Saturday, 23 June 2018

'Tree Spirit'

The title story of Michael Eisele's new collection from Tartarus is, as one might expect, a substantial tale. The novella concerns Arv, a gifted carver of a tribe that lives near the Great River. Arv's people have no boats, but a neighbouring tribe have mastered the art of canoe-building. Arv is fascinated by the sight of a passing boat, not to mention the beautiful woman he sees in it.

We are back in tribal territory, a world before or possibly after civilisation as we know it. Arv's tribe is a Matriarchy, and he is less than pleased when the female ruler decrees that he will marry her less-than-charming daughter. To sugar the pill Arv is given a high-status task, carving a totemic image on a new longhouse. However, when he goes off into the woods he has very different intentions.

A great tree has been struck by lightning and Arv believes that he can - using stone tools - craft it into a boat. The tree spirit has other ideas, however, and it only thanks to the intervention of a character called Hunter that Arv manages to strike a deal with the dryad-like being. Hunter is, incidentally, one character who seems to resemble a 'modern' American, and his remarks to Arv suggest that we are indeed living in a post-apocalyptic future. But this might just be down to my misinterpretation.

Anyway, Arv makes his boat with Hunter's help, and carves the face of the lovely boatwoman into its stern post. When his betrothed finds out what he's been up to she calls the wrath of the tribe down on him. So, with Hunter's help, Arv launches the boat onto the Great River and sets off downstream. There he encounters the tribe of his muse, and becomes the focus of respectful attention. However, there is a final twist to the tale, as Arv and the tree spirit embark on another journey.

This is, I feel, an artist's story, carved as carefully as Arv's boat. There is enough material here for an entire novel about the various cultures of this tribal world, which is lovingly depicted but never presented as a kind of touchy-feely Utopia.

More from Tree Spirit and Other Strange Tales soon in this running review.

"The Wood of the Dead" by Algernon Blackwood (Narrated by Ian Gordon)





More good listening from Ian Gordon's Horrorbabble channel. Worth a listen if you like old-time weird fiction (pulp and pre-pulp, including several from the golden age of the ghost story).

Friday, 22 June 2018

Stone Circles

Over at the BFI Adam Scovell has an interesting roundup of megalithic monuments on screen. Not surprisingly, they tend to be British, with a distinct bias towards 1970s telly. Most of them I'm familiar with. Doctor Who's encounter with The Stones of Blood is great fun. Children of the Stones is rightly revered as a classic of children's TV. And Night of the Demon wedges in a scene at Stonehenge despite M.R. James' baffling omission of the thing in his original story.

There are also a couple of new ones on me. One is John Betjeman on Avebury in the series Discovering Britain. There's also a short Derek Jarman film called Journey to Avebury which is, not surprisingly, a bit weird.

Perhaps the barmiest of all, though, in the biker-folk-horror film Psychomania (1973), which has a great finale. It makes little sense at a rational level, but - as sometimes happens with films that are not exactly big-budget - it looks great. Oh, and Beryl Reed is in it, which will delight a lot of older Brits like me.




Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Saturday, 16 June 2018

'The Professor and the Nixie'

We continue with the theme of folklore, but with a very different setting. The professor of the title is a German academic at Frankfurt University. Unfortunately for Herr Professor Hugo, his rise to academic success coincides with the political rise of the Nazis - or the 'marching morons', as he considers them. When Hitler seizes power the professor makes an injudicious remark and is sent on 'sabbatical', back to his family home in rural Bavaria.

After getting off the train the Professor goes for a stroll near a local mill-pond, seeking solitude to read. There he encounters an attractive young woman called Elise, who seems to remember an incident from the older man's childhood. It's clear what she is, though only towards the end of the story do we find out who. Finding his boyhood home unwelcoming, the Professor takes to meeting Elise by the pond, which the locals shun. Eventually he becomes mesmerised by Elise and ends up lying naked and wet in the undergrowth.

The Professor goes back to his university. We next meet him after the war, having lost his position thanks to his decision to join the Party. This time he has no choice but to try and live off the family farm. He only vaguely remembers his encounter with Elise. But when he passes the pond he finds not one but two strange, beautiful beings.

This is a curious tale, given the Nazi fixation with Germanic folklore and their origins in Bavaria. Perhaps Michael Eisele is arguing that the true folklore is apolitical and enduring. The revelations about Elise imply this, as from her own personal tragedy something new and beautiful emerges. And nixies are of course ineligible to vote.

More from this collection soon.

The Damned - Plan 9 Channel 7 (1979)

Friday, 15 June 2018

'Come Not High'

The next story in Michael Eisele's new collection is a bit left-field. It begins with a spaceship landing on a strange planet. We're in the realms of pulp sci-fi. Or are we?

An apparently human being in a fancy space-suit emerges from the shiny ship, arousing the curiosity of the locals. The native life of the planet decide to investigate. It emerges that this world has been 'terraformed' or at least mucked-about with by space-faring humans with almost god-like powers. Without giving too much away, the story raises the interesting possibility that myths may be recreated in the future by science that, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, comes to resemble magic.

This tale reminded me a little of Gene Wolfe's approach to sf, though I don't think it's so successful as Wolfe's best. It might be termed science-fantasy, or sci-folklore, It's a slightly odd inclusion in Tree Spirit & Other Strange Tales, but not unwelcome.

More from this fine-looking volume soon.

Monday, 11 June 2018

'Sacrifice'

Aha, we are in old-time pulp horror country with this cracking little tale in Tree Spirit...  We're in the fairly indeterminate past when a character called Wilhelm could rampage about the Near and Middle East torturing people for the whereabouts of a mysterious tower. What the despicable German magus is after, as per usual, is greater power than mere mortal can imagine. What he finds is somewhat different.

In 'Sacrifice' Michael Eisele evokes authors like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Bloch, members of the weird fiction circle centred on Lovecraft. And yes, here are some mad Arabs, though to be fair they've got every reason to be bloody furious  with Wilhelm. As he's such a nasty person you know he will come a cropper, so the question is How? The finale is satisfying, with its clever twist on a hoary horror convention.

This is quite a jolly tale, with the added twist that the demonic being various scholars are trying to control is a Djinn. This gives a slight Arabian Nights feel to the drama, as yet another European finds out the hard way that mucking about with other folk's culture is very unwise.

Another chunk of my opinions very soon in this running review. Stay tuned for strangeness!

Sunday, 10 June 2018

'Leshi'

The third story in Michael Eisele's collection Tree Spirit is a novella. It's a tale of Old Europe, complete with a crumbling castle, superstitious peasants, wolves with attitude, and a mysterious presence in the forest.

Young nobleman Gregor returns to his Hungarian estate on the death of his father to find his sister Gizela struggling to hold things together. It is widely believed that their father has brought poverty on the family by ignoring the Leshi, a spirit of the forest. The old man was obsessed with finding a lost treasure that was supposedly deposited somewhere in the area many years ago.

Gregor is an interesting example of the quasi-Gothic protagonist, the aristocrat who served with the imperial cavalry and has the usual duelling scar. He is vain and self-regarding, but is brought back to earth by the feisty Gizela, an attractive variation on the tomboy girl from a posh family. The third character is the Leshi him- or itself.

This is a richly-textured tale, beginning with Gregor's journey back from the city on the newfangled railway. Eisele offers some neatly-detailed description of life in Hapsburg Hungary, and the fine distinctions between the German-speaking elite and the Magyar peasantry. Eventually things come right, after a series of visionary experiences that recall Blackwood, among other nature mystics. And Gizela gets herself a boyfriend.

So, another satisfying read. More from this substantial collection very soon.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Monkey's Paw - Short Film (1988)

The Black Pilgrimage & Other Explorations




It's here! The new collection of essays by Ro Pardoe has arrived. It's available in paperback from Amazon. The title is slightly misleading, as there are pieces by other authors, too. Most of the essays are culled from Ghosts & Scholars magazine, but there are also some interesting items from The Everlasting Club, a corresponding society to which Ro Pardoe has belonged for many years.

