Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Crooked House

I still like a good ghost story. Yes, my years editing a magazine chock full of the things has not put me off, the way people who work in sweetie factories are said to come to loathe bonbons. So I'm rather pleased that this year the BBC has come up with not one but three new ghostly tales. Crooked House is a bit like the portmanteau horror movies produced - with varying success - about forty years back. You get a linking narrative, with the archetypal Sly Old Chap telling the equally familiar Eager Young Chap a story, in this case about a house with an evil heritage. Mwa-ha-ha, etc.

Crooked House has the advantage of a very strong cast and a good script, by Mark Gatiss. If it has a weakness, it's that historical ghost stories, while quaint and fun, do tend to keep the action at a bit of a distance. That said, the historical bits have enough to hold the discerning viewer's interest. The first part, 'The Wainscoting', is set in the 1780s, pretty much M.R. James territory. Indeed, there is at least one sly reference to MRJ and the BBC's Christmas ghost story tradition - the main characters meet in Gordon Clark's coffee house. The story isn't bad, but the denouement was a bit weak, I felt.

The second episode, 'Something Old', is far better. Interestingly, Gatiss seems to have grasped the essence of the inter-war era ghost story of the sort produced by Benson, Burrage and Wakefield. There's the cynical wit and shallowness of the Bright Young Things, the class snobbery, and - last but not least - the mutilation. As well as being a good self-contained tale, it was a pleasure to see Jean Marsh in a starring role again. Give the woman a Damehood, if she hasn't already got one.

I'll watch the final episode, the one with a contemporary setting, later. I hope there's a bit of a twist. You can, if you prefer, watch the whole thing in one go. Let me know what you think of it!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas Poems (That Won't Make You Throw Up)


Mistletoe

Walter de la Mare (1873-1956)

Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.

Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen - and kissed me there. 

The Oxen

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Ceremonies for Christmas

by Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Come, bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
The Christmas Log to the firing;
While my good Dame, she
Bids ye all be free;
And drink to your heart's desiring.

With the last year's brand
Light the new block, and
For good success in his spending,
On your Psaltries play,
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is a-tinding.

Drink now the strong beer,
Cut the white loaf here,
The while the meat is a-shredding;
For the rare mince-pie
And the plums stand by
To fill the paste that's a-kneading.  

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Frankenstein!


While not strictly supernatural - though there's a bit of hocus-pocus in the novel, as I recall - Frankenstein remains one of the great Gothic tales. An excellent blog exists, which is well worth checking out. Apparently someone is making yet another movie based on the book. It's still got legs, as they say. Big, stiff legs ending in clompy square shoes. Though, as the above illustration shows, the monster was not originally conceived in that way. Slightly M.R. Jamesian, if anything. 

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Kay Fletcher

Kay is a jolly good writer who ought to be looked at (in a good way) by all right-thinking people, and quite a few wrong-thinking ones. Her site is here. I am also bunging it into my link list, so there.

Friday, 12 December 2008

In Which I Receive a Nice Poem


I sent an electronic Yuletide card to all the nice people I know. Well, all right, I may have missed out a few through incompetence. But it's the thought that counts. And Kay Fletcher, writer and artist, sent me a nice poem! Well, actually a spooky poem, but that's the point. 

Vampires on the Moor

Scripted at this point surely

when the grouse explodes from the heather

the tall shadow of the standing stone

flicks from its dark cuff creeping fingers.

 

My spectacles pebbled with tiny

fish eye lenses I say ‘we’re lost,’

as on the flimsiest of walks leaflets

fangs of rain bite down.

A shamefaced acknowledgement

I've just realised that the spiffing new illustration above, giving a bit of style to my otherwise not-exactly-stunning title, has not been acknowledged. The wonderful Ro Pardoe of Ghosts and Scholars sent me (some time ago) two images she created by digital tinkery means. Unfortunately she is laid up with flu at the moment, according to her husband Darroll, and I haven't actually been able to get her permission to use the image.. I picked the one that was less scary (the other one had a big spider). If you notice this, Ro, please do not pass me the runes! I'm just sort of assuming you wouldn't mind. 

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Many thanks

Thanks are multiplying in my brain for Nomis, who has fixed my bizarre blog title problem. I would offer him a biscuit if were on the same continent. Now all that remains is for me to find a title illustration that doesn't screw it all up again. Hmmm...

Witticisms? Moi?

I received an email from writer Stone Franks, who lives quite near me. So I must tread carefully and publicise everything she wants...

Dear David,
  Can I get some 'local girl done bad' publicity on the ST blog for my new (lesbo)erotic short story 'Taught' which is set in Newcastle and comes out on December 29th? It is available only from eXcessica Publishing who can be found at www.excessica.com. You can read the first paragraph on my MySpace page at www.myspace.com/stone_of_the_franks As usual it an epic narrative of angry muscular young women with very short hair tearing each other's clothes off.

STONE

---------------

Er, okay. Should I just post the email as written? I'm sure it would attract some attention. I love your use of the phrase 'as usual', there, by the way.
 
All the best

David

---------------

Yeah, unless you have some of your own witticisms you'd like to add.

STONE

My work here is done.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Can Anybody Help Meeeee?

Note the title thingy at the top there, just above this. It has a flippin' Google thing in it rather than the pic I want to use to illustrate my lovely blog. I can't figure out how this happened. Can anyone suggest how I can get rid of this annoying incursion? I've tried but lack the aptitude with modern technology, as I live a solitary existence in a book-lined tower on an island inhabited by talking puffins. Well, very nearly. 

Schalcken the Painter

One of the best stories of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was adapted by BBC TV in 1979. It's a bit too slow for my tastes but I tend to be outvoted. It is certainly a visually beautiful piece, and the ending is genuinely horrific. The major problem is that the characters aren't especially sympathetic. But what the heck, the first ten minutes or so are on YouTube so I thought I'd put it out here. 

I'm now famous for about twenty minutes, setting a new blog record

This is from Britblog Roundup at Redemption Blues:

'Guest-blogging at Heresy Corner, the magnificently-pseudonymed Valdemar Squelch (I agree that Dave, his real name, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it), provides the uninitiated with an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable introduction to the fiction of Montague Rhodes James in The Hairy Claws of the Vengeful Dead, placing the stories within the wider cultural context: "James could hardly have been unaware of the prolonged intellectual ferment that followed the publication of Darwin’s ideas. The great debate spanned the early decades of James’ life. As a Christian by upbringing and inclination, M.R. James believed in the immortal soul. Yet as a man of his time - and a very intelligent one - he could not have been untouched (untainted?) by the materialistic outlook of the new science of biology. Disraeli said the question was whether Man was an Ape or an Angel and famously came down ‘on the side of the Angels’. James does not seem so sure, in his fiction at least. he offers us spirits that are bestial, yet still in a horrible way human - human enough to be dangerous, with just enough mind to nurse a grievance".

Hopefully, this week’s compendium will have sufficed to silence the detractors of blogging, albeit temporarily, about the merits of our output.'

He put me right at the end of his review, not the ned as I originally typed because I'm over-excited, no, at the END, and that means I'm the best because you always save the best for last, just like I always used to eat the fruit salad and save the ice cream. I am over-excited, did I mention that? Well, it's good to be mentioned on the interwebs. Thanks to the Heresiarch for passing this on, as I am very much a novice at this blogging lark and probably always will be a bit 'out of it'.

Now, where's that post about muscle-bound lesbians tearing each others' clothes off? Oh well, it'll keep.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Incoming!

No, hang about, I mean Upcoming! Rather than just maunder on about stuff I thought I'd give a quick preview of some of the throbbingly exciting stories I'm publishing next year (if I'm spared). First up is a new writer to ST, Louis Marvick, and a remarkable debut story, 'Pockets of Emptiness'. This is a traditional ghostly tale, recounted by the fire to an attentive audience. But the setting - the post-war Netherlands - and the plot are both unusual, and the writing is elegant and elegiac. Wonderful stuff:

'When I turned out the pockets of my new jacket I made a surprising discovery. A flash of orange caught my eye; I investigated, and found that the insides of both pockets were lined with silk—and what silk! Not sober panels in a congruent shade of blue or grey, but finely-worked mosaics of small, grosgrain pieces, each vividly coloured and stitched to the others with great skill—by “the ladies of the town”, I realized, remembering the words of my Tsjerkesleat landlady. '

What is the significance of the strange patchwork? Suffice to say the conclusion is moving and satisfying. Another first-timer in 2009 is Rosalie Parker. Here is the first paragraph of her story 'The Picture':

The picture hung at the far end of the junk shop, its quality shining as clear as a moonbeam through the detritus that surrounded it. Sadie thought at first that it must be a print, but closer inspection proved it to be indeed a drawing, as the label affixed to it claimed. In it, a dark haired, curiously androgynous figure, half-draped in a voluminous white garment, gazed adoringly, imploringly, in profile at some unseen entity above. His slender, long-fingered hands (Sadie decided it was a he, despite the shoulder length hair) were clasped together over his chest. She thought it was mid-Victorian, probably Continental, possibly French, and of a very high standard of draughtsmanship. 

