Tuesday, 18 September 2018

'An Episode of Cathedral History'

Image may contain: outdoor

This is by Sebastian Cabrol. You can read an interview with the artists here.



'Wich'

My running review of Figurehead by Carly Holmes continues with this flash fiction piece. It is a familiar tale in some ways. The voice on the page is a young woman living in a poor, rural community who yearns for the liberation that knowledge can bring. She is sure that freedom is bound up in the power of the written word. 'I only wanted to write my name', she explains. But, of course, that is a revolutionary manifesto in some cultures, and not just in the historical past.

The woman becomes a wife and bears a daughter, for whom she wants better than a life of domestic servitude. Writing will achieve this, she hopes. The mistake she makes is to practice writing not in flour or mud but in more permanent media, clay and bark. The words are seen. 

'The local people took my scratched attempts at spelling to be spells. They called me wich.'

Words free us. Words condemn us. 


Monday, 17 September 2018

'The Glamour'


Another piece of flash fiction, again told from a first-person perspective. This one is a little masterpiece of ambiguity. The (again nameless) storyteller sees things - small things that fly and have 'a suggestion of humanity'. The author often takes a minimalist approach to description, which some readers may not like. For me it's not a problem, perhaps because my eyesight is poor and I'm used to being unable to identify things, small and fluttery ones in particular.

Might they be faeries, of a sort? Angels? Demons? Or insects misidentified? Could the person they appear to love be a changeling? What makes the story interesting is that it could be an account of mental breakdown due to illness, or something altogether more strange, magical. There is something a little Blakeian about the finale, and also a hint of Daphne Du Maurier's darker tales (i.e. most of them).

More from this running review very soon!

Sunday, 16 September 2018

'Piece by Piece'

This story from Figurehead by Carly Holmes is another piece of flash fiction, or a condensed short story. Oldsters like me may recalled condensed novels in the New Wave era of science fiction. The idea is to concentrate the power of ideas and imagery, obviously at the expense of sedate character development.

In 'Piece by Piece' there is one character, a nameless voice who explains just how much she loved her home, and how she is now part of it. It may be an account of a  haunting, not as a narrative but as a declaration of love. The teller of this tale recalls the thigh-tingling joy of sliding down the banister, the gradual dissolution of hair and flesh as her incessant cleaning of the wood and plaster causes her to merge with the house.

'I huddle into the cracks, crumbled as thin, as dry, as cement dust.' But there is no regret. And no hint of menace for the newcomer being addressed. An enigmatic tale, then, but one well-told. More from this enjoyable collection very soon.

Announcement - A New Collection of Stories by Jacqueline Simpson

In a heartwarming example of collaboration between Supernatural Tales Productions Inc. and Ro Pardoe's Haunted Library, a new book of tales by the renowned folklorist will soon be available via print on demand. More information soon, but in the meantime here is the list of contents.

"Preface" by Jacqueline Simpson

The Will Stone Stories
"Three Padlocks" 
"On Danish Dunes" 
"Where are the Bones…?"

"Vampire Viking Queen"

"Dragon Path"

"The Trophy"

"Rowland’s Hall"

"Purty Liddle Dears"

"The Game of Bear"

"The Guardian"

"The Pepper-pot"

"Afterword" by Gail-Nina Anderson

"A Note on Will Stone" by Rosemary Pardoe




Saturday, 15 September 2018

'Maria's Silence'

'Maria was perched on the back of the stone horse. Cross-legged, chin in palm, scowling into the distance.'

Maria's appearance on the statue in the town square is all the more surprising, as she is dead. Maria's ghost becomes the focus of attention in a small town that is - to me, at least - located in the republic of magic realism. The story has a Latin American feel, as various relatives, friends, and acquaintances of Maria try to elicit some response from her ghost. 


For me this tale by Carly Holmes is an anti-horror story. Maria has returned not to bring terror and suffering, but to try and improve the lives of those she unwisely left behind. Her silence is important. Silence is important in general. It is how we offer others the chance to speak. In a world of incessant, often idiotic noise, it's a timely story, for all its somewhat retro feel. 

More from Figurehead very soon. Lots of interesting stuff to come, I'll be bound! 

Under the Shadow (2016)



Tehran, 1988. The Iran-Iraq War is drawing to a close. Saddam Hussein's last throw is to bombard Tehran with guided missiles. In an apartment block, a mother and daughter find themselves alone as their neighbours flee the raids. Except that Shideh and her little girl Dorsa aren't really alone. Something has arrived. Something that seeks out suffering, riding on the wind, wanting to possess mortals, body and soul. When Dorsa's favourite doll vanishes, it is the first move in a campaign to steal the child away. Mother and child are under the shadow of war, and oppression - and a paranormal threat.

Written and directed by Babak Anvari, Under the Shadow is a first rate supernatural horror film. The setting is of course original - a city under foreign attack, and also in the grip of a brutal theocracy. Before I watched the film I wondered if this background of very human evil would overwhelm the supernatural aspect. We are inured to a diet of middle-class Americans with secure lives suddenly confronting assorted spooks. Yet to Anvari it is clearly the external, worldly barbarism that empowers supernatural evil. Machen, in 'The Happy Children', took a similar line. 

Much of the film depends on the interaction between Shideh and Dorsa. Fortunately both performers are well cast. Shideh, a would-be doctor barred from study thanks to student activism, is played by Narges Rashidi with understated conviction. Shideh clearly loathes the regime - a forbidden Jane Fonda exercise video is one of her prized possessions. As Dorsa, Avin Manshadi is superb, charming even before we find that one of her favourite pop songs is 'Don't Go' by Yazoo. The dynamic between the two is always convincing, which makes the stakes even higher as things take a disturbing turn. In an American horror film we could be sure that the little girl would escape. Here there are no guarantees.

The film does use a few jump scares, but the first major shock is the Iraqi missile that strikes Shideh's building but fails to go off. The idea that an instrument of terror brings djinns to claim frightened, demoralised victims of war is a clever conceit. The first appearance of a djinn is disturbing enough, but Anvari carefully raises the stakes as the beings close in on the child, using theft and seduction to drive a wedge between Dorsa and her mother. The finale is very reminiscent of Dark Water, and I'm sure Anvari knows this, which is why he throws in an extra kink to the twist.