So, what's it all about? It might not entirely surprise you to learn that the ghost stories M.R. James are under scrutiny here. However, there are also musings on authors in the Jamesian tradition, such as Fritz Leiber.

As the blurb puts it:

'The celebrated writer M. R. James (1862-1936) is the most significant author of ghost stories in the world. His macabre work has terrified and fascinated readers for over 100 years. Now collected in one volume, 29 essays on his ghostly tales and themes by editor and James scholar Rosemary Pardoe 
'Plus a further eight essays on other authors, including Fritz Leiber, Arthur Machen, E. G. Swain and Many Wade Wellman and a fascinating miscellany of nine additional pieces on a variety of topics.'

The titles of the essays are great fun in themselves. 'Scrying and the Horse-Demon', 'The Night Raven', and 'The Three Fortunate Concealments' would tempt any bookish person to read on, I'm sure. And the focus varies from apparently minor details to broader discussion of MRJ's work, such as his use of draperies.

Ro Pardoe has also contributed introductions to many books, including MRJ's children's story The Five Jars. You will find that here, along with intros to the early work Occult Sciences, and Tales from Lectoure.

If you are long-term subscriber to G&S you will probably have read a lot of these pieces. However, few if any of us will have read them all which makes this a valuable collection. There's a very useful index of story and novel titles to round it all off, which is typically precise and exhaustive. All in all,  this is an excellent book to dip into, offering scholars (and any ghosts who may be interested) arcane knowledge and thoughtful criticism in very digestible form.

The art of the essay is a venerable one, and in Ro Pardoe and her circle use it with aplomb to illuminate a writer who is entertaining, sometimes baffling, and often a bit sly.


Tuesday, 5 June 2018

'Aidan of the Taexili and the Giant'

The second story in Michael Eisele's Tree Spirit is a short tale of fictionalised myth, or mythical fiction - whatever. It's about a tribe setting forth to find new lands, and encountering supernatural defences that they must overcome. The ingredients are those of a traditional tale, though some aspects of the story recall (for me at least) Gene Wolfe's science-fiction-presented-as-legend. The giant in question is clad in metal, and has a single blazing eye. Perhaps it's a big robot with a laser? This adds a nice ambiguity to events, as they may be taking place in a possible future rather than reconstructed past. What the story does demonstrate is that elements of myth are always around us, and can rise up to subsume other kinds of narrative. Well, maybe. I'm no expert.

More from this running review very soon. There's another novella coming up!

Friday, 1 June 2018

'Mouse'

'It is... no particular time or place.' So begins the first story in Michael Eisele's new collection (see post below). 'Mouse' is the story of a street boy with artistic talent who, through a series of lucky accidents, ends up staying with an artist. The boy is called Schalken, which I did find a mite confusing, as this is not a tribute to Le Fanu's classic tale, and is very different in tone and theme. But that's a minor quibble.

Schalken flourishes under the tutelage of the painter Derk, who is typically impoverished and has to labour at the docks to make ends meet. I wondered where the story was going after a dozen pages or so, as it seems to be a fairly realistic tale of struggling artists in Old Europe. Then something interesting occurs - Derk has been leaving out gifts of milk for 'Mouse', which turns out to be a kind of fairy. It emerges that many such creatures still live in the cities that long ago sprawled over their glades and meadows.

When his benefactor dies Schalken becomes more closely involved with the little people, and sets out to re-create their world on canvas. Eventually he achieves what he feels to be an true rendition of the world that once existed, As a variation on the theme of the artist's muse it's interesting, and the final twist is artistically right. So, a good start. Eisele, an American fabulist, follows the examples of Poe, Hawthorne, and many others by using aspects of European history for his own ends here. What, I wonder, will the next story bring?

Tree Spirit & Other Strange Tales - Running Review


Time for a marathon canter through a new-ish book by Tartarus that is, by any standard, substantial. Michael Eisele's first collection of stories was well-received here, by and large - you can check back by going here. The Girl With the Peacock Harp was of course a splendid volume, as we expect from Tartarus. We expect it, but perhaps give too little thought to the time and effort that goes into such a splendid volume.



Tree Spirit...  is a collection of fifteen stories ranging from relatively short works to novellas. There are some linked tales, a thing I like a lot, and as in his first collection Eisele ranges from relatively 'realistic' settings to more folk/mythical material. So, buckle up, and prepare for my considered opinions.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Pari: Not a Fairytale (2018)



Well, this one got distinctly cold reviews from Indian critics, but I enjoyed it a lot. It's a relatively simple tale with interesting twists and turns, told with the help of flashbacks. It begins with shy, nerdy Arnab having a painful time with prospective bride Piyali, a beautiful and confident nurse. On the drive home with his parents Arnab insists that if Piyali turns him down he doesn't want any more matchmaking, thanks very much. A bit of a row begins, eyes are taken off the road, and in the monsoon rain they run down and kill a woman who is crossing the road.

The woman, it turns out, is a Muslim who lives in a hut in the woods and for some reason collects stray dogs, Further investigation reveals that a young woman, Rukhsana, chained by her ankles to a post in the hut. She can barely speak, is illiterate, and seems to have been kept in total isolation from the outside world. Arnab feels sorry for her and helps her with funeral arrangements. Oddly, when the traditional mourners arrive, Rukhsana reacts badly to the smell of incense.

Meanwhile one of the mortuary workers has noticed that the dead woman bears a brand on her arm. He immediately alerts Professor Ali, a Van Helsing figure with one eye. References to a Doomsday Cult and baby skulls come thick and fast as Ali gathers his forces. Rukhsana flees when Ali arrives at her hut and seeks refuge with Anab, who decides to find her a home in a local hostel. But she becomes attached to him, and he find himself falling for her.

Flashbacks make it clear that Rukhsana is not simply a lost girl, but something else. As in the film Spring, we see her inhuman side manifest itself in various ways. She must keep clipping her nails, for instance (as in Aickman's story 'No Stronger Than A Flower'). Rukhsana is a pari, a kind of fairy of Muslim folk tradition. Her mother was one of many used and abused by demon-worshippers, which led to impregnation by an Ifrit (or 'afreet' of our own Gothic tradition). Thus Rukhsana is a hybrid creature, possessed of human and supernatural abilities. She's also a bit of a complication when Piyali decided she will marry Anab...

Ali closes in on the pari, who becomes increasingly dangerous as her demonic side develops. She produces a deadly poison and must use it at regular intervals or die herself. Suffice to say this is not a film for animal lovers. Ali and his goon squad eventually catch up with Rukhsana, but not before she has become pregnant by Anab. In a parallel story Piyali reveals a truth about herself that dovetails neatly (perhaps too neatly) with the main plot. I won't give away any more, except to say that the ending is a mite predictable, but director Prosit Roy still gets there with considerable aplomb.

Image result for pari movie

One of the film's virtues is solid direction, which makes full use of urban India's shabby-genteel areas. It also has fine lead performances, particularly Anushka Sharma in the title role and Rajat Kapoor as Ali. This is one of those films where the 'good guys' are so sadistic you inevitably want the forces of evil to get a fair go.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Codex Shub-Niggurath - Review

How quickly things go when you're getting older. One minute you're wondering who would win in a fight between the Cybermen and the Autons, and the next minute you've got dodgy knees.

Which is an odd way to introduce another poetry pamphlet from Pete 'Cardinal' Cox, Peterborough's Bard of the Bizarre. As you'll have gleaned from the title, this is another in his series of musings on Lovecraftian weirdies, and this time it's the turn of the Goat With A Thousand Young. Just the sort of benefit tourist the op-ed writers of the Daily Mail have nightmares over.

As always, the poems themselves are pithy, concise explorations of Lovecraftian ideas and related notions. Just as good are the notes that Cox adds, weaving yet more strands in his alternative history of this world, and others. It's a bit steampunk, a bit conspiracist (in a good, fun way, not a mad racist way), and erudite as all get-out.

