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.