Sadie is on a bargain hunt, but not in a naff TV sort of way. Rosalie Parker is one half of the husband-and-wife publishing phenomenon that is Tartarus Press (see my link list). So it's only fair that the other half, Ray Russell, also has a story in an upcoming ST. This one has a suitably seasonal setting:

‘So, why exactly are you here?’ asked the old woman.

Shirley could not have replied immediately, even if she hadn’t just put a large and glutinous lump of Turkish delight into her mouth. Spending the festive season with an elderly lady she did not know had seemed an entirely reasonable thing to do when she had agreed early in December. Her friend, Jane, had said she was aware of two people who would be on their own for Christmas that year, and she had played matchmaker. The fact that Jane knew both Shirley and Mrs Finch quite well did not mean that the two strangers would necessarily be compatible when their friend-in-common was removed from the equation. And anyway, Shirley thought, just how well did Jane really know this awkward old specimen?

From 'Company', by Ray Russell, one of those enigmatic tales reminiscent (to me at any rate) of Walter de la Mare, with perhaps a touch of the Aickmans. Like Tartarus Press, Joel Lane should need no introduction to the discerning reader. His story 'Beneath the Streets' is pretty grim, offering psychological realism in a modern urban setting:

A shadow lurched towards him from the side, and he turned away. Suddenly it was difficult to breathe. He stumbled in the murky light, fell, hit a snow-covered step. The pain felt like a memory. Footsteps rang out in the tunnel behind him. Mark climbed on his hands and knees, struggling for breath. Cold air and yellow light struck his face. He looked back. There was no-one there. The viaduct of Livery Street loomed before him, a black silhouette against the dull twilight.

Okay, so not a barrel of laughs, but powerful stuff. I'm rather pleased to have such a diverse range of styles and themes in my literary pipeline, so to speak. Let's end with a passage from another seasonal tale, 'Red Christmas' by the Scottish writer Jim Steele. This is a flashback to the Korean War:

  “What do you think, boys?” asked Eric, “All over by Christmas?”
  “I’ll be away by Christmas,” said someone sitting a couple of places down from Harry.
  “Would that be yourself speaking, Donald MacDonald?” asked Private Sales in a mock-teuchter voice from across the wagon. Despite his first name being Ian, Sales was one of the Anglo members of the regiment.
  “Aye.”
  “What makes you say that, Donald?” asked Eric.
  “I just know it to be so. And I won’t be the only one, Mister Sales.”
  A silence descended on them after this exchange. Trust the big Highlander to depress them even further, thought Harry.


All over by Christmas? Well, fragments of shiny wrapping paper will be all over my home by Christmas, at this rate. I really am rubbish at wrapping presents. I am also surrounded by empty bottles, and the two problems may not be unconnected. But in the meantime, in case I don't find anything else to post about, let me wish visitors to this blog - be ye a firm fan of ST or a waif passing in the cyberdarkness - compliments of the season. 


Friday, 5 December 2008

In Which I Become Famous...

... for about 15 minutes, if I'm lucky. The Heresiarch, owner of a prestigious political blog I sometimes comment upon, invited me to write a guest post. Media tartlet that I am, I decided to contribute my fascinating views on M.R. James to the wider world. You can read all about it here. The obvious downside to this is that I am now firmly in the government's sights and may be made to 'disappear' when the inevitable crackdown finally begins. But, hey, look on the bright side, it could generate a bit of interest. So, swings and roundabouts.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Ooops

I seem to have wiped my link list, which was foolish in the extreme. Never mind, it'll be restored to a pristine condition in due course. Fear not, all shall be well.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

The Red Shoes

I've just watched a Korean horror movie that is 1. half an hour too long and 2. visually stunning while seriously lacking in originality. It's not to be confused with the 1948 British ballet movie The Red Shoes, with Moira Shearer. This 2005 shocker is typical East Asian horror, lifting ideas from most of its illustrious predecessors. Thus we get the vengeful ghost (Ring, Phone), the curse (Ring, The Grudge), the troubled mother-daughter relationship (Dark Water), the seriously twisted twist ending (A Tale of Two Sisters, Shutter), the normal bloke who falls for the strange woman (Audition), and the long haired female apparition (almost all of 'em, really). 

That said, The Red Shoes is not bad as entertainment if you don't expect too much. I could have done without the explicit horror - too much blood, gallons of it in fact. But I enjoyed the symbolism of the red shoes, which appear mysteriously on or near a subway in Seoul. They are linked, we gradually learn through a series of flashbacks and the usual detective work, to a very nasty incident that occurred during World War 2 when Korea was part of the Japanese empire. Indeed, these glimpses of Korean history are among the best bits of the film. I could have done with more of the ballet sequence, supposedly dating from 1944, in which dancers depict the inevitable triumph of the rising sun.

Anyway, there's a very good review here that says everything I want to say. By all means rent this one, but don't expect too much. Some good performances, certainly, but don't get your hopes up. East Asian horror really is a triumph of recycling nowadays. When it's visually good, it's watchable, but I'm not sure whether the same old angry ghosts can be trotted out indefinitely. Also, the use of elevators, flickering flourescent tubes, stupidly dark apartments/corridors and women with hair hanging over their faces has now become as cliched as the Gothic romance conventions of flickering candles, wicked uncles, comical ladies' maids, sudden thunderstorms and castles with secret passages. Enough, already. Here's a trailer.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Bad Ghosts!

Yes, those bad ghosts - they're so... bad, aren't they? What with their persistent 'woo' noises, their habit of moving your things around when you leave the room (incredibly painful), and their insistence that you avenge their untimely deaths. Anyway, there's a website dedicated to Bad Ghosts. Actually it's not about 'real' spectres, but all those ridiculous TV shows called 'Britain's Most Haunted Abbatoirs', and so forth. Quite light-hearted and cheerful, but scholarly too, as you'll see. The chap in charge has the right sceptical attitude to all things ectoplasmic.

Here's a clip of the debunkulator at work. Not particularly spooky. I mean, if a ghost were to balance a Challenger 2 main battle tank on its edge, the Madame Arcates might have a case. But a bottle? If it was a ghost I'd give it about three out of ten for spookiness.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

I receive an electronic mail message!

Brian J. Showers, an American in Dublin (which should be a musical) was moved to contact me re: the classic movie I mentioned earlier, downstairs on this blog. 

David,

I recently rewatched KWAIDAN as well for my annual Halloween film list. Here's my short write up:

"3. KWAIDAN, Directed by Masaki Kobayashi, Japan, 1964

"Kwaidan is a portmanteau featuring four folkloric ghost stories: In 'The Black Hair' a samurai attempts to return to his faithful wife whom he has deserted for power and fortune. 'The Woman of the Snow' tells the story of a young woodcutter who meets a mysterious woman who 
commands him not to speak a word of her existence to anyone. In 'Hoichi the Earless' a blind bard sings a song of an epic naval battle to the ghosts of the dead soldiers who fought in it. And finally, 'In a Cup of Tea' is a tale about a man who is visited by ghostly stranger whose image he keeps seeing in a teacup.

"At the time it was produced in 1964, Kwaidan was the most expensive movie made by a Japanese studio: the supernatural genre was shown genuine reverence and given a budget to match. These tales, based on adaptations of Japanese folklore by Lafcadio Hearn, are simple ghost stories. And director Masaki Kobayashi tells them with sombre beauty, a languid style and a jarringly minimal soundtrack. Kwaidan is three hours long and given the stories' narrative simplicities, has a tendency to drag. But nevertheless it remains a rewarding and haunting piece of cinema for those who are patient enough to investigate."

http://www.brianjshowers.com/articles_halloweenfilm2008.html

I hadn't realised Hearn was nearly blind. Until I noticed that in most photographs of him, he nearly always has his head half turned. In some where he is facing more straight on than in most, you can see that one of his eyes seems to protrude slightly.Apparently Hearn was injured as a child during some school sport. I've always wondered if he was tended by Sir William Wilde, who was a practicing ophthalmologist in Dublin at the time!

I have a biography of Hearn written by my friend Paul Murray. It's apparently hard to come by. I haven't read it yet, but it's on The Big Pile.

Incidentally, I live a few footsteps away from Hearn's childhood home here in Dublin when he was raised by his great aunt.