First up is 'Chimaera of Lydia', the weird hybrid monster of the land that worshipped 'many-breasted Artemis'. There's a sense of Pan-ic and mystery in this one that bodes well, what with 'split-hoof prints/Embedded in high places'. In the note Cox asks if Shub-Niggurath' cult lies behind goat-deities of the classical world.

'Ram of Mendes' follows, logically enough, and a dash of Herodotus. Egypt and nearby areas were rammed with rams, of course. The bleat 'Baa' becomes Baal. This leads us to 'St John of Patmos' Lamb', as who better to spot beings that transcend time and space than a great visionary? I'm really impressed by the way these poems skip from pagan to Christian mythology. 'Vegetable Lamb', the fourth short verse, takes us to Tartary and the fascinating travellers' tale of the plant that was also an animal. A seemingly minor oddity, it serves as a warning that 'Other creations can take place/That could wipe us from planet's face'.

A change of pace and style for the next poem. 'Verses Discovered in a Seventeenth Century Broadside' is an account of a Civil  War army that encounters a giant ram '100 yards tall, sir'. This links the huge, spectral ram with witchery, and the mad trials of that era. The kicker is that the whole unbelievable tale might well be... not true at all.

Still on military themes, 'Baa'fometz' looks at the alleged Templar worship of a hermaphrodite idol and the link with Eliphas Levi's famous 'Horned God of the Witches'. Very timely in these gender-wobbly times.

'Ya-Te-Veo' surprised me by being about a plant that captures small animals. This takes us away from 'pure' Lovecraft, if memory serves, but is just as much fun. I had not heard of this particular killer vegetable, but what follows is 'Dawn of the Triffid', a stark example of concrete poetry with a literal sting in the tail. Or frond. Whatever.

Finally 'The Nonahedron Ritual' adds a little more to the vast apocryphal lore and addresses the reader directly on tolerance. 'Three times three forms of sexual variety' seems about right for now, but just wait til the sexbots arrive in force. The note ends thusly: 'Do not confuse with the Nonahedron Order, an eccentric organisation that combines Satanism, skinhead politics, and Star Trek'. Well, quite.


All in all, a jolly good pamphlet, and yet again I have Learned Something. Several Somethings, in fact.

If you would like a copy send a C5 SAE to:

58 Pennington
Orton Goldhay
Peterborough
PE2 5RB

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Horror Babble!

Right then, I'm doing various things. Writing my sixteenth book for Scare Street - that's quite a lot of books. Working on ST #38, which is shaping up nicely - more on that soon, I hope. And I'm also girding up my ageing loins for a collaborative project with Ro Pardoe's Haunted Library - exciting stuff!

"But Dave, how do you relax amid this whirl of activity?"

Glad you asked me that, made-up anonymous person. I often listen to audio versions of favourite stories, especially ghostly and weird fiction. Which brings me to Horror Babble, a substantial YouTube contributor that posts readings of mostly old horror. I think the team, led by Ian Gordon, do an excellent job.



What's on Horror Babble? A lot of Lovecraft, if that floats your boat. Some M.R. James, a fair bit of Robert Bloch, a big chunk of Robert E. Howard, and a major dollop of Clark Ashton Smith. The complete Carnacki stories by William Hope Hodgson are also there, which is a plus, and there are  Algernon Blackwood's 'greatest hits' as well. There's also some new fiction from various writers, including Creepypastas (i.e. demonic lasagne, ghostly macaroni, etc).

So, if you like listening to horror that's well-chosen and well-read, you might want to give Horror Babble a go.



Tuesday, 8 May 2018

'Picnic at Bluebell Wood'

The last story in Kate Haynes' collection Waiting in the Shadows is a tale of Mean Girls. Or is it? Moyra is a new girl at school, and feels her life would be complete if she could join the elite group of clever, fashionable girls. So when they invite her for a picnic she is ecstatic. Even more wonderful is the fact that the boy she fancies will be there.

Of course, as the date of the outing approaches Moyra begins to wonder if she is being set up. Maybe the group is going to ruin her life, as mean girls tend to do? And sure enough, when she arrives at Bluebell Wood with her bag stuffed full of nosh, there is no sign of the cool girls. An upset Moyra decides to have a picnic by herself - that'll show 'em. But then she encounters a weird presence - pink of face and somewhat Jamesian - that prompts her to flee.

At this point the mean girls scenario is twisted into something else. Moyra is entitled to join the elite group, but membership comes at a very high price. Far from being a stepping stone to something better, Bluebell Wood turns out to be the focus of everything. There are worse things than being an outsider, it seems.

And so the book ends with a suitably dark tale. Overall this collection offers an entertaining canter through a world that overlaps with those of many genre greats. Any ghost story fan would, I think, enjoy it.

That ends my running review. More to come soon! There are all these books...

Monday, 7 May 2018

'The Mirror of the House'

The penultimate story in Waiting in the Shadows is close to mainstream horror, with overtones of classic Gothic tales.

Patsy has had a nervous breakdown thanks to marital problems. When she is released from hospital her husband takes her to their new home, a large Victorian affair that she does not like. Just to make things a bit worse, hubby also installs a housekeeper-cum-warder to watch over Patsy. There are shades of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' in this setup, but things work out rather differently.

One room in the house is a bit weird. A large mirror conceals a door, and behind it lurk inhuman creatures seeking a way into our world. Patsy's misery and confusion serves as their admission. At first it seems as if the creatures are Patsy's ally, but things are not quite so clear-cut.

A tale that could have formed one of the darker episodes of The Twilight Zone, here, and all the better for it. Next time I'll round off this review. Are there still copies of this book to be had? Check out the link above and see.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

'Magicians and Moonlight'

This story in Katherine Haynes' collection Waiting in the Shadows is a sequel to 'The Folded Hands', reviewed earlier on this here blog. 

In the first story the evil Mr Jones destroys the magician, Gontarsky, and in the second he tries to steal one of the latter's greatest secrets. This is revealed to be something like the alchemist's concept of the homunculus. However, Jones has to summon the ghost of Gontarsky to get the magic formula, so to speak, and this causes him difficulties. 

When Jones does succeed in creating a being it is not the gentle, harmless creature Gontarsky imagined. Instead it is a variation on the Welsh legend of a woman made of flowers. The creature proves dangerous, to say the least. But then Jones encounters someone whose own arcane knowledge is at least as significant as his own...

This is a neat tale with a sexy subtext. The theme has been under-explored, but in these days of sex robots it certainly strikes a cultural nerve. Perhaps I should go and have a lie down with the curtains closed and resume this running review later...

Monday, 30 April 2018

Links to Authors!

I have been a bit remiss in the past by not publicising ST authors as much as I could. So I am going to try to turn over a new leaf by posting links, if they exist, to writers currently in the readers poll thingy. Thus you can find out if a writer whose work you like has published other stuff, has a book to flog, or is just Up To Something in general. Here we go!

Helen Grant has a blog here.

Chloe N. Clark has a blog here.

C. M. Muller's blog is here.

Mark Valentine does not seem to have a blog, but some info about his books is here.

Jeremy Schliewe is also a bit shy, but you can read his story 'The Church of Laughter' here.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

'A Fold in the Curtain'

The next story in Kate Haynes' collection Waiting in the Shadows is a previously unpublished ghost story. It's pretty good, again drawing upon the great tradition of the genre. Morgan is a student who is somewhat miffed to find that, instead of spending Christmas with his parents, he must go and look after his grumpy grandfather.

Things take a spooky turn when a mysterious, beautiful woman appears outside the old man's house and leaves a rose on the windowsill. It then emerges that granddad will not spend Christmas at home, but always books into a hotel. A backstory describes how, when young, the old scrote rejected the love of a passionate woman in favour of a 'safe' marriage. Morgan, alone in the house, finds himself re-enacting his grandfather's last encounter with the Spanish beauty.

The story's title comes from pareidoila, the tendency to see faces in random patterns. It recalls Catherine Wells' story 'The Ghost', albeit with a very different tone and outcome. Poor Morgan is the fall guy for the sins of an earlier generation in the finale, as more than one ghost appears.

