Tuesday 30 September 2008

Sound Mirrors, Conspiracies and Monsters from Beyond

Cosmic Hobo productions are doing a great job. If you don't know about them, find out here. Their Lovecraftian adventure The Devil of Denge Marsh is currently running on BBC 7. If you'd like to hear it you can catch the latest episode on the Listen Again page or simply find The Scarifyers on the A to Z listing of programmes.

I'm particularly impressed by the way the writer, Paul Morris, takes real between-the-wars facts and mucks them about a bit. In this case it's the almost-forgotten technology of sound mirrors. These have always fascinated me. The idea was to use huge concrete surfaces to focus soundwaves onto microphones, so that operators on the English coast could detect the engine noise from incoming enemy (i.e. German) aircraft.

Of course, in the story it turns out that the sounds are not coming from the beastly Hun, but from something older and far more dangerous. Ia! Shub-Niggurath! A bit player in the Lovecraft Mythos gets a starring role at last. It's only taken a few aeons.

Fortunately for Blighty, radar was invented and the sound mirrors were left to fall apart. But not quite all of them. For instance, a place called Denge (yes, it's real and near Dungeness) still has some, and very weird they look, like a modern art project only interesting. 

There seems to be a bit of a Lovecraftian audio renaissance going on. While the Cosmic Hobo team take a comedy/drama approach, over at the HPL Historical Society they are going great guns with more serious - but still wonderfully entertaining - dramatisation of Lovecraft stories. Their latest projects for Dark Adventure Radio theatre are two favourites of mine, 'The Shadow Out of Time' and 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth'. (The former, incidentally, was highly praised by Arthur C. Clarke in his book Astounding Days.) Oh, and they're making another movie - The Whisperer in Darkness. Check out the HPLHS site for more info, trailers, behind the scenes stuff and all sorts of jolly trinkets. 

Thursday 25 September 2008

A Round of Writers

I can't for the life of me think of a better collective noun for literary types than a round, which for people elsewhere on earth is an English drinking expression. Not that I'm implying the writers I'm linking to are all boozy. But you know what I mean. Dylan Thomas, Jeffrey Bernard, the Algonquin mob, Orwell down the pub - they're all at it. 

Anyway, here are some writers whose work has appeared or will soon be appearing in ST.

Huw Langridge is an interesting chap, whose story 'Last Train to Tassenmere' will be in ST15 next spring. I also have to admit that - if it's really his photo on the blog - he's younger and considerably better-looking than me. Gol' darn it.

Also more photogenic than me, and more talented and much more successful (I sense a theme emerging) are Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker. This husband and wife publishing team run Tartarus Press, and a story by each of them will appear in ST next year. 

Now a very fine Welsh writer whose work has appeared in ST recently, John L. Probert. If that's his picture... Oh for Pete's sake. Good luck to him, anyway.

Need I even point out that Jane Jakeman (ST14 and others)  is wonderfully talented and all the rest of it? I mean, cor blimey, look at all them books wot she has wrote.  And I am merely a worm - yes, a worm in a cheap shirt who can barely work his own washing machine. Sob.

Tina Rath, aka the Academic Vampire, is a wonderful Queen Victoria impersonator who has been in proper films and is also a lovely lady. Her stories about a Chimaera in her wardrobe are being serialised in ST. She's talented, vivacious, fun, erudite... I am going to the Tyne Bridge, right now, with my pockets full of gravel. 

No, I must persevere and continue this roll call of talent, beauty and success, albeit while snarling like Muttley out of Wacky Races, and that other series - the one with the pigeon.

Now here's a slinky one and no mistake. Janine Ashbless is not a name you'll see on the contents page of any issue of ST. But it's the pen-name of a very good ghost story writer who also happens to write erotic fiction. Well might you gasp! I didn't realise the young lady in question was up to that kind of malarkey, but when I met her in person she admitted it. I tricked her into revealing her secret life by asking her if she was writing anything. I'm clever like that. 

Well, that's quite enough publicity for other people. More later, if I can get my act together. 

Saturday 13 September 2008

The Pitt Pendulum

Hammer Films are synonymous with British horror/suspense. You can't really talk about Dracula or Frankenstein without at least a cursory glance at their screen manifestations. And among all the Hammer stars, Ingrid Pitt was the first lady of screaming, fangs, cleavage and so on. Well, there's an American-made tribute to Hammer in the pipeline, and guess who's in it? Nice to see Ms Pitt's career has not ended and that all those years in skimpy night-attire on cold sets have at least provided her with a bit of work in her mature years. Here are some Pittesque places to try - she has a MySpace page and all:




I almost forgot! As well as her Hammer work, the lovely IP was also in Doctor Who, with Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning. I may faint...

Saturday 6 September 2008

Demons of the Mind

This 1972 Hammer feature is unusual, as it's a 19th century Gothic horror with none of the regular stars. No Cushing, no Lee, not even a hint of Ralph Bates. Instead we get some, ahem, interesting performances from mainstream thesps in a film that's a bit of a footnote to the Hammer canon. It seems the original title was Blood Will Have Blood, but distributor EMI didn't like that - too intellectual. So a line from an early scene was used instead. 

