a deep well of secrets about how America’s 45th president came to power.

Since the firing only happened on May 9th — literally days ago — new information is materialising every hour. Meanwhile the outlook’s growing bleaker and bleaker for Trump, whose first few months in office have already been saddled with controversies and court battles.

The theory goes like this. Russia illegally interfered with the 2016 election to secure Trump’s win, and Comey was fired because he was stepping up the FBI’s investigation into said interference. The Trump administration was afraid of what Comey might find, and took swift and decisive action to stop him.

To be fair, the part about Russia interfering with the election is a matter of fact, not theory. What remains a theory is the true extent of it, and how far the Trump administration was involved. What the US intelligence agencies have concluded so far is that the Russian government used disinformation, leaks and data thefts to advantage Trump over Hillary Clinton in the election. They’ve also concluded that it was part of a campaign personally ordered by Vladimir Putin. (Russia, of course, has denied everything.)

What’s also known is that British intelligence found evidence of suspicious “interactions” between Russian agents and Trump’s inner circle in late 2015, with more evidence of Trump-Russia links discovered by other European agencies in 2016. This led the FBI to launch an investigation.

Trump’s switcheroo

Trump fired Comey on May 9th. He stated in the dismissal letter that his decision was based on the recommendations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

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The Broad Haven school kids who spotted a UFO

In 1977, aliens touched down in the seaside resort of Broad Haven, Wales, for a nose around. It led to the area being dubbed the Broad Haven Triangle. The most famous was a sighting by 14 schoolchildren…

It was a cold day in February when the children of Broad Haven Primary School saw a UFO land in the playing field next to their school during lunchtime. It was torpedo-shaped, shiny grey, and had an upper dome with a blinking red light. Some of the kids saw a silver-clad spaceman emerge from the craft.

Convinced they were telling porkies, headmaster Ralph Llewellyn asked the 14 children to draw what they’d seen under exam conditions so there could be no conferring. He was astonished by how similar their drawings were.

The children proceeded to sign a petition demanding a police investigation into what they saw.

The children, now in their 50s, have not wavered from their original accounts in all the years since. One of the kids, David Davies, aged 10 at the time, said a few years ago:

“The object was pearlescent silvery-grey, approximately 40ft long, torpedo/cigar-shaped with an upper domed section that covered the central third of the vehicle and which was topped with a red pulsating light. It popped up and then went back behind a tree. The sighting, despite only lasting a few seconds, is burned on my memory like a photograph. I’ve spent my entire life and countless thousands of pounds trying to find answers about what we saw.”

A spate of further local sightings followed. A few days later, a teacher and three dinner ladies saw the same UFO. One of them reported seeing a “creature” making its way into the craft.

Two months later, Rosa Granville, owner of the Haven Fort Hotel, was woken at 2.30am by a series of strange noises and lights. She reportedly saw an “upside-down saucer” next to the hotel, surrounded by multicoloured flames, and two “faceless humanoid” creatures with pointed heads emerging from the flames.

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My short story “The Charlie Chaplin Time Traveller” has been re-published in Suspense Magazine

Bonsoir les lecteurs!

I’m back from my long bank holiday weekend in Disneyland Paris, but due to a big rush of copywriting busyness on my return, I’m afraid a new mystery/conspiracy article will have to wait till next week.

In the meantime, I come bearing news about my short story, The Charlie Chaplin Time Traveller. The second of the Million Eyes Short Stories to be published, it initially appeared last summer in Issue 11 of Tigershark Magazine.  Now it’s been re-published in Suspense Magazine, a popular and long-standing mystery/horror/thriller magazine that is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It’s been named one of the 100 best book and magazine markets for writers by Writer’s Digest.

Click on the extract below to read a PDF of the magazine. The Charlie Chaplin Time Traveller is the first story in the issue.

For those of you who don’t remember, the story is inspired by an urban legend about a bonus feature on a Charlie Chaplin DVD, an extra containing something rather out of place. The story stars real-life Irish filmmaker George Clarke, the man who made the discovery, as he embarks on a dangerous pursuit of the truth.

I actually showed the story to Clarke himself prior to publication and he gave me the thumbs-up, even mentioning he might turn it into a film one day! 😀

Even more exciting is the fact that the editor of Suspense Magazine has said they want to publish a further story of mine. I don’t know which one yet but I’ll keep you posted!

Happy Thursday!

Next week: the mystery of the ‘Broad Haven Triangle’