Monday, 21 April 2014

The Master of the House


John Gaskin's third collection from Tartarus is also his last, according to the author's introduction. Gaskin, a retired professor of philosophy who lives in Northumberland (not too far from where I'm typing this) has, presumably, written himself out. This is a pity, as at his best he is a masterly storyteller in the great tradition of the British weird tale.

The subtitle 'Tales of Twilight and Borderlands' sums up the appeal of the strongest stories collected here. The Borders, the region that was once the northernmost frontier of the Romans and later became the nucleus of the kingdom of Northumbria, is little-known and ill-defined. It has a rich and strange history. Gaskin captures the beauty and the oddness of the border landscape, as Sarban did in 'Ringstones'. And like Sarban Gaskin tends to shun the obvious horror story device of 'monster and/or maniac' as menace in favour of less well-defined entities.

Thus in 'Night Music' some young archaeologists decide to investigate the site of a Roman fort. A series of accidents cuts the party from four to two, who end up staying the night in a run-down bothy. There is a sinister watcher, and strange flute music is heard. The denouement reveals, albeit in strange form, an essential truth - that history is not dead, but is always nearby. It lies in wait, stalks us, can capture us. 

A similar theme in a similar landscape is found in 'The Pit', though here the execution is very much that of a traditional ghost story. There is also a conventional protagonist in the form of an unpleasant businessman who comes to a country house for grubby, dishonourable reasons and falls foul of... well, let's call it a good example of a not-unfamiliar spirit.

'The Double Crossing' concerns shenanigans at a college of a venerable university. (Might it be Oxford? Surely not!) But here, too, Gaskin can't resist having his shady Principal head north to see his sister in the wilds of Northumberland. Here the author's sardonic humour - no doubt born out of many years spent surviving academic life - tends to overshadow the spookery. A quasi-sequel, 'The New Inn Hall Inheritance', is by contrast a tale of lost love, of hopes dashed and regret that can never be wholly neutralised by such traditional British understatement such as 'Perhaps we'll exchange Christmas cards.'

'Party Talk' is indeed about a conversation at a party (one held in Northumberland, of course), and is a good example of what might be termed the Weird Narrator sub-genre. A man is asked whether he believes in ghosts, and admits that he does not, with certain reservations. His interlocutor, an elderly woman who looks somewhat the worse for wear, then tells a story that is a fine hybrid of the Jamesian tale and a between-the-wars horror story of the Wakefield/Burrage school.

The same might be said of 'Addendum to a Confession', which evokes the age of pre-Beeching, steam-powered travel. The tale concerns the aftermath of the murder, in a railway's canteen, of an unpleasant character who apparently possessed occult powers. The arguably un-dead villain is well-realised, his return - while expected by the reader - is very effective. (I also found myself wondering if the baddie's name, Harding, is a sly nod to poor old Gilbert of that ilk?)

A rather different visitation occurs in 'Where Shadows Lead', in which the dangers of a genuinely wild landscape are brought home to a man who - at first - feels he has little to live for. A flat battery, driving snow, and the sudden realisation that nature can kill you as easily in England as it might anywhere else provide an efficient build-up to an encounter with genuine spirits of place.

Perhaps the best of the Northumberland tales is 'Wolvershiel', in which the narrator's personal history is interwoven with that of the eponymous house. As in the tales mentioned above, a sense of the Northumberland landscape and its history is perfectly evoked. There is also a central scene worthy of the classics, with a glimpse of 'a child in white pyjamas too big for him, playing blind-man's-buff'. 

The collection's title story is perhaps the most conventional - a haunted house narrative, complete with a readily achieved means of laying the ghost. That said, the careful accumulation of detail makes it a solid example of its kind. The same can be said of 'Empty Places', with its clever twist on the theme of precognitive dreams.

The overall feel of The Master of the House - like that of Gaskin's first two collections - is of nostalgia for better times, and most stories off us that 'haze of distance' recommended by Dr James. The traditional, carefully-crafted ghost story is well-represented here. I suspect this book will remind many of us why we first fell in love with the genre. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Codex Yuggoth

What connects Doctor John Dee the Elizabethan alchemist with the Selenites of H.G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon? Can you recall the hideous experiment of Andre Delambre? (Clue: 'Heeeelp meeeee!' in a tiny voice.) And why is St John of Patmos in the mix? Answers to these and other impertinent questions may be found in the latest pamphlet from Peterborough's power-packed poet Pete 'Cardinal' Cox.

Regular readers will know that, down the years, the Cardinal of the Arcane has striven personfully to tie together all the disparate strands of weird fiction, plus a bit of folklore, Forteana and even your actual history. It's an exercise that would be laborious and unconvincing in prose, but works brilliantly in what seems like light verse. I say seems, because while the mood is usually playful, there is a dark thread that runs through a tapestry that is often bright with an old-school sci-fi 'sensawunda'.

Anyway, his latest mini-opus deals with the Outer Ones created (or first accurately observed?) by Lovecraft in such stories as 'The Whisperer in Darkness'. But the first poem deals with earlier occurrences - specifically, the Jewel of Seven Stars famously acquired by the Pharaonic witch-queen Tera. Does the constellation Ursa Major provide a hint as to one origin of the Outer Ones? I've no idea, but the point is that the footnotes are fascinating, as usual.

And if you're still wondering about Andre Delambre - he was the scientist in the original version of The Fly. Apparently it was not a botched experiment caused by a wayward insect, but an attempt by the Outer Ones to fuse themselves to our species at a molecular level, the sneaky chitinous bastards.

A cool glowing machine crackles and hums
An instant - flesh of two becomes as one
What science weds can never undone
Emerging - what should never be becomes

A copy of this spiffing pamphlet can be had by sending a C5 SAE to:

58 Pennington
Orton Goldhay
Peterborough
PE2 5RB

Read it before they come and get you...



Astral Zombies! Baron Blood!



Due to an editorial oversight, none of the above appear in the latest issue of Supernatural Tales. For which I can only apologise. Better luck next time.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Issue 26 is now available

You can buy the latest issue of ST via the link to the right. People in the UK who have postal subscriptions should receive their copies by next week at the latest. Those who live overseas must place their trust in the gods of the postal system, so it'll take a bit longer. But please let me know when your copy arrives so I can gauge how efficient things are.


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Dancing Dracula

There's something about Bram Stoker's classic that works on stage. In a film or TV version, no matter how enjoyable, I'm waiting for something to fail, for the inevitable sense that this story is very, very silly indeed and doesn't hang together at all. But in live action it always seems to work. I had no idea there was more than one ballet version of Dracula, but then I know next to nothing about ballet. Anyway, this looks interesting.



As does this, taking a much more trad approach.



Then there's what might be termed the West End option.



Nice to see the Count and his pals can still inspire the young folk.