More from this running review very soon!

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Lock Your Door (1949) - Algernon Blackwood on Film

'The Folded Hands' & 'The Changing Room'

These two stories from Kate Haynes' collection Waiting in the Shadows come pre-approved. I published them in Supernatural Tales - #20 and #10, respectively.

'The Folded Hands' is an interesting example of a quasi-Decadent tale. The mysterious Jones is a wealthy individual who surrounds himself with impoverished failures, apparently so that he can gloat over their misfortunes. The Great Gontasky is a magician who has yet to make it big in the halls (we're in the Edwardian Era, judging by internal evidence), who resents Jones even while accepting his hospitality. The magician suddenly finds fake insects appearing in his drink, his food, and just generally about the place. It's a story of stage magic v. the real kind.

'The Changing Room' has a modern setting. A couple buy a nice house in the country, only to find that it has a dodgy past involving black magic. What's more, a strange couple who wanted to buy the house has moved in next door, and are apparently fixated on a particular first-floor room called the Cabinet. An odd agreement is struck, with each couple agreeing to decorate a room in the other's house. The truth about the Cabinet is revealed...

More from this running (staggering, crawling) review soon. And remember to visit publisher Sarob Press.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

'Something in the Fog'

One thing about reading a collection by an author whose work you are very familiar with is that you get to re-examine said author's influences. In this tale from Kate Haynes' new book there's a distinct feel of between-the-wars writers such as L.P. Hartley and Hugh Walpole.

The story follows Jill, a woman who decides on impulse to attend a school reunion. Her journey to the venue takes her through a fog-bound London, in which she encounters a mysterious cyclist and other shadowy figures. At the same time Jill finds herself thinking of a very pretty girl whose name she can't remember - someone she disliked. Revelations follow. When Jill heads home another encounter in the fog has terrible consequences.

As well as being a well-constructed story of supernatural payback, there's a nice twist to this one. More from this running review in due course! I seem to have quite a backlog of books to review...


Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Vote, Vote, Vote for Something Spooky!

Over on the right (and up a bit) you'll find a poll on the stories in ST#37. At the moment of writing Mark Valentine is doing well, but it's early days yet. Will Mark continue to pull away from the pack? Or will one of the other authors manage to catch him?

Over to Steve Cram...

Image result

"Well, Dave, I reckon the lad Valentine has got the stamina for a long poll, but don't underestimate any of these other wordsmiths. Schliewe has the advantage of a very long, substantial story, Helen Grant's an award-winner with a lot of kudos, Chloe Clark has a poet's visionary insights, and C.M. Muller looks very poised and subtle."

"So it's anybody's race at this stage, Steve?"

"Why aye, man. Have some of me chips."

The point is that you should read the magazine, then vote for your favourite story/stories if you have not yet done so. That's what I'm trying to convey here.

Monday, 23 April 2018

'The Second Crown'

This story from Kate Haynes' collection Waiting in the Shadows (Sarob Press) is a pendant to M.R. James' 'A Warning to the Curious'. The second of the three crowns of East Anglia, as you may know, is held to have been lost when a Saxon palace was inundated by the sea. In this story we find a diver with modern gear who thinks it's possible to recover the 'lost' crown.

That, in itself, is a pretty good premise. What's interesting is the way in which the treasure hunt is the 'A plot' that runs alongside the 'B plot'. The diver's wealthy girlfriend, who funds his expeditions, is the protagonist, and she is pregnant when the story begins. It is her pregnancy and concern for her unborn child that takes us forward as much as the revelation that the second crown has a guardian - and a familiar one to MRJ fans.

'The Second Crown' is an unusual story. Not by any means a Jamesian pastiche, it instead combines the Gothic element - a woman deceived/misused - with the supernatural plot. No way could Monty have written this, which makes it an interesting exploration of the world of scholarly spookery he created.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

The Friends of Count Magnus

A shadowy occult organisation has asked me to publicise their activities here, and to be honest I was too scared not to. You can't be too careful in this game.

The Friends of Count Magnus are holding a two-day conference in York on all things M. R. Jamesian. This will mark the 120th anniversary of James' visit to York 'to examine the painted glass of twelve of its mediaeval parish churches. His notebooks from the time are filled with descriptions of angels, demons and scenes of the Apocalypse…'

If you click on the link above you will find details galore! (I'm going, but don't let that put you off, I'm very quiet unless someone spikes my port and lemon.) What's more, the intellectual shindig is being held in the Bar Convent, which sounds fascinating. The dates are 26th and 27th of September.

Speakers include Helen Grant, Paul M. Chapman, Peter Bell, and Gail-Nina Anderson. In addition, Robert Lloyd-Parry will be giving a performance of one of MRJ's tales. Expert talks, panel discussions - it's the Full Monty, basically.

So why not come along? I promise to behave.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

'Chalk'

The second story in Waiting in the Shadows (see previous blog entry) begins thusly: 'Pansy Williams had the misfortune to be exceptionally pretty.' You wouldn't think, with such an opening, that an enormous primeval phallus would feature prominently in the denouement. But it does. Sort of.

Pansy's brief journey through life is neatly described by Kate Haynes as a series of disappointments and frustration. She's too attractive to have friends, too shallow and self-centred to keep men. Eventually she resorts to changing her name to Paula and going on a dating website. It's that bad. At first things seem to be looking up, as Paula/Pansy contacts Rufus, a nice-seeming chap. They agree to meet up in a quaint old English town 'to the north east of Longleat'.

A nearby landmark is a chalk giant, a figure of a man 'in a state of arousal'. Paula does not approve of that sort of thing and is dismayed to find a mezzotint of the randy giant in her hotel lounge. What's more, when Rufus turns up he seems weak and sickly compared to his online picture. But as he is attentive and apparently wealthy she goes along with his suggestion that they have a picnic on the hill of the Standing Man. It is there that Paula realises things are not quite what they seem.

This is another story that nods to M.R. James, notably the hill figure in 'An Evening's Entertainment'. It offers a new take on an old theme that I won't reveal here. Very much a folk horror tale, this one has a distinct feel of Seventies spooky TV, in a good way. More from the running review soon.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Waiting in the Shadows - Running Review

Sarob Press has published a new collection of stories by Katherine Haynes. As you can see it has a typically classy cover by Paul Lowe. I'll be reviewing it over the next couple of weeks (probably),

Waiting in the Shadows is bound to appeal to lovers of the traditional ghost story, particularly M.R. James fans like me. The first story, 'The Chapel in the Woods' is based on an outline by MRJ in his 'Stories I Have Tried to Write'. It does, however, offer a significant variation.

A schoolboy joins a friend for Christmas at an isolated country house. The friend's guardian covets the house but it is the boy's by right. A friendly local priest takes an interest in the young folk, who explore the eponymous chapel.

A book found in the derelict chapel seems likely to interest the erudite clergyman. The narrator urges his host not to give it to the priest, however, because it seems 'evil'. The priest suffers an unpleasant fate. That is where MRJ's outline ends, but Kate Haynes adds a coda in which the narrator returns to see his old school-friend. It transpires that the dark arts have been put to use once more.

'The Chapel in the Woods' is a story that goes beyond Jamesian pastiche, both in tone and content. The chilly winter conditions are well-evoked. All in all, a good start. More of my reactions this collection very soon.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Vote, Vote, Vote for Spiffing Stories!

Yes, the latest mighty volume of ST is out there, and the authors are eagerly awaiting the verdict of the reading public. Or at least the proportion of the reading public that can be bothered to vote on the poll, top right (look over there, yes that's it).

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Remember, the winner of the ST readers' poll will receive £25 and tremendous kudos. But they can't buy stuff with kudos, so think of the money! Think of the happy little author deciding that they can afford that second-hand cloak after all. Or just some booze. The point is, vote!

You can vote for more than one story, too.

I should have mentioned that earlier.