The 'demons of the mind' are being pursued by Dr Falkenberg, played by the late Patrick Magee - a superb actor and well cast here as a fashionable Vienna physician who may be a total charlatan. We are in a vaguely Ruritanian setting, and a reference to kilometres sets it sometime after the Napoleonic era. Falkenberg is on the way to the castle of Baron Zorn, a psalm-quoting widower who has locked up his son and daughter because they are tainted by the 'bad blood' of the family. The youngsters are being kept very much in separate rooms, nudge nudge.

Zorn's chances of curing them seem remote, not least because he is played by Robert Hardy in big whiskers, which always bodes ill for domestic bliss. The third top-notch actor is Michael Hordern, oddly miscast and under-used as a roving mad monk who stirs up the superstitious villagers. The stirring up process is easy, it must be said, as lovely peasant girls do keep getting murdered in the Baron's woods. Hmmm. Oh, and there's a lot of other stuff about ancient rituals.

Perhaps the film's greatest fault is that it is too faithful to the Gothic genre. It is chock full of characters and rich in incident but distinctly lacking in common sense. That said, there are some fine moments and intriguing details, not least when the baron's daughter Elisabeth (Gillian Hills) is bled and cupped. The scene is lovingly filmed, and the paraphenalia used to draw off blood steal the show. To top that Falkenberg has to use mesmerism and 'magnetic fluid' to try and get the baron to calm down a bit. But to no avail. Throw in Elisabeth's suitor Richter (Paul Jones, the pop singer) and an escape by the young and very loopy Emil Zorn (Shane Briant) and things get complicated.

It's a messy, shouty, downbeat film that looks good at times. Almost everybody is killed in nasty ways and you can't help feeling the survivors won't be tripping through fields of daisies in slow motion.  Of course, Hammer films aren't renowned for the happy endings, but the problem here is that the horror is psychological rather than demonic, as in the Dracula movies or the Dennis Wheatley adaptations. So somehow the cruelty and killing is more real, if not actually realistic. The ever-escalating blood-soaked lunacy sits rather oddly next to the Zenda-lite environment of Castle Zorn and the adjacent village - it's as if Poe and Le Fanu had written a comic opera together, then taking out all the songs. Oh, and there's a fair bit of that compulsory Seventies nudity - compulsory for girls, that is.

So we've got Gothic Zenda with a whiff of DH Lawrence and an unhappy ending. No wonder it was only shown as a supporting feature for a short while. But as a curiosity, Demons of the Mind is well worth seeking out. My only regret after watching it is that Hardy, Hordern and Magee never had a three-way scene-stealing smackdown. 

The Scarifyers

Anyone who likes good old radio drama (hello Oscar Solis!) might enjoy The Scarifyers, which begins a re-run on BBC7 this Sunday. It's a comedy-drama, really, but features some interesting ideas and decent gags. The stars, Nicholas Courtney and Terry Molloy, are old hands and never put a foot wrong. Courtney plays a hard-nosed Scotland Yard detective who's keen to prove he's not past it. Molloy's character, Professor Dunning, is an academic who writes ghost stories, and is clearly based on M.R. James. You can find out more about the Scarifyers and their wacky, pre-war adventures at the Cosmic Hobo site here. The series that starts on BBC7 at six pm and midnight is the first adventure, The Nazad Conspiracy. I heard and enjoyed The Devil of Denge Marsh last year - it was distinctly Lovecraftian in theme, complete with guest appearance by Shub-Niggurath. All great fun. 

Thursday 4 September 2008

The Squelch in the Case of M. Valdemar

'I presume that no member of the party then present had been unaccustomed to death-bed horrors; but so hideous beyond conception was the appearance of M. Valdemar at this moment, that there was a general shrinking back from the region of the bed.'

ST14 is sort of with the printer, now. Communication lines are open, the price seems fair (this printer is much cheaper than local ones I've used before) and I'm reasonably happy with the magazine. I spend so much time reading and re-reading stories that I forget why I liked them in the first place. Editor Syndrome - I know everything about fiction but I don't know what I like (with apologies to Thurber). 

Anyway, let's consider a mildly interesting point. Why did I choose the online name Valdemar Squelch? Well, it's a rather feeble joke, which is one point in its favour. But I've always found 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar' one of Poe's most interesting stories. If you don't know it, you should probably go off and read some Poe. Otherwise there's not a lot of point in hanging around a blog about supernatural fiction. 

Anyway, in the story the narrator describes various experiments in mesmerism, which lead to a horrible (and messy) conclusion. This had been largely discredited in Europe, and James Braid had yet to demonstrate the reality and usefulness of suggestion. So Poe was venturing into what we could term pseudoscience. He wouldn't have seen it that way, though. Judging by his long cosmic essay 'Eureka', he considered science and mysticism to be two sides of the coin of wisdom. 

