Sunday, 26 June 2022

The Black Dreams - 'The Quizmasters' by Gerard McKeown

The antepenultimate story in this anthology of Strange Stories from Northern Ireland concerns the dangers of ignorance. A man recalls how, as a youth, he was riding his bike along country roads when he was subject to a strange interrogation. It becomes clear that he is not merely being asked a few random questions by the mysterious man in the mud-caked Fiat. The pub quiz-style posers are something far worse. 

This short story packs a lot in. The English accent of the quizmaster (the other one doesn't talk and is in fact barely glimpsed). The way in which the commonplace and trivial becomes a life-or-death situation. The impossibility of appealing to any meaningful and trustworthy authority when confronted with extreme violence. The general sense that nothing can be resolved or clarified. A story about the Troubles, then, but also one that might become more generally relevant in a world where traditional certainties are being revealed as neither certain nor particularly traditional for most of our species.

So, another story that offers a dream-like experience but one that has the brutal immediacy of some nightmares. It's also admirable for its cool, almost detached tone. 

Tuesday, 21 June 2022

The Black Dreams - 'The Wink and the Gun' by John Patrick Higgins

A genuine horror story, now, with all the ingredients of more conventional tales - strange children, a lonely protagonist, time out of joint, and a cruel assault. But the Northern Ireland setting gives 'The Wink and the Gun' a distinctive twist. It is almost Kafkaesque in its portrayal of a world where things almost make sense, but not quite. 

A first-person narrator goes on a routine errand and runs into someone he went to school with and didn't know at all. But she is an attractive middle-aged woman, he is alone in the world, and she seems pleased at the thought of seeing him again. He revises his decision not to go to the school reunion. But, on the way home, he sees something strange. A 'crude, wooden ziggurat' made of wooden pallets.A bonfire, but at the wrong time of year. An odd hallucination, perhaps.

The horror comes courtesy of two boys who don't look like other children in the district. The boys are hollow-eyed and malnourished, and simply stare as the narrator trips and drops some of his shopping. No laughter or jeering. The boys reappear later. Twice. The third time they see him, they do laugh. The story is arguably a nightmare, a conte cruel in which the impossibility of normal life is laid before the reader.

This is proving a good anthology not just in terms of the quality but also in its unpredictability. I had expected tales of 'the Troubles' galore, but now I think it though (duh!) why would people write about such things in a matter-of-fact way? Instead, we are offered exactly what it says on the cover, the black dreams of a 'landscape out of joint'.

Thursday, 16 June 2022

The Black Dreams - 'The Missing Girl' by Reggie Chamberlain-King

Subtitled 'Extracts from an Oral History', this story from Northern Ireland deals with identity and the ancient, yet always somehow fresh, theme of the double. Two towns in the province sit side by side, two communities separate but in theory equal. In both, a girl goes missing at the same time - one Catholic, one Protestant. In both towns searches are undertaken, theories formulated, gossip flourishes, and theories abound. The story is told in fragments, as different people - some intimately involved, others on the margins - give their accounts. 

This might almost be a magic realist tale. It transpires that the posters supposedly show two missing girls, but they are the same girl. Eventually, a body is found. Which girl is it? The implication (I think) is that on top of the terrible tragedy, a crime or accident that might happen in any town, anywhere, is an extra layer of suffering caused by the terrible evasions and ambiguities of sectarian culture. Time passes and the vanishing(s) gradually become part of history and folklore. 

As editor of this anthology Reggie Chamberlain-King offers this in his introduction. 'Really, these are dream stories... Dream stories, such as the dreamers tell themselves as they march the streets of their imagination.' This story has a dream-like quality, one that could haunt a restless night. 

Sunday, 12 June 2022

The Black Dreams - 'Now and Then Some Washes Up' by Carlo G├ębler

Well, we finally got there. Nine stories into an anthology of weird fiction from Northern Ireland and we confront the Troubles almost head-on. Almost.  'Now and Then Some Washes Up' is a tale of folklore in the making, linked to the terrorism that flourished on both sides following the failed suppression of the NI civil rights movement. 