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Friday, 13 April 2018

Supernatural Tales - Kindle Edition

Supernatural Tales 37: Spring 2018 by [Longhorn, David, Grant, Helen, Clark, Chloe N., Muller, C.M., Valentine, Mark, Schliewe, Jeremy]
Follow the link to the digital, Space Age version of the magazine. You know it makes cyber-sense.

New Issue Available!

Supernatural Tales 37If you go to this link you will find Supernatural Tales 37 - Spring 2018. It contains stories by Helen Grant, C.M. Muller, Jeremy Schliewe, Chloe N. Clark, and Mark Valentine. You will also find lots of lovely back issues, hint hint.




Thursday, 12 April 2018

Indian Horror

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Bollywood Gothic

A few years back I became semi-addicted to what was termed Asian horror. This was down to the horror boom that followed the surprise success of the Japanese film Ring(u). It was followed by more Japanese films, plus Korean and Hong Kong horror. A little later other countries joined in, notably Thailand, with movies like Shutter. Vietnam and Cambodia have also produced some interesting films. A lot of Asian horror movies were made for DVD release in the US, such was the demand. But, inevitably, the genre went a little stale as tropes quickly became familiar and sequels suffered from the law of diminishing returns. At the same time other Asian countries that we don't associate with horror have started to 'come through', notably Iran - A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

However, while I was noodling about on YouTube looking for clips of likely movies I did notice that roughly half of the population of Asia did not seem keen on being scared. Bollywood is the world's biggest film industry, but horror movies were a tiny sub-genre in India. Most Indian horror films, about 15 years ago, were short, amateur or 'indie' productions. However, in recent years things have changed for the better. So here are some examples of Indian screen horror I've seen lately.

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First up, Kanika (2017). Written and directed by Pushkar Manohar, this is a fairly basic 'people haunted by lethal ghost girl' tale. The influence of East Asian horror is very evident, but the production values are not very high. The main interest - for me - is the way in which the 'victims' are all members of a medical profession that has committed a very specific crime. They are guilty of gender-specific abortions on behalf of families who don't want girl children. This adds a uniquely Indian feel to what is, in other respects, a familiar tale of vengeance from beyond the grave.

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Look at the picture above. It is the cast of the 2013 film Horror Story. These crazy young people have a party, then some idiot suggests going to the old abandoned hotel outside the city. You know, the one that was reportedly built on top of an asylum. Derivative in the extreme, Horror Story is still a lot of fun, mainly because you can play guessing games. Will the party girl in sparkly hot-pants die first, or will it be the smooth guy in the waistcoat? And who will survive, and how will they defeat/neutralise the ghost? What is the back story of this haunting, anyway?

I enjoyed this film more than I expected, as it is well-paced and not too silly. Standard Hollywood fair with a Bollywood veneer, it does not outstay its welcome at the  Hotel Grandiose. Yes, that's what the haunted hotel is called. It's that kind of film.


Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Issue #37 is almost here!


Includes stories by Helen Grant, Mark Valentine, C.M. Muller, Jeremy Schliewe, and Chloe N. Clark. Soon to be available to purchase as a paperback and ezine. Cover illo by Sam Dawson.

Is it really 2018?

Blimey.

The Prozess Manifestations - Review

“The Prozess Manifestations” by Mark Samuels (numbered edition)

I received a free copy of this stylish, numbered edition from Zagava. As you can see it's got one of the least expressive covers of our time. But perhaps that's the point, as The Prozess Manifestations is a thoroughly dark book. The contents are:

“Decay”
“An End to Perpetual Motion”
“Moon Blood Red – Tide Turning”
“The Crimson Fog”
“The Court of Midnight”
“In the Complex”

The central conceit linking all but one of these tales is an offstage character called Doctor Prozess, who is responsible for various baffling and disturbing events. Howeve, Prozess is not mentioned in the longest story, 'The Crimson Fog', leaving this collection almost but not quite themed. A fault, a joke, a deliberate snook-cocking? I don't know.

In the first story a convincingly unpleasant Silicon Valley type sets off in search of a possible solution to the problem of Artificial Intelligence. Carlos Diaz spends so much timed and money on prostitutes and drugs that he fails to notice civilisation collapsing around him thanks to a mind-destroying game based on Mandalas. He eventually encounters 'Doc Prozess', in a way, and the big reveal is nicely done. But this is really a science fiction story of the sort one might find in Interzone, and therefore a bit outside the scope of yours truly.

In 'An End to Perpetual Motion' we jump back in time to the Thirties, and a successful British writer on his way to Hollywood to script 'talkies'. You know how sometimes a trivial blunder can ruin any feeling of authenticity? Well, that happened for me here, as the first person narrator tells us that his old trouble with insomnia recurred 'at the end of the first week' of his trans-Atlantic voyage. If a liner took more than a week to cross the Atlantic back in those days there was something seriously wrong with it - 5-6 days was average.

That gripe aside it's a decent enough story. Man encounters stranger who seems obsessed  with the speed of the ship, and afraid it might stop. Stranger has significant name of Zeno, who demonstrated the theoretical impossibility of motion a while back. Ship, inevitably, stops. We learn that Doctor Prozess is the stranger's pursuer. The conclusion is not especially startling but it satisfies.

'Moon Blood Red - Tide Turning' is my favourite, perhaps because it is short and concise. Here the narrator is a rather Aickmanesque figure, someone who moves from one minor publishing job to another, and encounters an actress (we're in the late 20th century, at first). The narrator attends a performance of an experimental play by Doctor Prozess, during which a lunar eclipse plunges the Cornish outdoor theatre into darkness. Decades later, the narrator encounters the cast again.

'The Crimson Fog', a science fiction novella, paces restlessly between Ballard and Lovecraft, and can't seem to settle. A remote region of Asia is covered by the eponymous fog, a mysterious phenomenon that brings with it alien flora and huge, tick-like predators dubbed 'friends'. The Crimson Fog grows and will soon cover the earth unless it is stopped.

This setup is strikingly reminiscent of the film Annihilation, based on a book by Jeff Vandermeer. But, as I said, the mysterious 'Zone' that fascinates and then destroys the adventurer, the visionary, and the boffin is a venerable concept. The bar is correspondingly high, I feel.

Conventional military assaults on the Crimson Fog fail, but one officer - a Kurtz-like figure - survives to transmit gnomic shortwave messages. A squad is sent in to rescue a man who is assumed to have the secret of beating the fiends. Things go pear-shaped quickly in a plot that creaks a bit when considered simply as an adventure narrative. I must admit it never really engaged me.

'The Court of Midnight' sees us in the Old World, a Europe devastated by a war that may be Great. This is a parallel universe-ish tale of a refugee in a once-great city stricken by a 'lunar plague'. The plague is particularly lethal to the creative, so artists and writers are more likely to fall victim than mere commoners. There's a touch of Kafka about the plot and the style, as narrator Melchior receives messages informing him that Doctor Prozess will be personally attending him.

Finally, 'In the Complex' offers a view of the world as a kind of concentration camp-cum-sanitarium. The protagonist here is taken to a vast asylum-like building and subject to a brutal and terrifying regime. Kafka meets Clive Barker as bits of the narrator's body are removed by way of a punishment that is also a kind of surreal therapy. We end where we began, with a bleak vision of an irredeemable world.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

3 Extremes II


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A confusing title for the second in the Asian horror anthology series, in which leading directors from various countries tackle (relatively) short stories. The first 3 Extremes was a mixed bag, inevitably, but contained one undeniable - if extremely nasty - masterpiece, in the form of 'Dumplings'. Don't ask. If you've not seen it, just watch it on an empty stomach.

Because there was so much visceral horror in the first 3 Extremes I expected the second volume to be, well, extreme. So I braced myself. And I kept bracing myself all the way through. Far from being extreme horror, this is a collection of well-made horror tales. They will disappoint carnage lovers, but anyone else should find something satisfying.