Under the Shadow is a deceptively straightforward, economical movie that treats the viewer as a grown-up. It's been a long time since a horror film gave me spine-chilling pleasure. This one did.

Friday, 14 September 2018

'Like Water Through Fingers'

This flash-fiction tale from Figurehead is about ways of seeing, feeling, remembering, and grieving. Or it's a ghost story in which someone is haunted by a loved one. It's a lot of things, packed into a small story.

The first person narrator speaks to someone that nobody else can see, and it gradually emerges that this person was the victim of a car accident that left the narrator disabled. The survivor is  obsessed with the water in which the nameless Other drowned after their car went off the road. Improvised rituals involving water become central to the narrator's life. And while the lost love is still present, they cannot be touched, as they slip by like water through fingers.

Another excellent work of very short fiction. Carly Holmes is one of the most gifted writers I've come across in recent years.

The Power Of The Witch (1971)





Rare BBC documentary.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

'Dropped Stitches'

This very short story from Figurhead by Carly Holmes concerns a girl who is born with two extra fingers on each hand. The girl's mother is missing four digits and takes her daughters'. The mother, a renowned dressmaker, attaches the stolen fingers with some fine needlework.

This is a mini-fable, with much of the genuine cruelty of fairy stories before the Victorians tidied them up. As the daughter grows up she attains some control of her mother through the purloined digits, and thus gains strength and independence. Eventually, she takes her fingers back. One can see this as a story about the way some parents try to live out their own dreams through their children, but it may well be something else entirely, what do I know?

More flash-fiction reviewed very soon.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

'Ghost Story'




This tale from Figurehead is a bit of folk-horror, complete with rural traditions, belief in witchcraft, and a suitably disturbing ending.

Set in Wales, it sees a young man called Matt with a Dictaphone and a thesis to write, out collecting stories from elderly folk in a rural area. Meg is a local girl whose Gran would like to help, and together they hear her tale of a witch who's powers - real or imagined - ensured that villagers would leave her plenty of offerings of food, clothing etcetera. One day the witch somehow acquired a daughter, possibly adopted. When the witch died the child was left alone, until she too died in squalid circumstances.

That is the basic story. When Matt and Meg go up to the neglected cottage in the woods they expect simply to gather more information, a few pictures. Both are cheerfully sceptical about witchcraft and the like. But when Meg goes inside the house things start to go badly awry. It seems the witch and her daughter are both still active, and full of resentment at the outside world.

 This would make a splendid TV one-off drama.  I's an economical, efficient story with likeable characters, along with some disturbing scenes. It builds well from a sedate, domestic beginning to its horrifying climax.

More from this running review soon.

Speaking as a classicist...


Much as I'd like to think of myself as writing classics, I suspect 'ephemeral potboilers' is nearer the mark. Still, if people like my take on mazes and large spiders, that's obviously good for society. 

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

I blame the parents

'Codex From Cruach'

The latest poetry pamphlet from Cardinal Cox takes a look at the weird fiction tradition in/from Ireland. There's a lot of it, to say the least, but the Cardinal manages to cover pretty much all bases. The lens through which he views it is, as the title suggests, Lovecraft's 'The Moon-Bog'. A purist might argue that the story bears as much relation to genuine Irish Gothic as Disney's magic kingdom does the Holy Roman Empire. But that's the point - fantasy and reality cannot be disentangled when you look at something so big, rich, and complicated.

The first poem, 'Kilderry Bog', is a cautionary tale of archaeologists mucking about in the peat. 'In deep pit they gathered for hint of gold'. As always concise annotations give an interesting perspective on folklore and the possible interpretations of myths, and ancient monuments. We move on through 'Sea Wolf', a semi-legendary pirate who allegedly harried the Romans, and then return to shore with a look at raths - fairy castles - and other mystical sites. The poet points out that strange gaps in reality still seem to exist, and offers a persuasive idea as to why.

We jump ahead to the beginnings of the Gothic revolution with 'Melmoth', an an interpretation of Maturin's story of the wanderer embracing the highs and lows of the 'Age of Reason'. Melmoth is 'here to witness misery/ That all men enact upon each other'. This leads to Le Fanu's Dr Hesselius, a kind of anti-wanderer, sitting at the heart of a web of correspondence, 'all cross-referenced with Swedenborg texts'.

The sheer wealth of material available to anyone writing about the Irish weird tradition is remarkable. Here we find prolific authoress Lady Wilde (niece by marriage of Maturin), Bram Stoker, and of course Oscar himself. The final poem, 'Estate on the Borderland', ties up earlier imagery with its vision of Hodgsonian horrors emerging from underneath our world.

Typically though-provoking and entertaining, this pamphlet is available to anyone who sends the Cardinal a C5 sae. .

58 Pennington
Orton Goldhay
Peterborough
PE2 5RB
He can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Monday, 10 September 2018

'Sleep'



Another substantial tale from this new Tartarus collection, 'Sleep' begins with a portrayal of what seems to be a mother fleeing domestic violence with her small son. Rosy and her son Tom (aka Boo) move into a grotty flat on the outskirts of a small English town. They are travelling light. We find that Tom's arm has been injured. But Rosy's behaviour is odd -  why does she try to ensure that Tom can't get into her bedroom when she sleeps? Why is she alarmed when she sees her son approach a dozy sheep? And why can't Tom be trusted to go to school?

As the story unfolds it becomes clear that this is a modern take on a strong, disturbing theme - how far can parental love go? And what will a mother do when she is at the end of her tether? It's a remorseless, bleak story, but as with the earlier tales mentioned below it is not presented in overblown, melodramatic form. Tom is a very believable little boy, Rosy a typical-seeming mother driven to the end of her tether.

I'll need a while to recover from this one. It confirms my view that Carly Holmes is a very gifted writer, and that her imagination is a weird and sometimes very dark place.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

'Little Matrons'

The third story from Carly Holmes' collection Figurehead is a short but very effective tale of supposedly inanimate objects.