But to return to 'Valdemar' - the final experiment involves putting the hapless Frenchman under the influence while on the verge of death. What effect does this have when he expires? Suffice to say that Poe offers no great revelations of the life to come. On the one hand, he seems to subscribe to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. On the other, he doesn't suggest that postmortem survival is a lot of fun. No hint of heaven or hell is offered, only a kind of grim certainty that death is not the end. I suppose Poe could be criticised for putting effect before intellect, here. But the central premise of the story is undeniably powerful. 

The story is rather static and doesn't lend itself to dramatisation. But I distinctly recall a rather naff mini-series entitled 'Dickens of London' in which the eponymous author visited Poe. Dickens did of course tour America, but somehow I doubt the version of events on the telly were accurate. This is because the scriptwriter - Wolf Mankowitz, an old hand - decided to simply include the Valdemar story as if had really happened. I remember thinking at the time that it was quite naff, and yet at the same time oddly compelling.

And what if Poe, master of the hoax, had in fact experienced a real incident and published it as a story? Such behaviour could have serious repercussions. There's a story in that, perhaps. I make a gift of it to any writer who wants to use it. 

Tuesday 2 September 2008

Bish Bash Bush

You stood in the belltower, 
But now you're gone. 
So who knows all the sights 
Of Notre Dame? 

They've got the stars for the gallant hearts. 
I'm the replacement for your part. 
But all I want to do is forget 
You, friend. 

Hammer horror, hammer horror, 
Won't leave me alone. 
The first time in my life, 
I leave the lights on 
To ease my soul. 
Hammer horror, hammer horror, 
Won't leave it alone. 
I don't know, 
Is this the right thing to do?

Who calls me from the other side 
Of the street? 
And who taps me on the shoulder? 
I turn around, but you're gone. 

I've got a hunch that you're following, 
To get your own back on me. 
So all I want to do is forget 
You, friend.

There was no Hammer film of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as it happens. But I suspect that's not the point. Incidentally, the role of Quasimodo has been played by Warren Clarke, Anthony Hopkins, Mandy Patinkin, Anthony Quinn, Charles Laughton, and Lon Chaney, among others.

Nigel and the Witches

An old friend has kindly lent (loaned?) me The Ultimate Hammer Collection. Given the rotten weather, sitting and watching some old British horror is an attractive prospect. And amid the usual Dracula and Frankenstein flicks are some rarities - or at least, films I've never seen.

Perhaps the most interesting is The Witches, a 1966 production starring Joan Fontaine. As the presence of such a big name star suggests, this is altogether more ambitious than the usual Hammer feature, and this is reflected in the script by Nigel Kneale. It's based on a novel, The Devil's Own, by Peter Curtis - a pen-name for a female crime writer, Nora Lofts. This may explain why the story has several strong female characters. As well as Joan Fontaine, the film stars Kay Walsh, and theres' a small role for a young Michele Dotrice. We also get Leonard Rossiter as a smooth but not wholly trustworthy doctor, and Duncan Lamont, a British movie regular who a year later would play Sladden in Quatermass and the Pit

The Witches is notable for the way Kneale (presumably following the novel's lead) carefully avoids any explicit use of the supernatural. Yes, there's a black cat and a doll with pins in it, but old ladies talking of herbal remedies emphasise that belief is as important as real power. Is witchcraft about demonic forces, mass hysteria, auto-suggestion? It's impossible to draw any conclusions, but some scenes leave you wondering. 

The story begins in Africa where Gwen Mayfield (Fontaine) is caught up in a tribal uprising instigated by a witch doctor. She has a breakdown following a not-too-specific ordeal. In the next scene she is back in England, applying for a job at a village school run by amiable vicar Alan Bax (Alec McCowan - another fine actor). But it emerges that Bax is not, in fact, a priest and the village of Heddaby lost its church in some unspecified disaster a long time ago...

The story might seem cliched - small village, sinister goings-on, a cast of sullen yokel suspects and an outsider who opens a can of Satanic worms. But in Kneale's hands, and with some fine performances, The Witches is far from commonplace. The complexity and subtlety of a novel plot is retained, and some plot twists are genuinely surprising. Kneale also, intriguingly, draws a parallel between African and European witchcraft, with a climactic scene in which some of the villagers engage in what is obviously meant to be tribal dancing, drums and all. This is slightly naff - very physical theatre - but  it's given a touch of class by a lot of authentic Latin invocations.

It's also refreshing to find a film of this sort in which all the principal characters are middle-aged. It's a sensible schoolmarm, not some young whippersnapper, who divines the truth about Heddaby. And she even finds romance at the end. Oh, and the film is the first (to my knowledge) to feature a scary sheep stampede as a genuine plot device. So many reasons to watch The Witches!

Supernatural Tales 56 - contents

The next issue - due out in the autumn - will see a mixture of familiar names and some newbies. I hope, as always, that the stories find fav...