Saturday, 17 November 2018

Issue 39 now available

Supernatural Tales 39


Go here for the print-on-demand issue.

New stories by Eloise C.C. Shepherd, Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin, Margaret Karmazin, Jon Barron, Chloe N.Clark, Rosalie Parker, and Danielle Davis. Cover photo by Sam Dawson.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

'The Woman in the Moon'

Tracy Fahey's story in Uncertainties III is a poetic, powerful account of what may be a mental breakdown. Certainly the final lines imply that the female narrator has suffered so much, lost so much, that she has been driven to extreme measures. But along the way the story is beautifully told, blending various ideas about the power of moonlight with a poignant account of very human loss.

I continue to be impressed by the sheer diversity of the stories Lynda E. Rucker has selected. Here is a tale that might be classed as fantasy, horror, or even 'straight' crime. But what makes it work is that it's a good story regardless of genre, packing a lot of effective imagery into a handful of pages. Every paragraph seems shot through with the colourless light of the moon, haunting and strange.

More from this anthology soon, I hope.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

'It Could Be Cancer'

"Sorry about your balls."

Not a line you will find in the works of Montague Rhodes James, but pithy and effective.

Ralph Robert Moore's contribution to Uncertainties III is a remarkable story of what's sometimes termed the crisis of masculinity. It begins with Philip, a regular guy, taking a piss and discovering a lump on the side of one ball. This leads indirectly to him punching a housemate in the face, having to move out and live alone, and then encountering his dead daughter.

The nameless little girl, who offers some adult insights with a suitably grow-up vocabulary, cheers up Philip with a silly dance - her version of the Twist. Philip does not question her presence, perhaps because he is already punch-drunk from his cancer scare. Instead he talks to her, and listens to her.

This is obviously not a conventional ghost story. I have no real idea about the nature of the little girl who enlivens Philip's bleak and troubled existence, except that only he can see her. It does not really matter if she is 'there' in some sense beyond the obvious. But her help seems to make a difference, as Philip starts dating a co-worker, applies for promotion, and seems to on track to a better life.

As you might expect, this is not a cheerful story with a Disney 'ghost girl helps unhappy man' vibe. Far from it. The ending is a punch in the gut. I 'm not sure I understand this story, but artistically it works well. Perhaps that's what matters.

More on this impressive anthology soon.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Older than Dracula?


Varney the Vampire or the Feast of Blood.jpg

Over at The Conversation is an interesting item on English vampires. Or, more precisely, genuine folk belief (with some official endorsement) in the undead. As we know, however, when people claim that 'vampires' exist anywhere, definitions become a bit baggy.

The author, literature lecturer Sam George, draws the usual link between Byron and Polidori's story 'The Vampyre'. What she does not say, unfortunately, is that this led to a string of imitative penny dreadful vampire storie, often published anonymously (as Polidori's story was, originally). Among these tales was ''Varney the Vampire: or, The Feast of Blood', serialised 1845-7. 

In 1894 Augustus Hare published an account of a supposedly real vampire occurrence. The Vampire of Croglin Grange is cited in the Conversation piece, though the dates seem to differ with other accounts. And, as people have pointed out, it does read like a pastiche of earlier vampire fictions, particularly a scene in which the vampire picks the glass from a window pane to access his victim's home. Varney did exactly the same thing.
Both Varney and the Croglin Vampire stories mention a vampire forcing their way into a heroine’s bedroom by removing a small pane of glass. The vampires each release the catches on the door and wrap the girls hair around their bony fingers. Then the vampires tilt the girls neck, plunge their teeth into her; a gush of blood and a sucking noise follows.
I think George is on firmer ground with the Buckinghamshire 'vampire' that was suppressed by a saint, no less. St Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, was told the corpse in question should be dug up and burned. Instead he laid an absolution on the un-decayed corpse, which was put to rest. These medieval legends concerning saints are not remotely reliable, of course, but it's interesting to see that there was a tradition of the dead walking and praying on the living in the 12th century.

I also like the story of the Cumbrian village of Renwick, supposedly terrified by a bat-like monster that emerged from the foundations of a church at some point in the remote past. People of Renwick became known as 'Bats'. There was even a punk band called the Renwick Bats. Even more suggestive is the sheer number of broken and burnt human remains found in the deserted Yorkshire village of Wharram Percy. Some think they are evidence of cannabilism, others suggest that around 100 bodies were mutilated to stop the dead from rising.

I suppose what all this proves is that the Dracula story crystallised fictional character and folk beliefs into a very commercial form of vampire, complete with suitably exotic folklore. This eclipsed the kind of the folklore that helped inspire M.R. James, whose ghosts often seem to be radically modified versions of the deceased. The 'ghosts' in 'The Mezzotint', 'Wailing Well', 'Martin's Close' and other stories are not ethereal enough to be conventional Victorian spooks. Like Dracula, they give a bit more substance to supernatural menace.

Friday, 2 November 2018

'Voices in the Night'

Veteran sf and horror writer Lisa Tuttle's contribution to Uncertainties III is an interesting blend of old and new. The migrant experience, the sense of being alone in an uncaring society, is combined with an ancient myth known to most of us.

Katya is an immigrant who comes to an unnamed city seeking work. She finds it hard to get a place to stay, and settles for a room in a shabby hotel in a run-down area. Her sleep is interrupted by loud voices nearby, not in her building, but apparently emanating from a disused factory. At first she thinks it is a party, but there is no music. She investigates, and finds that the factory yard seems to be a gathering point for a disparate group of rather odd people.

As the story unfolds it becomes clear (to some extent) what is happening. What makes it enjoyable is the way that Katya, like many a protagonist before her, is gradually drawn into an ever-stranger situation. Soon she finds herself at the river, where boats call for the wandering strangers. The ghosts (if they are ghosts) are poignant and tragic because they do not speak to one another, merely emit futile, incomprehensible monologues. Katya's efforts to help one of these lost souls proves her undoing. The ending finally reveals just where the boats must be headed.

A dark tale, for a dark time of year. More from this running review soon.

Dead of Night (1945)

The last of my Hallowe'en fuelled nostalgia binge is the first horror movie made in Britain after World War 2. What's more, it was made by Ealing Studios, now renowned for its classic comedies of the Fifties. Dead of Night, however, has only one overtly comedic episode, and the overall tone of the film shifts from light to darkness.



One of the most influential anthology/portmanteau horror films, Dead of Night consists of four weird tales linked by a framing story. Architect Walter Craig, played by Mervyn Johns, travels down to a country house he has never seen - except in a recurring nightmare. The guests at the house are also people from the dream, which he tells them ends in violence and terror.

One of the guests is a psychiatrist, Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk) who naturally rationalises away Craig's fears. But the other members of the house party object, each one telling a tale of the supernatural. Each segment has a different director and is adapted from works by well-known writers, among them E.F. Benson and H.G. Wells. It is a bit old-fashioned and ropey at times, not least when Sally Ann Howes deploys an RP accent that might cut glass, but it moves along quite briskly. None of the segments outstay their welcome and there is a refreshing contrast of themes and styles.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

'Before I Walked Away'



The shortest story in Uncertainties III edited by Lynda E. Rucker (Swan River Press) is by R.S. Knight.

'Before I Walked Away' is a poetic, powerful vignette, written in the first person. It's star is Kat, a student in a black negligee and fishnets, and brandishing a whip. The narrator, Helen, is arguably in love with Kat, but something is wrong with this relationship. They are close, but between them falls a shadow. A silly argument has apparently led to tragic consequences. But for whom?

This story packs a lot into a few pages. As a ghost story, I think it works. As a story that might not involve a ghost, it's just as effective. As a portrait of youth, love, and loss, it is painfully good.



The Haunting (1963)

I was disappointed by the recent Netflix adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel, for many reasons.* But fortunately we have Robert Wise's excellent black and white film to show what a real adaptation looks like.



It's a remarkable variation on the traditional Gothic themes. All of the characters are not-quite-stereotypes of figures familiar from the works of Le Fanu, Wilkie Collins and others. Eleanor Lance is the timid, virginal young woman lured to the sinister house - but she wants to go. Doctor Markway is the suave, intellectual older man who manipulates events - but he is a decent man who wants to protect Eleanor. Theo is the clever, attractive woman who often serves as sidekick/mistress to the villain - but she too has essentially good motives. Luke is the handsome young heir who might rescue the heroine - but has no interest in doing so and is quite ineffectual.