It took me a few moments to realise that the little matrons are literally that - nesting Russian dolls, or matryoshkas. Their lives are more eventful than you might think. And more tragic. The most casual events - children playing soldiers, a dog wagging its tail, someone needing a doorstop - conspire to wreck the happy family. While the tone is fairly light, I did feel pangs of sympathy for the victims of happenstance, especially the one who rolled under the bed and was forgotten.

It's as if Lovecraft had been forced (presumably at gunpoint) to write from a toy's perspective, with everyday human activity standing in for the machinations of the Great Old Ones. Well, it's like that a bit. Holmes' prose is much cleaner and more direct than the majority of weird fiction authors. As I said in my first entry on this book, she is a cool, observant author. She is also clever enough to invert the convention of the evil doll, and do it with great aplomb.

Dolls - treat them gently. They'll appreciate it.

Phobia 2 reviewed






The first Phobia movie was a fun anthology movie that followed the usual pattern - some stories light and silly, some altogether more serious, the overall feel a bit of a mixed bag. My opinion of it is here. I recently had the pleasure of viewing the second in the series, and found it equally enjoyable - though a lot bleaker, in some parts.

Phobia 2 (original title Ha Phraeng) consists of five short stories. 'Novice' begins with a young man having head head shaved as part of his initiation for a Buddhist monastery. Pey is not there voluntarily - his mother is trying to conceal him among the saffron-clad monks because he has committed a long series of crimes, the last ending in a death. But despite being urged to stay and repent, Pey acts like an arsehole. When he is supposed to be fasting he sets out to steal food offerings left for hungry ghosts.

This is a nicely-made, rather grim segment that revolves around the idea of karma. The hungry ghosts of Thai legend are not quaint, hovery spooks but towering, roaring monsters eager to destroy the living. The finale is suitably karmic.

'Ward' sees another young man in difficulties, but this time we see that Arhit is more foolish than downright bad. He crashes his bike, injuring his legs, and is put in a hospital ward. While Arhit wants a shared room he wends up next to an old man on life support. The man, he is told, will soon die. Then the man's followers turn up and begin to say strange, ritual prayers. It seems the old man is a cult leader.


Saturday, 8 September 2018

Figurehead by Carly Holmes - Running Review


Yes, another day, another book of short stories. Some very short, as this new collection published by Tartarus mixes tales of all lengths down to flash fiction (which I think means stories of less than 1,500 words but I'm not sure).

The book begins with 'The Demon L'  a substantial and engrossing story of a girl growing up in an unspecified time and place that feels like Britain around 1900. There's a gritty tone to the action, but the prose is clear, cool, and rather poetic.

Holmes' protagonist, known only as L,  is exploited all her life. Firstly her mother uses her childish cuteness to draw in custom, then she is sent to work in a shop where an older man seeks to abuse her. In trying to defend herself she accidentally causes the man's death and flees her home town, seeking her long-departed father. When she finds a man who fits the bill he, too, starts to use her as an accomplice when cheating at cards. When he gets caught and badly beaten  he takes it out on her. This triggers the 'demon' within L. She kills in a frenzy of rage, then flees.

L's fortunes seems to take a turn for the better when she meets a gentle, kind man and falls in love. But then she makes a fatal mistake, and the demon is unleashed again. (Whether this demon is real or a personification of her repressed anger seems unimportant - besides, why can't it be both?) Finally, L seeks refuge in a travelling show as a sideshow attraction. There is a pendant to this novella in the following story, 'Miss Luna', which shows us L's carnival life from a different perspective.

This is an assured, well-created opening to a substantial collection. Indeed, if the rest of the book is of the same standard the author deserves to scoop some awards. So, stay tuned, and we will see what comes next.



Friday, 7 September 2018

'Breath of Life'

The final story of Rosalie Parker's Sparks from the Fire is a tale of a dummy. Tilda is at a car boot sale with some friends when she comes across a shop mannequin, which she buys and takes home. She dubs the dummy Handsome, and buys him some new clothes to replace his threadbare tweeds. Tilda enjoys talking to the dummy, watching the telly with him, and generally makes him part of her life. Then he begins talking to her.

This story reminded me of 'The Smile' by J.G. Ballard, in which a man finds a life-size mannequin in a junk shop. The difference, however, is that instead of the conflict in Ballard's tale Tilda and Handsome become friends. When she hooks up with a 'real' man the dummy is philosophical, pointing out that there are some types of activity he is not equipped for. And when the new boyfriend hears the dummy talking, while his boozy friends don't, the story moves to a different level.

Somewhat reminiscent of Angela Carter, this tale is a fitting end to a book that ranges from conventional supernatural fiction to more ambiguous works. Considered as a whole Sparks from the Fire straddles the territory between mainstream and genre fiction. These stories are messages from a land that is once strange and oddly familiar.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Dallas Goffin Art

When I was starting out I rather pushily approached Dallas Goffin, a renowned artist whose work appeared in many excellent magazines. Instead of giving me short shrift (the worst kind of shrift) he sent me some examples of artwork he had been asked for but which had not been used for various reasons. Some of them I found uses for, all were pretty good I think.





ST covers down the ages - a pop-up exhibition

Some of these were not in fact used, but most were. Makes for interesting contrasts, especially when you compare my own early efforts (cack-handed) with the really rather good art that came later.



Did you forget to vote for your favourite story in the current issue?

If so...





Vote here to avoid something truly ghastly.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Ghost Machine


It's a book! I have written a few others. They are all on Amazon and probably other websites, I daresay. End of announcement.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

'The Attempt'


The penultimate tale in Sparks from the Fire has the feel of a children's story - a tale of children, for children. Bright ones, I hasted to add. Saskia is a girl who lives on the shore of a lake, which marks the border with another land. We may be in North-Eastern Europe, Saskia and her brother Pieter amuse themselves by creating a fantasy world, consisting of a family home made from Lego bricks.

One day Saskia decides to have an adventure and cross the frozen lake, mainly to prove to Pieter - and herself - that she can do it. The description of the crossing is central, and it combines naturalism with a feeling of fable. This is nature as magical realm in a Blackwoodian sense - not evil or menacing, but awe-inspiring and never wholly knowable.

When Saskia reaches the other side she finds nobody around. Disappointed in having no one to witness her triumph, she sets off for home, only to get lost. The frozen lake is so wide that you can't see one side from the other, and Saskia's navigational skills are somewhat rudimentary. When she finally makes the shore a second time it is not home she finds. Or rather, not her home. But it is quite familiar in some ways.

