Monday 30 June 2008

Strangers can be lovers

Well, I finished the Japanese 'ghost story' Strangers, by Taichi Yamada, translated by Wayne P. Lammers. I found it interesting, but oddly unsatisfying. Much of the book's supposed impact - too much, I feel - pivots on a twist ending that I feel was not really much of a surprise. Perhaps the problem lies with the translation or its a Japanese cultural thing. Most of my experiences of Japanese ghost stories is via film, not prose. 

The central character is Harada, a middle-aged TV script writer whose life seems to be in a downward spiral. He has set about divorcing his wife, alienating his student son in the process, yet he seems to regard himself as the victim. This self-pity is not an attractive quality, and a character's loneliness is less effective when it is self-inflicted. A more traditional ghost story would have Harada widowed, or perhaps simply find himself isolated in middle age because he's been 'married to the job' too long.

This fault apart, the central conceit - that ghosts can somehow drain the life from us, like vampires - is used reasonably well. Harada doesn't see his wasted features when he looks in the mirror. His neighbour, the beautiful Kei, has to point out how ravaged and ill he looks. But from this, little else follows. I got the strong impression that, apart from the 'twist', much of this book is padding.

Part of the problem is that the scenes in which Harada meets his 'dead' parents are rather dull. Not badly written, though the translator takes a distinctly American line with dialogue, and this seems a bit jarring. No, the problem is that it's hard to care. Is Harada going mad? No, in one good scene he conducts an experiment to see if his parents are 'really' ghosts. But such neat touches are few and far between. While some may claim this is a eerie or disturbing tale, it's really too monotonous and pedestrian to bother the seasoned reader.

Perhaps the real problem with Strangers is that a good ghost story is almost impossible to spin out to novel length. The denouement, when it comes, has been too long delayed. At around 20,000 to 30,000 words the story would have been much more effective. So, a qualified nod of approval is all I can give it. 

Sunday 29 June 2008

Moggie Facts, and a Map

A wonderful site called Strange Maps has lots of well, strange maps. If you want to know about Switzerland's plans to fight off the Nazis, or what the giant magnetic rock at the North Pole looked like in the 13th century, that's the place. There's also a fun map of a bed from a cat's viewpoint, and some cat facts. I like cats, what's it to you? And they deserve to be here 'cause they're always popping up in tales of the supernatural. It's that habit of watching Nothing At All cross the room. Oo-er. Here are the facts:

1. Cats don’t have a clavicle bone, allowing them to pass through any space no bigger than their head.
2. Cats move both legs on one side, and then both leg on the other, a trait they share with camels, giraffes and a select few other mammals. Nobody knows what the connection is, if any.
3. Typically, cat’s claws are sharper on the forefeet are sharper than on the hind feet.
4. Most cats have five claws on their front paws and four or five on their rear paws, but cats are prone to polydactyly. Famously, the cats hanging around Hemingway’s house in Key West are six-toed.
5. Cat’s night vision is superior to humans, but their day vision is inferior.
6. The official name for cat’s whiskers is vibrissae.
7. Due to an ancient mutation, cats can’t taste sweetness.
8. Blue-eyed cats with white fur have a higher incidence of genetic deafness.
9. Cats expend nearly as much fluid grooming as they do urinating.
10. Cats will almost never meow at other cats; that sound is reserved mostly for communication with humans.

I think we've all learned something. Though interestingly, there's no mention of cheese. I know of at least two cats that are keen on cheese. Not very important but worth noting.

Wednesday 25 June 2008

Lovecraft in your Lughole

Those lovely people at the HPLHS have done it again!

They've produced a 'wireless' version of Lovecraft's definitively bonkers tale of Elder God malarkey, The Dunwich Horror. As with their earlier At the Mountains of Madness, it's a Dark Adventure Radio Theatre production, done in authentic pre-war style. They're still pushing their sponsors ghastly ciggies, Fleur de Lys. And the CD version of this drama comes with the now familiar array of nice little extras. You get a map of the Dunwich area, a newspaper clipping showing just how degenerate the locals were in 1917 (which was very),  a page from Dr John Dee's faulty copy of the Necronomicon, and a page torn from Wilbur Whateley's notebook, written in weird cypher. Oo-er.

But what of the drama itself? Well, it's pretty darn good. Admitteldy much of the action consists of people talking in the village shop, then talking in the college library, then talking in a professor's study, with occasional digressions for talking in Wizard Whateley's home. But HPL was not writing a drama, and the way the essential narration by Sean Branney is used to link the various scenes is masterful. A solid cast give some genuinely good performances - a lifelong fan of radio drama, I would rate this top notch.

