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

Image result for ghosts and scholars book of folk horror
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.

Image result for frank finlay dracula

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.


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


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.


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

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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