Brian

http://www.brianjshowers.com

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Linkiness

I'm trying to add links to the not-very-long list to the write. First phase is to bung in some more writers whose work appears in ST. Any writers want me to put a link to their site or blog in? Let me know, for I am an obliging fella.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Kwaidan

I loaned my copy of Kwaidan to a friend some time ago and had completely forgotten about it. But she brought it back this week, along with the latest DVD of Battlestar Galactica. I'm glad to say that my intelligent young friend and her partner enjoyed Kwaidan, which has been described as one of the most beautiful films ever made. This is ironic, given its origins. Kwaidan is based on four Japanese ghost stories that were written, in English, by the Irish author Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn, a great Japanophile, was almost blind. His life was unusual, to say the least. He was clearly a man out of sympathy with his own culture, and you can see why. Because his parents were married in the Orthodox faith, those sons of fun in the Irish Protestant Church considered young Lafcadio illegitimate. When he grew up he became a journalist in America, but made the cardinal error of marrying a black woman - which was a crime. Unbelievable. Japan must have seemed a haven of sanity after his experiences in Western 'civilization'.

The subject matter is exotic, but the form of Kwaidan is familiar. It's a portmanteau film, telling four ghost stories that are thematically linked, to some small extent. Thus the first story, 'The Black Hair', is about love and betrayal among the samurai class in feudal Japan. The second tale, 'The Woman of the Snow', also deals with love and betrayal, but this time among the rural peasantry, where a woodcutter encounters a strange, icy vampire who warns him never to tell anyone he has seen her. Needless to say, our man blabs. 'Hoichi the Earless' is also about a burden imposed on a mortal man by spectral beings. It contains some wonderful scenes and a nasty plot twist. The final story, 'In a Cup of Tea', is a short vignette, but still quite effective.

In all, Kwaidan is three hours long, very lavish, and strangely compelling. Some might find its odd mixture of fantasy and formalism unappealing at first, but try and stay with it. This extract gives you some idea of how stunning it looks.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Put the flags out, possibly



Good newsingtons indeed, my multitudinous followers. British actor, writer and all-round smartydrawers Mark Gatiss is filming a three-part ghost story for Christmas. Gatiss is what we experts (and/or posers) call the genuine article - he knows his stuff. So the news that Mr G has penned an original tale, entitled Crooked House, is as good as getting stuck into a very juicy pear on a scorching hot day in the Cotswolds. Possibly better.

From the BBC press release:

In addition to writing and co-producing the drama, Gatiss takes the role of a museum curator with an in-depth knowledge of the fictional Geap Manor, stretching through Tudor, Georgian, the Twenties and contemporary times.
When school teacher Ben unearths an old door knocker in the garden of his new home, the curator suggests it may come from the now-demolished house. A house reputed to be haunted...

Intrigued, Ben prompts the curator to tell him some of stories about the house and so begins a journey through time.

A corrupt Georgian businessman finds something unexpected in the woodwork of his new home.

In the Twenties, a young couple's happy engagement party is spoiled by the spectre of a ghostly bride.

And, back in the present day, Ben soon finds himself in darker, more dangerous waters than he could possibly have foreseen...

Gor blimey, that sounds well spooky and no mistake. Not unlike those portmanteau horror films that were so common around 1970. Or indeed like the Brit classic Dead of Night. Even better, Jean Marsh is in it! She was Rose in Upstairs Downstairs (and created the series, as it happens). Well, that's something to look forward to over Christmas week. Ghosts and lots of pudding. Hic.

Killed to death...



I enjoyed the original Omen movie, not least because it was so absurdly over the top. I'm not sure what someone who genuinely believes in Satan, the Antichrist and all that stuff would make of it. But over at the amusing Scaryduck blog, what do I find but a condensed version of the movie? Even better, it's EXACTLY as I remember it. Ah, and that reference to the 2nd Doctor Who - was Patrick Troughton our most underrated thesp ever?

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Cardinal Cox is at it again...


Cardinal Cox was appointed Poet Laureate of Peterborough in 2003. The Friends of Broadway Cemetery in the city has released a pamphlet of poems by the Cardinal to tie-in with a brief exhibition at the city council chambers. I can report with some satisfaction that the Cardinal's collection, Memento Mori, is very good; the poems are allusive, witty, well-crafted and set all sort of images ricocheting inside the sensitive noggin. As my thoughts were very much on Remembrance lately I was drawn to a poem about a ceremony in a city park:

'They gather in the sunken garden
Flags hanging still to the staff
With silence in the service
A silence for all that died'

Other poems deal with burial customs from prehistory, the distinguished visitors who passed through Peterborough at various speeds, and the general themes of loss and memory. Not exactly ghost stories, these poems, but they are haunted by spirits of the past and certainly haunt the reader.

You can obtain a copy of Memento Mori from the Friends - send them a cheque for one pound fifty, and a C5 SAE. Their address is:

53 Huntley Grove
Peterborough PE1 2QW

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Explore a Gothic Portal

No, that it not an invitation to anything kinky. Well, maybe it is. The point is someone asked me to link to a sort of Goth megasite, so I have. It's over there, on the right - links are in alphabetical order for the benefit of cultured types.

I'm not a Goth myself but I like the whole thing, and I'm sure that if I'm reincarnated as somebody a bit cooler and who needs a less powerful ophthalmic prescription I would wear more black.

That said, the original proto-Goths didn't wear black all the time, if at all.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

About Bloody Time!

Right, they've arrived. There are a few logistical problems, because they sort of arrived in the wrong place. But I am going to be posting out copies of ST14 over the next few days. All you vain, preening authors, expect your complementary copies jolly soon, so you can leave them casually on the coffee table when that Someone Special pops round.

'What? Oh that, it's nothing, a mere bagatelle - some little chap published a short story of mine. Yes, I write, purely for my own amusement of course. Angsty, tortured genius, feels things profoundly, sensitive lover, yes that about covers it. Another large glass of Australian plonk?'

I know what these literary types are like.

Also people who actually paid for the flippin' thing will get it too. I will get a wiggle on and make sure that subscribers around this big blue marble we call a world get their ST14 before the mad evil Christmas postal meltdown. Dear me yes.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Everything's a bit rubbish

Well, here we are, nearly at the end of October, and still no sign of ST14. The printer says it's nearly ready but so far, no show. I hope it will be ready next month. If not, then I risk hitting the Christmas post, which will be truly dodgy. Oh well, it's just a hobby.

On a happier note, I recently bought a cheap DVD of Night of the Eagle. This was an adaptation of Fritz Leiber's novel Conjure Wife and the script credits are shared by big names Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Throw in Peter (Jason King) Wyngarde as the star and you've got a modest but classy British supernatural thriller. 

Unfortunately, there are no YouTube clips of this film to show you. So here's the show that made Mr Wyngarde a household name as 'that bloke off Department S'. 

Friday, 17 October 2008

The Dunwich Horror

Ronald Colman stars in H.P. Lovecraft's classic tale of Yog-Sothoth, the Necronomicon, and some disgraceful mucking about in rural New England. Yes, Ronald 'Lost Horizon' Colman, no less, a big name star who appeared in this edition of Suspense, a CBS show from the Forties. There are lots of great shows on Old Time Radio, an excellent website maintained with loving care by true enthusiasts. With luck, 'The Dunwich Horror' will play as a smallish file on your bog-standard Windows Media Player, if you click here. Let me know what you think. I reckon they've captured the essence of the tale in less than 30 minutes, and frankly I don't mind losing some of the Mythos paraphernalia along the way. Years of poor pastiche have made me less than keen on the props, and more interested in the stories and the overall aesthetic of Lovecraft's work. Anyway, enjoy! The fateful night approaches, and strange doings are afoot around Sentinel Hill.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Mysterious Message From Beyond

Huw Langridge, whose site I mentioned earlier this month, has contacted me about a new feature - a spooky answerphone recording received by his mother decades ago! 

Huw has put the mystery message on his site here. What do you think, spook fans? I'm sceptical myself but if you think it's aural ectoplasm, let me or Huw know.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

John Llewellyn Probert

John L. Probert is a fine writer who has a new book out. What's more, two tales from previous issues of ST are in it, hurrah! Proof that I'm not a rubbish editor. The stories are 'The Moving Image', a must for lovers of weird cinema, and 'Guided Tour', a must for lovers of blokes who unwisely go into old houses after their girlfriend dumps them. Find out more at John's website here

Needless to say there's a picture of John on his website, and of course he's far more handsome and a lot younger than me. Ah well. Actually the picture shows him looking a tad smug, but then he is holding up a copy of a book wot he wrote. 

Actually, in a recent email John told me he's working on a new collection for cutting-edge publisher Humdrumming, and working on his first novel. Where does he get the energy? Monkey glands?

