Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Women Only

ST is now open to submissions from women writers until the end of August.

With luck this will help correct the magazine's long-term gender imbalance, which has been bothering me for some time.

Image result for women writers

'The Nun's Tale'

The final story in Tree Spirit and Other Strange Tales by Michael Eisele is a good, old-fashioned yarn. It pays splendid homage to all those tales told by Chaps Seated By The Fire At Their Club. Only in this case the chaps are retired priests at a nursing home in Northumberland, and the central heating is somewhat inadequate.

The story begins with a discussion of transfiguration, which has a specific religious meaning I'm not too clear on. The point is that one priest, who has previously said little, is moved to recount his strange experience as a missionary in South America. The priest was sent on one of those expeditions that are famously ill-fated - a quest to find out what happened to the last lot. In this case, the last lot were a group of nuns led by the formidably unpopular Sister Mary Joseph, a large and aggressive 'bride of Christ' that any sensible saviour would want to divorce.

The priest recounts his voyage upriver into the territory of a tribe who worship a jaguar-deity in a large stone temple. Significantly, the priest encounters a large, beautiful and terrifying jaguar before he arrives in the village. Communication problems make it difficult for him to grasp what happened to Sister Mary Joseph, but the tribal leader says she is now 'with God'. Assuming she is dead the priest decides to see if he can find any trace of a grave. But then, when he enters the temple, he encounters a naked woman who recognised him at once...

There's a distinct feel of the inter-war era about this one. It might have been penned by Hugh Walpole, L.P. Hartley. It also bears traces of the late Lucius Shepherd and other modern fantasists. With its steamy exoticism and now familiar clash between civilisation and older, earthier cultures it makes a suitable ending to an extremely good collection.

And that's the end of this running review. I now have four books of short stories lined up from the Tartarus, Sarob, and Swan River Presses, so expect another volley from me any day now. It's just a question of choosing which one to do next...

Monk-y Business

Image result for bunuel moine franco nero 1972

Well, I'm struggling with this one. In 1972 Luis Bunuel finally saw his adaptation of Matthew Lewis's OTT Gothic novel filmed. I've no idea why Bunuel cared that much, as it is a silly story that makes for a rather dull film. The situation is not helped by the fact that Franco Nero, as the eponymous anti-hero, looks very like Robert Powell's portrayal of Jesus.

Image result for bunuel moine franco nero 1972

Image result for robert powell jesus

See what I mean? Okay it's Gothic drama, not 'proper' historical drama, but did monks ever have such fine, full beards? And were they ever so dim that they couldn't see a novice called 'Brother John' was in fact a woman, complete with long titian hair? I mean, it's Nathalie Delon. Vows of celibacy and your mind on higher things? Yeah, right, but we're talking serious ophthalmic problems.

Image result for bunuel moine franco nero 1972

This film drags and I don't think I'll finish it. The only cast member who is convincing is Nicol Williamson as the very, very evil Duke of Talamur. He is blithely monstrous in a way that convinces. This, you feel, is how a truly amoral man would behave in a culture where wealth and status let you get away with anything. Sadly, the rest of the cast are doing Corman-by-numbers with a dash of pretension. Sorry, Luis, but you needn't have bothered.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

'The Selchie'

I try to avoid picking favourites, but this is for me the best story so far in Michael Eisele's new collection. As it's the penultimate story, we're in a sort of World Cup last-minute nail-biter situation.

'The Selchie' begins with an Inuit woman in difficulties. Onnai's tribe has been driven out of its old hunting grounds by rivals. She seeks a kind of salvation in a lone kayak voyage, and this part of the story is written with loving attention to detail. This takes her far from her ancestral seas to a strange land where very hairy, gruff-voiced people show her some kindness. The man who helps her, who calls himself 'Eean', gives her a new name, to reflect the fact that she appears to be a seal-woman. She helps Eean's people when they, too, struggle to harvest the sea. And eventually the two become lovers, having already forged a strong friendship despite their differences.