The absence of visible ghosts - they are always audible or tactile - also has a Victorian feel. In some novels the ghosts would be contrived to terrify the heroine. Eleanor, while undeniably terrified, is drawn to the house because it represents a simple solution to her problems, an escape from a world she fears as much as any ghost.

But watch the film yourself. It's open to many interpretations because it's a genuine work of art. And anyone looking for the flaw in the creation that must always be present, have a listen to Valentine Dyall's American accent. In the night. In the dark.

*There is an excellent (inevitably spoiler heavy) critique of the Netflix series here.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Hallowe'en Horror Movies - The Fog (1980)



John Carpenter's best movie, for some, certainly one of the classic American horror movies. Also the best movie to feature undead lepers. The Fog is one of those films I can watch any number of times and not feel jaded, despite knowing exactly what's going to happen next. Perhaps that's the measure of a work of art, or just proof that I first saw it at an impressionable age.

The Fog is all the more remarkable because it shouldn't work. It contains enough plot-holes and blunders to sink a lesser effort. We have Father Malone (the excellent Hal Holbrook) who is a Catholic priest at Antonio Bay. What's more, his grandfather was a Catholic priest, too... Yes, I know a married man with kids can be ordained a priest, but it's a stretch, to say the least.

Then there's the whole malarkey about the treasure, which was the sole motive for the horrific crime that leads to supernatural vengeance. Getting Blake's gold allowed the construction of the church and the founding of the town itself. Except that it didn't, because we learn that the first Father Malone took most of it and turned it into the ruddy great gold cross that plays such a significant role in the climax.

Image result for the fog 1980


None of this really matters because there's something in the fog, as Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) tells listeners to KAR. What's in the fog is mostly a bright light, a remarkably simple trick that works very well. Instead of something lurking in the shadows, we get a glowing nebula coming out of the night. Inside it are some seriously vengeful spooks that wreak creative carnage.

From the first moments of the film, when Mr Machen (John Houseman) terrifies a bunch of small children and sets up the shipwreck plot, we know we are in good hands. When phones, cars, televisions and other machinery goes crazy at midnight, we get the point that spirits are abroad, exploring the town. When the crew of the trawler see the ghost ship pull alongside it is a wonderful moment, although we know the moments that follow will not be wonderful for them.

And so on until the revenants have exacted their fairly restrained revenge, by bumping off just six citizens and not the whole town. Poor Mrs Kobritz. This is not a film in which being nice guarantees survival. It's also devoid of villains, as all the wrongdoing occurred a century ago. If The Fog has a message it's that the past should be faced and understood, not ignored and lied about. But mostly it's a film about an unearthly fog with ghosts in it that go around killing people, which is as it should be.

Image result for the fog 1980

'Bobbo'

I continue my running review of Uncertainties III with a very British story. Rob Shearman does a superb job here of combining realism with bizarre horror in a first-person tale about a horror writer. The author in question has a rather low opinion of Robert Aickman, the Bobbo of the title. All the usual criticism appear - pretentious, obscure, boring and so forth. But then our author goes away for a short break to work on an old-school werewolf story (for an anthology called Scary and Hairy), and odd things begin to happen.

Staying a hotel Shearman's narrator finds an inscribed copy of Aickman's first solo collection, Dark Entries. The book - worth quite a bit, of courses - it simply shoved among the airport paperbacks on the shelves of the hotel dining room. Not surprisingly our hero offers to buy it. It's not for sale, so he tells a pack of lies about being a relative of Aickman to get the book for nothing. Then the hotel owner visit the author in his room and begins to talk about Aickman, her one-time lover, and quiz the narrator about his admiration for Bobbo...

At this stage we're still in the very British realms of comedy crafted from dishonestly, confusion, and acute social embarrassment. Things become more serious as the mysterious woman explains that she had a child by Aickman, the younger Bobbo. He, too, is a writer. But he can never come out into the light. The narrator is taken to meet Bobbo, in pitch darkness, hearing nothing but breathing and a strange noise, feeling nothing under his hand but wetness. Later he makes love to Bobbo's mother. Later still, Bobbo tries to pay him a visit.

I enjoyed this tale immensely, partly because it captures much of Aickman's appeal while appearing to reject his school of strange horror.

Happy Hallowe'en All

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Hallowe'en Horror Movies - Films That Scared Me

I am not a wuss, as a certain president might have said.

Well, okay, I am a bit of a wuss, to be honest. But I've seen so many horror films (as least twelvety at the last count) that most of the conventional horror gimmicks don't faze me. I'm not going to list the big-money, major franchise horror flicks that have not impressed me lately. But there are a lot of them.

However...

Some films give me the willies, the chills, possibly even the screaming ab-dabs. Why? I don't know, to be honest. But it is undeniably the case. So here goes with some movies that, for whatever reason, gave me a few sleepless hours.

1. The Mothman Prophecies



I've tried to work out why this not particularly film scared me so much. There is little violence, none of your body horror stuff, and the actual monster (if it is a monster, in the true sense) is never clearly seen. But oh dear me, the Mothman is never far away. Zooming out of the night, red eyes a-glow, to cause a car crash. Flickering into being, for a subliminal moment, in a brain scan. Sketched by a dying woman. Blazing his unearthly radiance into the eyes of of a courting couple. Calling people on old-style phones, calling himself 'Indrid Cold'. The Mothman of Point Pleasant is just terrifying, and all too believable.

Based on a long series of genuine Fortean incidents (and no, I have no theory as what really happened but clearly people were scared and confused) the film stars Richard Gere as a high profile Washington Post reporter. One night Gere's character is driving through the night to be sure he gets to a significant political interview the next day. But instead he finds himself in the tiny West Virginia town of Point Pleasant, where he is held up at gunpoint by a very twitchy local.

This is just the beginning of a series of strange events that feel a bit like an extended episode of The X-Files. But this time Mulder and Scully do not turn up with a convenient explanation. Instead we get Brit stalwart Alan Bates talking about time and stuff, and telling the hero to give up on his dangerous quest. Instead, assisted by a cop (Laura Linney, reliable as ever) Gere tries to get to the truth of the mystery. The climax is a little trite, but - as I said earlier - it's factual.

Mothman is now a real tourist attraction. Whether he/it was ever anything else, I don;t know. I do know that every time I watch this film I get genuine chills up the spine, in part because it does not conform to the usual horror formula. Even though I know what's going to happen it still feels wrong, strange, disturbing. This film does not fit readily into any category, hovering on silent wings above the genre conventions.

'Wanting'



The fourth story in this anthology is a novella by Joyce Carol Oates. Such a contribution inevitably comes freighted - or fraught - with the highest expectations. Fortunately, the story lives up to any hype that might exist in the reader's head.

The first part of the story consists of three lines.

Badly she wants a man.
Or, she wants a man badly.
Or, she wants a man. Badly.

A woman we know only as L.K. returns to Detroit to visit a friend who is terminally ill. L.K. is reluctant to see her friend, keener to see the city she once lived in. As the tale unfolds we learn more about the woman, who is no longer young. Her recollections include ferocious racial violence that racked the city in the Sixties. During a night-time walk she encounters an artist, Vann, who invites her to visit his studio apartment in a building she once knew. This is very unwise, and much of the story consists of L.K.'s inner struggles between need and reason.

The story is delivered in sharp focus, with close-ups of Detroit past and present, and of the characters. Strange works of art are contemplated. They seem to include real hair, complete with bloody roots. L.K. realises that she is being unwise, but she sticks with Vann, in part because she is afraid of being accused of racism if she rejects him. It is not clear if Vann is in fact white, one of the many ambiguities that propel the woman to her fate.

In many ways this a conventional horror story, but so well told, without any of the conventional tricks and shocks, that it seems new. And perhaps it is. I found myself wondering if Vann had any existence outside the woman's troubled mind, long undermined by grief and solitude.

More from this running review soon.

Monday, 29 October 2018

'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar' read by Basil Rathbone





Spoooooky! Obviously.

The Locations Of 'A Warning To The Curious' (1972 BBC Ghost Story For Ch...





Actual details are in the notes under the video, if you click on it to view on YouTube. Rather nice survey.

