Saturday, 18 October 2014

He's at it again...

Robert Lloyd Parry's Nunkie Theatre Company is on the road again this autumn. From Hallowe'en onward RLP will be performing two 'new' M.R. James stories. The title off the new show, 'Casting the Runes', is a bit of a giveaway. But, as fans will be aware, the show always contains two stories (and an intermission) - and the second is a bit of a surprise.

'The Residence at Whitminster' isn't the most obvious choice for a one-man performance. It's set in two historical periods with no modern framing narrative. But it's notable that in the new G&S Book of Shadows there are two stories inspired by 'Whitminster', as it is rather strong in terms of both character and ideas.

Anyway, I look forward to the latest Nunkie-tastic show with my usual droopy enthusiasm. I will report in due course when he performs in Newcastle.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Complex (2013)


The Complex (2013) Poster
Hideo Nakata directed Ring, Ring 2, and Dark Water, and so can claim to be at least one of the true begetters of J-Horror. If it weren't for Nakata's considerable talents I would probably not have sat through quite so many films in which young Japanese, Korean, Thai and Chinese people dash along concrete corridors under faulty strip lights.

Nakata's latest, The Complex, is at first and indeed second glance a return to familiar territory. The eponymous setting is a run-down block of flats very like the one in Dark Water. As in the earlier film the protagonist is a woman whose mental health seems fragile, and the haunting itself is down to an accident rather than malice. The focus of the film is not so much horror (though there's a decent measure of it) as neglect, and the harm that a selfish, thoughtless society can inflict on its weakest members.

The film begins with scenes of mundane domesticity, as nursing student Asuka (former pop star Atsuko Maeda) moves into the complex with her parents and younger brother. During the bustle of unpacking there's a typically subtle hint of things being not-quite-right which is very brief but telling. Asuka is disconcerted by a reclusive elderly neighbour whose loud alarm clock goes off very early in the morning. And is that a scratching at the wall?

It's no surprise when the old man next door turns out to have died from malnutrition. He left claw marks on the wall that divided his home from Asuka's room. Cue some bad dreams for Asuka, and the arrival of a clear-up squad, specialising in cases of death by neglect. One of the team, Shinobu (Hiroki Narimiya), explains to Asuka that the ghosts of the lonely often attach themselves to other lonely people; such spirits are best avoided. And soon we find that Shinobu has his own burden...

I don't think anyone who has enjoyed Nakata's work will be disappointed with this one. There is an effective haunting, a bit of bait-and-switch, a Big Reveal, and a climactic scene of genuine horror. The supporting cast are as good as we've come to expect from a director who depicts the stained, worn fabric of Japanese society with a few deft character strokes, and fortunately for the film's overall balance Atsuko Maeda acquits herself well.

Some of the scenes have a slightly familiar feel, because full-on supernatural horror in a realistic setting is a familiar concept. There are only so many ways the Bad Thing can manifest itself and do harm. But there is a lot of interesting stuff here, not least a rehash of that old favourite, the attempted (Shinto/shamanistic) exorcism that goes on as the Evil Force batters at the threshold.

So, The Complex is a qualified success - not a classic, perhaps, but a solid addition to the Nakata canon and proof that the Japanese ghost story is still alive on screen.

There seems to be no English subtitled trailer, so here's the Japanese one.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

A Look at the New G&S Book of Shadows

Artwork by Paul Lowe

Here are a dozen stories, all derived to some extent from the tales of M.R. James. Most are sequels, but there is a prequel and two stories that tackle stories from the middle, so to speak. In some cases, part of the game is guessing before it becomes obvious. I think you'd have to have a fairly detailed knowledge of all James' works, not just the famous ones, but that's a given with the audience for the book - isn't it? Oh, and one of the stories is by me, which makes this the first collection I've reviewed that contains a personal emanation. It's a strange feeling.

Anyway, the first story is by Peter Bell and concerns the vile doings and terrible fate of the Lord of the High Court of the Wapentak of Wirral. If that isn't enough to set your Jamesian juices flowing, he offers us an epigraph from Milton's 'Lycidas' and a framing narrative in which the narrator explains that he has pieced the story together from correspondence. 'The Sands o' Dee' is an old-school story, but far superior to outright pastiche. The core incidents are suitably eerie and horrific.