First up is Kim Jee-Woon, Korean director of A Tale of Two Sisters. If you've seen the latter you know that Kim is a master of bait-and-switch weirdness. This story, 'Memories', does not disappoint. It begins with a new take on a cliched scenario - a man lying asleep on a couch in a normal living room. Except there's a creepy doll whose head twists round to look at him, and a child's balloon moves of its own accord. In the corner he sees a dark-haired woman, rocking back and forth in distress...

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Thus begins a compact yet convoluted tale of the disappearance of a wife, and her husband's quest to find her. The wife wakes up lying in the road, her phone broken, and sets off to find her family. The husband clashes with relatives and seems to be cracking up. Is the wife a ghost? What will happen when she finally gets home? The visuals have that peculiar urban bleakness that Korean directors seem to have mastered - beauty conjured from concrete.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

'Notes on the Border'

The final story in the collection The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things is, rather cunningly, not so much a story as a collection of notes that might make any number of cracking tales. It consists of a series of entries in a journal starting on 13th September 2001 and ending in the following September. Not surprisingly the author finds himself in small towns, visiting bookshops, the odd record shop, and of course historic buildings.

Along the way we learn about Mark Valentine's literary tastes. I've heard of most of the authors he mentions, read somewhat fewer of them. He is of course a Machen fan, but also an admirer of the late W.G. Sebald, somewhat less keen on Simon Raven. A 'PJB' is, I presume, the author Peter Bell, who joins Mark for some bibliophile adventures. Along the way we find the killing of the last wolf in England (allegedly), some nice pubs, and find out what a cittern is. This story-cum-essay is a tad Borgesian in its eclecticism and a very pleasant, relaxing end to the collection.

So, overall, this is a darn good book. Anyone who likes well-crafted, erudite, and unsettling fiction will not be disappointed. And well done Zagava for producing such a fine hardback, while also offering TUOAET as a nicely-priced paperback.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

Friday, 30 March 2018

'As Blank As the Days Yet to Be'

“The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things” by Mark Valentine (numbered edition)The penultimate story Mark Valentines The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things is a tale of the cockatrice. No, missus, really. From it I learned that a cockatrice is a hybrid cock-snake (I'm not making this up) and has gorgonesque powers to turn other living things to stone. I wasn't aware of cockatrice legends from around England, one of which involved someone lowering a mirror into its lair so it zapped itself. We are an ingenious people...

In the story the narrator sets out in search of more folklore and finds it in a small village, along with something else - the remains of an ancient turf maze. These are fascinating, not least because nobody could get lost in them.

Well, not in a conventional sense I gleaned the possibility that the young man the author meets, Anthony, is not just a helpful local but something more, and that the two walking the maze has great significance. Unfortunately I found the story baffling so I can't be sure how successful it might seem to someone who understood it.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

'Martin's Close'



Here's Alan Brown's evocative illustration for M.R. James classic tale of ghostly vengeance, which prompted me to think about the story again - as good artwork does. It's a disturbing read, but I suspect some modern folk might struggle a bit with the period dialogue in the court transcript. For me it's one of the best examples of a historical ghost story - one set in a bygone era that is expertly brought to life by the author. In Judge Jeffries James offers a very believable portrait of a real villain, acting as a kind of counterweight to George Martin, who's pretty much a broken man by the time his trial begins.

You can hear a discussion of this slightly neglected story at the excellent A Podcast to the Curious, and there a lot of useful links on the site, too.

http://www.mrjamespodcast.com/2012/06/episode-14-martins-close/


Look Ma, Top o' the World!



Okay so it wasn't No. 1 for long, but still. If Mr Spielberg is interested I'm in most evenings.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

'The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things'

The title story in Mark Valentine's new collection from Zagava is a gentle tale of strange events on the borders of what we term normal life.

A man goes to a small rural community to curate a museum dedicated to a not-very-famous explorer. In his new home he becomes fascinated by the artefacts he now has in his care, particularly ones which bear odd carvings in what might be an unknown language. Then the narrator encounters a pleasant, eccentric woman engaged in taking rubbings in the church. It turns out that she is also trying to create a new Tarot specific to the odd Cornish village of Sancreed.

The setting of Sancreed is beautifully evoked, and the story relies on the Machenesque notion that some places are closer (in some dimension) to a higher truth than most. The revelation that the characters experience at the old 'rocket shed' on the westernmost tip of the peninsula is awesome in the old-fashioned sense, an epiphany that it may take them a lifetime to truly know. This is, in a way, a love story, emphasising that the greatest mysteries of life and time are always close at hand.

More from this running review soon. I've reached that point in the book where I slow down a bit because I don''t want to get to the end. But I'm definitely getting there, regardless...

Quatermass and the Tits


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I've just watched Lifeforce (1985) all the way through for the first time in many years. I have a few thoughts. Oh dearie me, yes.


For a start, this is a film with many real virtues. Unfortunately none of them have much to do with the script or the lead performances. Nope,  it's all down to the effects, the general production values, Tobe Hooper's solid direction, and a very good (if somewhat under-used) supporting cast. Much of the blame for this hefty box-office flop lies with Colin Wilson's original story, which - as my clickbaity title for this post hints - is wildly derivative stuff with a sweaty whiff of soft porn. Wilson's novel The Space Vampires I have not read. But if the script is any guide, it must be a doozy. But let's consider those virtues I mentioned first.

For a start, John Dyskra's space effects are rather good, especially in the opening sequence when the spacecraft Churchill approaches Halley's Comet and identifies a 150 mile-long alien spaceship lurking in the plasma fog around the nucleus. I mean, that's a good opener. They even try to add a bit of Real Science by having the Churchill (it's an Anglo-American space mission you see) powered by the Nerva rocket. Nerva was a real nuclear rocket engine researched in the early Sixties, thought it could not provide the continuous 1g thrust claimed here. Still, good try.


Saturday, 17 March 2018

New books by me

"Two new books, Dave? What a splendid chap you are, well done!"

"Gosh, yes, you're so prolific."

"Please have all our money."

Factually speaking, these books are about: changelings, 'the Good Folk', a haunted mansion, unwise ghost-hunting TV production methods, monsters, a town near the Welsh border called Machen, and other things.




'The Scarlet Door' and 'Vain Shadows Flee'

The next two stories in The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things were both published by me in ST, and are therefore brilliant. Well, okay, they're very good. 'The Scarlet Door' sees Mark Valentine in familiar territory - the world of niche collectors. In this case the narrator haunts small, cluttered bookshops in search of rare volumes. Not valuable books per se, you understand, but ones so obscure that they have never been catalogued or shelved in a library. In the eponymous scarlet volume he finds more than he bargained for. Or does he? All we can be sure of is that books are portals to strange worlds, and almost unknown books can offer routes to the strangest realms of all.

'Vain Shadows Flee' is a tribute to the late Joel Lane. Not a horror tale as such, it is a meditation on loss. In this case the loss is of Bide-y, a tramp who lived by a canal and sang 'Abide With Me', then vanished. From this apparently thin seam the author weaves a compelling picture of the margins of our increasingly shabby, callous society.

There is beauty even in decline, of course. Thus on a morning in early February: 'The stalks of grass were like white daggers, and each paving stone was an atlas of frosted glass.' One of the pleasures of this book is the high standard of the writing, which is often wryly humorous but sometimes, as in this story, sombre and elegiac in tone.

More from this running review very soon.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

'Yes, I Knew the Venusian Commodore'


Best title I've read in a good while, and a good story too. Mark Valentine's collection The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things has a few recurring themes. One is the torment that sensitive, thoughtful individuals must suffer in a world that is crass and indifferent. Another is loneliness, the yearning for a connection, a sense of order and belonging.

“The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things” by Mark Valentine (numbered edition)

'Yes, I Knew the Venusian Commodore' tackles these themes by the roundabout route of imagined  low-budget sci-fi. In the obscure film Venus Invades Us the eponymous commander was played by an actor rejoicing in the screen name of Triton. Triton put in one of those compelling performances that can raise a film to cult status. Fans materialise, while work remains sparse.