This is a very positive, uplifting story. It offers a near-flawless melding of Eisele's two main preoccupations - the rich cultures of 'uncivilised' peoples and the marginal people of Western civilisation. He also mixes history with myth, as Inuit kayakers did indeed reach Scotland in the late medieval period. The Celtic legend of the seal-folk dovetails with Onnai's  deep desire to be at one with creatures her people exploit but also revere. No summary from me can do justice to this novella. Please seek out this book if you can. We need more humane, intelligent fiction in these crass and brutal times.

It's been a long but very rewarding running review, and now the finish line looms into view. Thanks against to the author, and of course to Tartarus for providing me with a review copy. Next, the final story, which seems to be about nuns...

Saturday, 14 July 2018

My Postal Pipe Is No Longer Blocked

A little delay over various things means I've only just started posting out issue 38, but the obstacles to supernatural progress have now been removed. So, over the course of the next few days, the summer issue will be dispatched well before summer actually ended. Which is nice.

Remember that if you want to order online you can do so via the 'Buy Supernatural Tales' page above. And for the digitally minded, you can use the same method to purchase the Kindle edition.

In case you were wondering, the cover photo is by Sam Dawson, also a writer who has contributed several stories to ST down the years.

Disturbing, innit?

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

The Strange and All-Too-Believable Reality of Robert Aickman: RGBIB Ep. 45

'Gardinel' & 'The Black Man'

These two linked stories complete the tiny trilogy (see below) concerning the adventures of the young witch, Janet Evelyn, as described by her familiar, Brown Jenkins. (Minor quibble - Janet names her familiar after the one in Lovecraft's 'The Dreams in the Witch-House', but gets the name wrong. I wonder why? I might be missing something.)

Anyway, in the very short 'Gardinel' familiar and witch discover that there is something seriously wrong with the house that they inherited from Janet's witch-mentoress. This is followed by 'The Black Man', a clever title that inverts conventional New England witch lore. In this case the man, Daniel, is in the black of a clergyman. At first, to Brown Jenkins' dismay, it seems that young Janet has the hots for the preacher man. But then things take turn for the vengeful, and the Gardinel makes itself useful in the denouement.

Brown Jenkins is a fun creation, and it would be nice to see more him and Janet in future. On the home straight with this running review - neither insane July heat not football will deter me from getting to the end.

Monday, 9 July 2018

'Brown Jenkins'

Before Eve was Lilith, and thereby hang many tales. In this story from Michael Eisele Lilith is the 'backstory' for the existence of witches. Brown Jenkins is a familiar, not to be confused with the being in Lovecraft's 'The Dreams in the Witch House'. No, this one is more like a polecat with hands in place of forepaws. And, in a feature I liked, the story is told in the idiosyncratic spelling of the familiar. In a sense it's a dialect tale, but without the horrendous over-punctuation that so often mars such stories.

Brown Jenkins explains that familiars are assigned to witches, the descendants of Lilith, from conception. However, the familiar cannot be seen until the witch is aware of her powers - which may never happen. In this case, though, the girl called Janet Evelyn (because her parents didn't know they were raising a witch) does find out. She leaves her rural home to go to stay with Granny Wiltse, who sets her on the road to her witchy destiny.

The setting for this story is (I think) the Smoky Mountain region or thereabouts. There are references to a few strange creatures of the woods - the Toller and the Behinder. They are dangerous, according to folklore, but they help Janet in her quest. As a minor aside, Eisele must have read Manly Wade Wellman's 'The Desrick on Yandro', as there are several references that recall that tale.

This is the first of three stories told by Brown Jenkins, and I'm looking for to the next two. It makes for a very pleasant change of tone and pace. The running review continues, undaunted by ludicrous heat levels here in Little Old England.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

'The Wife'

This story by Michael Eisele begins with a husband beating on the door of his wife's bedroom, demanding entry. It's an interesting start, not least because this an old-school Gothic/Romantic fantasy. It turns out that Moira, the wife of the title, got to marry the heir to the local lordship. She goes to a wise woman in the woods, and gets what she desires. But then Moira discovers that her husband is not the man she thought he was...

This is a nicely-crafted tale, though it does have one flaw. I guessed from the first page what the twist was going to be. It seemed very obvious to anyone who has read (or seen) a lot of horror stories. I'm not sure if this occupational hazard can be avoided, though, as true originality is rare. Suffice to say that it's a pleasant read, and reverses a common genre trope.