'Wyrd'



The third story in Uncertainties III is very different from either tale that precedes it. Adam L. G. Nevill's approach is radical in that it offers no protagonist, no dialogue, no characterisation at all. Instead it gives the reader a drone's eye view of a coastal landscape, before zeroing in on a site where Something has Happened. A circle of tents surrounds mysterious stone rings. And outside the tents, a circle of animal sacrifices. 
'These are lambs. Black lambs. Slaughtered and arranged in a circle, like the symbols on some strange clock...'
It is not just the lambs that were sacrificed. Gradually a variation on a familiar theme becomes apparent, as Neville's careful prose exposes just enough of the scene. 'Wyrd' is a tour-de-force, showing that a horror story can be dynamic without depicting action, disturbing without showing any explicit violence. 
So, another winner, which bodes well for the rest of the tales selected by Lynda Rucker in what is - surprisingly enough - her first anthology. 



Sunday, 28 October 2018

'Warner's Errand'

The second story in Uncertainties III is by S.P. Miskowksi. Warner is a retiree whose wife, Marianne, keeps him on his toes with her eccentric, incessant demands.

The story begins with Warner leaving his house to try and buy his missus a 'bumpy wooden-handled thing' that might be a back-scratcher from a failing general store. They live in a desert town, and the description of the blazing heat has a Ballardian feel. The story's realism and humour carry the reader along as poor Warner tries to accomplish his task. We know he won't.

Along the way we learn about his life, the way in which an old man eventually gives up on modernity, becomes exhausted by the futility of keeping up with change. Warner had 'retired to avoid being one of those maligned old men, mocked behind their backs, creaking around the office trying to pick up the slang of managers half their age'.

Miskowski excels in clear, thoughtful insights into supposedly ordinary lives. Warner is one of the most believable, sympathetic characters I have encountered lately. His return home, empty-handed. And then the story ends, in a way. It is only marginally a horror tale, perhaps more of a ghost story, but undoubtedly offers us uncertainty.

More from this anthology very soon.




Saturday, 27 October 2018

Uncertainties: Volume III - Running Review


Here we go again with a nifty new anthology, this time from Swan River Press. Uncertainties III is doubly (or perhaps triply) interesting because it is edited by Lynda E. Rucker, a name familiar to ST readers.

Here are the details. It is, of course, a nicely-produced volume with a stylish, monochrome theme to the dustjacket and covers. What, then, of the contents?

In her introduction Rucker explains that the theme of the series is relatively broad, as the title suggests. Uncertainties means just that - the moments when we are unsure if we have glimpsed a 'little slip of the veil', exposing us to something that may be supernatural, or at least unknown.

The first story is 'Monica in the Hall of Moths' by Matthew M. Bartlett. This is a moving account of bereavement, or so I thought at first. The narrator talks of Monica, his love for her, and her sudden, shocking death. His grieving process is bound up with a strange children's book that he recalls, but which apparently never existed.

This is a very powerful lead story, balancing psychological horror with a disturbing fantasy element. It may be an account of a mind in chaos, but there details - particularly the Monica that returns to the narrator near the end of the tale - are firmly in the tradition of subtle, hallucinatory horror. So, a great start.

Hallowe'en Board Games

Yes, we made our own entertainment in those days. We bought something from a shop, and then we conjured up dark forces with dice, and then Annoying Tommy from No. 11 was sacrificed...

Image result for anneka rice holding a skull

Image result for anneka rice holding a skull


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Image result for skull voodoo board game

Image result for skull voodoo board game

Friday, 26 October 2018

Hallowe'en Horror Movies - Yet To Be Made!



Yes, I'm cheating like buggery by listing just a few classics of weird fiction that I would like to see given the big-screen treatment. Or even the small screen treatment, I'm not that fussed.

1. The House on the Borderland

Image result for hodgson house on the borderland

Yes, William Hope Hodgson's proto-cosmic horror novel might need a bit of tweaking. But there's enough good stuff in there to permit a genuinely strange and wonderful movie to emerge, shaking its clotted wings. Modern effects would certainly not have problems giving us spiffing Swine Things, and the visionary passages would be splendid - if handled correctly. The Irish landscape plus period detail offers potential for rather lovely scenes at the beginning and end. And how many other films offer a director the chance to depict the end of the world, and more?


2. Nights of the Round Table

We all like a good portmanteau movie, and Margery Allingham's 1926 collection has enough cracking tales to fill up a good ninety minutes. The framing narrative is a club where members tell strange stories, so it's already a portmanteau setup. I would choose 'Vlasto's Doll', 'Robin's Rath', 'The Fifteenth Green', and 'Morag-of-the-Cave', but most of her stories are pretty darn good.


3. Count Magnus

Yes, an M.R. James short story is more obviously a candidate for a 30-40 minute BBC drama. But I think Mr Wraxall's adventure in Sweden have the potential for something more substantial. Throw in a few more garrulous characters, add some extended flashbacks to the count's glory days, perhaps create a lady for Wraxall to fall for (as in Night of the Demon) and you've got potential.


4. Ancient Sorceries


Another short story, but Blackwood's tale offers great potential as the nucleus for an atmospheric tale of witchcraft in provincial France. Again, effects might offer rather wonderful cat-creatures, and the contrast between the 'dream town' that Vezin sees and the modern reality could be handled very effectively.


Hallowe'en Horror Movies - Cat People (1942)

Image result for cat people 1942

The earliest of my viewing choices, influenced by the fact that this classic and it's sequel happen to be on the BBC iPlayer - so, if you can access it from where you are, you can watch it. It's another short feature, too, running at just 70 mins. Director Jacques Tourneur certainly packs enough into this one to make you feel you've had a genuine odyssey into another, parallel world.

Kent Smith as Oliver Reed (!) provides the anchor here, playing a very sensible and clean-cut American naval architect. At the zoo, by the black panther cage, her meets and flirts with fashion artist Irena, a Serbian who seems  alone in New York. Irena lives in an extraordinary apartment building, thanks to sets left over from Orson Welles' abortive project, The Magnificent Ambersons.

Soon the young couple are married. But Irena had already confided in Oliver that in her village there is a legend of a tribe of witches who, in the throes of anger or passion, transformed into cats. She fears that she might kill him if their marriage is consummated. This naturally puts a strain on their relationship, though Oliver strives to be understanding. On the advice of his colleague Alice, Oliver asks Irena to see a psychiatrist, Doctor Judd. The latter provides a thoroughly Freudian explanation for it all.

Unfortunately for all concerned, Judd is very wrong. Alice reveals she has always loved Oliver. Irena is jealous, and in a famous scene pursues Alice to a bus-stop in the dark. We never see Irena transform, but in a second attempt on Alice's life the carefully-rationed details are clear enough. The use of bloody footprints is truly chilling, and thrilling. It's also surprising (i.e. I'd forgotten) how Judd abandons his medical ethics to try his luck with Irena.

Cat People is at triumph of style over budget. RKO was in financial crisis before Val Lewton produced this compact classic, which took a fortune at the box office and saved the studio. It is one of the best examples of a subtle, black and white horror movie. It sets a standard that has seldom been equalled for economical, stylish visuals that make simple light and shadow far more powerful than any effects work. Every frame a potential poster, every shot a work of art.

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Thursday, 25 October 2018

Hallowe'en Horror Movies - A Few Suggestions

Here's a few rambling, random thoughts on types of film I have yet to cover, and a little tribute to some lesser-known gems. Let's begin in the fairly mysterious East...



A Tale of Two Sisters is a 2003 Korean horror movie with shocks aplenty. It has rightly been praised for combining classic ghost story elements with a psycho-thriller plot that hangs together well and offers a startling twist. Director Kim Jee-woon created the biggest-selling Korean movie of all time, and the first to be screened in American cinemas.

Next up, more Lovecraft! Though you might not think so at first glance.



After doing a few Poes, Roger Corman settled on 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward' for his next costume Gothic. Scripted by Charles Beaumont, the film keeps some of the original story but deviates so strongly from it in key ways that it is almost an original plot. Vincent Price plays Ward and his ancestor Curwen, and there is a great cameo from Lon Chaney Jr. Debra Paget, object of Peter Cook and Dudley's Moore's lust in their TV shows, is Ward's much-menaced bride.

But the best aspect of the film is Arkham, a misty old place where half the population are hideous hybrids. Beaumont changes Lovecraft's central intention, making Curwen a kind of idealist who wishes to somehow create a new human race by offering nubile Arkham lovelies to a Thing that lives in a pit under his castle. Needless to say, it is not a viable strategy.

Finally, a bit of modern US horror that takes an ambitious approach to the traditional ghost story.