And then, as sometimes happens, Triton began to identify with his one significant role so much that he believed himself to be in touch with aliens. The only problem is that the Venusians are in fact peaceful. It's those warlike Martians you've got to watch. And so the commodore, promoting himself to admiral, envisaged a follow-up in which he leads an interplanetary armada to bring peace to the solar system. But death claims him before his project can be realised.

This could be presented as broad tragi-comedy, but instead the narrator makes it clear that Triton, deluded or not, is admirable in his devotion to peace. The envisaged sequel All Against Mars is an allegory about the struggle on Earth between love and hate, creation and destruction. Triton is in some ways the archetypal English eccentric, but his mission is not absurd. 

More from this running review soon. 


Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Ghost - Review


Antispoiler alert - Ghost by Helen Grant is not a supernatural tale. It is, however, a modern Gothic novel that anyone who likes Helen's other work will enjoy. So, having said that, what's it about?

The setting is a big, isolated house in the Scottish countryside. There live Ghost, real name Augusta, and her grandmother. Ghost knows that, beyond the dense forest that fringes the estate, World War 2 is raging. Bombs fall onto terrified civilians, war machines clash by land, sea, and air, and while the men are away fighting women are drafted into factories to make munitions.

Grandmother is protecting Ghost from a world in chaos. Grandmother sometimes goes into town for supplies, but ghost - who is seventeen - never ventures as far as the road. It is not safe.
But the great house is crumbling, and a winter storm brings down a section of roof. Grandmother calls in a builder to repair the damage, and the builder brings his teenage son, Tom. Ghost, as usual, has to hide in the attic. Nobody knows of her existence. If she is glimpsed peering out of a window she might well be a ghost. But when she sees Tom she is fascinated and, helped by chance, she establishes an indirect connection.

Then Ghost's world changes. Grandmother goes to the town, but does not return. As in many Gothic novels the secluded life of the sensitive young woman, who has never had a playmate and knows the world only from books, must end. Ghost, with Tom's help, begins to make sense of her small world, and learns more of the world beyond it. There are a series of revelations and twists, right to the end, with just about every Gothic trope deployed to good effect. And I have to admit that the ending surprised me, yet made perfect sense in the context of the novel.

Ghost has, rightly I think, been compared to the stand-alone novels of Ruth Rendell. While Helen Grant is not so coldly clinical in her treatment of her characters, she does not flinch from making hard but logical decisions about their fates. This is a compelling read, one for fans of Helen Grant's work, and a good place for new readers to start.

Monday, 12 March 2018

The Haunting Hour (2011-14)

I never read R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series of spooky tales aimed at youngsters. Sadly, I was far too old for them - or so I thought. But having seen Stine on screen, I think I might have been a bit sniffy just because they were aimed at kids.

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Oh God no! Not the clowns!

The Haunting Hour, a TV series bearing Stine's name, is available free to watch on YouTube (as well as on Amazon Prime, without ads). It's an anthology series, with 20 minute episodes offering either stand-alone or two-part stories. These were run in three - hence the title. There were four seasons in all, and while some episodes are a little flat and obvious, some are pretty good. I've seen far worse attempts at anthology series for adults in recent years.

THH is almost a Twilight Zone for kiddies, as some episodes offer science fiction rather than supernatural horror. Most, though, go for the familiar Hallowe'en tropes of the haunted house, the ghost, the vampire etc. And there's nothing wrong with that.

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Albert Steptoe - The Return!

You can find the YouTube Haunting Hour channel here. If you're feeling a bit under the weather and in the mood for relatively mild chills, this might be your cup of tea. Or, of course, if you want to find some family-friendly viewing to imbue a younger person this might just work. Some episodes come with a warning that they are not suitable for smaller children, btw.

Here is an entire episode. It's a tad more bleak than some, but gives a good idea of what's on offer.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

'The Mask of the Dead Mamilius' & 'In Cypress Shades'

Two linked stories, now, from Mark Valentine's The Uncertainty of All Earthy Things. Both feature an eccentric, intense theatre director, Robert Hobbes.

'In Cypress Shades' is told from the perspective of a producer seeking to put on a production of Milton's 'Comus', a strange masque the poet wrote in his youth. Hobbes, a finely-drawn example of the director-as-tyrant, finds a make-up artist whose work is so  good that it eliminates the need for masks in the masque. Unfortunately, as the narrator discovers, the mysterious artist's work has an enduring quality.

'The Mask of the Dead Mamilius' concerns the tragic small son of Leontes in The Winter's Tale, who dies because his father - another tyrant - falsely believes he had been cuckolded. In this short tale a young actress takes the part of Mamilius, who is required by Hobbes to haunt Leontes through to the bitter-sweet end of the drama. Unfortunately the haunting proves more than merely theatrical...

Theatrical ghost stories are often gentle, whimsical efforts, but these have a more disturbing tone. Changing faces, they warn us, is always a problematic activity, and artistry is akin to magic,

More from this running review very soon.

Friday, 9 March 2018

'Zabulo'


“The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things” by Mark Valentine (numbered edition)

'Let me commend to you the work of the Churches Conservation Trust...'

So begins Mark Valentine's tale of a gentleman who - like so many protagonists in M.R. James' stories - likes looking into churches on his travels. He finds one that seems to be in the wrong place, and in it he discovers some rather odd cards.

I never gave much thought to those hymn numbers that are seen in churches, usually stuck in a frame on a pillar near the pulpit. But, as this story makes clear, they must be printed by someone and are bound to be stored in or near the church.

But why, in this case, are there so many numbered cards? And why were so many of them printed by one 'Zabulo'. When the narrator repeats the unusual name, things happen...

This is an atmospheric vignette, one that skirts the dark waters of medieval magic, numerology, and related matters. I enjoyed it when it first appeared in the Ghosts & Scholars newsletter, and I enjoyed it the second time.

More from this running review very soon. Let me remind you that, while The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things is available as a limited edition hardback, there will also be an unlimited paperback edition for the fiscally challenged. And those who don't get review freebies, obviously.

'Goat Songs'


“The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things” by Mark Valentine (numbered edition)

Mark Valentine is probably a record collector. I offer this opinion because he pretty much nails the atmosphere of second-hand record shops in 'Goat Songs'. His narrator stumbles across - or is lured by? - an obscure album by one of those Sixties groups who were into mysticism, folklore, and mind-bending antics.


Like the previous story, 'Goat Songs' is about the enchantments that music can weave. The title refers to the album title, the group being Satyr. The climax of the story is, of course, the playing of the record. But before this we have learned that the 'hero' is a lost soul, living in a van with his record collection, often going without food so he can buy more. So when the final track on the album does not start the reader half-knows what is coming - the absolute release from the bleakly mundane that music so often promises, but so rarely delivers.

I'm making good progress with this collection and will provide more review fragments soon.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

International (Spooky) Women's Day 2

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I've just received the latest copy of the Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter. It seems only fair to point out that it's editor, Ro Pardoe, is one of the great women of weird fiction. She does not blow her own trumpet and deserves to be better known. She is a retiring Titan (or possibly a quiet Colossus) of genre fiction, one of those people who have been busy in fandom and small press publishing for decades and brought pleasure to thousands (at least) for no material reward.

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I think it was through a dealer's catalogue that I found out about Ro's magazine (then simply Ghosts & Scholars) and subscribed to it. I also bought some of her excellent Haunted Library chapbooks. I have since met Ro and her husband Darroll on a few (far too few) occasions, and found them as pleasant and erudite in real life as they are on the page. Ro doesn't 'do' the internet, wbich might explain why she is not as well-known as other editors. But her work on M.R. James and related authors is a monument to tenacity and, yes, scholarship.

You can find out a lot more about Ro's work at the G&S website, though it has been dormant for some time.

Darrol Pardoe, Rosemary Pardoe, Ned Brooks

Here are Ro and Darroll at Seacon in 1979, long before I knew them. We all had so much more hair, then. I'm sure they won't mind me posting this pic. It's all in good fun, guys.

Guys...?