More from this running review soon! It's taking me a while but I'm getting there. In my defence, it is a big book...

Monday, 2 July 2018

Issue 38 Story Taster #4

Supernatural Tales 38: Summer 2018 by [Surface, David , McCall, Katie, Chislett, Michael, Howard, John , Cashmore, Stephen, Jakeman, Jane]
Cover of Kindle edition
Here and there a pale, contorted face was raised to heaven, the mouth open in a cry I could not hear. Here and there, a man stood upright and struggled forward, only to slip down into what seemed a sea of primeval slime. And they were armed—or rather, had been, for the weak, rainy sunlight was striking on an occasional musket which its bearer tried to keep above the sucking mud. One brave soul waved a sword—and another, a pitchfork. What sort of army was this?
'Ghost Hunting' by Jane Jakeman

Issue 38 Contents

An interesting selection this time, with themes ranging from American school shooters to mysterious occult volumes. A nice blend, I think, of traditional and newer, somewhat edgier fiction.

'Intruders' by David Surface

'Ghost Hunting' by Jane Jakeman

'St Magda's Sunday Sermon' by Katie McCall

'Against the Dead' by John Howard

'Redriff' by Michael Chislett

'The Thirteenth Shelf' by Stephen Cashmore

Click on the Buy Supernatural Tales link above to purchase your printed copy or e-zine.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Issue 38 Story Taster #3

“We would sit out there in the garden if the weather was nice, or play dominoes if it rained. Once she made me the most delicious strawberry cake and the three of us ate it with cream drizzled over the top. It was such a treat!” She wrings her hands together whilst speaking and I wonder miserably if Dave has ever mentioned my strawberry allergy to her. She smacks her lips together, as if she has only just finished eating a slice of the cake. Frantically, I look towards the door in the hope that he might return but the doorway stands empty.

Saturday, 30 June 2018


Issue 38 Story Taster #2

Supernatural Tales 38

The wind was getting stronger. By now it was a truly wild and squally night. I drew back the curtain and took a look out of the window. On the far side of the glass the darkness itself seemed to be moving. Trees thrashed about in the gale; branches flickered in front of streetlights, throwing fantastic shadows and losing in torrents the last of their remaining leaves, which rattled along the road and blew against the side of the house with the sounds of harsh whispering.

'Against the Dead' by John Howard 

Print-on-demand copies now available here.

Issue 38 Story Taster #1

Supernatural Tales 38: Summer 2018 by [Surface, David , McCall, Katie, Chislett, Michael, Howard, John , Cashmore, Stephen, Jakeman, Jane]

Greg found the email waiting in his inbox on Monday morning, the subject line shouting at him from the screen in capital letters: LOCKDOWN DRILL ALERT. Greg had seen pictures of lockdown drills. Children curled in fetal positions under their desks, armoured SWAT teams with automatic weapons charging down school hallways. In one photo, the face of one SWAT team member was flushed blood-red, his mouth frozen open in an animal-like howl. Greg could hear those angry shouts ricocheting off the metal lockers, stabbing deep into the ears of the terrified children huddled at the edges of the photograph.

'Intruders' by David Surface

E-zine is already available here.

Friday, 29 June 2018

'Mr Saria'

This vignette from Michael Eisele's new collection is a pithy sci-f tale of a sort that's been popular
fore a long time - and with good reason. It's a sub-genre that I recall from old-time pulp magazines in stories by writers like Theodore Sturgeon, C.M, Kornbluth, and Fritz Leiber. Everyday reality masks a starting truth. The approach was revived in the Seventies by, among many others, Alice Sheldon ('James Tiptree Jnr') in stories such as 'Beam Me Home'.

The eponymous janitor/handyman of an apartment building is an undercover alien (not a spoiler, as this is the first thing we learn). 'Mr Saria' is a reptilian creature who has a tendency to overheat the apartments above his basement lair. He uses a kind of holo-scrambler thingy to appear human to all the 'hairy monkeys' who keep pestering him to fix stuff.