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

I surf the internetular cosmos, searching for strange phenomena that might be vaguely termed supernatural. Not quite sure how I found The Lazy World of Arthur Ignatowski, which is basically old-time smut and silliness. If you've ever wanted to hear Abba songs played on a Moog while naked ladies dance round a swimming pool, Arthur's your man. There's a blogger content warning, which seems absurd when you consider the kind of thing an innocent Google search can turn up. Anyway, one of the many little videos on the blog is this one, which is apparently a movie trailer. I'm sure the film can't be as good as this suggests:

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Excellent Movie Reviews

Just a big shout out to Eccentric Cinema, which I link to over on the right there. Go look at it! It's got loads of reviews of classic, good, mediocre and cheesy movies, most of them horror or sci-fi, with a bit of porn thrown in (a warning in case you're very easily offended).

At the moment the webmaster has a special feature on Demons & Witches, giving an easy-to-access list of the best (and some of the worst) films. Getting a rave review is Night of the Demon, which is available on DVD in the US along with the cut-down American release Curse of the Demon. I wish it would materialise in Region 2.

I think the review makes one very valid point. It's conventional wisdom never to show a horror movie monster at the very start, yet in CotD Jacques Tourneur breaks that rule to bits. Not only do we see the monster, we get close ups at its kills poor Harrington. The argument in favour, however, is a strong one. The essence of the film is that Dana Andrews' star is a sceptical expert who (quite rightly) regards black magic as a lot of nonsense. Stories fit for for children can't really hurt anyone - but we know they can in this film! So all the business with the runes on the slip of paper, which the expert treats as  an academic puzzle, we know to be a matter of life and death. No wonder it works so well. Throw in the superb black-and-white imagery, using light and shadow to wonderful effect, and you've got a classic. 

Incidentally, in case you were wondering, the image at the top of the blog is from the movie. That's Dana Andrews vanishing down that corridor, possibly in search of a slip of paper. And here's an extract from the US cut, which is on YouTube in ten minute chunks, in which our hero gets it so badly wrong, for all the right reasons.

Kate Bush's tribute to the movie, her 'Hounds of Love' video, is still available too.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Sound Mirrors, Conspiracies and Monsters from Beyond


Cosmic Hobo productions are doing a great job. If you don't know about them, find out here. Their Lovecraftian adventure The Devil of Denge Marsh is currently running on BBC 7. If you'd like to hear it you can catch the latest episode on the Listen Again page or simply find The Scarifyers on the A to Z listing of programmes.

I'm particularly impressed by the way the writer, Paul Morris, takes real between-the-wars facts and mucks them about a bit. In this case it's the almost-forgotten technology of sound mirrors. These have always fascinated me. The idea was to use huge concrete surfaces to focus soundwaves onto microphones, so that operators on the English coast could detect the engine noise from incoming enemy (i.e. German) aircraft.

Of course, in the story it turns out that the sounds are not coming from the beastly Hun, but from something older and far more dangerous. Ia! Shub-Niggurath! A bit player in the Lovecraft Mythos gets a starring role at last. It's only taken a few aeons.

Fortunately for Blighty, radar was invented and the sound mirrors were left to fall apart. But not quite all of them. For instance, a place called Denge (yes, it's real and near Dungeness) still has some, and very weird they look, like a modern art project only interesting. 

There seems to be a bit of a Lovecraftian audio renaissance going on. While the Cosmic Hobo team take a comedy/drama approach, over at the HPL Historical Society they are going great guns with more serious - but still wonderfully entertaining - dramatisation of Lovecraft stories. Their latest projects for Dark Adventure Radio theatre are two favourites of mine, 'The Shadow Out of Time' and 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth'. (The former, incidentally, was highly praised by Arthur C. Clarke in his book Astounding Days.) Oh, and they're making another movie - The Whisperer in Darkness. Check out the HPLHS site for more info, trailers, behind the scenes stuff and all sorts of jolly trinkets. 

Thursday, 25 September 2008

A Round of Writers


I can't for the life of me think of a better collective noun for literary types than a round, which for people elsewhere on earth is an English drinking expression. Not that I'm implying the writers I'm linking to are all boozy. But you know what I mean. Dylan Thomas, Jeffrey Bernard, the Algonquin mob, Orwell down the pub - they're all at it. 

Anyway, here are some writers whose work has appeared or will soon be appearing in ST.

Huw Langridge is an interesting chap, whose story 'Last Train to Tassenmere' will be in ST15 next spring. I also have to admit that - if it's really his photo on the blog - he's younger and considerably better-looking than me. Gol' darn it.

Also more photogenic than me, and more talented and much more successful (I sense a theme emerging) are Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker. This husband and wife publishing team run Tartarus Press, and a story by each of them will appear in ST next year. 

Now a very fine Welsh writer whose work has appeared in ST recently, John L. Probert. If that's his picture... Oh for Pete's sake. Good luck to him, anyway.

Need I even point out that Jane Jakeman (ST14 and others)  is wonderfully talented and all the rest of it? I mean, cor blimey, look at all them books wot she has wrote.  And I am merely a worm - yes, a worm in a cheap shirt who can barely work his own washing machine. Sob.

Tina Rath, aka the Academic Vampire, is a wonderful Queen Victoria impersonator who has been in proper films and is also a lovely lady. Her stories about a Chimaera in her wardrobe are being serialised in ST. She's talented, vivacious, fun, erudite... I am going to the Tyne Bridge, right now, with my pockets full of gravel. 

No, I must persevere and continue this roll call of talent, beauty and success, albeit while snarling like Muttley out of Wacky Races, and that other series - the one with the pigeon.

Now here's a slinky one and no mistake. Janine Ashbless is not a name you'll see on the contents page of any issue of ST. But it's the pen-name of a very good ghost story writer who also happens to write erotic fiction. Well might you gasp! I didn't realise the young lady in question was up to that kind of malarkey, but when I met her in person she admitted it. I tricked her into revealing her secret life by asking her if she was writing anything. I'm clever like that. 

Well, that's quite enough publicity for other people. More later, if I can get my act together. 

Saturday, 13 September 2008

The Pitt Pendulum


Hammer Films are synonymous with British horror/suspense. You can't really talk about Dracula or Frankenstein without at least a cursory glance at their screen manifestations. And among all the Hammer stars, Ingrid Pitt was the first lady of screaming, fangs, cleavage and so on. Well, there's an American-made tribute to Hammer in the pipeline, and guess who's in it? Nice to see Ms Pitt's career has not ended and that all those years in skimpy night-attire on cold sets have at least provided her with a bit of work in her mature years. Here are some Pittesque places to try - she has a MySpace page and all:

http://www.pittofhorror.com/

http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=184562435

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ingrid_Pitt

I almost forgot! As well as her Hammer work, the lovely IP was also in Doctor Who, with Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning. I may faint...

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Demons of the Mind


This 1972 Hammer feature is unusual, as it's a 19th century Gothic horror with none of the regular stars. No Cushing, no Lee, not even a hint of Ralph Bates. Instead we get some, ahem, interesting performances from mainstream thesps in a film that's a bit of a footnote to the Hammer canon. It seems the original title was Blood Will Have Blood, but distributor EMI didn't like that - too intellectual. So a line from an early scene was used instead. 

The 'demons of the mind' are being pursued by Dr Falkenberg, played by the late Patrick Magee - a superb actor and well cast here as a fashionable Vienna physician who may be a total charlatan. We are in a vaguely Ruritanian setting, and a reference to kilometres sets it sometime after the Napoleonic era. Falkenberg is on the way to the castle of Baron Zorn, a psalm-quoting widower who has locked up his son and daughter because they are tainted by the 'bad blood' of the family. The youngsters are being kept very much in separate rooms, nudge nudge.

Zorn's chances of curing them seem remote, not least because he is played by Robert Hardy in big whiskers, which always bodes ill for domestic bliss. The third top-notch actor is Michael Hordern, oddly miscast and under-used as a roving mad monk who stirs up the superstitious villagers. The stirring up process is easy, it must be said, as lovely peasant girls do keep getting murdered in the Baron's woods. Hmmm. Oh, and there's a lot of other stuff about ancient rituals.

Perhaps the film's greatest fault is that it is too faithful to the Gothic genre. It is chock full of characters and rich in incident but distinctly lacking in common sense. That said, there are some fine moments and intriguing details, not least when the baron's daughter Elisabeth (Gillian Hills) is bled and cupped. The scene is lovingly filmed, and the paraphenalia used to draw off blood steal the show. To top that Falkenberg has to use mesmerism and 'magnetic fluid' to try and get the baron to calm down a bit. But to no avail. Throw in Elisabeth's suitor Richter (Paul Jones, the pop singer) and an escape by the young and very loopy Emil Zorn (Shane Briant) and things get complicated.