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International (Spooky) Women's Day

The ghost story was often seen as an essentially 'feminine' sub-genre in Victorian times. Genteel ladies seem to have woven ghost stories by the square mile for all those new, flourishing periodicals. But if the form was dismissed by 'serious' critics, that did not stop female writers producing some classics of the genre. Here are a few.

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'The Shadows on the Wall' by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. A clever, psychological tale of a bereavement that casts a literal shadow over a far from happy family. It's a simple idea brilliantly executed by a very accomplished American author. 

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'The Library Window' by Margaret Oliphant. This prolific Scottish author produced more restrained and religious-toned stories. This tale of a convalescing girl confined to a bedroom is a bit more 'modern' and disturbing, though. She becomes fascinated by what is supposedly a false window in the old university library opposite. A strange man is sometimes visible in the window...

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'Don't Look Now' - Daphne Du Maurier. The film adaptation is faithful to the weirdness of the original tale, but even if you know the ending it remains shocking. The theme of a dead child haunting its parents is not uncommon, but the way Du Maurier twists the psychic sub-plot is truly strange. All of her short fiction is worth seeking out. A true original.

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'The Tower' - Marghanita Laski. Not an easy one to find, and a very short tale, but extremely effective. It's an original idea that's been copied many times since it first appeared in Lady Cynthia Asquith's Third Ghost Book 1955. It has been reprinted at least once since. No spoilers here!

And finally, here is a (somewhat dodgy VHS) version of 'Three Miles Up' by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a story based on her canal boating adventures with Big Bad Bob Aickman. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

'Listening to Stonehenge'

The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things by Mark Valentine is, unsurprisingly, proving to be a first-rate collection. 'Listening to Stonehenge' is a tale of an expert on classical music contracted compile a CD of British music. The problem is that the theme is monuments, and there are few - if any - suitable pieces. So begins a quest for obscure works that leads to a forgotten female composer of the inter-war years, and a piece entitled 'Stonehenge'.

This is a tale of the gig economy, interestingly enough, with our narrator making a precarious living writing sleeve notes etc for several employers. It also offers amusing insights into the world of cheap classic music publishing - the 'Glorious Britain' stuff, complete with 'Spitfire over the Cliffs of Dover' cover. It's a slight tale, but the finale, in which the expert flees a bizarre, disturbing rendition of the elusive work, has just the right touch of surreal nightmare. It's a bit Dead of Night, in fact - that's a hint, but I hope not a spoiler.

More from this running review very soon. The next one may have goats...

Perhaps I should include the list of contents while I'm about it, as the titles are so evocative.
To the Eternal One
The Key to Jerusalem
Listening to Stonehenge
Goat Songs
Zabulo
In Cypress Shades
The Mask of the Dead Mammilius
Yes, I Knew the Venusian Commodore
The Scarlet Door
Vain Shadows Flee
The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things
as blank as the days yet to be
Notes on the Border

Monday, 5 March 2018

'The Key to Jerusalem'

“The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things” by Mark Valentine (numbered edition)The second story in Mark Valentine's collection The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things keeps the reader in the Middle East. He begins by reminding us how inextricably entwined British imperial shenanigans were in the current state of the region.


A group of British army cooks in Allenby's army, which is fighting the Turks, are sent out to forage for chickens. They instead encounter the Mayor of Jerusalem, who wishes to surrender. The keys of the city are offered, and duly passed on to senior officers - but one extra key, wrapped in a scrap of paper, is given to the cook covertly by the mayor. The cook passes it to an army chaplain. The paper seems to depict a strange coat of arms...

The story is told in the form of three transcripts of interviews with the cook, the chaplain (in old age) and an expert on heraldry. The key is linked a missing order of Crusaders, it is claimed. But the man who went in search of the hidden truth is long since vanished.

There is an elusive magic in this story, reminiscent of Borges' intellectual puzzles that leave the reader feel that he's playing a game without knowing the rules. I liked it, others might not appreciate its ambiguity. But this is a story about the Middle East, and simple resolutions are not available.

More from this running review soon! I'm enjoying this book - it makes an ideal read for snowbound misanthropes.


Sunday, 4 March 2018

The Uncertainty of All Earthy Things - Running Review

A new small press publisher (to me) is Germany's Zagava, which produces limited hardback editions, but also offers unlimited paperbacks. A good policy! The first book they sent me for review is by ST regular, Machen scholar, bibliophile and all-round good egg Mark Valentine. I pinched this image from Zagava's Facebook page (see link above) which also links to its online store here.

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So here I go, reviewing a book by someone I know and like. That's pretty much how 90 per cent of 'proper' book reviewing works, of course. But various things happening lately in the rather incestuous world of small press publishing makes me digress here. I will not give something a free pass if I don't think it's good enough. If an author I know and count as a friend writes a stinker I may be unwilling to pan it, but I will not praise it to the skies.

Right, let us move on. The first story in TUOAET is 'To the Eternal One'. It's a period piece, set 'between the wars', in which a group of (somewhat) likeable con-artists travel to Palmyra. The gang have been making a good living forging title documents for people who want to be princes, archbishops etc. The trick - a clever one - is to use the titles of the old Crusader Kingdoms of the Middle East. But things get a little hot for the in England, so they go to the ancient Syrian city to attempt something more ambitious - passports to the afterlife. As the protagonist investigates the city's darker areas to glean 'authentic' artefacts and images, he begins to sense the presence of what might be The Unknown God of the Palmyrans.

This summary is very crude and perhaps misleading. If this is a horror story, it is about the horror we all feel when life is too chaotic and shoddy to be borne, but the alternative seems even worse. It is certainly a weird tale, firmly rooted in the tradition of Machen and Blackwood. There can be no easy resolutions, because deities - or things like them - are not easygoing. It is a fine start to the collection.

More soon from this running, or possibly shambling, review.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Snowy Ghosty

It's snowing a bit in Britain and everyone is - as our American cousins put it - 'losing their shit' over a bit of bad weather in winter. A good time, then, to ponder some supernatural tales in which snow is pretty much central. Stories in which there'd be a ghostly no show if there was no snow.

1. 'The Glamour of the Snow'

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Algernon Blackwood's 1912 tale of a somewhat reclusive, sensitive Englishman on holiday in Switzerland. He feels estranged from his countrymen and women, but finds a sympathetic skating partner on the rink at midnight. The mysterious female companion entrances him, until eventually he is lured out of the town and up into the Alps...



2. 'The Woman of the Saeter'

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Jerome K. Jerome's 1893 tale of cabin fever. For a legendary humorist JKJ had a fine way with weird, disturbing fiction. We're in the Alps again, this time for a folk tale. The narrative device is the familiar one of someone - a nice, sensible chap, of course - discovering some writings in an old building.
At home I should have forgotten such a tale an hour after I had heard it, but these mountain fastnesses seem strangely fit to be the last stronghold of the supernatural. The woman haunts me already. At night instead of working, I find myself listening for her tapping at the door; and yesterday an incident occurred that makes me fear for my own common sense.
3. 'The Horn'

Stephen Gallagher's tale of travellers stranded in a workmen's hut by a British motorway features - yet again - a female spirit drifting through the blizzard, luring men to their doom. This one is distinctly more violent than those Victorian/Edwardian ghosts, as befits a modern horror tale. And here the vengeful ghost has a solid motive, in marked contrast to Blackwood's nature spirit.

4. 'The Winter Ghosts'

This short 2009 novel by Kate Mosse begins with over references to Blackwood and M.R. James. Set in the French Pyrenees, it concerns an Englishman whose car goes off the road in a blizzard. He makes his way to a nearby village and is invited to take part in a traditional feast. It emerges that the distant past - that of the brutal suppression of the Cathars - is not dead and gone.

5. 'The Captain of the Pole-Star'

We're back to the realm of mysterious, scary, but fascinating female spirits for this one by Arthur Conan Doyle. The doctor of a whaling ship in the Arctic offers an account of a strange cry heard from the pack ice, and of the ghost some of the whalers claim they saw. The captain is clearly obsessed with the eerie spirit, even though it means risking his life, and those of his men...


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