Annotated Excerpt: GIGANTIC by Ashley Stokes (Unsung Stories)

StokesA-GiganticHi. Many thanks for asking me to annotate a section of Gigantic. It’s certainly been intriguing and stimulating to revisit what has been probably the most torturous editorial experience I’ve had with any story, long or short. I chose a passage to edit based on how fun and funny I hoped it is, but just by spending some time with it, I realise how much the story, text, structure, tone and voice had changed from the first draft and how honing this story had been like fighting Proteus or the Hydra. The main character, Kevin Stubbs, has had many heads and forms.

Gigantic has taken ten years since conception to find a publisher. It started life in 2011 as an idle notebook jotting: what if there were a bigfoot mythology akin to that you find in backswood America in my hometown of Sutton, Surrey?  I rejected this as daft but went back to it when The Sun reported a bigfoot sighting in Tunbridge Wells. Originally titled The North Surrey Gigantopithecus, it was a short story told largely in footnotes like my A Short Story about a Short Film and forthcoming Fade to Black. Subsequently, it became a more conventionally-structured novella, then a novel, a longer novel and a shorter novel as stuffing was ripped out. This was a process of sifting and hacking, abandoning and resurrecting well beyond the usual three-step Discovery-Meditation-Polishing process of writing a novel.

The extract below is the novel’s third main scene and brings together the three main investigators that the reader will follow from now on. The first scene had introduced Kevin, long-term, fanatical suburban bigfoot hunter, and news of a new sighting of the North Surrey Gigantopithecus. Derek Funnel (a cryptozoologist) and Team Leader Maxine (a science teacher and arch-sceptic Kevin often refers to as Sci-Borg) have been introduced by texts and phone calls, Maxine giving strict instructions that Derek is to be left out of the investigation because he unsettles the witnesses. The second scene had explored what all this means to Kevin. Now we draw the team together before we descend on the witness and see what he has filmed with his camera phone.

What surprised me when revisiting this section is the extent of the changes that occurred throughout the drafts, and how many of the adjustments here, primarily those to Kevin’s voice and mannerisms but also to the original story’s aggressive surrealism, were indicative of the whole journey. There are many changes in this passage that I had to make to address the overall problems of the story in its larval stages before The Final Kevin emerged.

*

REPORT # 214: THE FACTS by Kevin Stubbs: Section Three

On the night of the first investigation into Report #214, I parked the Abominable outside Sci-Borg’s flat. When she finally made an appearance, she was wearing her field-trip garb – a pistachio-green Lycra cycling costume with black flashes, and sunglasses shaped like swimming goggles.

She clambered into the Abominable.

‘Hiya, Kevin. How have you been feeling? Been drinking the camomile tea I gave you?’

‘Nah. Tastes like pot pourri—’

‘I hope you haven’t been getting overexcited this afternoon.’

‘No, I’ve been frosty. Been trying to be like you said. Not jump to any conclusions. Wait till I’ve seen the evidence before I think it’s evidence.’

‘We’ll make a scientist of you yet.’

‘Does that mean, shut up and drive?’

‘Yes.’

In the initial novel-length version, draft three, the assembling of the team occurred on page 67, not page 27, so a lot of cutting and lore-shunting went on to get the gang together early in the novel. The earlier drafts were generally more shouty. It was all one big slanging match about a yeti in Sutton. In the initial draft, energy was here expended by Kevin comparing Maxine to Abe Sapien, the humanoid amphibian from Hellboy, and how her appearance unsettles the witnesses the team interviews. Maxine was also confrontational from the off, explaining to Kevin what a wild goose chase is, and generally ridiculing him as a moron. The relationship seemed already at breaking point. The Final Kevin toned all this down to give the characters somewhere to go, and perhaps hint at some gameplaying going on.

I gunned the van and drove off. Every now and again I tried to check her face in the mirror. Meanwhile, I ran through the six main things she had tried to teach me.

One: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Two: For a theory to be meaningful you have to be able to falsify it.

Three: The simpler explanation is liable to be the one that counts.

Four: You need to be able to repeat a claim over and over again.

Five: Make sure you can kick to the kerb any other ideas on a subject.

Six: A correlation between two things doesn’t prove a connection between them.