It's a messy, shouty, downbeat film that looks good at times. Almost everybody is killed in nasty ways and you can't help feeling the survivors won't be tripping through fields of daisies in slow motion.  Of course, Hammer films aren't renowned for the happy endings, but the problem here is that the horror is psychological rather than demonic, as in the Dracula movies or the Dennis Wheatley adaptations. So somehow the cruelty and killing is more real, if not actually realistic. The ever-escalating blood-soaked lunacy sits rather oddly next to the Zenda-lite environment of Castle Zorn and the adjacent village - it's as if Poe and Le Fanu had written a comic opera together, then taking out all the songs. Oh, and there's a fair bit of that compulsory Seventies nudity - compulsory for girls, that is.

So we've got Gothic Zenda with a whiff of DH Lawrence and an unhappy ending. No wonder it was only shown as a supporting feature for a short while. But as a curiosity, Demons of the Mind is well worth seeking out. My only regret after watching it is that Hardy, Hordern and Magee never had a three-way scene-stealing smackdown. 

The Scarifyers


Anyone who likes good old radio drama (hello Oscar Solis!) might enjoy The Scarifyers, which begins a re-run on BBC7 this Sunday. It's a comedy-drama, really, but features some interesting ideas and decent gags. The stars, Nicholas Courtney and Terry Molloy, are old hands and never put a foot wrong. Courtney plays a hard-nosed Scotland Yard detective who's keen to prove he's not past it. Molloy's character, Professor Dunning, is an academic who writes ghost stories, and is clearly based on M.R. James. You can find out more about the Scarifyers and their wacky, pre-war adventures at the Cosmic Hobo site here. The series that starts on BBC7 at six pm and midnight is the first adventure, The Nazad Conspiracy. I heard and enjoyed The Devil of Denge Marsh last year - it was distinctly Lovecraftian in theme, complete with guest appearance by Shub-Niggurath. All great fun. 

Thursday, 4 September 2008

The Squelch in the Case of M. Valdemar

'I presume that no member of the party then present had been unaccustomed to death-bed horrors; but so hideous beyond conception was the appearance of M. Valdemar at this moment, that there was a general shrinking back from the region of the bed.'

ST14 is sort of with the printer, now. Communication lines are open, the price seems fair (this printer is much cheaper than local ones I've used before) and I'm reasonably happy with the magazine. I spend so much time reading and re-reading stories that I forget why I liked them in the first place. Editor Syndrome - I know everything about fiction but I don't know what I like (with apologies to Thurber). 

Anyway, let's consider a mildly interesting point. Why did I choose the online name Valdemar Squelch? Well, it's a rather feeble joke, which is one point in its favour. But I've always found 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar' one of Poe's most interesting stories. If you don't know it, you should probably go off and read some Poe. Otherwise there's not a lot of point in hanging around a blog about supernatural fiction. 

Anyway, in the story the narrator describes various experiments in mesmerism, which lead to a horrible (and messy) conclusion. This had been largely discredited in Europe, and James Braid had yet to demonstrate the reality and usefulness of suggestion. So Poe was venturing into what we could term pseudoscience. He wouldn't have seen it that way, though. Judging by his long cosmic essay 'Eureka', he considered science and mysticism to be two sides of the coin of wisdom. 

But to return to 'Valdemar' - the final experiment involves putting the hapless Frenchman under the influence while on the verge of death. What effect does this have when he expires? Suffice to say that Poe offers no great revelations of the life to come. On the one hand, he seems to subscribe to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. On the other, he doesn't suggest that postmortem survival is a lot of fun. No hint of heaven or hell is offered, only a kind of grim certainty that death is not the end. I suppose Poe could be criticised for putting effect before intellect, here. But the central premise of the story is undeniably powerful. 

The story is rather static and doesn't lend itself to dramatisation. But I distinctly recall a rather naff mini-series entitled 'Dickens of London' in which the eponymous author visited Poe. Dickens did of course tour America, but somehow I doubt the version of events on the telly were accurate. This is because the scriptwriter - Wolf Mankowitz, an old hand - decided to simply include the Valdemar story as if had really happened. I remember thinking at the time that it was quite naff, and yet at the same time oddly compelling.

And what if Poe, master of the hoax, had in fact experienced a real incident and published it as a story? Such behaviour could have serious repercussions. There's a story in that, perhaps. I make a gift of it to any writer who wants to use it. 

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Bish Bash Bush

You stood in the belltower, 
But now you're gone. 
So who knows all the sights 
Of Notre Dame? 

They've got the stars for the gallant hearts. 
I'm the replacement for your part. 
But all I want to do is forget 
You, friend. 

Hammer horror, hammer horror, 
Won't leave me alone. 
The first time in my life, 
I leave the lights on 
To ease my soul. 
Hammer horror, hammer horror, 
Won't leave it alone. 
I don't know, 
Is this the right thing to do?

Who calls me from the other side 
Of the street? 
And who taps me on the shoulder? 
I turn around, but you're gone. 

I've got a hunch that you're following, 
To get your own back on me. 
So all I want to do is forget 
You, friend.

There was no Hammer film of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as it happens. But I suspect that's not the point. Incidentally, the role of Quasimodo has been played by Warren Clarke, Anthony Hopkins, Mandy Patinkin, Anthony Quinn, Charles Laughton, and Lon Chaney, among others.

Nigel and the Witches


An old friend has kindly lent (loaned?) me The Ultimate Hammer Collection. Given the rotten weather, sitting and watching some old British horror is an attractive prospect. And amid the usual Dracula and Frankenstein flicks are some rarities - or at least, films I've never seen.

Perhaps the most interesting is The Witches, a 1966 production starring Joan Fontaine. As the presence of such a big name star suggests, this is altogether more ambitious than the usual Hammer feature, and this is reflected in the script by Nigel Kneale. It's based on a novel, The Devil's Own, by Peter Curtis - a pen-name for a female crime writer, Nora Lofts. This may explain why the story has several strong female characters. As well as Joan Fontaine, the film stars Kay Walsh, and theres' a small role for a young Michele Dotrice. We also get Leonard Rossiter as a smooth but not wholly trustworthy doctor, and Duncan Lamont, a British movie regular who a year later would play Sladden in Quatermass and the Pit

The Witches is notable for the way Kneale (presumably following the novel's lead) carefully avoids any explicit use of the supernatural. Yes, there's a black cat and a doll with pins in it, but old ladies talking of herbal remedies emphasise that belief is as important as real power. Is witchcraft about demonic forces, mass hysteria, auto-suggestion? It's impossible to draw any conclusions, but some scenes leave you wondering. 

The story begins in Africa where Gwen Mayfield (Fontaine) is caught up in a tribal uprising instigated by a witch doctor. She has a breakdown following a not-too-specific ordeal. In the next scene she is back in England, applying for a job at a village school run by amiable vicar Alan Bax (Alec McCowan - another fine actor). But it emerges that Bax is not, in fact, a priest and the village of Heddaby lost its church in some unspecified disaster a long time ago...

The story might seem cliched - small village, sinister goings-on, a cast of sullen yokel suspects and an outsider who opens a can of Satanic worms. But in Kneale's hands, and with some fine performances, The Witches is far from commonplace. The complexity and subtlety of a novel plot is retained, and some plot twists are genuinely surprising. Kneale also, intriguingly, draws a parallel between African and European witchcraft, with a climactic scene in which some of the villagers engage in what is obviously meant to be tribal dancing, drums and all. This is slightly naff - very physical theatre - but  it's given a touch of class by a lot of authentic Latin invocations.

It's also refreshing to find a film of this sort in which all the principal characters are middle-aged. It's a sensible schoolmarm, not some young whippersnapper, who divines the truth about Heddaby. And she even finds romance at the end. Oh, and the film is the first (to my knowledge) to feature a scary sheep stampede as a genuine plot device. So many reasons to watch The Witches!

Friday, 29 August 2008

Oh, just leave it alone


It's customary for fans of ghost stories to lament how few there are being made for broadcast. However, I sometimes wonder whether people who have no real knowledge of the genre, or interest in it, should simply not touch it.

A case in point is the BBC 7 series of 30-minute dramas, Beyond the Grave. These are supposedly based upon 'real life' ghost stories - the first one concerns the house in Berkeley Square, as mentioned by M.R. James in 'A School Story'. Perhaps that's the problem - true life ghost stories are usually anecdotes of no great significance.

What's depressing about these stories is how hackneyed they seem. Over-acting is the order of the day. They're a lot like a wireless version of the early Seventies series Thriller. In two out of five plays, the plot is essentially the same! A priest/minister who wants a quiet life comes to a village where, in a surprise-free twist, pagan forces are at work. The second of these, 'Middlewitch', is almost an object lesson is lazy radio drama. It would nice if the inhabitants of a close-knit Welsh community could speak in the same accent...