The final story from this collection is coming up. Stay tuned!

Friday, 31 August 2018

Tartarus Press Paperbacks

An interesting development!

Tatarus Press paperbacks

Over at Tartarus Press the gang reveal that:
We are bringing back into print as paperbacks a number of our older titles, using Amazon's "print on demand service" and the examples we have received so far look very good. The first four titles are Haunted by Books and A Country Still All Mystery by Mark Valentine, Le Grand Meaulnes and Miracles by Alain-Fournier, and The St Perpetuus Club of Buenos Aires by Eric Stener Carlson. The books can be ordered direct from us, but we would advise that ordering through your own country's Amazon site will be much quicker. There will be more paperbacks to follow...
A welcome innovation, I  think. TP have produced so many excellent books down the years. It's good to know that more of their earlier titles will become available in an affordable but still high-quality format.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

'War Games'

This is a story about Lucy Marchmount, a delightful name that recalls many a character in Edith Wharton's ghostly tales. Lucy is an 'awkward child' because, unlike her boisterous brothers, she prefers to sit in her room reading. She also asks a lot of questions and, when the story begins, has just started getting into ghosts, poltergeists, and such-like matters.

Lucy's parents, Jason and Alison, worry about her. However, they accommodate Lucy's paranormal obsession to the extent of visiting the ruined Chilton Castle. On their return Lucy's brothers change their habitual garden war game to include a medieval dimension. Then they go missing, causing a frantic search. When the boys turn up many hours later they insist that they were attacked by a medieval knight.

The story proceeds at a fair pace as the Marchmounts wonder just how unusual Lucy is. The brothers vanish again, and this time seem to travel many miles by no obvious method. Finally there is a showdown at Maiden Castle, the huge Iron Age earthwork. It is not exactly a twist ending, but I did not see it coming.

An intriguing story that places the supernatural firmly in the context of a modern family, and the questions all parents ask about their children - are they safe, normal, happy? I liked it.

'Entitlement'


Here we are with the Bullington boys. Alicia is a middle-class student at Oxford who hooks up with Chris, second in line to a peerage and a first-class prick. Chris and his braying friends get drunk, insult people (including Alicia), throw food, and steal things. However, it's clear that Alicia finds unearned wealth and privilege attractive despite their downside, and she ends up on the continent with her shallow paramour. There she meets Henry, Chris' elder brother, who treats her considerably better. Perhaps she had better leave her options open?

There is a supernatural element involving a haunting in an Oxford College. A pregnant woman was murdered by a student, and her ghost is  said to be outraged by similar antics by similar chaps. Every now and again Alicia sees what may be the ghost. However, this aspect of the story was so underplayed that it seemed irrelevant to me. I was left with the depressing image of a world of vile people in which nothing really matters other than immediate gratification and planning to fleece others of their wealth. Not, for me, a winner.

A Mass of Cobwebs


BBC Radio 4 Extra often re-runs vintage tales of horror. Here you can find a 1959 adaptation (by Brian Batchelor) of 'The Tractate Middoth', which I found pleasant listening. Sort of. 

Anyway, it's available for 29 days from the date of this post.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

'Messages'

This is a rather gritty story in Sparks from the Fire, telling the tale of threats amassing on the doormat of a rather unpleasant man. The messages seem to be vague threats - 'There is a score to settle' - but when the nameless protagonist reads them in order they tell a story, albeit obliquely.

Again I was reminded of Ruth Rendell's spare, dispassionate approach to the doings of brutal people. Nobody thinks of himself as a thug if he has the capacity to think at all, and the recipient of the messages has a conscience of sorts. It transpires that his past as a nightclub owner is catching up with him, but in an unexpected way.

Not exactly a ghost story, this one, but firmly in the tradition of weird fiction with a hard edge. No easy outs, no simple answers, just the sense of menace and encroaching darkness in a life already empty of most feeling.

More from this running review very soon, I hope.

Vote, vote, vote...


If you have not yet voted for your favourite story in ST #38, the poll is still active.

This reader voted. She is clearly a bit barmy, but she did her duty
Boozy American actor - he voted!
H.G. Wells - not a subscriber, but if he were he would vote



Friday, 24 August 2018

'Voluntary Work'





This story from Rosalie Parker's new collection (Swan River Press, guys) has a slight touch of the Ray Bradburys.

Carol is a wheelchair bound woman who, along with other older folk, likes to go on excursions to country houses, the seaside, etc. Carol is a kind of mascot, her friends believe that she has the power to solve problems by some sort of magic. When the gang are booked on a trip by steam railway, things become a trifle difficult. But Carol, apparently, sorts everything out.

Does Carol have genuine paranormal powers, or is this a classic case of confirmation bias? Val, the lady who leads the group, is in no doubt that people are being silly. But then, in a neat move, the author gives us an insight into Carol's world. This reminded me of Bradbury because it emphasises the power of imagination, whether the powers it celebrates are real or not.

A nice portrait of the way we make assumptions about people based  on  their appearance and 'disabilities'.

A Radio Ghost Story about Radio Ghost Stories...


The Dead Room is a new 30 minute radio play by Mark Gatiss, with a starry cast. h/t Steve Duffy, like myself a huge fan of Mr G, for the tip-off.

Set and filmed at the iconic Maida Vale studios, The Dead Room tells the story of a long-running radio horror series and its veteran presenter and national treasure Aubrey Judd. But times are changing. Tastes are shifting. There’s a new young producer. Whatever happened to the classic ghost stories? The good old days? Aubrey soon discovers that all is not quiet in the eerie radio studio and that elements of his own past are not as dead and buried as he perhaps hoped…
 
Simon Callow (Victoria & Abdul, Shakespeare in Love, Four Weddings and a Funeral) leads the cast as Aubrey, and is joined by Anjli Mohindra (Bodyguard, The Boy with the Topknot, The Sarah Jane Adventures), Susan Penhaligon (Count Dracula, Doctor Who) and Joshua Oakes-Rogers (Little Crackers). 
The Dead Room is a 1x30’ drama written and directed by Mark Gatiss. The Executive Producer is Ben Irving for BBC Four and Isibeal Ballance is the Producer for Can Do Productions.