I was also thinking that at the end of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World about the Missing Apes, when he says that Patty in the Paterson-Gimlin film is probably fake because the 2001 film that he wrote proves you can make convincing ape-like biped costumes, he was wrong, because those 2001 monkey costumes now look bollocks and Patty still looks awesome. He’s having a giraffe with us anyway. Arthur C. was a Knower, FACT. Pretending we didn’t know what we knew in front of civilians and sheeple was what Gorgo had taught us to do. He probably copied it from Arthur C.

In the initial drafts, Kevin was much more hostile and anti-Maxine, and vice versa. This may have worked when this was a short story but grated when I invited the reader to spend more time with Kevin. Throughout the drafting process, Kevin became more conciliatory and softer, but also more cunning. Here, The Final Kevin is at least trying to show Maxine he’s on point, even if the reader knows that Maxine’s decision to exclude Derek Funnel causes Kevin a dilemma about loyalty. To underline this, I added Maxine’ Scientific Method in the final draft. The Final Kevin’s reference to Arthur C Clark’s Mysterious World here – late-70s half-hour documentary series about the paranormal – suggests he is only playing lip-service to the Scientific Method. Moreover, The Missing Ape episode of Mysterious World is a key part of Kevin’s origin story. It blows his mind and spurs his obsession with bigfoot. This was one of the first bits of Kev material I came up with. However, the episode was not on YouTube at the initial draft stage, so I couldn’t look it up. By the time I came to edit the Final Kevin, it was available and, lo and behold, Arthur C Clarke pretty much refutes and scoffs at the idea of relict hominids. As one of my friends said, it was really Arthur C Clarke’s Pedestrian and Sceptical World. I needed to cover myself on this score, too. A tip in creative writing is to turn your weaknesses into strengths. Here, I hope the reader gets more of a sense of how contorted Kevin’s thinking can be: Arthur C Clarke’s scepticism tells us that really he’s a true believer. Kevin certainly hasn’t absorbed point one of Maxine’s Method. Nothing can convince him the gigantic beast does not walk among us, not even the man he wishes were his father.

About five minutes later, Sci-Borg said, ‘Kevin, we’re going the wrong way.’

‘We’re picking up The Funnel.’

‘We are not. I was very explicit in my instructions.’

‘He knew what was going on. He’s like that.’

‘Cancel him.’

‘Wouldn’t be right, not now.’

‘I’ll call him then.’

‘You can’t stand him down now.’

‘I’m Lead Investigator. Of course I can.’

‘We need his skills.’

‘We do not. He’s a dangerous fantasist.’

‘He’s a legend.’

‘No, he’s not.’

‘Yes, he is.’

I didn’t change course, kept heading towards The Funnel’s place on the Poet’s Estate.

Telling Maxine one thing and then doing another massively contentious thing straightaway, meanwhile not anticipating that she might notice, will become a pattern in the story. It is established here, as is Kevin’s driven tenaciousness in ‘not changing course’. I liked the sound of the Poet’s Estate in Sutton, though I didn’t know where it is, I’d never been there. I’d only read that one of Sutton’s top celebs, Glenn Mulclaire, aka Mr Strawberry, non-league footballer (not only for Dorking but also Egham Town), News International private investigator, phone hacker extraordinaire, jailbird, bankrupt and neglecter of moral compasses lived on somewhere called the Poet’s Estate in Sutton, no doubt next door to The Funnel.

Derek Funnel is a legend in this tight-knit confraternity of men with kit from Sutton who seek out the gigantopithecus. Not a lot is known about his daytime activities, except he works in Waterstones in Sutton. I’ve only been to his flat a couple of times. It’s fortified, as you’d expect: grilles on the windows, a reinforced front door, pentagrams chalked on the step. Inside, it’s part wizard’s tower, part spooky library from one of those Cthulhu books he gave me to read that have no story and long words. There’s a shrine and a big portrait of some bald bloke who The Funnel says had a lot to say about the gigantopithecus before the war. The blinds are constantly drawn. They come at night, he says.

This is one of the great things about getting involved in the GIT. You meet people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet, if you just did your day job in IT support and knocked about in The Churn and The Dog. Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t be seen dead with someone who looks like Derek Funnel. If you can imagine some hippy-dippy, love-in, prog-jazz West German experimental music commune from the seventies, and fronting them a stunted, barrel-chested, flute-playing Mr Tumnus, then you’ve had a Category B sighting of The Funnel.