As you'd expect, there's a fair amount of doubling up. Special praise is due to Gary Bolland for taking on the roles of Wizard W. and Dr Hartwell, two very different scholars. I was also impressed with McKerrin Kelly as Lavinia Whateley and Small Frye. But the entire cast are to be congratulated and generally bought drinks for the way the memorable scenes in the story are brought to slimy, screaming life. I didn't re-read TDH before listening to this, but found myself instantly caught up in events and gurgling away to myself at the sheer cosmic peril of it all. 

Oh and there's also some good whippoorwill action, for which much thanks. (Did Stephen King pinch the idea for The Dark Half?) 

What, no quibbles, Valdemar? Well, a trivial one. Who'd have thought that villagers in a small, inbred New England community would have such an interesting range of accents? I'm sure I heard Welsh and Irish, as well as a touch of the Thomas Hardys. But it's excusable when you have a large number of people to distinguish, and some have only a few lines - ones that often end in 'Aaargh!'

So, big ups to Dark Adventure Radio Theatre. I sincerely hope that we'll hear more audio adaptations of HPL stories. If I might have the temerity to make a suggestion (to people who'll probably never read this) - can we have The Shadow Over Innsmouth? Lots of sonic potential there, methinks.

Tuesday 24 June 2008

An American in Dublin

That's Brian J. Showers, a writer who is keeping alive the traditional, 19th century ghost story in the style of Le Fanu. No sexy vampire gals as yet, but I live in hope.

His latest book, The Bleeding Horse (as in 'Is that your bleedin' horse, mate?') is full of period detail and topographic information. It's not a collection of horror stories, but a sort of ghostly ramble through the environs of Dublin. I think - if I can get my act together - that a proper review will appear in ST14.

Monday 23 June 2008

What is Valdemar Reading Now?

Well, my brain fell out a few weeks ago and it took me a while to find it, what with work and everything. However, it's back in position, more or less, and I'm reading a Japanese novel. Ooh, clever - intellectual poseur or what? Actually someone has kindly translated the book into English for me, so it's no big deal. I'm only a chapter in, but it's interesting. The story concerns a TV scriptwriter who has just been divorced and has moved into what was an office in a block near a busy highway. Once accustomed to the roar of the traffic, our man becomes a bit jumpy about the fact that the building seems deserted at night. Sure enough, it seems that he is the only person actually living there - all the other rooms are rented offices. Bit weird, that, but perhaps it's more common in Japan. Anyway, the book is entitled Strangers and the author is Taichi Yamada. The book comes highly recommended by the likes of Brett Easton Ellis. But is it a proper ghost story? Much is made of the writer's encounter with what may be his dead parents. We shall see.

Wednesday 18 June 2008

What is the Gothic?

My affection for Goths and my new blog title pic (which comes from a modern 'silent' movie) led me to wonder what the Gothic means these days. There's cybergoth, of course, which seems to be cyberpunk but with slightly less interest in designer labels. But what does the Gothic imply in fiction? 

Well, there was that Halley Berry movie, Gothika. It was pants and I couldn't watch it all the way through. So we can forget about that.

Somewhat better was the TV series American Gothic, with its diabolical doings in the Mid-Western US. But American Gothic implies, for me, something rather different to the standard Euro-Gothic. 

In his history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree, Brian W. Aldiss suggests that the sf form is essentially cast in the Gothic mould. What he means (I vaguely recall) is that the conventions of the realistic novel don't apply. This is obviously the case in Frankenstein, much of Poe's work, and in some of Wells' stories, especially The Island of Doctor Moreau.

But perhaps the height of the Gothic as a popular form was attained (in English) by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Now here I can at least have a stab at what the actual genre is about. Firstly, you've got a 'quaint' historical setting. Railways are permissible, but stagecoaches are de rigeur for the mid-Victorian Gothic. Large industrial towns are out, remote villages and isolated big houses are in. And money, interestingly, is always important.