Thursday, 23 August 2018

'Ghosts - Treat Them Gently!'

From the Evening News, 17 April 1931, reprinted in Ghosts and Scholars, edited by Rosemary Pardoe and Richard Dalby (Crucible 1987). A fascinating little essay by M.R. James.

What first interested me in ghosts? This I can tell you quite definitely. In my childhood I chanced to see a toy Punch and Judy set, with figures cut out in cardboard. One of these was The Ghost. I was a tall figure habited in white with an unnaturally long and narrow head, also surrounded with white, and a dismal visage.

Upon this my conceptions of a ghost were based, and for years it permeated my dreams.

Other questions -- why I like ghost stories, or what are the best, or why they are the best, or a recipe for writing such things -- I have never found it easy to be so positive about. Clearly, however, the public likes them. The recrudescence of ghost stories in recent years is notable: it corresponds, of course, with the vogue of the detective tale.

The ghost story can be supremely excellent in its kind, or it may be deplorable. Like other things, it may err by excess or defect, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a book with very good ideas in it, but -- to be vulgar -- the butter is spread far too thick, Excess is the fault here: to give an example of erring by defect is difficult, because the stories that err in that way leave no impression on the memory.

I am speaking of the literary ghost story here. The story that claims to be 'veridical' (in the language of the Society of Psychical Research) is a very different affair. It will probably be quite brief and will conform to some one of several familiar types. This is but reasonable, for, if there be ghosts -- as I am quite prepared to believe -- the true ghost story need do no more than illustrate their normal habits (if normal is the right word), and may be as mild as milk.

The literary ghost, on the other hand, has to justify his existence by some startling demonstration, or, short of that, must be furnished with a background that will throw him into full relief and make him the central feature.

Since the things which the ghost can effectively do are very limited in number, ranging about death and madness and the discovery of secrets, the setting seems to me all-important, since in it there is the greatest opportunity for variety.

'Productivity'

As with the previous tale, this one from Rosalie Parker's new collection is mainstream fiction. In fact it has a whiff of science fiction about it, as we seem to be in a near-future where Brexit has kicked in.

A woman whose husband has left her cultivates a beautiful garden. But her neighbours put her under pressure to grow vegetables, as food rationing is in force and people are expected to 'dig for Britain', or similar. The story neatly describes the emergence of a barter economy as the nation totters on the brink of collapse. Eventually the woman has to accept reality, but she reserves a small patch of garden for flowers.

There is a twist to the story, which I won't reveal. It gives 'Productivity' a touch of the Ruth Rendells, I feel, with its sense of middle-class culture fraying and revealing something toxic beneath.

More from this running review very soon!

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Terror in the Shadows

Terror in the Shadows: Horror Short Stories Anthology (Scare Street Horror Short Stories Book 5) by [Nasser, A.I., Ripley, Ron, Clancy, Sara, Longhorn, David]... is a new anthology of tales from Scare Street, which happens to contain three (count them, three!) short stories by yours truly.

'Lost Dog' is about a lost dog - or is it? If you've ever worried about a pooch wandering about on its own and thought, 'Aw! Perhaps I should help the poor doggie!', this one will cure your humane impulses.

'Thunder Run' is my attempt at a traditional ghost story, though arguably it goes a bit over the top in a multi-storey car park. But then, who hasn't done that? I was inspired, sort of, by a visit to a local theatre where Stan Laurel once trod the boards. (He isn't in it, though.)

And 'Initial Impressions' is me being all clever and sophisticated, or so I fondly imagined when I wrote a horror story about a dead horror writer. I suspect that the twist will be apparent to most readers well before the end, but...




'Job Start'

Some of the stories in Sparks from the Fire fall into the broad category of mainstream literary fiction. This is a bit of a problem for your humble ghost story reviewer. 'Job Start' is a good example. 

The plot - young graduate living in shared house is under pressure to find work. He ends up travelling to the suburbs to become a part-time gardener/handyman for a nice, middle-class family. The husband loses his job, they sack the young man, but then the family's fortune recover and they take him back 

A slightly odd aspect of the tale is the fact that the couple have small twins who sometimes sing in strange harmony. But this really goes nowhere - kids are weird, after all. The final sentencde breaks convention by shifting the point of view, and implies that something is about to happen. 

All in all, this one didn't score on my fiction-meter at all. Never  mind - onward to the next tale!

Don't forget to vote...



... in the ST #38 poll for your favourite story. Read what these people said about the whole wonderful democratic process.

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'I voted like a proper English gent, then I had some tiffin. It was spiffin'' 
Dr. J, Cambridge

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'A sentient blancmange used eldritch powers of psychic compulsion to compel me to vote. It was all kinda yucky'
Howard L., Providence


'I have an excellent lawyer - and don't use my picture either'
S. King, Maine

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Nudity in the Cathedral

Derby Cathedral, to be precise, where they are showing The Wicker Man, which as you may recall is about a Christian who tangles with a bunch of pagans. From the Presbyterian policeman's perspective it does not end well. It is a spiffing film, as is the other one they're showing - Don't Look Now.

Both feature nudity, of course, so some people are objecting. Blah-blah, you can read it at the link. The Dean has made the reasonable observation that the films are not showing God anything he hasn't seen already. Quite.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Takut: Faces of Fear (2008)


Takut: Faces of Fear Poster
Here we go with a landmark for the ST blog - my first review of an Indonesian horror movie. I am nothing if not broad in outlook. I know some people hate subtitled movies, but I have no problem with them. The quality of a good film will, I think, shine through.

So, what of Takut? Before I even watched it I was pleased by its mere existence, because it's an anthology horror movie. It consists of six short films by a number of directors, and is - as always - a very mixed bag. Two segments did nothing for me. 'The Rescue' is just another 'guys with guns in a zombie apocalypse' story that just happens to have a more exotic setting than the usual fare. 'Sbow Unit' is a little better, but does not deliver on its premise - a man who accidentally kills his girlfriend's daughter and is then blackmailed by a hidden observer.

Much better is 'The List',  in which a woman pays a magician to visit terrible vengeance on her ex--boyfriend. This is nicely handled and has a decent twist. The nasties that are visited on the chap are unpleasant enough, given that this is a horror-comedy tale. And the performances, as with all the stories, are pretty good.