Static (2012) stars Sara Paxton and Milo Ventimiglia as a couple who have recently lost a child, and are fraying under the stress of grief. Their relationship is made even shakier when a young woman arrives on their doorstep, asking for refuge. Things take an even weirder turn when masked, hooded figures are glimpsed in the night. A home invasion occurs, the couple try to escape, and it's a moot point whether the viewer will guess what the real situation is. I admit I worked out the twist before it came, but I still enjoyed the film a lot.

Hallowe'en Horror Movies - The Call of Cthulhu (2005)



Since my last HHM was a low-budget silent film, why not have another one? The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has a well-deserved reputation for high-quality audio adaptations of Lovecraft's tales.

It was bold, to say the least, of this group of amateurs to make a film of one of ol' Howie's more cerebral tales. It was also quite clever, though, when you think about it. There are only two big scenes - the swamp cultists, and the confrontation between the sailors and Big C himself/itself. The rest is a very traditional narrative, the 'piecing together' of a story too vast and terrifying to be more than glimpsed.

What the Society team do is use humour, some clever techniques, nice set-dressing, and a bit of good location work to give the film a classy feel. We are sometimes in Providence, R.I, mostly on Hollywood sound stages, and we get good model work with split-screen and stop-motion. It's the kind of adaptation an early film maker might have attempted if Lovecraft had been hugely successful in his lifetime. Surprisingly, they even pull off the effect of 'unearthly geometry' swallowing a hapless seafarer at one point.

This is a short film - only 47 mins - and that feels about right. We begin with a doctor talking to Thurston about the documents he inherited from his uncle, Professor George Gammell Angel. Cue the first flashback, and the various components of the tale are assembled, just like the jigsaw Thurston completes in the opening scene. I liked the old-school theatrical make-up and the use of title cards to convey much of Lovecraft's fine phrases. There are also some fine props, such as a weird key used to open Angell's trunk.

Any flaws in the film are really due to the original material, not any failing in the script. There are heroic attempts to dramatise a man spending a lot of time looking for things in various places, and talking to people to get second- or third-hand information. The actors, for my money, are pretty good, in some cases excellent, especially the bold Inspector Legrasse, the sailors, and of course Angell himself. The fight between Legrasse's police and the cultists is a little weak, but fight arranging is not easy or cheap, and the stylised approach fits the overall theme of retro-cinema.

The proof of the gelatinous pudding, of course, is the landing on R'lyeh, which is a triumph of creativity over poverty. Here there is a major change, with the crew of the Emma simply finding the Alert drifting, apparently abandoned. It's implicit that the cultists have already fallen victim to their own deity. The innocent men go ashore and Cthulhu is revealed - and is not a disappointment. Stop-motion monsters were part of my childhood, and while this is not up to Harryhausen standards, it is still pretty good. Especially well handled is the moment when Johannsen pierces the fetid colossus with the bowsprit of the Alert.

So, if you have well under an hour to spare, why not check this one out? Even if you're not a Lovecraft fan, it's good, mind-blasting fun.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

The Tell Tale Heart - 1953 narrated by James Mason

Hallowe'en Horror - Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002)



If I tell you there's a Canadian ballet version of Dracula, you may feel that it's not for you. This, I think, would be a pity. Director Guy Maddin's take on the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's adaptation is not only very entertaining to the non-ballet type (such as me) but also stays remarkably faithful to Stoker's novel. It's not for everyone, but what is? As horror goes this is as un-generic, yet truly Gothic, as you can get.

The story begins with Lucy Westenra (the statuesque Tara Birtwhistle) and her three suitors. Her decision to wed the English milord coincides with the scream of Renfield at the nearby Whitby asylum - the Master is coming! With minimal ado Dracula (Zhang Wei-Quiang) appears and pounces on Lucy. Maddin's monochrome, silent movie approach allows some clever technical tricks, such as highlighting the puncture wounds in red. Lucy's behaviour becomes a bit strange, and Van Helsing is summoned. Cue the garlic and the (amazingly reckless, for the time) blood transfusions.

The story proceeds much as the stage version of Dracula, with Lucy's death, unholy resurrection as the Bloofer Lady, and her destruction by Van Helsing's scratch anti-vampire squad. Because female dancers must be foregrounded (ballet, duh) we get a splendid showdown in the crypt between the men and vampire-Lucy. The actual killing, complete with decapitation, is shockingly effective. I suspect Carmilla was on somebody's bedside table.

Van Helsing and his boys set out to hunt Dracula down, and seek out Mina and Jonathan Harker at the convent near a certain castle. Mina finds her fiance ill but recovering, and reads his diary. Harker has encountered Dracula's brides. The film's frequent and often quirky inter-titles sum this up with the word FLESHPOTS! Mina takes news of her man's antics with aplomb, but he seems to have problems with the whole sex thing. While he is dithering, Dracula strikes, and whisks Mina off to his abode.

The final showdown is well-handled, with nods to various traditions, notably the Hammer 'get him in the sunlight, he won't like it' school. But it is clearly not the menfolk who truly vanquish the count. CindyMarie Small's Mina is the 'good girl', in obvious contrast to Lucy's sensuality, but in the end it is her strength that wins through. Dracula ends up impaled on a spear - a neat reference to old Vlad Tepes, of course.

This is a short film (only 74 mins) and one with a light touch. There are grim gags aplenty, especially from Van Helsing and poor old Renfield. Admittedly it takes a few liberties and shoves all that Victorian subtext about sex and foreigners front and centre as raw text. But the story never flags, and while Maddin's editing is a tad frantic at times, he clearly took pleasure in his work. This is a clever, attractive, good-humoured version of Dracula. It cost a tiny fraction of Coppola's, yet I can't help feeling it drives its stake closer to the heart of the monster.

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Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Hallowe'en Horror Movies - Bram Stoker's Dracula

It's really Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, and Stoker might have had a fit if he'd seen it. This is also a film that managed, in 1992, to demonstrate that casting Americans in a British story can work very well (Tom Waits as Renfield) or very badly (Keanu Reeves and Wynona Ryder as Jonathan and Mina). It also showed that Gary Oldman can play any role with style and energy, even under a ton of latex gunge and/or silly wigs.



The film is visually brilliant, full of stunning images and old-school effects, with not a digital gimmick in sight. It would be tempted to watch it with the sound turned off, but the score by Wojciech Kilar is also rather wonderful. Costumes by Eiko Ishioka are also superb, ditching the dusty cape for a range of aristocratic garb. The big budget went onto the screen. Sets are hyper-lavish, backdrops splendid.

The film also moves at a reasonably fast pace - it's two hours might have seemed long in the last century, but compared to much recent genre stuff it feels rather brisk. There are some nice action scenes, and erotic malarkey that made me wish Coppola had tackled 'Carmilla' instead. Dracula's brides, led by Monica Belluci, are convincing and true to the original story.

But we all know, I suspect, where the problems lie. The bad acting, the bad accents, the feeling that as Van Helsing Antony Hopkins was having a private joke at Coppola's expense. The term 'random bellowing' has been suggested for his approach, and it's as good a description as any. Most horror movies offer inconsistent performances, but seldom have key players ranged from fine - Waits' Renfield, Richard E. Grant's sadly under-used Seward - to naff.

Gothic horror is always a bit daft, so there's no point in absurdities, even though there are a lot of them. For instance: Dracula in London encounters Mina on the street, tells her he's a prince, and persuades her to go to the pictures (bioscope) with him, where they watch some early porn. In 1897. There are also odd expository wobbles, as in Van Helsing's voice  over telling us that vampire can indeed function in daylight. Anyone who'd read the book would know this. Anyone who hadn't could figure it out.

But I still watched it all the way through. Even as I scoffed I found something to admire in every scene - well, almost. This is one of the most ambitious horror films ever made, and it deserved its slew of awards. It would have been even better with the right cast, but it's still damnably entertaining.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Hallowe'en Horror Movies - It Follows

As others have pointed out, this one has a lot in common with Night of the Demon/'Casting the Runes'. We even begin with an incident that makes it clear we are dealing with an unusual menace, and a terrifying one, before we meet the main characters. While we do not see the demon, we get a moment of pure body horror. The film lays down a marker - whatever s' going on is real.



Having said that, It Follows (2014) is nothing like a Jamesian ghost story in tone. Its characters are a group of young people enjoying their summer break, and finding it hard at first to grasp what is menacing one of their number. The basic premise is simple - a sexually transmitted curse. If you pass it on you can escape, possibly. If you don't, it follows and will get you eventually.