Earlier drafts went into a lot more detail about The Funnel’s odd appearance, perhaps for its own sake, but also to hint that despite having peculiar obsessions himself, Kevin is quite alarmed by non-conformity and eccentricity (The Final Kev will end up being the only child of a strict Jehovah’s Witness to shed some light on this). It is easy to go to town when you start writing about a character like The Funnel, especially in a voice entirely reliant on shouting that easily metastasizes into deranged bollocks, so trimming for pace and economy over time occurred. Part of me does miss that The Funnel’s beard no longer looks like ‘that Treebeard bloke from The Lord of the Rings shagging another Treebeard,’ and his hair no longer, ‘Day of the Triffids meets Aslan, or a tumbleweed mounting the sixth and most useless incarnation of Doctor Who,’ but taking Kev’s madness down a notch was always the final draft plan.

Every gigantopithecus team needs someone like Derek Funnel, even though the ManBeast GB research group gave him the brush off, and Hominid Rex wouldn’t let him join them because they’re a Jamiroquai tribute band.

Derek Funnel is a paranormal investigator and cryptozoologist. If you check out his website – thegreatbeast – you’ll see there isn’t anything on Earth that he says he hasn’t investigated. He has done ghosts and poltergeists; big cats and hellhounds; black-eyed children, The Rake, and the man with a pig’s head that haunts the Black Country. He spent his twenties trying to prove categorically that UFOs are real; he’s seen a yeti in Nepal, the batutat in Vietnam, the orang pendek in Sumatra, and he says he once sat down in a clearing by Lake Baikal and shared a dead salmon with an Alma, a Central Asian cousin of the North Surrey Gigantopithecus.

The Funnel’s website was originally called timefunnel.com or funnelweb or something. In the final scenes of the first draft, The Funnel started quoting Aleister Crowley to Kevin. In subsequent drafts, he became more of a Thelemist and eventually believed himself to be the reincarnation of Crowley himself, The Great Beast. This all goes over Kev’s head. He thinks thegreatbeast is Giganto.

He’d first got wind of the North Surrey Gigantopithecus when years ago, apparently, a bloke in Sutton told another bloke in Sutton who told Derek Funnel that a bloke had seen a ‘blue movie’ (aka a porn film) in which former British Prime Minister Edward Heath was shagging a juvenile gigantopithecus, and at the end Edward Heath transformed into a massive orange lizard-man thing and then he took us into the EEC, aka the EU.

I don’t think this film is canon yet. He thinks it is, and he says he has gone to extraordinary lengths to find the tape.

After that investigation hit a brick wall, though, he says he spent seven years hunting Mokele-Mbembe, the real dinosaur that lives in the Congo. He reckons he proved that, came back to Sutton, got a job in Waterstones and came straight to us. Well, straight to us via ManBeast GB and Hominid Rex.

Under his pen name – Tom Egatherion – he has also written a stack of proper books that you actually buy on the internet: Dark They Were with Red Glowing Eyes: The Search for Britain’s Bigfoot; The Man-Monkey Mystery: Phase/Cloak/Prophecy; A Memorex for the Kraken; and White Stains, Great Beast: The North Surrey Gigantopithecus and I.

I did disagree – gently, of course – with The Funnel’s theory that the North Surrey Gigantopithecus was a supernatural being from another dimension that used advanced cloaking technology to move unseen among us. He says that nothing natural would have red glowing eyes. I don’t agree, and neither does Gorgo. The North Surrey Gigantopithecus is part of us, part of evolutionary history, the missing link.

That Piltdown Man they dug up in Piltdown in 1912? That wasn’t a hoax. It was a gigantopithecus, FACT.

I’m a specialist naturalist – perhaps with more in common with Sci-Borg than she’d like to admit – and The Funnel is a paranormal cryptozoologist. You need that sort of debate and tension within a team. You need alternative viewpoints, the beautiful melting pot of competing ideas out of which only one true Knowing will emerge.

This scene should by now have set up the dynamic of the GIT members, as well as the two main strands of thought in cryptozoology, the scientific and the paranormal. It became apparent in my research that cryptozoologists often veer to the latter after experts have debunked the former (‘ghosts turned my sasquatch hair sample into badger’). The Final Kevin knows what he believes, but will the investigation they are about to embark on change him?

When I pulled up the Abominable outside The Funnel’s place, and just as I was about to sling back the sliding door, Sci-Borg grabbed hold of my arm.

‘What do you actually know about Derek?’