Interestingly, the three best stories all feature strong female characters. 'Titisan Naya' ('Incarnation of Naya') is based on a Javanese ritual cleansing that requires all family members to be present in a  house. Naya, a modern young lady, has no interest in this boring old stuff. Instead she goes off to find a handsome cousin for, put bluntly, a quick shag. But things go wrong as the lights fail, along with the ritual, and Naya encounters spectral figures. The ending is ambiguous. Naya (Dinna Olivia) is now acting in a thoroughly traditional manner - but to what end? The closing dance sequence is all the more effective because we cannot be sure.


Friday, 17 August 2018

Buy this book IF YOU DARE



h/t Steve Duffy

'House Party'

Continuing my reading of Sparks from the Fire (Swan River Press, out now folks!) we find ourselves in L.P. Hartley country. Yes, the setting is modern, but the characters in this story inhabit that grotesque world where going out and killing wildlife at great personal cost (but minimal personal risk) is somehow considered normal. 

Unsurprisingly, Rosalie Parker's sympathies are not with Gavin, the drunken lout out gunning in the rain. Indoors we find sensitive, bookish Jamie, the friend of Gavin's wife Diana. Jamie is left to look after the couple's mid-range children, and does his best to amuse them. Jamie's feelings for Diana are implicit, and there is an intriguing dream-sequence that recalls a famous Greek myth.

Gavin, rich idiot that he is, drunkenly shoots off some of his fingers, bringing his fun to an end. The injury triggers a change in the relationship, with Diana taking the initiative. While arguably a realistic tale, the discovery of a stag killed with an arrow - not a commonplace event in England these days - suggests that something odd is going on. As with Hartley's stories, much is suggested and the reader can imagine more. 

Another snippet from this running review will materialise very soon. 

Thursday, 16 August 2018

'Writers' Retreat'

But... but writers must NEVER retreat! We are the vanguard of our species' imagination! The unacknowledged legislators of the world, and all that.

Yes I know, I am being silly and ignoring an apostrophe. Let me be sensible and talk about this story in Rosalie Parker's collection Sparks from the Fire. Real writers writing about fictional people being writers is a tricky area. In cinema the result is almost always dire, while on the page descriptions of somebody sitting in a room getting stressed can have limited appeal. But this story does offer an interesting twist on the story of a bunch of writers in a house being all pretentious. And randy.

Joel is a part--time writer and full-time house-dad to baby Alison. Alison' mother, Sophie, goes to work. Joel is suffering from that old pram-in-the-hall syndrome (though it may be a buggy in a porch). He is working on a novel, but not making much progress. Then he receives a stroke of luck in the form of an award. He, and a bunch of other scribblers, can go to a rather nice house in Scotland and get some writing done without any distractions.

That, at least, is the theory. When Joel arrives he finds himself a bit of a fish out of water. Everyone else is already there and some are either firm friends or, in the case of self-regarding Gerald and young radical Alex, pairing off. The owner of the Scottish mansion is a charming old chap, however, and the food is splendid. What's more, Joel does have a monkish cell in which to write, free from all distractions.

Something seems a little out of kilter with the setup, but it is does not seem sinister. Then something very odd happens. Sophie turns up with baby Alison. It seems someone from the retreat told her Joel is at risk and needs her. Joel is confused, as well he might be. It gradually emerges that one person on the retreat had a motive to make the call, and their reasons are a tad disturbing.

Without revealing the secret of the retreat, this is an interesting variant on a theme that never goes out of style. Creativity, and its many mysteries, will never be uninteresting until our machines do all our creating for us.

More from this running review very soon!

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

'Jetsam'

A veteran of the endless 'war on terror' ends up destitute in a provincial town, like so many others. There he falls in with other damaged men, and they spend their nights drinking and yarning. One day a mysterious 'Colonel' offers the protagonist and a large friend a chance to make some easy money. Go to this address and intimidate the person who lives there.

This story in Sparks from the Fire by Rosalie Parker could go many ways. What happens is that the hired muscle encounter a pleasant middle-aged woman called Sheila, who the Colonel claims to be a witch. She has hexed him, and nothing he does can lift the curse. What's more, Sheila offers the former squaddie the chance to recover and leave the canal towpath behind.

This is a decent enough story, but seems oddly low stakes given the larger themes. It reads like an episode from a longer story, or a first draft. I expected more of it, given the premise, and was rather disappointed.

Never mind. More from this collection soon!

Readers' Poll ST #38

It's here if you still haven't voted for your favourite story.

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Sunday, 12 August 2018

The Uninvited



My watching of old films with a supernatural theme continues with this 1944 Paramount production. Set in Cornwall (though filmed in San Francisco and Phoenix, Arizona) it is based on Dorothy McCardle's novel Uneasy Freehold. It is one of the earliest films to offer a 'straight' ghost story, as opposed to fake hauntings or comedies of the Abbot and Costello type. As such it set a very high standard - one that many modern efforts singularly fail to aspire to. It's also notable as the feature debut of director Lewis Allen.

The story is set in 1937. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey star as brother and sister Rick and Pam Fitzgerald. On holiday in Cornwall they stumble upon Windward, an empty house near a cliff-top. Pam persuades Rick to buy the house so that he can work as a composer free from London's distractions. They approach the owner, Commodore Beech. Beech's granddaughter Stella (newcomer Gail Russell) is upset to find strangers interested in Windward and tries to put them off. Despite this they buy the house and Rick goes back to London to arrange the move while Pam remains behind to set things in order. An ominous foreshadowing of what is to come occurs when a bunch of flowers wither in the attic studio of Windward, but the siblings fail to notice.

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New Film on Clark Ashton Smith - Trailer


Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams - Trailer from Darin Coelho on Vimeo.

'Wing Man'

This story from Rosalie Parker's new collection is an interesting example of a fantasy, rather than a ghost story or tale of horror. Ben, the protagonist, dreamed of flying as a child. As man he becomes active, successful, and finds love with Sheila. However, the jealous Matt claims Ben stole Sheila from him and sets out to do some serious harm.