It's ironic that the best treatment of the 'secret pagans' plot has no supernatural elements, but does have a lot of singing and nudity. And Edward Woodward.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Bonkeroso

I'm struggling personfully with the last touches to ST14, which should be ready for the printer sometime before the ice caps melt. In the meantime, I'm posting a Spanish pop song about H.P. Lovecraft, because a. I'm sure he'd approve, b. there are no Belgian pop songs about Arthur Machen, despite all we did for them in two worlds wars, and c. it's all rather jolly in a Europop synthy sort of way.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Cardinal Cox

... sounds like the punchline to an off-colour joke about an actress and a bishop. But no! The Cardinal is in fact a poet of Peterborough, whose reputation precedes him wherever he goes - at least in the Peterborough area. He's been writing little booklets of poems for many a year, and has also produced some interesting fiction. I seem to recall he won a competition run by the erudite Friends of Arthur Machen some years ago. 

Anyway, Cardinal Cox has sent me his latest emanation. Entitled 'The Rock Show: The Devil's Own Music'. it is a pamphlet of poems inspired by blues and rock. It was written for Zombiecon, which is to be held in Walsall. Insert your joke about that here_______

Here's a sample of the first poem, 'Fugue on Themes by Robert Johnson'.

I been studyin' the rain

That's what I said to my lady

I believe I ain't gonna see you again

That's what I said to my lady

See, it even rhymes and scans! Traditional poetry that's actually about something, our Enid! I like the Cardinal's versifying ways and am happy to recommend his work to you, yes you, stop sniggering. If you want your poetry to make a deal with the devil at the crossroads, to be redolent of Sir Philip Sidney's juicier flights of fancy, to recall the wry humanity of Louis Macneice, and to not remind you of bloody Wordsworth in any way, this is for you. 

But how do we buy this miniature masterpiece? Well might you ask. To order a copy you need only do the following:

Send a one pound coin, carefully disguised, and a stamped, self-addressed C5 envelope to:

58 Pennington

Orton Goldhay

Peterborough

PE2 5RB

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Supernatural Tales 14


It's sort of nearly there, in a way. Well, I've got a lot of the editing done and written a nice review, and done a retrospective on a good book of ghost stories. A few bits and bobs still need doing. One thing I think I have got sorted is the cover. See what you think.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

0 comments - is this a record?

I'm not sure there's much point in going on with this blog. I know one or two people look at it, but the fact that hardly anyone ever finds anything interesting enough to comment on suggests that I am really, really boring. I'm quite prepared to concede that. If anyone wants this blog to survive, speak up or I'll kill it off at the end of the month. Same goes for my HG Wells blog, which seems to be equally uninteresting. 

Monday, 11 August 2008

Mr Paxton's Fate


Oddly enough, this never occurred to me before. In MR James' 'A Warning to the Curious', the hapless antiquarian Paxton is killed by the vengeful ghost of William Ager. Ager, we know, was the last in a long line of guardians of the Saxon Crown buried at 'Seaburgh', i.e. Aldeburgh. The crown was the last of three buried on the coast of East Anglia to ward off invasions. (Not much good against the Norman Conquest, though, was it? Still a sore point up North.) 

Anyway, the story pivots on the idea that Paxton is doomed regardless of what he does. He puts the crown back with the help of the narrator and his friend, but is still killed. However, I wonder if that's quite right. It's an obvious reading, but there are some questions.

Firstly, there's the issue of the other crowns. One was lost to coastal erosions. Paxton explains that it lies in a Saxon palace now under the sea. (Odd, isn't it, how magic stops working underwater?) More important, though, is the fate of the second crown. James knew his history, of course, and a Saxon crown was unearthed there.

"Camden states that an ancient Saxon crown was dug up here, weighing about 60 ounces, but was sold and melted down." 
                 From The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868)

Selling and melting it down seems a considerably more mercenary motive than Paxton's intellectual quest for an historic artefact. Yet there's no suggestion that anyone connected with destroying - desecrating - the second crown was harmed in any way. All right, one obvious conclusion is that Paxton's fate was down to the facts that a. he took the last crown, therefore England's last supernatural defence and b. William Ager was a spook, not a regular chap. Very unreasonable, ghosts.

But isn't there another possibility? Why does James' narrator state that, when Paxton's body is found, 'His mouth was full of sand and stones, and his teeth and jaws were broken to bits.' Why the mouth? Is it to emphasise the fact that Paxton's real sin was not to take the crown, though that was bad enough, but to disclose its existence to others? If he hadn't told before he put it back, would he have been spared? 

It seems unlikely, to be honest. The tone of the story seems to be against it, as it is one of MRJ's bleaker tales. But then, to make Paxton's very human desire for company the cause of his horrible death would be a rather bleak twist.

The Lost Stradivarius

If I lost a Strad I'd be afraid to sit down anywhere, for fear of that dread crunching sound that says 'You forgot to insure it.' Fortunately, J. Meade Falkner had a more interesting take on the idea. I'm listening to the first part of a reading on BBC7. If you miss it you can use the Listen Again feature on the website, which is here

I don't know much about Falkner. The Nebuly Coat is one of those books I will definitely read during my long, comfortable retirement. (Irony meter is now at 11.) I do recall seeing a film version of Moonfleet. Now, did it star Stewart Granger, or am I misrememberising? No, according to Wikipeople the 1955 movie was directed by none other than Fritz Lang and did indeed feature Granger, plus George Sanders and Joan Greenwood. Cor. It be a story of smugglers, it be, which is not quite as good a pirates, but still fairly salty and swashburgling. Here's a bit in which a scurvy dog tries to do in Stewart Granger with a big spikey thing on a pole. I pity the fool!

Monday, 4 August 2008

Norfolk is a nice place

Spent a long weekend in Norwich with A Ghostly Company, the ghost story society. Had a good time, if a rather damp one. On Sunday we visited Aldeburgh, which is a lovely place.

Some of us decided to walk to the Martello tower where poor Mr Paxton cops it in MR James' classic 'A Warning to the Curious'.

Some of us remarked, as we reached the very exposed location, how dramatic the sky was. Then we realised this display was an approaching rain storm, which soaked us all to the skin within minutes. Gosh, I was a squelchy fellow and no mistake. I found myself squeezing out my socks in the Gents of the White Lion, where Monty James stayed. As he was a hearty, outdoorsy type, perhaps he got soaked and had to wring his socks out too. Who knows? Some things are forever hidden from. 

I also returned from Norwich with some reasonably-priced paperbacks and a nice hefty copy of MRJ's Suffolk and Norfolk. I also have some fond memories of a nice bunch of people, who between them seem to share all my interests - ghostly tales, horror, sf, bits and bobs off odd historical knowledge, and indeed HG Wells. 

I can heartily recommend Norwich, and the Maid's Head Hotel, where we stayed. Big ups (as they say) to the lovely Katherne Haynes, assistant editor of ST and organiser of this shindig. She worked everything out brilliantly and devised a tough-but-fair MR James quiz. I came second and won some spiffing Notre Dame gargoyl fridge magnets. I was trouced, however, by the magisterial figure of Roger Johnson. 

Oh, and Colin Penn had a surprise for us on our first night, when we gathered for a meal. He gifted us all with our own ghosts, of the trouser-dwelling key ring variety! So now I have two tiny, screaming, glowing ghosts. Perhaps I'll start a collection, and set up some kind of orchestra.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Strange Weather, Bad Blogger

Wow, it's weird up north. Hot, but foggy. Overcast, yet no downpour. What I would give for a good old fashioned Gothic thunderstorm. Oh well. Friday I'm off down south, to Norwich with A Ghostly Company to celebrate MR James' birthday and get drunk. Sorry, that last bit should read 'explore interesting churches and the lovely resort of Aldeburgh'. 

Still, I've finished Simon Strantzas new book. It's very good. I've written a provisional review, but lack of sleep due to the heat - the damned heat! - has dulled my faculties a bit. It will need revising when I get back, refreshed and not too hung over, from East Anglia. 

Maybe I'll be able to blog a bit more regularly, too. In the meantime, here's an amusing video.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Crochet Cthulhu


Does what it says on the tin... The tiny ones are particularly evil, I feel. It's at times like this I wish I'd persisted with knitting when I was a lad. But I discovered unrequited love and that spoiled it all.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Aickman was right

.. though not necessarily about the human condition. No, he was right about canals. Aickman fell out with some members of the Inland Waterways Association, which he helped found, over what canals are actually for. Some, notably the ghost story writer and engineer LTC Rolt, wanted to revive the canals as a transport network. Aickman, to his credit, saw waterways as 'useful' only for leisure purposes. Recent press reports now confirm that leisure boating is the 'big thing', with freight carriage taking a very secondary role. More info about Rolt here. Let's see if I can find a nice video of a canal boat, not unlike that featured in Aickman's story 'Three Miles Up', arguably the first ghost story featuring a girl called Sharon. Nothing spooky about these chaps' holiday, of course - except for their cooking, snarf!