As the victim of a cruel deceit, Maika Monroe is convincingly confused, frightened, and ultimately courageous. The supporting cast are good to excellent, proving that a 'teen horror' doesn't have to be a graveyard of decent performances. There's also a slightly retro feel to the movie - these are teenagers who spend a remarkably small amount of time online.

The director, David Robert Mitchell, plays cleverly with the audience's expectations. Of course one of the group will not believe in the menace and falls victim to it. The twist lies in the way the entity can take on any human form, including that of loved ones. There is also the obligatory attempt to defeat the 'demon', which descends into chaos. The movie's ending leaves things just ambiguous enough. Is it still following? I suspect most viewers believe it is.

It Follows is not a conventional horror movie, and its take on the supernatural is devoid of most conventional exposition. There is simply a hitherto unimaginable threat, and people's responses to it. While not perfect, it comes close to being the ideal modern horror movie - one that shuns conventional Gothic tropes, but still focuses on a young woman's attempts to escape a kind of haunting that affects not merely some old mansion, but her entire world.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Hallowe'en Horror Movies - Tales of Terror



A bit of good old harmful fun with Roger Corman and his pals, this time. Nothing too serious, here, but horror does not have to be modern, gritty, or especially realistic to work.

Having adapted three of Poe's best--known tales, Corman moved on in 1962 to produce a portmanteau of three short stories. Here you will find fairly free adaptations of 'The Black Cat', 'Morella', and 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar'. The stars are Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, and Vincent Price, each turning in full-blooded performances. Old-school costume Gothic has seen something of a revival lately, so it's worth noting that, along with Hammer, Corman was responsible for the first post-war horror movies in  glorious 'color'.

Each story is distinctly different from the original text. 'Morella', a very brief tale, becomes a distinctly Freudian and very weird drama. Vincent Price's daughter Lenora visits her old dad and finds him living in perpetual mourning for Morella, Lenora's mother. Because she died in childbirth he blames his daughter for her death. When Lenora reveals she is dying, however, he begins to be reconcile to her. However, Morella rises from the dead with vengeance in mind...

'The Black Cat' is a comedy interlude, albeit very dark comedy. Peter Lorre is a drunken cuckold who hates his wife and her cat. Vincent Price appears in the role of the wife's lover, and both end up being walled up alive, along with the moggie. Of course the police turn up, and we all know what happens then. It's the weakest segment, but watching Peter Lorre is always enjoyable, and his bulging-eyed, red-faced villain is as much a Poe-esque creation as any etiolated gentleman-scholar.

'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar' sees Basil Rathbone as a hypnotist employed by a dying Vincent Price to alleviate his suffering. The hypnotist becomes a little too interested in Valdemar's wife, however. The evil hypnotist tries to force Mme. Valdemar to bend to his evil desires by refusing to release her husband's soul from its rotting corporeal form. This proves unwise...

Compared to the previous two movies in this informal series, Tales of Terror is rather small fry. But its one of the lesser-known portmanteau/anthology movies, and passes the time nicely. Watch with a cup of tea and some shortbread, if you don't have any Amontillado in the house.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Nigel Kneale's 'The Road' - Resurfaced

Over here you can read an interview with the writer/actor/presenter Toby Hadoke about 'The Road'. This is widely considered to be a lost TV masterpiece by the legendary Nigel Kneale. A script still exists, but sometime after the show was broadcast in 1963 the BBC wiped the videotape.

Now a radio adaptation of this unusual ghost story will be broadcast this coming Saturday on Radio 4. It will of course be available on the BBC iPlayer shortly after premiering at 2.30 pm. And here are the cast, including (third from right) Hattie Moraghan, whose father directed the original TV version. And apparently an archivist found some of the original Radiophonic Workshop effects, which have been re-used in the radio play. Spiffing!



I have decided not to include spoilers in this little item, as 'The Road' is one of those 'ah, now I get it' twist ending stories. Set in the 18th century (aka the Age of Reason) it concerns a haunting in a forest that is believed to be related to an old Roman road. A country squire and an 'modern' intellectual gentlemen investigate, and argue over what the true nature of the mystery might be. Local rustic characters give their accounts. The audience, however, discovers an all-too-horrifying significance to the strange sights and sounds on The Road. I was particularly pleased to read that very little has been altered in the script, only as much as needed to make it work in audio alone.
Sometimes there’s a risk that Kneale’s reputation as a great ideas writer can obscure the fact that he knew exactly what he was doing with characters and dialogue too. “He was very good at character and this is a character piece,” Hadoke says. “It’s an argument between two men who have very different ideas and whose input into the plot is one of the most surprising elements. The ostensible goodie and the ostensible baddie are actually both responsible in their different ways for the terror that is unleashed, which is very clever.” You’ll need to listen in to discover which is which, but the two lead characters are local squire Sir Timothy Hassall (Adrian Scarborough) and visiting London intellectual Gideon Cobb (Mark Gatiss). Hadoke says, “The Road is a piece that’s known because of this brilliant genre concept, but actually what most of the play is about is two very well-drawn characters sparring with each other against the backdrop of a haunting. Kneale does that so well and you don’t need Hadoke to mess with it.”
I'm really looking forward to this. It is clearly a labour of love. I doubt it will herald a slew of Kneale remakes for radio, or indeed TV, but we can hope.

Hallowe'en Horror Movies - The Eye (2002)

Hong Kong horror is a sub-genre that was somewhat overshadowed by the J-Horror boom that began at the turn of the century. However, with this clever variation on the theme of the ghost-seer the Pang Brothers showed that HK is not to be ignored.

The film is based on an urban legend - a woman with corneal grafts who begins to see strange ghosts. This kind of  'transplant ghost story' is nothing new. But what The Eye does is spin the idea into everything the horror fan might want - jump scares, strange dreams, diverse and disturbing ghosts, and even a happy ending. Of sorts.

Mun (played by Malaysian Chinese actor Lee Sin-je) is a young woman who has been blind since she was two. After corneas become available she undergoes surgery, and is put in the care of psychologist Wah (Laurence Chou). When Mun starts to see odd things Wah draws the conclusion that her mind is struggling to make sense of new sensations. But Mun, and the audience, know better. She is simply seeing more than most people. Gradually she comes to realise that she is seeing the world as it truly is - that HK is a city of the dead.



It could be argued that movie pivots on two great moments - the hungry ghosts, and the man in the elevator. While these are superb, they would not be so effective if the groundwork had not been laid by showing us Mun's blurry impressions of events in her hospital, and her encounter with the little boy outside her grandmother's apartment. It's also very restrained in its use of psychic palaver, perhaps because so much ghostly lore here derives from traditional Taoist beliefs.

Like The Orphanage, The Eye a film about the sadness of ghosts and the wrongs people do, and the possibility of reconciliation. It delivers its scares in a good cause, and while it may seem slick and conventional in some respects it also has great confidence and energy. Its message of compassion and understanding is clear in any language.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Gormenghast Castle Automata

Hallowe'en Horror Movies - The Orphanage

What will I be watching over the spooky season? Since I watch new horror movies all year round, I try to rewatch the ones I really love over Hallowe'en. An exercise in nostalgia? Of course!

First up is a very modern film with a strong Gothic sensibility. The Orphanage/El Orfanato,is one of the most effective screen ghost stories to come out of Spain. The film works in part because the story is itself extremely good. A couple with a seriously ill child buy an old orphanage and convert it into a special home. But the lingering spirit of a little boy who suffered a terrible fate in the house disrupts their lives forever.



The film, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, manages to make many conventional haunted house tropes work perfectly. The son's imaginary friends, the lighthouse on the headland, a strange encounter in the sea caves - all combine to produce a sense of mystery, and gradually escalating menace. The use of children's games, the arrival of a disturbing and disturbed person with a tale to tell, and the psychic investigation with hi-tech instruments - it's all here, used to amazing effect.

When the horror finally becomes immediate, unavoidable, the reactions of the characters always convince. As the tormented and heroic Laura, Belen Rueda is superb. The actual ghost is original, convincing, ultimately tragic. When it premiered at Cannes in 2007 this film received a ten minute standing ovation. Watch it, and you will see why.

Update: Re-watched it last night, and was just as moved and enthralled as before. I had forgotten how effortlessly the script by Sergio G. Sanchez fits together all the disparate aspects off the haunting. Also, for a premier feature Bayona directs with extraordinary confidence. Geraldine Chaplin as Aurora the medium appears for a relatively short time, but in the great tradition of this kind of film she is also central. She offers a counterpoint to the movie's villain. There is no better film about a haunting, and what a haunting might mean.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

A Ghosts & Scholars Book of Folk Horror - Review Part 2


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We round off our review of the latest Sarob volume with the new stories selected by Ro Pardoe for this impressive new anthology. First up Gail-Nina Anderson with 'Variant Versions', a story drawing on the author's background in academia and her interest in folklore.