Ben's job involves flying to various long-haul destinations, something he has no problem with at first. But when Matt injures Ben in a game of rugby the latter develops a fear of flying. He goes to a therapist, Saul McCabe, who cures Ben. But Saul seems to overdo it, as Ben becomes obsessed with flight, joining a gliding club.

Then Matt exacts his revenge on Ben by attacking him again during a rugby match. The vicious assault puts Ben in a wheelchair, and Matt gets away with it. Ben remains determined to fly, and dreams of Saul spreading real wings and leading him into the blue. It emerges that Saul has vanished, leaving no trace. The story ends in affirmation as Ben anticipates a somewhat Ballardian escape from an earthly existence that now seems empty.

An interesting tale, this, though it does read like a first draft rather than a finished work. Next, the halfway point of the collection! Stay tuned.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Between Two Worlds (1944)



I've gone right back in time for this one, a Warner Bros. feature made during World War 2, and with a distinctly wartime vibe. Check out the trailer above - it is of its period, rather wonderfully so.

Between Two Worlds begins in the offices of the Great White Shipping Line (a made-up name that now seems slightly unfortunate). A quick establishing sequence makes it clear that this is a contemporary story, with a tannoy announcement warning passengers to obey orders. Posters highlighting the danger of spies and traitors are conspicuous, and no destinations are listed publicly.

A motley assortment of passengers are waiting to be taken to their liner by car. An unpleasant businessman, Lingley, tries to boss an official around, only to be told to shut up and sit down. A journalist, Prior, cracks wise with an actress, Maxine Russell. A posh, elderly couple, an American merchant sailor, an older Irish woman, and a parish priest are also waiting. Meanwhile, at the desk, Henry is failing to get a permit to join the liner. Henry (Paul Henreid) leaves in despair. The clerks chat reveals that Henry, a peacetime concert pianist, has been wounded in action and can no longer play...


Tuesday, 7 August 2018

'Tour Guide'

The next short story from Rosalie Parker's Sparks from the Fire is a strange one. As in strange story. No, it's not a tribute to Aickman, exactly. But the set up does recall much of his work. Set on one of the Scilly Isles, the eponymous  tour guide is Fabian. He has an admirer, twelve-year-old Millicent, who is on holiday with her mother. Fabian takes a typical mixed party to some botanical gardens. The day is hot, the walk is tiring, and by the time the tourists get to the plants they are hot and sweaty.

Then things get weird. Fabian slopes off for a smoke, where he is joined shortly after by Millicent. The girl is appalled by some of the things going on in the garden. Later, the party is in a subdued mood when Fabian rejoins them for the walk back. This is not a horror story, as such, but there is a touch of madness - perhaps Pan-ic - about what happens. The fact that no facile explanation is offered makes it stick in the mind, rather like some of L.P. Hartley's or Walter de la Mare's trickier tales.

So far, so entertaining. More from this handsome little volume in a day or so.

The Thing on the Doorstep (2014)

This is a low budget, independent adaptation of Lovecraft's classic tale of glub-glubbery in ghoul-haunted Arkham. It got pretty poor reviews, and I can see why. So can you - just take a look at the trailer.



Bilious. This is a film that seems to be perpetually on the verge of throwing up. It was a major strategic blunder by the director Tom Gliserman (presumably) to tint much of his movie a seasick green. Yes, Asenath Waite's family came from Innsmouth of the fishy smells, but that's no reason to make too many scenes look as if they were filmed through an old fish-tank.

Other problems include the sound, recorded 'as live' rather than dubbed later. This makes it seem very amateurish and forced this ageing reviewer to turn on the subtitles. Finally, there's the problem of the climactic moment itself. The actual thing on the doorstep just isn't that good. Maybe the budget ran out, but it's disappointing to see some fairly weak CGI used instead of practical effects.

So, those are all the film's flaws. But what of its virtues? These are numerous and worth pointing out. Firstly, it is a very faithful adaptation of the original story. Yes, it is fleshed out a little, because in the original story we learn nothing of Daniel Upton's family. Here he acquires a wife, Marion, and we see her pregnancy and the birth of their son, William. By the same token the 'fast set' Edward Derby joins at college, plus Edward's father, Asenath's servants, and various gossipy neighbours all appear.


Sunday, 5 August 2018

'The Birdcage'

Sparks from the Fire is quite the varied collection, ranging from more elusive works to tales that explore very familiar themes.

In 'The Birdcage' Rosalie Parker tells the story of a haunted pub about to be taken over by new owners. The legend of The Birdcage is that French prisoners were kept there during the Napoleonic Wars. However, the ghost said to occasionally disrupt things at the bar is absent at first, leading the incoming proprietors to fake an incident. This produces a genuine poltergeist backlash that causes major problems until they hit upon a means to placate the spook.

This is a nice enough story, but nothing special. As always, when the element of threat is absent - there is no suggestion that the ghost wants to harm people - it is difficult to make the story seem anything but whimsical. It reads like an account of a real haunting, but unfortunately for me such stories are always rather flat and uninteresting. Such is the case here, where there are no compelling characters or events.

Oh well, onward and upward. More from this collection very soon, I hope.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Vote, Vote,Vote for Your Favourite Story!

I'm still banging on about the readers poll, so go here and vote to shut me up. Possibly.

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Renoir, 'Gabrielle Reading Supernatural Tales'

Friday, 3 August 2018

From our 'What were they thinking!?' files

Belsay - The Yellow Wallpaper as Art Installation

The Pillar Hall, at the centre of the house, is the architectural climax of Belsay

Thanks to a friend with a car I spent yesterday at Belsay Hall, a beautiful country house estate about half an hour from Newcastle. The property, now owned by English Heritage, has no interior furnishings due to historical neglect. This means you can see the original, rather lovely Georgian architecture. But it also means the hall is a big, echoey space. Which brings me to The Yellow Wallpaper.

The artist Susan Philipsz produced a sound installation inspired, in part, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic ghost story. She also references 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' and 'The Turn of the Screw'. However, her installation consists entirely of recordings of the artist singing one of the Border Ballads, 'The Unquiet Grave'. The sound is funnelled down chimneys into rooms in the house.