At this point you might wonder why any being would want to travel many light years for such a mundane lifestyle. But Saria's true purpose is more elevated than fixing radiators. Without giving too much away, there's a strong element of wish-fulfilment in this one. A pleasant tale of interstellar decency, in fact.

More from this running review shortly.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Come And Find Me

'Willow Rawnie'

This tale from Tree Spirit... is an interesting example of the historical genre story - one with what Monty James calls 'the slight haze of distance'. There's also a fine example of the framing narrative that also distances the action and leaves us wondering just how reliable a narrator can ever be.

Michael Eisele begins with three young-ish veterans of the Great War on holiday in Wales. The men have just failed to climb a mountain, and are pestering locals in a pub for ghost stories. Eventually they settle on what they assume to be an elderly local, only to find that he is English and at least as well-educated as they.

The old man, Ambrose, tells the tale of a encounter when he unwisely set off into the mountains unaccompanied, had an accident, and by rights should have died. That he did not he attributes to the intervention of Willow Rawnie, a beautiful young woman of the Roma people. She heals his injured leg by a combination of folk remedy and what seems to be enchantment. Then the two part company, but not before Ambrose offers Willow a token of thanks in the form an ancient gold coin.

The story is one of the 'good' spirit, offering wonder and pathos instead of suspense and terror. It's not easy to pull off this kind of tale, but I think Eisle does it very well. He has an excellent feel for the rich texture of myth and word-of-mouth storytelling. I had never heard of Willow Rawnie before, but here she is, a truly memorable character who epitomises one of the marginal, overlooked aspects  of my own people's history.

So, another good one. More from this running review very soon.


Supernatural Tales 38

Saturday, 23 June 2018

'Tree Spirit'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 22 June 2018

Stone Circles

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

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

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

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Saturday, 16 June 2018

'The Professor and the Nixie'

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

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

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

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

More from this collection soon.

The Damned - Plan 9 Channel 7 (1979)

Friday, 15 June 2018

'Come Not High'

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

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

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

More from this fine-looking volume soon.

Monday, 11 June 2018


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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 June 2018


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Monkey's Paw - Short Film (1988)

The Black Pilgrimage & Other Explorations

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

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

As the blurb puts it:

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

'Aidan of the Taexili and the Giant'

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

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

Friday, 1 June 2018


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

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

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

Tree Spirit & Other Strange Tales - Running Review

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

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

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Pari: Not a Fairytale (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for pari movie

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

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Codex Shub-Niggurath - Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

58 Pennington
Orton Goldhay

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Horror Babble!

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

'Picnic at Bluebell Wood'

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 7 May 2018

'The Mirror of the House'

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 3 May 2018

'Magicians and Moonlight'

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

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

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

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

Monday, 30 April 2018

Links to Authors!

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

Helen Grant has a blog here.

Chloe N. Clark has a blog here.

C. M. Muller's blog is here.

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

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

Saturday, 28 April 2018

'A Fold in the Curtain'

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

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

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

More from this running review very soon!

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Lock Your Door (1949) - Algernon Blackwood on Film

'The Folded Hands' & 'The Changing Room'

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

'Something in the Fog'

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

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

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

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Vote, Vote, Vote for Something Spooky!

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

Over to Steve Cram...

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

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

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

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

Monday, 23 April 2018

'The Second Crown'

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

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

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

Sunday, 22 April 2018

The Friends of Count Magnus

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

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

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

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

So why not come along? I promise to behave.

Saturday, 21 April 2018


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

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

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

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

Friday, 20 April 2018

Waiting in the Shadows - Running Review

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Vote, Vote, Vote for Spiffing Stories!

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

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

You can vote for more than one story, too.

I should have mentioned that earlier.

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Friday, 13 April 2018

Supernatural Tales - Kindle Edition

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

New Issue Available!

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

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Indian Horror

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Bollywood Gothic

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Issue #37 is almost here!

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

Is it really 2018?


The Prozess Manifestations - Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

3 Extremes II

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 31 March 2018

'Notes on the Border'

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

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

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

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

Friday, 30 March 2018

'As Blank As the Days Yet to Be'

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

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

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