A chance encounter at the launch of a new book reveals the story behind an almost-forgotten article on an obscure ballad. The narrator ventures to the village where the ballad was recorded, and discovers that the version in the book is incomplete. The author deftly juggles complex and interesting themes, such as feminist interpretations of folk tales, while the verse at the heart of the story has an authentic ring. There is a nicely Jamesian feel to the way in which we glimpse the supernatural at second hand, but with great intensity.

Helen Grant's contribution, 'The Valley of Achor' (I looked it up, it's interesting), is set in Perthshire in February. She perfectly evokes the bleakness of the rural landscape as her researcher sets off on a bicycle to try and find the ruins of an old church. Instead she stumbled upon what seems to be a pre-Christian sacred site. And yet, in a bizarre twist, the site she finds seems to consist in part of stones robbed from the church. How can this be? A suitably weird story that left me wondering what was going on, and keen to re-read it.

Equally enjoyable is 'The Cutty Wren' by Tom Johnstone. Here a very Jamesian pursuit of a mystery related to an old folk song is given a more modern spin thanks to a tense, complex relationship between the male narrator and a tough female scholar. An unpleasant incident leads indirectly to a quest that peels back layers of possible meaning. In the end Jenny, the dynamic researcher, takes things too far, and literally digs up one item too many.

'Sisters Rise' by Christopher Harman is a typically subtle and at times nightmarish story. This time the folklore element is a standing stone, Tall Maud, which stands on a wooded hill. The legend has it that once there were a group of witches who turned to stone, but only one remains. The presence of the other witches (if that's what they are) is revealed in a very clever way that recalls several MRJ stories. Stylistically this is far from what Monty wrote, but in terms of ideas it's right up his street.

John Llewellyn Probert is a keen aficionado of horror flicks (see his excellent blog here) but in 'The Discontent of Familiars' he demonstrates a firm grasp of the subtler Jamesian tradition. Indeed, this one of the most traditional stories in the book, with its Oxford scholar deliberately buying a cottage that once belonged to a notorious witch. The narrator (like the author) is a doctor who receives a series of letters from his friend, as the cottage's phone and wi-fi apparently don't work, The letters grow increasingly strange and disturbing until eventually the doctor drives down to see just bad things are. I won't spoil the ending, but it's a kicker.

Interestingly, only one new story draws on continental folklore. 'The Dew-Shadows' by David A. Sutton starts in classic Jamesian fashion, as a man discovers a folder of old civil service documents in a sale. The papers in question are letters from an archaeologist working in Crete in the early stages of World War 2. This produces that Jamesian requirement, a 'slight haze of distance'. The long-dead archaeologist found a tomb apparently linked to Pan, or a similar deity. When the protagonist takes advantage of a holiday in Crete to see if the tomb is still there, he encounters the strange entities of the title.

With the last story we go from the black shadows of the Mediterranean to the sub-Arctic gloom of the Highlands. 'Out of the Water, Out of the Ground' by S.A. Rennie begins with a young man admiring a painting of a man pursued by a shadowy figure. In terms of tone this one departs from M.R. James and moves closer to the mainstream of horror, with great effect. A group of unpleasant wooden figures placed in a rockery might seem a rather trivial menace. But in the hands of this author the 'little people' become truly disturbing.

So, that is my quick overview of this extremely readable book. If you can get your hands on a copy, I don't think you will be disappointed.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Monster Puns

If you like monster movies and truly dreadful puns, the spoof film posters at this site will probably tickle your tickleable regions. Seriously, sometimes I think incessant punning should be either a criminal offence or a notifiable disease. But I know a lot of people love 'em, so...



(There's a film called the Hudsucker Proxy. You're welcome.)





Now that is quite funny.



Very niche market, but I'm sold.

Auntie has another stab at Dracula

At the BBC Media Centre you can read all about it, but here are a few bits.
BBC One has commissioned Dracula from the co-creators of multi-award-winning hit BBC drama Sherlock. It will be produced by Hartswood Films and is a co-production between BBC One and Netflix. 
The 3x90’ mini-series is written and created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss and inspired by Bram Stoker’s classic novel. Three feature length episodes will re-introduce the world to Dracula, the vampire who made evil sexy. In Transylvania in 1897, the blood-drinking Count is drawing his plans against Victorian London. And be warned: the dead travel fast.
I thought the vampire who made evil sexy was Carmilla, but that's press releases for you.
The series will premiere on BBC One in the UK and on Netflix outside of the UK, and China where the service is not available. BBC Studios Distribution, who brokered the deal with Netflix for Hartswood Films, is the international distributor.
Interesting times. Who will play the key roles of the Count, and his adversary Abraham Van Helsing? We can but speculate. Inevitably, comparisons will be made with earlier portrayals.


Image result for dracula v. van helsing peter cushing

The BBC has, of course, done numerous versions of Dracula on television and radio. In 1977 Auntie tried her hand at that very Seventies (and American) concept, the TV movie, with a major adaptation. I recall it as a bit weak, to be honest - a decent effort but nothing special. I don't think Louis Jourdain shone as the count. Frank Finlay made a decent Van Helsing, though.

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Issue 39 - a sneaky peek

The next issue of ST should be out next month, with a bit of luck. I'm aiming for the 'sweet slot' between Hallowe'en and Christmas, when ghostly manifestations are in everyone's mind. As well as shopping.

I think it's an excellent issue (of course) not least because of the sheer number of new writers. Only two have appeared in ST before! Most, however, are recognised as rising or established talents on this or the other side of the pond. So, without further ado, here are the contributors, plus first sentences to tickle the readerly palate.


'I heard this story on a night flight back from Dubai.'
'A Tiny Mirror' by Eloise C.C. Shepherd 


'The bastard pulled the dump-her-in-a-restaurant trick, a coward's way out.
'A Family Affair' by Margaret Karmazin


'They knocked on his door at ten of ten.'
'Burnt Heart, Bound Feet' by Danielle Davis


'Fifteen years later, on the bus, I ran into a girl who'd been in our grade'
'Like the Absence...' by Chloe N.Clark


'As soon as Simone set foot on the path through the heather her spirits began to rise.'
'The Moor' by Rosalie Parker


'They're all looking at me, he thought.'
'By the Hungry Sea' by Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin


'Yes, I know.'
'The Figure in the Scene' by Jon Barron

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Death and the Maiden

Over at Dangerous Minds you can see  some peculiar old photos. Like this one.

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Yes, it's a bunch of women posing with skeletons. And some of the ladies are in a start of undress.

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According to the article:
Some of these pictures were intended as, well, shall we say, “educational erotica” giving the viewer a frisson of arousal while at the same time battering them on the head with the salutary warning that the wrong kind of boner could lead to disease and death. Something those Decadent artists used to bang (ahem) on about in their paintings.
Fair enough, but some just seem to be a bit kinky, to be honest.

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Friday, 12 October 2018

Post--Mortem Comedy - TV review

I've been watching not one but two critically-acclaimed comedies involving the afterlife. What this says about me, I'm not sure. What it says about our society, well, a lot of things I suppose. But first, the facts! And, needless to say, some massive, honking great spoilers.

The Good Place is an NBC series, available in the UK via Netflix (I got a gift subscription). The premise of the series is simple. Here, let the trailer explain it:



Yes, Ted Danson is in charge. As Michael, an angelic being, he is responsible for keeping The Good Place running smoothly. The arrival of Eleanor (Kristin Bell) messes things up because her bad vibes destabilise everything. Eleanor attempts to correct her moral flaws by getting actual lessons in ethics from Chidi, a former professor of moral philosophy. But things only seem to get worse. And then a series of revelations occurs that overturns everything Eleanor thought she knew.

The Good Place is a chirpy, smart comedy with a very tight script and engaging characters, as one might expect with its pedigree. It looks good, sounds good, and in its flashbacks to the characters' earthly lives offers a good measure of barbed commentary on our shallow, fame-obsessed culture. In a brilliant ensemble cast Britain's own Jameela Jamil stands out as the super-rich philanthropist Tahani, endlessly name-dropping, but constantly overshadowed by a more gifted sister. You really believe she values Bono's friendship.