'Sparks from the Fire'

The title story from Rosalie Parker's new collection (Swan River Press, guys!) takes us away from the modern settings and characters the author generally favours. Instead we are in what might be termed Michael Eisele country - a world where people are living in small tribes, telling stories, passing on an oral culture.

The story, told around the campfire, is of Tura. She is that most modern and necessary of figures, the girl who wants to hunt and does not want to marry. Tura stalks the hunters and saves the life of a young man, Selim, thus earning great credit, but also bringing great disrepute on herself and her family. Sure enough, when the time comes for her assigned husband to appear and claim her, it's a no show. Fortunately Selim, the good guy, comes through. The two marry, and have a happily unorthodox partnership, because it is truly equal.

The framing narrative is that of a tribal elder telling this tale to the young folk who tend to go off to the big city. This is, I feel, a story of an ancient world that is always new precisely because it can only live in stories. While a very short tale, 'Sparks from the Fire' says a lot, like the old storyteller. In a culture drowning in words, most of them formed into deeply stupid and obnoxious patterns, it's a reminder of the virtues of simplicity.

More from this collection soon!

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

'Holiday Reading'

We continue with Rosalie Parker's new collection, and a story set in moderately familiar territory - the English provincial town. In this case it's a town which hold a book fair every August. A visitor, Callum, is slightly bemused to find so many hardback volumes on obscure topics. He reads the blurb on a supernatural romance, decides not to buy it. But it plants a seed.

Callum has suffered burnout in the workplace and his doctor (in a throwback to many a classic tale) has prescribed a holiday. Callum rejects his wife's suggestion of a tropical vacation, and leaves her to take a break in the UK. But when he has already visited two of the town's three main attractions on the first day he begins to fear boredom will replace chronic stress. But when he visits the ancient abbey he encounters a young woman who provides him with quite a bit of fun.

I'm not quite sure where to place this tale in terms of sub-genre. By the same token, Callum is not quite a victim or a villain, here, but somewhere between. His decision to buy some spicy volumes from a book dealer implies that he is culpable, but his fragile emotional state provides some leeway. Perhaps the key point is that Rosalie Parker seems to get a lot more out of book fairs than the rest of us. This is also a more upbeat book than the last story, showing how well the author shapes the short-short format to her ends.

Stay tuned - next one is the book's title story.

Women in Horror Month!

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Remember, for this month ST is accepting submissions from women writers only. Get those stories in, fellow humans who often happen to be good at multi-tasking!

Don't forget to vote!



Tuesday, 31 July 2018

'View from a Window'

This is an unusual one from Rosalie Parker's new collection, Sparks from the Fire (Swan River Press). Here are no ghosts or ghouls, no menacing monsters, just a normal person - a writer, as it happens - living a seemingly idyllic existence in the country. However, the unnamed narrator has a problem that few of us have ever pondered. What does it feel like to be a bit-player in a major criminal case?

Not good.

The story begins as the protagonist (we are unsure of their gender) bids farewell to a couple of friends. They seem envious of the house, with its splendid view. Once they are gone the writer resumes work on a radio drama script, which they know is not particularly good. But it's what the public wants, apparently, or at least what the producer wants. It gradually emerges that the writer is involved in a drama far less neatly-rounded than the story they are trying to complete.

The arrival of journalists who take pictures of the house and rummage through the bins makes it clear just how bad the real-life story must be. We never get any details, but it's obvious that terrible crimes have been committed by a husband/partner, and the narrator was unaware of them. The view offers no real consolation. The night draws on, threatening fresh horrors of memory and imagination.

Not a cheerful read, I admit, but packing a lot into a few pages. More from this running review soon.


Pickman's Model: A Dramatic Reading (H. P. Lovecraft)

'The Fell Race'

The second story in Rosalie Parker's Sparks from the Fire is a compact tale of strange events on the Yorkshire Moors.

It begins with parents in a small village coping with the aftermath of a baffling accident. A couple of teenagers have been injured in the eponymous event, despite it begin a frequent and hitherto innocuous contest. The parents keep their offspring indoors, but speculation mounts via social media.

It seems that a mysterious cloud descended upon the fell runners, and that they all suffered 'missing time'. UFOlogical speculation results, among other Fortean musings. But in the meantime some former competitors have started to feel the desire to re-run the event. Do they hope to dispel the mystery, or embrace it?

This reminded me of Algernon Blackwood's tales such as 'A Victim of Higher Space'. There is a power lurking near the village, something real enough to swoop down upon humans and change them in some way. But whether that power is evil, or even intelligent in our sense, cannot be known. Or rather, nobody who may find out can communicate their findings to the rest of us.

More from this collection tomorrow, if I'm spared. I do have to go to the Co-op later...

Monday, 30 July 2018

Sparks from the Fire - Running Review

New from the Swan River Press comes this handsome volume of nineteen tales by Yorkshire-based writer Rosalie Parker. According to the blur Sparks from the Fire offers 'a wide variety of familiar characters and settings, yet there is always something else — a shadow world that haunts, disturbs, and threatens'. Which sounds right up our street, gentle reader.

The first story is 'The Bronze Statuette', which was published in ST #29. I need hardly say that I like it. As the lead tale I suspect that it's themes and general 'feel' will be encountered again in various mutations. Here we have a superficially normal, indeed rather comfortable woman who goes too far in pursuit of something apparently trivial.

The statuette of the story is material enough, but could represent many things - a genuine achievement that she feels eludes her, a transcendent beauty that she can never quite grasp. From normality to destructive obsession is, the story shows, a much shorter trip than most 'respectable' people acknowledge.

So, here we got with another day-by-day (probably) look at some stories, eighteen of them new to me. Let us discover them together!

Sunday, 29 July 2018

BBC Radio: Ghost Stories of Walter De La Mare - Crewe





One of the all-time classics.

Vote for Your Favourite Story in the Latest Issue

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A typical reader concealing a copy of ST from her governess

Sentinels - Prologue Reading

If you go here you can hear me reading the Prologue of my 'Lost Crown' novella Sentinels. Not a great reading but within the generous bounds of okay.

I'm thinking of starting a ST blog with weekly bits about 10-15 mins long, at most. Nothing heavy. But if I do I will probably ramble on about all sorts of topics related to supernatural fiction. 

We'll see how it goes.