Dickens, at his most Gothic, was obsessed with Who Gets the Dosh. Consider Our Mutual Friend. Consider Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham. Then there's Bleak House - if the court of Chancery is not a Gothic insitution I can't imagine what isAdmittedly, Dickens' focus on London might seem to undermine his Gothic credentials, but consider - in Dickens the 'Great Wen' of London breaks down into what it originally was, a collection of villages clustered around the original, ancient city. Most of the time Dickens' characters haunt graveyards, slum alleys, shabby offices, grotty shops and run-down tenements. The least convincing depictions of London are those of 'nice' houses, by and large. One exception is Wemmick's home in Great Expectations - but Wemmick lives in a mock Gothic castle. Score one for me.

Another point about the Gothic is the need for a sexually vulnerable young woman. Little Nell is the classic example, but there are others. If the young woman can be an heiress of some kind, so much the better. Which brings us back to Le Fanu, and his most popular work, Uncle Silas. Here the young heiress is menaced every which way, until eventually murder is attempted. Le Fanu varied his approach, but the girl plus the money was the default setting. Perhaps the oddest of his efforts was The Rose and the Key, in which a mother jealous of her daughter's beauty has her confined to a private mental hospital where she is subject to abusive 'therapy'. 

The Gothic did very well in the late 19th century, notably in Dracula.  But what of the 20th? Well, I can think of two writers who carried the guttering torch into the modern era - one British, one American.

Mervyn Peake created a truly Gothic world in Gormenghast. Always a minority taste, his novels - two and a half of them, essentially - remain much-loved classics. Yes, they also offer a deranged comedy of manners, but we often forget that the grotesque, by definition, means 'decorated with human figures', and Peake's characters are often decorative rather than psychologically credible. And that is how the Gothic should be. 

The other master of the modern Gothic is in fact a mistress - Shirley Jackson in The Haunting of Hill House knew what she was up to. Here is the naive virgin, Eleanor Lance, coming to the forbidding pile that is, in a sense, her inheritance. I have not read Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but the title is suggestive. 


Saturday 14 June 2008

Scary picture about scary pictures

What is it with Hollywood and good Asian horror movies? The Eye, The Grudge and Ring have all been remade for the benefit of people too stoopid to read subtitles. And the remakes are pants, apparently. I did try to watch The Grudge remake, as it starred Sarah Michelle Gellar, and as an old Buffoid I felt I owed her something. But not that much. Maybe I'll get round to watching Jessica Alba earn her nice big paycheck for The Eye, but not just yet.
But despite audiences staying away in droves, the Tinseltown dumbness just keeps coming. This year saw the release, to general apathy, of the American version of Shutter. The original Thai movie is, IMHO, one of the best ghost story films of recent years. Don't let the remake fool you. Go for the original and enjoy it. 
The film is fairly typical in that it focuses on the ghost as vengeful spirit. M.R. James rightly observed that ghosts can kill people, drive them barmy, or do nothing of any great interest. In Shutter, the ghost has a very clear motive for its behaviour, and indeed it is difficult not to sympathise with the spirit, Natre. Not quite 'Alas! Poor ghost,' but very nearly.
The film takes as its central premise the quaint gimmick of spirit photography. It acknowledges early on that photos of ghosts are ludicrously easy to fake. In one telling scene a hack is shown doing just that, in fact. The editor of the magazine explains, with disarming honesty, that 'people want scary pictures'. But he also argues that, on a few occasions, such pictures are not fakes.
The film begins with a photographer, Tun (Ananda Everingham) returning home late from a party with his girlfriend Jane (Natthaweeranuch Thongmee, and yes I did cut and paste it). Jane is driving and is understandably distraught when, after a slight distraction, she hits a young woman who walks out into the road. Jane wants to get out and help, but Tun tells her to drive away. So far, so prosaic.
Soon Tun and Jane are having nightmares about the young woman. More oddly, Tun's photographs of college graduates are marred by strange blurred images. Why should a ghost manifest itself as a photographic image? Impressively, Shutter eventually reveals a very solid reason why it should happen in this case. But it takes a while. The plot, while not exactly labyrinthine, is way beyond the usual 'chase, slash, argh' of the modern horror movie. In its complexity and emotional realism, Shutter is on a par with some of the best examples of the genre.
Yes, it is somewhat derivative. But that's not a bad thing when your influences are the best movies of their kind. Most obvious is the debt the writers and directors owe to The Eye.  (In the case of the soundtrack composer the debt might almost be legally problematic, if you catch my drift. Very, very similar music at some points.) Japanese/Korean horror is also referenced by the lighting and cinematography. Sunny Thailand is made to seem rather bleak and washed out by day, and much of the action takes place at night. 
The central premise - the raison d'etre for the ghost - is well-worked out. It is foreshadowed in a number of ways, but the careful unfolding of the plot allows the astute viewer to try to work out just what happened in the past and why it is impinging on the present. Or you could just ignore the logic of it all and enjoy a series of good - if sometimes cliched - set piece scenes. There's the spook rising out of the water, the spook rattling the doorknob, and the spook putting its hand on the character's shoulder. All present and correct. But what might have been a rather tired repertoire is handled with great panache. One or two scenes, notably an encounter in Tun's studio, are real shockers, while an interlude in a public lavatory provides a bit of humour.
Considered as a whole, Shutter is one of the most satisfying ghost movies of recent years. It's not especially horrific, it does make sense, and it even has a satisfying - if somewhat downbeat - ending. While I think I prefer The Eye, this runs it a close second. 