What's more, over three seasons The Good Place evolves to be more than a one-joke show about how funny it would be if an averagely bad person went to heaven by mistake. Because that's not really the point of it all. Far from it.

Image result for the good place trailer

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Esoteric meme time

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people standing and text

A Ghosts & Scholars Book of Folk Horror - Review Part 1.


The title says it all - or at least, tells most of it. This is a collection of folk horror tales edited by noted M.R. James expert Ro Pardoe. Published by Sarob Press, it represents one of those collector's items that comes along rather infrequently.

The first half of the book (roughly speaking) consists of stories previously published, while the second contains entirely new fiction. This makes for an interesting range of authors, styles, and ingredients. There is also an introduction in which the editor points out that, though it's definitely out there, folk horror is hard to define. She also lists those ghost stories by James that fit the folk horror definition. It's a long list.

The first story Michael Chislett's 'Meeting Mr. Ketchum'. This is a good start, as it's a tale with a contemporary setting and believably modern characters. When a young couple on holiday venture into a field containing a mysterious mound, they encounter a man who seems a little flyblown, as well as being erudite and somewhat old-fashioned in his attire. The blend of humour and horror is excellent, and sets a high standard for the rest of the book.

Chico Kidd's tale 'Figures in a Landscape' has a slightly more Jamesian feel, with its exploration of ruined churches in Ireland. Here, too, is a mysterious figure best avoided. The blending of folk story, hints of uneasy dreams, and the exploration of old buildings is nicely handled.

'The Burning' by Ramsey Campbell is, of course, different again. The author's typically nightmarish imagery is well-suited to this very short piece about an unhappy, frustrated man wandering alone on Guy Fawkes' night. He discovers in the ritual burning of the guy an outlet for the anger and resentment he feels - only to find himself targeted by beings who arguably have even greater grievances.

'Where Are the Bones?' by Jacqueline Simpson is the title story of the author's upcoming collection, and I hardly need to point out that it is solidly founded in authentic folklore. It features Monty himself and his friend Will Stone, who find themselves entangled in a strange series of events that involve pagan rites, a student, and a tumulus.

Another G&S veteran, C.E. Ward, contributes 'The Spinney', which offers a taut, anecdotal approach. A driver breaks down in the countryside and decides to seek help at a nearby cottage. Ward's narrator finds himself under observation by a countryman in slightly antiquated clothes. The watcher becomes a pursuer, and is joined by an equally menacing woman. The folk-horror element here is that of rural violence that lingers, and the accelerating pace of the story makes for real tension.

'Beatrix Paints a Landscape (1884)' by Philip Thompson is, in marked contrast, a vignette about a possible incident in the life of Beatrix Potter. Something altogether more menacing than a rabbit in a waistcoat appears to the young naturalist. She chooses a different path to the one offered by creatures that somewhat resemble those in 'After Dark in the Playing Fields'.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

'Beneath the Skin' and 'Rootless'

We reach the end of Figurhead by Carly Holmes with two flash fiction pieces that, taken together, sum up the book rather well.



In 'Beneath the Skin' we follow a woman who feeds a beast, one that lurks on the fringes of a comfortable community. The woman takes meat to what is arguably a werewolf, and also offers him her body. But there is something ambiguous about this apparent sacrifice, a suggestion of complicity in the way she feeds the beast just enough to keep him coming back for more.

'The bargain struck those years ago has become something else. But you don't think about that.'

'Rootless' is a grisly magic-realist reworking of a familiar fairytale, literally. Fairies are real, and they collect teeth. The protagonist is targeted by the little folk throughout her life, and with each tooth they obtain, part of her essential self is torn away. 'I'd sold myself over and over, for a handful of pennies.'

In these and other stories Holmes takes conventional, seemingly outworn ideas and gives us them afresh. She is a remarkably gifted and original writer, with a clear, confident voice. I hope we will see a lot of more of her fiction in years to come.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

'A Small Life'

A lonely man living in a small community by a river joins a rowing club. Rowing gives the man a feeling of belonging and contentment, so much so that he becomes dependent on the short voyages up and downstream. Then a young woman arrives, sister of the boat's cox, and the man becomes uncomfortable, resentful. His unwillingness to accept the young woman culminates in the emergence of a strange entity from the riverside vegetation.

The being may or may not be real. The story depends on the reader not being entirely sure. The man, who has a drink problem, could be a violent, dangerous individual. Or he could be faced with an impossible situation, and handling it as best he can. I don't know. This story is apparently simple, but hard to analyse. What is clear is how desperate for some kind of connection many of us are. The man in this story finds a life worth living simply by rowing with a few acquaintances. The woman, Jess, seems to need more.

And I can't say any more about the story without giving away the whole plot. Another well-balanced tale, showing how well Carly Holmes creates convincing characters who are never simply heroes or villains.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

'Woodside Close'



Another story from Figurehead by Carly Holmes, one of the best collections by a new (to me) writer I've read in years.

'The young mother at number 32 was the first to notice.'

What she notices is that the wood is not longer alongside the close, but is rapidly reclaiming the land stolen from it. The story follows the responses of various residents as an apparently magical event takes place. Not only do regular living trees flourish at an unnatural pace. Even wooden objects supposedly dead begin to sprout thorns, leaves, roots. Soon the Close is cut off, and a kind of survivalist philosophy takes hold among some. Others form a coven and revive some of the old ways. Then a little girl called Gretel emerges from the forest. Shortly after comes a girl in a red hooded cloak...

The detached, ironic tone of this story reminded me a little of Margaret Atwood, as did the theme. Atwood's tutor, the Canadian critic Northrop Frye, stressed the transformative nature of the wild wood in Shakespeare, and elsewhere. People entering the 'green world', Frye called it, and there's an interesting variation on the idea in Atwood's first novel, The Edible Woman. Here the green world enters people's lives, unbidden, revealing truths about themselves. (In the case of a Goth who tries to befriend some wolves, it is a tragic naivety.)

This story is a clever variation on the old theme of nature reasserting itself in the face of human arrogance, or indifference. It's not quite post-apocalyptic, but very British in its idea of muddling through in the weirdest of circumstances.

Monday, 1 October 2018

New Books Alert!

I have so many books to review that I will not get through them all by the end of the year, I fear. So I thought I would announce them here so that people on the lookout for new reading matter can check them out before I start chuntering on about them.

First up, Tartarus Press have a new collection of stories by Mark Valentine and John Howard. This is a two-author collection and seems rather timely. I like the art deco lettering and the stamp. But let us find out a little more!



'In an East Prussian manor house, a Bohemian library, a Bulgarian railway station; in a Venetian citadel, a Breton harbour, a city in the Caucasus, characters encounter not only the vicissitudes of history but also the subtle influences of the uncanny.
'As they face war, revolution and upheaval, or the quieter encroachments of decay, these haunted figures must find their way both in a changed world and in mysterious overlapping otherworlds.'
Sounds good to me! Judging by previous volumes, this one will be superbly written, erudite, and subtle.

Meanwhile, over at Sarob Press, a very special anthology has been launched and is already nearly sold out. This is the Ghosts & Scholars Book of Folk Horror, edited by Ro Pardoe. Need I say more?



Oh all right then. The contributors are:
Michael Chislett, Chico Kidd, Ramsey Campbell, Jacqueline Simpson, C.E. Ward, Philip Thompson, Terry Lamsley, Kay Fletcher, Geoffrey Warburton, Carole Tyrrell and (the new stories) Gail-Nina Anderson, Helen Grant, Tom Johnstone, Christopher Harman, John Llewellyn Probert, David A. Sutton, and S.A. Rennie.
A veritable galaxy of spookalicious talent.

But what of Swan River Press, Dublin's finest purveyor of weird fiction? They've only been and gone and published an anthology edited by the excellent Lynda E. Rucker.



Here are the contributors: Matthew M. Bartlett, S. P. Miskowski, Adam L. G. Nevill, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Shearman, R. S. Knightley, Lisa Tuttle, Ralph Robert Moore, Tracy Fahey, Julia Rust & David Surface, Scott West, and Rosanne Rabinowitz.

That's three. I suspect other review copies are lurking, but I thought I'd mention three outstanding books that pretty much cover all bases. For lovers of short fiction in the supernatural/horror vein, these are pretty good times.

Small Horror Stories

Go here for tiny tales of unease and terror from Irish artist Brian Coldrick. Most are brief animations, but this static pic gives you an idea of how good they are. A touch of 'Number 13' for the Monty James fans.