At first, though, the story is anything but political. Indeed, it could be argued that it actually demonstrates how anything resembling politics, in the sense of rational debate and attempts to achieve progress (yes, I know, but you get the idea) is rendered impossible by the mindset of terrorism. It permeates everything while going largely unmentioned and thus removes normal political discourse from everyday life. But let's consider the plot.

It's actually the life story of a fairly ordinary, decent bloke. Peter goes to university in Belfast, gets a degree, does a teaching diploma, and has a long and fairly successful career in education. He marries Mary, a fellow student, and they have a son. When he retires they decide to leave the city and buy a new-build house by a lake. They have their own little private stretch of water, as they see it, and Mary is taken with the idea of skinny dipping. But Peter is not so sure about the lake. He is never quite certain that they are alone and unobserved.

Eventually a rusty box washes up. It contains relics of The Troubles. More revelations follow, as a friendly local explains why nobody from the village swims in the lake. It is, perhaps, haunted. Someone who got in too deep with paramilitaries ended up even deeper in a more literal sense. It is a gentle story which does not buttonhole the reader, merely invites them to look and ponder. This is how life is, for many. Like the old lady and her great-nephew who must revisit the lake to leave flowers and retrieve relics of violence, Peter and Mary are part of a pattern that, while faded, is still there to be seen, and felt.

So, another good story from this impressive anthology. I'll continue this running review next week.

Saturday, 11 June 2022

CUSTODES (2021) - Low-budget Italian Gothic Horror

How low can you go? What's the smallest amount that's ever been spent on making feature film? Custodes doesn't look particularly cheap, or at least not all the time. It is in fact rather 'arty' in that Italian way. Set in one location - a run-down villa and the surrounding woods - Custodes is a simple, traditional tale of a haunted house and a naive person who arrives to spend a few nights there. Or at least, that's what it seems to be at first. In the last half hour or so, things take a rather different tur

Young and impoverished Ada is invited by estranged cousin Umberto to come to the Villa Artemisia to help catalogue the contents for sale. Ada has been cut out of her uncle's will. Umberto feels guilty and wants to share this part of his inheritance. However, when she arrives at the villa (traipsing through the woods lugging her suitcase) she finds Dante, the less-than-jolly caretaker whose tinted sunglasses more than hint at some deception. Nothing daunted, Ada gets out her notebook and starts listing contents. The villa is one of the stars of the movie, here, with its faded grandeur and murky interiors. 

Soon Ada unearths a mysterious bas relief that has a slightly Lovecraftian feel about it. That night she dreams of a mysterious woman performing a mysterious dance while wearing a sinister cat-like mask. (There is a real cat in the film, named Milli, who does some excellent lurking about.) Ada wakes to find a mysterious bruise on her arm, and feeling weak and light-headed. We know something occurred in the night, but what? Eventually, we get the full Monty of dodgy archaeology, hell dimensions, murderous madwomen, and a fair amount of blood that isn't kept where it should be.

The film is arguably a little too slow to get started and, towards the end, shoehorns in too much exposition. But these are minor flaws in a production that is always absorbing and frequently delightful. Part of the pleasure comes from the limitations of location filming and having a very small cast (with the writers/directors doubling as actors in some cases). It gives the whole thing the feel of a 70s BBC Ghost Story for Christmas. You know there will not be big-budget effects so you wait to see what can be achieved with lighting, soundtrack (which is very good), and of course, that oft-neglected thing called the plot. 

As you can see from the pic of Ada above, the setting is period but timeless - almost certainly 20th century but there doesn't seem to be a landline phone and we see no cars or trains. This gives the film a suitably weird, dreamlike feel, as Ada is drawn deeper into the mystery of the house and eventually uncovers a fairly mad conspiracy.

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Custodes is unlikely to be considered a classic like, say, Carnival of Souls. But it shares such films enthusiasm for the genre and is a perfectly good way to spend 90 minutes of an evening. 

The Black Dreams - 'The Quizmasters' by Gerard McKeown

The antepenultimate story in this anthology of Strange Stories from Northern Ireland concerns the dangers of ignorance. A man recalls how, ...