Wednesday 11 June 2008

I like Goths

I just wanted to make that clear. I'm not a Goth, but I admire the whole Goth subculture for its refreshing capacity to take itself seriously only some of the time. A good example is this dance class, which shows young Gothicists taking the mickey out of themselves. And frankly I always thought the Smurfs merited a good kicking. There was something deeply wrong about them. They seemed awfully knowing, somehow. Go Goths! Epater des Smeurfes!

Theres' a ghost in my house!

And I'm not just quoting a popular ditty. There really is a small, yet powerful spectre haunting my person. It was sent by ST reader Adam Walter, who very kindly wrote that 'you are perhaps not often enough thanked for your contribution to the supernatural fiction community'. I received ST13 last week & am sending this bit of nonsense in gratitude.' Adam also warned me not to look it in the eyes while pushing the button, but it was too late! I'd already zapped myself before I read his note, in good ol' ghost story fashion.
Thanks, Adam, it was a lovely surprise on an otherwise far from wonderful working morning. And no, this is not a way of angling for prezzies from readers. It would be nice to hear from people who like the magazine, though. Didn't Poe write somewhere that 'one kind word meant more to me than all the love in paradise'? While I wouldn't go quite that far, even faint praise is welcome.
But enough of this - let us consider the ghost itself.
At first, it seems fairly harmless...

But then it goes into full spectral overdrive, with a piercing noise and strobing eyes. Even J. Sheridan Le Fanu's very sceptical brother (if he'd had one) would hide behind the sofa.

Tuesday 3 June 2008

Civil Disobedience

I started well with a punch up the portico

Followed through with a knee in the architrave

Gouged the reception area

(No Queensberry Rules for this baby)

But then weight and experience began to tell

And I was reduced to a pulp

Crushed by granite

Cut by glass

Buried by paperwork

All I’d done was prove again

The words of the bit player whose name you can never recall:

Take it from me

Kid, take it from me

You can't fight City Hall

Creative Writulating

I had a bit of a 'sode at work and volunteered to set up a creative writing group for staff at the council, where I work. Amusingly, it was made very clear to me that I am not qualified to teach anyone creative writing. I have no letters after my name. So I have a bunch of people who I can't actually teach, only sort of encourage a bit. Does anyone have any idea what I should actually do, apart from arrange a room, plus tea and biscuits? I'd be genuinely interested in people's views.

I've been kicking a few ideas around. I could ask people if they think there are only a few basic types of story, and what they are. After we've compiled a list I could suggest people write a story that doesn't fall into one of those categories.
I could ask them to write about what they did on their holidays.
I could do the old trick of saying 'tell a familiar story from a different perspective, i.e. Snow White from the Wicked Queen's viewpoint'.
These ideas seem a bit lame, to be honest. Can anyone help?

I'm Tired...

Due to travelling to and from Glasgow for work purposes yesterday. Gosh, what fun. The actual visit, to the RNIB radio station Insight (look it up, it's good), was very rewarding. But oh dear, the getting up in the morning to catch the train. And oooh dear, the journey back. The East Coat mainline was almost paralysed due to electrical problems. So they produced a diesel 'unit' towing what should have been an electric train. And it turned out that the diesel had a half-empty fuel tank, so the train to Kings Cross didn't get any further than Newcastle. Which, luckily, was our stop. But not that of the vast majority of the poor sods on board. Remember when we complained about evil, socialist, British Rail? It's true - you don't know when you're well off. King Log gives way to King Stork, and life gets that much more interesting.

'Lost Estates'

This is part of a running review of  Lost Estates  by Mark Valentine (Swan River Press 2024) The title story of the collection! And it begin...