Scary Illustration

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Through a Glass Darkly

Since I mentioned the M.R. James event in York last week in my previous post, I thought I would write a brief account of what it was all about.

The event was 'A Celebration of the Work of M.R. James on the 120th Anniversary of his Visit to York'. It began on the afternoon of Wednesday 26th at the Bar Convent, with general welcome and the first session of talks. Paul M. Chapman set the ball rolling with a look at the invention of a 'new type of ghost', focusing on MRJ's development of the antiquarian ghost story. That was followed by Mark Valentine on the figure of the scholar in the stories. Terry Hale rounded off the first session with 'M.R. James and French fin de siecle Occultism'.

All of these talks led to interesting Q&As and general discussion. They certainly inspired me to rethink and ponder some aspects of the ghost stories, which is the point, and of course they reminded me of just how much I enjoy them.

After a nice cup of something talks resumed with John Reppion on 'Adapting M.R. James for Comics' - an area of total ignorance for me. I am not slightly better informed! Then there was a panel discussion with Mark Valentine, Helen Grant, and Peter Bell. Again, lots of ideas, good-humoured and intelligent discussion.

In the evening most of us hied ourselves to Bedern Hall where Pat Smith, a York guide, talked about the gruesome (and possibly) supernatural history of York. Then Robert Lloyd Parry performed A Pleasing Terror, consisting of 'Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book', followed by 'The Mezzotint'. Very atmospheric stuff! Just the right balance of humour and darkness.


Saturday, 29 September 2018

Stained Glass and M.R. James

I recently returned from the fair city of York, where I met with a whole bunch of M.R. James enthusiasts. The occasion was the centenary of Monty visiting the city to examine various stained/painted glass windows in the city's churches.

One very significant window that impressed the future Provost of Kings (and later Eton) is at All Saints, in North St. It is a vision of the end of the world, drawn from an immensely popular medieval poem entitled 'The Pricke of Conscience'. If you click on the image below you can embiggen it and see just how wonderful some of the panels are.

Image result for all saints church york pricke of conscience


Tuesday, 25 September 2018

'Friday', 'Heartwood', and 'Figurehead'

Three more short tales from Figurehead by Carly Holmes (Tartarus Press 2018).



The first story is, on the face of it, a sad tale of a recently widowed woman in the grey, soulless period between her husband's death and the funeral. She takes phone calls, makes arrangements, plays with her dog. But all the time the hills outside are moving, gathering, gradually coming closer. She must hold out until Friday.

'Heartwood' is another story of a woman transformed, merging earlier themes. Like 'Bake Day' it explores the boundaries between womanhood and motherhood, as a brother and sister react very differently to their mother's hybrid nature. 'In the spring and summer threads of blossom sprang from her scalp and twisted down her shoulders.' Full of beautiful imagery, the tale ends with a betrayal in the name of orthodoxy, a sense of loss.

The title story takes us a step further, with a carved mermaid on the prow of a ship becoming conscious, merging with the soul of the vessel. The description of a flirtatious figurehead's eventful life  and times is great fun, but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that she is no mere sex symbol. Hello sailor, goodbye.

This is a very enjoyable book precisely because it combines longer tales with compact, diverse tales on strange and fabulous themes. I will have more to say about it in day or two.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Radio Spookery

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I've been neglecting radio drama, which I love and listen to a lot. So here are a few links to some BBC supernatural tales that are available on the iPlayer (in the UK, at least).



I See The Moon
'1967: Richard Thornton is at a planning conference. In the big house where he's staying, he comes across a little girl on the top landing. He comforts her and promises to return, but his hosts deny any knowledge of her. Can she really have disappeared into thin air?'
I enjoyed this one, which felt quite substantial and heartfelt in the way it links a ghost story to the postwar planning blight that devastated Britain more effectively than the Lutfwaffe.

Ancient Sorceries

Only six days left to listen to the late lamented Philip Madoc read this abridged version of Blackwood's classic tale. A great bedtime listen. Four 30 minute episodes.

The Dead Hand

Wilkie Collins, in a bit of fine old Victorian Gothic. "When he looked at the bed now, he saw hanging over the side of it a long, white hand."

Next, an American radio version of 'The Ash-Tree' by M.R. James. Nice little half hour condensed version.








Transylvanian Nymph Cult

Ah, yes, great band - I remember buying their first album, back when it was all vinyl...

No, hang on, it's actually an item about archaeology. And a very odd item it is:
Deep in the darkest reaches of Cioclovina Cave in Transylvania, archaeologists have discovered an astonishing amount of jewelry and skulls that have been estimated to date back 3,300 years. It is now believed that this site was once a subterranean temple of sorts that may have been used as part of a nymph cult, with offerings given to the naiads who dwelt in this sacred location.
It's a fascinating read, connecting classic literature - Homer and all that - with discoveries concerning East-West trade routes.
In particular, the glass beads that were discovered inside the cave were fashioned out of both Egyptian and Mesopotamian glass which have been dated from between 1400 to 1100 BC. Along with these glass beads, archaeologists also found 1,770 amber beads that had originated in Scandinavia.
But for some of us it's going to be about the skulls, of course. Because nymphs collecting skulls in a cave has a certain appeal.




'Into the Woods', 'Alter', and 'Bake Day'

Three more very short pieces from Carly Holmes' Figurehead. All concern women's liberation, in a way. 'Into the Woods' straddles the boundary between prose and poem, offering a portrait of a young woman's torments by listing the reasons why she goes into the woods. Sometimes she is joyful, sometimes tormented. 'One day she'll go into the woods and never return'...

'Alter' is a tale of transformation, told from the point of view of a man whose wife/partner is increasingly distracted and dishevelled. She spends a lot of time in the garden feeding birds, communing with nature. Later the nameless man becomes aware that this communion is rather more immediate and physical than mere British quirkiness. But by then it is too late, and she is transformed into a being that he has no claims upon.

'Bake Day' is about a woman who bakes versions of her own children and then eats them. The children accept this ritual as a necessity for their mother, as it allows her to free herself from the constraints of domesticity, the ties of blood. The children scent magic in this ritual, a power that may one day make them disappear for good.

More from this running review soon.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

'Runty' and 'Strumpet'

While Runty and Strumpet would be a brilliant odd-couple detective series, this is in fact a double-header review of two pieces of flash fiction from Carly Holmes' Figurehead. Rather belatedly I've noticed that some of these shorter tales, which are adjacent in the book, fit naturally together. (Smart lad wanted.) So...

'Strumpet' is an ultra-short updating of 'Wich', in a way. (See earlier posts etc). A girl is a little too free and easy about her body from the start, and what begins as an amusing tendency to run around naked is later met with disapproval. Fortunately, she ignores the narrow-minded and raised her own daughter to see freedom her way.

'Runty' is about the male gaze, in this case directed at a woman who feeds the eponymous jackdaw in her garden. A man sits in his window overlooking the woman's garden, watching her. Nothing she says or does seems to shame or intimidate him. He becomes a baffling and menacing presence, but the narrator persists in feeding the bird, despite feeling his gaze upon her all the time. Eventually there there is violence, a moment of horror.

Compact accounts of a world that is all too recognisable. More soon.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

'Three for a Girl'

The longest story in Carly Holmes' collection Figurehead is a novella about a haunted house. It is also a tale of two sisters - Georgie, a successful artist who has bought the house with her husband, Mark, and Marie, a Bohemian outsider.



When the story begins Marie has just had an abortion. We do not learn why, or who the man was, only that she has a lover. She calls Georgie, who is pregnant, and agrees to go and stay with her. Magpie House is a former orphanage in the English countryside. Mark is absent. From the start we know that Marie detests him and resents him having a part in her sister's life. Georgie, however, seems well and happy - at first.

As the story unfolds, Marie becomes aware of presences in the house. At first it is a single child that she dreams of, holding her close as she sleeps. But gradually ghosts of all the orphans manifest themselves to her. At the same time Georgie becomes disturbed, and eventually suffers injuries in some kind of attack. Marie's efforts to protect her sister become increasingly desperate.

The truth about the situation is revealed in the final quarter of the novella. Genuine horror emerges from the fabric of the story as it does from the fabric of the old house. There is an overtone of Shirley Jackson's most nightmarish tales in the final scene. But along the way Holmes brings the house and the people to life with exceptional skill, especially when the first hints of a haunting are described.

I felt a little stunned after the last page of this tone.

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!