I feel the urge to correct myself. Curses, foiled again, and so forth (see Comments). Yes, Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote 'Three Miles Up'. I can't recall if Aickman wrote any stories about canals. Perhaps the subject was too evocative of the daily grind to be inspiring. 

Thursday, 24 July 2008

The Great New One consolidates his hold on America

Is the Flying Spaghetti Monster a mutant being from beyond the stars? Or just a very tasty idea? I'm sure Lovecraft, a lover of spaghetti-Os (or hoops, as we call 'em) would have approved.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The Ramones pay tribute to Stephen King

I spend far to much time on the interweb looking at things I shouldn't. And at old pop videos. This one was new to me. I was enjoying 'I wanna be sedated', 'The KKK took my baby away' and so on, and then I found that the lads had gone a bit more Goth than usual. 

Somehow - and I feel my passport catching fire as I type this - I always felt the Ramones were more authentic than the British punk/New Wave bands. Not that I didn't appreciate the home grown talent, much of it truly prodigious. But rock 'n' roll is American music, after all. 

Monday, 21 July 2008

Lovecraft on the BBC, or vice-versa

Some philanthropist (possibly a Reformed Dagonite) has posted a BBC Radio 3 documentary about Lovecraft on YouTube. It's divided into chapters and each is nicely illustrated with pics of the man and his monsters. Listen and enjoy - I missed it the first time round. 

The older I become, the more I 'get' Lovecraft. His humour, his style, his sly way with a cosmos, all appeal to something rather deep and possibly unhealthy in my godless subconscious. I also like tentacles, which probably helps. 

Saturday, 19 July 2008

A New Book Has Arrived

In fact, it's so new it hasn't been published yet! That's how important I am, oh yes, I get 'em free before the public gets the chance to spend its hard-earned shekels. The title is Beneath the Surface, the author is Simon Strantzas, and the publisher is Humdrumming

It is quite interesting, actually, as I've never received an advance reading copy before. It's spiral bound! The cover is jolly good, and the first story is excellent. Grisly and downbeat, but very good and not without a hint of optimism. Oddly, it reminded me of Daphne du Maurier - well, one of her stories, anyway - 'The Blue Lenses'. Also a hint of Eric Frank Russell's novel Sinister Barrier. I will now lie down on my bed and read some more. What lies beneath the surface? Nothing cuddly, I'll be bound. 

Friday, 18 July 2008

The American Short (Weird) Story

This post might as well go on my H.G. Wells blog (yes, I have one of those too), but I thought I'd plonk it here. I've been thinking about short fiction, because I'm reviewing a few collections for ST14. As it happens, two are by American writers and one is by a Canadian, which is a near-miss. So as I've been wandering about today, buying a new saucepan (at Wilkinsons, very reasonable prices), I've been trying to frame some thoughts on American short fiction.

It seems to me that American literature begins and (possibly) ends* with the short story. The first great American writers were Hawthorne and Poe. The former never attempted a true novel, preferring the term 'romance' and eschewing many of the novelistic conventions. As a result, some of his books, notably The Marble Faun, are near-unreadable. Poe did write a single novel in Arthur Gordon Pym but it's unfinished, or at least unsatisfactory. Both made their name as short story writers. 

There the similarity ends, though. Hawthorne was at his best tackling essentially American themes and (as in his romances) less able to 'Europeanise' his approach. Read 'The Minister's Black Veil' and then 'Rappacini's Daughter', for instance. The former is direct, disturbing and hints at something rotten in the community, while the latter is clever but also rather silly and too self-consciously daring about sex. The best stories of Hawthorne, such as 'Young Goodman Brown', are very firmly rooted on his side of the Atlantic. 

Compare and contrast, as they say, with the works of Poe. Poe had of course lived in Britain as a child. (I once stayed in a small B&B at a place called Newton Stewart where the young Edgar resided. His ghost was not in evidence.) Poe was at his weakest in his most American stories - compare 'A Tale of the Ragged Mountains' to his finest work. The Usher siblings, Ligeia, Dupin, and of course poor M. Valdemar (he of the squelchy demise) are Old World in their decadence and depth. Indeed, much of Poe's Americocentric work is rather poor comedy, of which the strongest example is 'The Man That Was Used Up.'

Perhaps the reason for this obvious disparity is that Hawthorne, for all his awareness of style and form, was ultimately a moraliser with a minatory purpose. Those Puritan ancestors were hard to forget, even for a moment. Poe, for all his parade of (often bogus) erudition, was the child of jobbing actors and primarily an entertainer. He loved showing off, and wrote essays on the way to get the right effect, not just in verse and prose, butalso in song and even in furnishings. 

Okay, so it's a bit simplistic to set folksy New World idealism against Old World sophistication, but the two trends are there in American history and culture. They are certainly there in the works of its first two world-class storytellers. Oh, and for the record, I much prefer Poe. But I would say that, being a decadent old Limey.

*American literature includes drama, and drama includes movies and TV. The average length (in dialogue wordage) of a film script or TV series episode is certainly in the short fiction range. So it can be argued that the short story form has been dominant for almost the entire history of the US. So much for the Great American Novel. 

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

The C Word


Am listening to a story by Joanne (Chocolat) Harris on BBC7. Entitled 'Gastronomicon', it's a Lovecraftian tale of a woman who marries a 'foreign' chap and receives a mysterious book from her mother-in-law. She starts by sticking to the first few pages, in which traditional English recipes have been pasted. But gradually she works her way towards more exotic attempts, resulting in strange noises behind the walls. What's that slithering behind the serving hatch? It's a pleasure to hear someone taking a new line on the dread Necronomicon. Amusing scene in which hapless housewife tries to prepare special meal in the teeth of interdimensional menace.

You can listen to BBC7 stories later here

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Nearly Forgot


I finished Philip K. Dick's The Cosmic Puppets. It's not bad at all, and has a surprising (to me) metaphysical twist. Without giving too much away, the story introduces nothing less than a deity. Or indeed two deities. Even more surprising, one of these deities has a beautiful daughter. I suppose this kind of thing was all quite commonplace in ancient Persia (there's a hint) but I found it refreshingly strange. The actual denouement was familiar in  a good way - a rancid, vile force of evil shlobbing around, slimily absorbing friend and foe alike. This looks forward to the visions of pure evil in other PKD stories, the best perhaps being in The Man in the High Castle. So, all in all, a solid B minus for this inventive and entertaining short novel. 

There's a good article here about the various cover designs for the book, which have misled many readers (me included) into thinking it is sf. Most of PKD's work does fall into the rather roomy category of science fiction, but some of it is fantasy (see the remarkable 'Upon the Dull Earth' in the Ramsay Campbell edited Fine Frights) and a fair amount is hard to classify. I'll be intrigued to see what the forthcoming movie of Ubik is like. 

Monday, 7 July 2008

I Haz Feedbacks

I like getting feedback about ST, but it's very rare that I receive it. I think this is largely down to the mag's small circulation. Only a small percentage of people write to the BBC, or complain to their local paper, yet broadcasting and the press have an audience of millions. With only a few dozen readers ST is not going to have a busy letters page. Which is a pity, because feedback is good for writers (even if it's not positive - perhaps especially then) and very good for editors. If people like or don't like my decisions, I need to know. Otherwise every issue of ST is a shot in the dark.

Anyway, here is a response to ST13 from a discerning American reader, Michael Cook.

David:

Another very fine issue.

Of the eight stories, I liked best the lead story by Adam Golaski, "They Look Like Little Girls". There's often a surreal, dreamlike quality to Golaski's fiction that resonates personally and this one is no different. It may have helped the story that I used to very occasionally spend the wee hours in bus terminals similar to one described in the story.

Katherine Hayne's "The Rainbow Comes and Goes" comes in, in my opinion anyway, a close second. I particularly enjoyed the non-supernatural section of the story detailing the relationship between the narrator and her friend; in some ways, the concluding section that deals more directly with the supernatural is a bit less compelling. My other minor quibble is that the opening of the story is both unnecessary and actually lessens its effectiveness since it telegraphs the ending.

Good tales also by Brian Showers and Richard Marlowe.

The only story I actively disliked was "Degrees of Freedom". I don't think I ever really grasped the author's titular metaphor and, more generally, I had the impression throughout the narrative that Mr. Stuart was trying to "tell me something" but couldn't bring himself to make that something sufficiently clear. I understand that its often desirable from an artistic standpoint to makes one's intentions a bit ambiguous, but this story is so murky I wondered why I bothered to read it. (Or perhaps it's just me.)

