Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Dark Side of J.B. Priestley

Over at the excellent Valancourt books one can find all sorts of interesting things. Among them is this volume of short stories:

By coincidence, a few weeks ago Radio 4 Extra ran a series of readings of weird tales, and among them was Priestley's 'The Grey Ones'. I had always assumed that, while his famous Time Plays flirt with the paranormal/mystical, Priestley was mostly concerned with what might loosely be termed social realism. But it turns out that he ranged rather widely and - in a very prolific and long career - often tackled horror, science fiction, and the supernatural.

My ignorance of Priestley's contribution to genre fiction is a bit embarrassing, as I really should have known that his novel Benighted was the basis for a classic horror movie.

Overall, the Valancourt site is well worth perusing if - like me - you have a mental file of titles you once read and really would to read again. 

For instance, there are the novels of John Blackburn. Blackburn is almost forgotten today, but he was a kind of proto-James Herbert (it's hard to believe that Herbert didn't take Blackburn's novels as a template for his own, so striking are the parallels). His books combine the horror, thriller and sci-fi genres, and he was an early exponent of what is now termed body horror. 

I read Bury Him Darkly (1958) as a wee lad when I encountered a dog-eared paperback edition in the early Seventies. A strange artefact is unearthed in a family crypt, and it has terrifying powers to alter the minds and bodies of unwary meddlers. There's a quite loopy plot strand dragging in the Holy Grail, which isn't bad for what is in fact an alien invasion story. This is a book in which the idiot who opens the crypt, as is the form in these cases, 'dies a horrible death, raving mad, and whatever he has unleashed is not done killing. Four unlikely allies—a clergyman, an ex-Nazi scientist, a journalist, and a historian—must come together to stop it before it destroys all of humanity.'

Cor! It's thrilling stuff. I can't help wondering if Blackburn was born slightly out of his time, as his work might have gone down better in the Fifties - the Quatermass/Hammer & B-movie era - or the late Seventies/early Eighties, when there was a horror boom. The Sixties was a fallow patch for horror, at least in the English-speaking world - too much love and peace, man. Had it been otherwise, Blackburn's work might have found its way to the small and/or big screen, and so become part of our pop culture. The literary life is, as has been remarked so many times, very chancy.


Oscar Solis said...

Well, this is a great way to start the day. More books to find and read. More authors whose writings need exploring. I tell you it's all too much. Too much! ;)

Seriously, thanks for the heads up on these books. I'm a bit familiar with Priestley. I have never read the book Benighted, but I did see The Old Dark House, a film I'd been wanting to see for many decades. When I finally saw it, I was disappointed. I suppose it was because I'd built it up in my mind into something it most definitely wasn't: great. Still, it's alright for a historical artifact and it does, have Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesiger (who played one of the all-time great villains of cinema, Dr. Pretorius, in The Bride of Frankenstein).

The Valancourt website is great. I've not heard of many of these books.

valdemar said...

The Old Dark House has some great moments, but it's one of those numerous b&w classics that looks better as a poster.