‘Enough,’ I said.

‘He doesn’t work in Waterstones. He says he does, but he doesn’t.’

‘I’ve seen him in Waterstones.’

‘I rang Derek at the shop the other day, because he wasn’t answering his mobile, and they’d never heard of him. Never heard of someone called Derek Funnel. You think you’d remember if you’d met someone called Derek Funnel, wouldn’t you? Especially this Derek Funnel. I even spelled that out. You’d remember him. Eccentric dresser. Distinct way of speaking. A taste for the exotic.’

‘They have a high turnover in those places. It’s basically a KFC for books.’

‘I did some digging, and I found something that creeped me out.’

‘Listen, you need to pull yourself together. Not long from now, you’re going to see something that will massively creep you out.’

‘I think he’s a devotee of Aleister Crowley.’

‘What has that got to do with anything?’

‘I think we need to be prepared for the fact that Derek’s research CV is a fabrication designed to conceal some other agenda.’

‘C’mon, Max,’ I said. ‘Gorgo and Jackie did all these psychometric tests when we met The Funnel, all these background checks and psychology profiles. Jackie was in the paras.’

‘I’m not sure he was, Kevin.’

‘Jackie could smell a wrong ’un a mile away. And you know how many spanners and lunatics want to be in on this thing of ours? We don’t let just anyone in.’

At this point, The Funnel appeared at his front door, the breeze rippling his bell-bottoms and the fronds of his hair. There was a bulge in his trench-coat pocket, but I knew what that was: his electromagnetic field reader (aka the Trifield 100XE, a great bit of kit; aka The Tractor Beam). I have to admit that I felt a lot happier all of a sudden. It was as if the natural excitement I should have been feeling, the passion that Sci-Borg was trying to dampen, flooded through me. When I saw The Funnel prance up his path to us it was like when I was a kid, and I met other kids who were not drokked-up-already Witness kids: I got so excited I scared the others, I was so lit-up and happy. I felt like that.

In earlier drafts, Too much Rage against the Maxine here made Kevin seem stupider than he actually is. The later drafts suggest that Kevin is knowingly talking rubbish or saying provocatively dunderheaded things to distract and wrong-foot Maxine rather than just being a shouty crank and rhetorical bully. There is also a sense that bigfoot hunting in northern Surrey connects Kevin to some purer sense of being he’s only glimpsed as a child (hence the significance of the episode of Arthur C Clark’s Mysterious World he saw when he was eight). Some feedback had wanted Lost Fatherhood to be the key to Kevin, but although reconnecting with his son is a motive, I really see Lost Childhood as his key. He’s stuck in a loop of trying to recover some glimpse of the awesome, the magical and mystical, something consummate with his capacity for wonder that he’s encountered only once or twice in his early and troubled life. He’s more Child than Father, more Child than Man.

So, Gigantopithecus Intelligence Team Assemble: code names, costumes, origin stories, hi-tech gadgets, sixth senses, secret knowledge, arcane lore, the team vehicle (The Abominable Snowmobile, Kevin’s white van), interpersonal conflicts, secrets, lies and inscrutable desires, all in pursuit of the greatest mystery of all time. We are about to head into the unknown, have a date with destiny and an out-of-work DJ called Gavin Brunt, aka The DJ, who has a bit of blotchy film on his mobile with Kev’s name on it. Gigantopithecus Roar!

*

Ashley Stokes’s Gigantic is due to be published by Unsung Stories on September 2nd, in the UK. Here’s the synopsis:

Kevin Stubbs is a Knower. He knows life hasn’t always treated him fairly. He knows he wants to be allowed access to his son again. But most of all, he knows that the London Borough of Sutton is being stalked by a nine-foot-tall, red-eyed, hairy relict hominid – the North Surrey Gigantopithecus.

Armed with a thermal imaging camera (aka the Heat Ray) and a Trifield 100XE electromagnetic field reader (aka the Tractor Beam), Kevin and his trusty comrades in the GIT (aka the Gigantopithecus Intelligence Team) set out to investigate a new sighting on the outskirts of Sutton. If real, it will finally prove to the world that the infamous Gartree-Hogg footage was genuine, and a British Bigfoot is living in suburban London: FACT.

But what he discovers undermines everything he believes in – and forces Kevin to face up to his own failures, and the very real, very scary prospect that he might have got it all terribly wrong.

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