A final comment on Tina Rath's story, "Chimaera #5". It's nicely written and entertaining, but I couldn't help thinking (no doubt uncharitably) that "it's been done before". The basic idea goes back at least as far as Robert Bloch's old chestnut from the 60's, "The Movie People", and I found myself wishing for something a tad more original. I'm sorry if that seems unfair.

Keep up the excellent work, David!
Yrs,
Michael

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

ST14


Just in case anyone was wondering, work continues apace on issue 14 of the mag. So far stories slated for publication this autumn include pieces by: Bill Read, Mike Chislett, Clive Ward, Tony Lovell, 'Stone Franks' (a pseudonym), Simon Strantzas, and Jane Jakeman. Maybe a few more will turn up. Non-fiction will include a piece on a somewhat neglected modern collection of stories by Keith Roberts, and an item entitled Three Versions of Dracula. I'm sure a few more reviews will materialise. And I thought I'd let people see the putative cover, if they'd like to comment. Click on the wee pic to get a bigger view.

The Cosmic Puppets


I'm pretty damn sure I read this novel some time ago, but I can't for the life of me remember anything about it. What makes this 1957 novel interesting is that it's one of the few Philip K. Dick novels that is overtly supernatural rather than weird sci-fi.

The book begins in classic paranoid style that would become familiar thanks to The Twilight Zone. A young man called Ted Barton feels the urge to return to Millgate, the hick town where he was born, and which he left as a boy. His wife is not impressed. When Barton returns to Millgate he is stunned to find that it simply isn't the town he remembers. What's worse, when he checks the local newspaper files he finds a report that says he died in an epidemic. 

That's stange enough, but it's obvious that some children in Millgate have unusual powers - they can create mini-golems from clay, and talk to insects or spiders. And the town seems to be haunted by very credible ghosts, called Wanderers, that just walk through walls without noticing the 'real' people around them.

Blimey. Things become even more paranoid when Barton tries to leave town. He experiences a revelation of the awful truth about Millgate - that it under the control of two vast, ethereal beings that seemingly treat the people like, well, puppets. 

I'm enjoying PKD's prose, as always, and his cavalier way with reality. I don't think I've ever felt let down by one of his books, which is interesting given that he wrote so many. So let's hope this one isn't the first.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Och, it's a bogle


BBC 7, the digital radio channel, specialises in drama and comedy. I enjoy both, and particularly appreciate the Listen Again facility, which works through the standard RealPlayer.

BBC 7 is currently running a series of dramas on Sundays under the heading The Darker Side of the Border. These are ghostly or grisly classics from Scottish authors. The first choice is a two-part dramatisation of Conan Doyle's 'The Captain of the Polestar'. It's all very full-blooded and hairy, as you might expect in a tale of whaling. I have heard it before and it's pretty good. The eponymous captain is obsessed by a spectral lover that may lure him and his crew to their doom. That's McDOOOOM! We're all doomed, I tell ye, captain. Sorry, wrong story. 

Conan Doyle deserves more credit for his ghost stories. He deserved no credit for the Brigadier Gerard stuff, or indeed his support for Spiritualism. But I suppose he'll always be the chap who created Sherlock Holmes. If, indeed, the next generation thinks of Holmes as a fictional character at all. 

Monday, 30 June 2008

Strangers can be lovers

Well, I finished the Japanese 'ghost story' Strangers, by Taichi Yamada, translated by Wayne P. Lammers. I found it interesting, but oddly unsatisfying. Much of the book's supposed impact - too much, I feel - pivots on a twist ending that I feel was not really much of a surprise. Perhaps the problem lies with the translation or its a Japanese cultural thing. Most of my experiences of Japanese ghost stories is via film, not prose. 

The central character is Harada, a middle-aged TV script writer whose life seems to be in a downward spiral. He has set about divorcing his wife, alienating his student son in the process, yet he seems to regard himself as the victim. This self-pity is not an attractive quality, and a character's loneliness is less effective when it is self-inflicted. A more traditional ghost story would have Harada widowed, or perhaps simply find himself isolated in middle age because he's been 'married to the job' too long.

This fault apart, the central conceit - that ghosts can somehow drain the life from us, like vampires - is used reasonably well. Harada doesn't see his wasted features when he looks in the mirror. His neighbour, the beautiful Kei, has to point out how ravaged and ill he looks. But from this, little else follows. I got the strong impression that, apart from the 'twist', much of this book is padding.

Part of the problem is that the scenes in which Harada meets his 'dead' parents are rather dull. Not badly written, though the translator takes a distinctly American line with dialogue, and this seems a bit jarring. No, the problem is that it's hard to care. Is Harada going mad? No, in one good scene he conducts an experiment to see if his parents are 'really' ghosts. But such neat touches are few and far between. While some may claim this is a eerie or disturbing tale, it's really too monotonous and pedestrian to bother the seasoned reader.

Perhaps the real problem with Strangers is that a good ghost story is almost impossible to spin out to novel length. The denouement, when it comes, has been too long delayed. At around 20,000 to 30,000 words the story would have been much more effective. So, a qualified nod of approval is all I can give it. 

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Moggie Facts, and a Map

A wonderful site called Strange Maps has lots of well, strange maps. If you want to know about Switzerland's plans to fight off the Nazis, or what the giant magnetic rock at the North Pole looked like in the 13th century, that's the place. There's also a fun map of a bed from a cat's viewpoint, and some cat facts. I like cats, what's it to you? And they deserve to be here 'cause they're always popping up in tales of the supernatural. It's that habit of watching Nothing At All cross the room. Oo-er. Here are the facts:

1. Cats don’t have a clavicle bone, allowing them to pass through any space no bigger than their head.
2. Cats move both legs on one side, and then both leg on the other, a trait they share with camels, giraffes and a select few other mammals. Nobody knows what the connection is, if any.
3. Typically, cat’s claws are sharper on the forefeet are sharper than on the hind feet.
4. Most cats have five claws on their front paws and four or five on their rear paws, but cats are prone to polydactyly. Famously, the cats hanging around Hemingway’s house in Key West are six-toed.
5. Cat’s night vision is superior to humans, but their day vision is inferior.
6. The official name for cat’s whiskers is vibrissae.
7. Due to an ancient mutation, cats can’t taste sweetness.
8. Blue-eyed cats with white fur have a higher incidence of genetic deafness.
9. Cats expend nearly as much fluid grooming as they do urinating.
10. Cats will almost never meow at other cats; that sound is reserved mostly for communication with humans.

I think we've all learned something. Though interestingly, there's no mention of cheese. I know of at least two cats that are keen on cheese. Not very important but worth noting.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Lovecraft in your Lughole


Those lovely people at the HPLHS have done it again!

They've produced a 'wireless' version of Lovecraft's definitively bonkers tale of Elder God malarkey, The Dunwich Horror. As with their earlier At the Mountains of Madness, it's a Dark Adventure Radio Theatre production, done in authentic pre-war style. They're still pushing their sponsors ghastly ciggies, Fleur de Lys. And the CD version of this drama comes with the now familiar array of nice little extras. You get a map of the Dunwich area, a newspaper clipping showing just how degenerate the locals were in 1917 (which was very),  a page from Dr John Dee's faulty copy of the Necronomicon, and a page torn from Wilbur Whateley's notebook, written in weird cypher. Oo-er.

But what of the drama itself? Well, it's pretty darn good. Admitteldy much of the action consists of people talking in the village shop, then talking in the college library, then talking in a professor's study, with occasional digressions for talking in Wizard Whateley's home. But HPL was not writing a drama, and the way the essential narration by Sean Branney is used to link the various scenes is masterful. A solid cast give some genuinely good performances - a lifelong fan of radio drama, I would rate this top notch.

As you'd expect, there's a fair amount of doubling up. Special praise is due to Gary Bolland for taking on the roles of Wizard W. and Dr Hartwell, two very different scholars. I was also impressed with McKerrin Kelly as Lavinia Whateley and Small Frye. But the entire cast are to be congratulated and generally bought drinks for the way the memorable scenes in the story are brought to slimy, screaming life. I didn't re-read TDH before listening to this, but found myself instantly caught up in events and gurgling away to myself at the sheer cosmic peril of it all. 

Oh and there's also some good whippoorwill action, for which much thanks. (Did Stephen King pinch the idea for The Dark Half?) 

What, no quibbles, Valdemar? Well, a trivial one. Who'd have thought that villagers in a small, inbred New England community would have such an interesting range of accents? I'm sure I heard Welsh and Irish, as well as a touch of the Thomas Hardys. But it's excusable when you have a large number of people to distinguish, and some have only a few lines - ones that often end in 'Aaargh!'

So, big ups to Dark Adventure Radio Theatre. I sincerely hope that we'll hear more audio adaptations of HPL stories. If I might have the temerity to make a suggestion (to people who'll probably never read this) - can we have The Shadow Over Innsmouth? Lots of sonic potential there, methinks.