While editor Ro Pardoe doesn't say which stories link to which original works, C(live). E. Ward's '11334' does give the game away in the title. I don't think it matters. Like Peter Bell's story, '11334' is a carefully-constructed extrapolation of a Jamesian idea. It pivots on mysterious threatening letters that, for a very good reason, the reader doesn't get to see until fairly late in the day.

There are any number of ways to categorise these tributes to MRJ, but the one that leaps out - for me - is whether the setting is contemporary, or nearly so. This is the case with Helen Grant's 'The Third Time', a story that works out - quite rationally - what the consequences of the good intentions of a decent Jamesian character might be. Suffice to say our modern hero fares no better than Monty's less lucky protagonists. Whether he merits his fate is another matter, of course.

Just as contemporary but utterly different in style and execution is 'Slapstick' by Christopher Harman. With typical psychological intensity and deftly cinematic images, Harman takes us into the mind of a school caretaker whose everyday concerns gradually become entwined with something altogether more peculiar. Harman fans (I'm one) will not be disappointed.

It's always a pleasure to encounter a writer for the first time and find that you're on their wavelength. For me that was certainly the case with John Ward, whose 'The Partygoers' is a witty and thoughtful comment on the modern tendency to make silly TV shows about 'real life' hauntings. It's refreshing to find that a simple premise drawn from a passage in one of MRJ's later, lesser tales can inspire a solid modern story like this.


Thursday, 2 October 2014

Ghosts + Palin = Ratings Winner, Probably

Michael Palin is to appear in a three-part BBC drama, categorised as a thriller, with a supernatural theme. This is a rare outing for the most peripatetic Python, best known for his travels but also an accomplished actor on film and TV. He has of course done a bit of comedy, but has tackled more serious roles. Remember Me, set in Palin's native Yorkshire, will also star Julia Sawalha (Absolutely Fabulous, Jonathan Creek) and Mina Anwar (The Thin Blue Line, House of Anubis).

The writer is Gwyneth Hughes, who scripted The Girl (dealing with Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren), and Miss Austen Regrets. Her track record inspires confidence. Would it be too much to hope that the BBC is going to start producing ghost stories and related weird fiction for grown-ups on a regular basis? Yes, it almost certainly would. But we can at least cross our fingers.

According to the Guardian report, this is Michael Palin's first leading TV role since 1991 (in Alan Bleasdale's gritty political drama GBH). Remember Me concerns 'a mysterious care home resident who is the only witness to a violent death'. Palin is quoted as saying: "I've always loved ghost stories, so playing the lead in one is a very exciting prospect."

And now...






Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Loney

Folk horror is an interesting term. For cinephiles, it covers the Seventies British horror films The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, and Blood on Satan's Claw. As a telephile (if that's a word) it also embraces rather a lot of Nigel Kneale's output - especially the episode 'Baby' from the classic series Beasts. Those dramas are all products of the Seventies, as was the Play for Today Robin Redbreast and the cult classic Penda's Fen. Even children's television got in on the act - check out Children of the Stones and the Doctor Who adventure 'The Daemons'.

There was something about that decade, when the late-Sixties counter-culture collided with old-school British cynicism and what had seemed a fairly stable, if very imperfect world started to seem a bit out-of-kilter. But it should be noted that folk horror, in literary fiction, has been around a while. M.R. James, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood all had different takes on local legends and traditional beliefs. One can also find folk horror in Robert Aickman's nightmarish tales, the ghost stories of Robert Westall, and the myth-driven novels of Alan Garner.

Which brings me to The Loney, a folk horror novel with a strong supernatural component. It has a Seventies setting, which can't be entirely coincidental. Here's the author, giving us a bit of background and some extracts.



The story begins with Smith, the adult narrator, learning from the news that the body of a child has been found in the remains of a house, Thessaly, which stood on a remote stretch of the Cumbrian coast. The 'wild and useless stretch of English coastline' is the Loney of the title - a bleak, ambiguous place offering the beauty of nature, but also a sense of intense isolation. Smith knew the body was there, and realises the investigation will have consequences for himself and his older brother Hanny.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Ghosts & Scholars Book of Shadows, Volume 2



I'm not sure what the etiquette is when you've actually got a story in a book, but there it is. My story 'Lineage' can be found alongside those of several authors I've been proud to publish in ST over the years. Indeed, most of those involved seem to be ST 'alumni', which feels good. The picture comes courtesy of Helen Grant's FB page. Find out more about the book from Sarob Press here. I'll have more to say about the other contributors' stories in due course.

Cover art by Paul Lowe