Saturday 24 October 2009

Casting the Fun Runes

This young feller-me-lad from Down Under has probably never heard of M.R. James. But...

Friday 23 October 2009

The Eye (original Hong Kong version)

When it comes to modern supernatural horror movies, East Asia has it over Hollywood. Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and - more recently - Thailand have all produced memorable examples of the ghostly film genre. One of my favourites is The Eye, which was made by the Pang brothers. It's a cracking story well told, and it's heart is in the right place. Good for Halloween - or any dark night. It's not visceral or especially disturbing, just spooky enough to keep you interested and complex enough to keep you guessing. There's a great twist, too. This scene isn't it...

Halloween Movies!

If you're capable of renting a DVD for next Saturday, I have some suggestions. Do you? Let me know via this blogulatory device what you think a good Halloween movie would be. I'm going to get you started with a great favourite of mine, which remains rather obscure...

Dracula - Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002) 75 mins, Tartan DVD

There have been so many versions of Dracula that it's surprising to find a new and rather 'arty' production to be one of the best. I rented it out of curiosity and then bought it in delight. The film is based on a work by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, but don't be put off by the B word - the film is essentially a silent movie with dance and music (apparently it's Mahler - I'm a bit philistine about this classical stuff). There are also some (often very funny) intertitles. (FLESHPOTS!) But we all know the story and the characters, don't we? So we can sit back and enjoy the virtuosity of the performers.

The basic plot is that of the play, rather than the novel. The action begins in Whitby, at Lucy's home and the neighbouring asylum where good ol' Renfield is depleting the invertebrate population. Lucy's suitors are introduced, as is Dracula, played by the Chinese dancer Wei-Qiang Zhang. Yes, there's a parable about immigrants stealing our women (and our money!) but it's all good murky fun. And, just as importantly, Stoker's basic plot is all here, complete with some of the barmier bits - insanely reckless blood transfusion, anyone?

The female characters, Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker, are foregrounded to allow full rein to the principals, Tara Birtwhistle and CindyMarie Small. As the 'naughty' Lucy, Tara Birtwhistle is convincingly whimsical, seductive and - after she is 'turned' - predatory. Cindy Marie Small has the tougher job as goody-goody Mina, but Maddin throws a few kinks into the plot that are mostly for her benefit, or so it seemed to me.

This is a truly Gothic rendition of Dracula, with girls in peril from dark forces and menfolk rallying round to help. In the case of Lucy, the chaps are too late, and the 'Bloofer Lady' has to come to a sticky, stabby, decapitatory end. In the case of Mina, things become a little complicated. But suffice to say that love triumphs and all is well, more or less. Along the way are some wonderful moments, not least when the company get together for set pieces such as Lucy's funeral.

There is a superb supporting cast, notably David Moroni as a very convincing (and possibly transvestite) Van Helsing, and some wonderful sets. The lighting and camera work are inspired. There are also some fine DVD extras, notably director Guy Maddin's short 'The Heart of the World', which delivers a six minute burst of German Expressionist cinema, or something.

Anyway, cop a load of this. Here's the bit where I get to perv Lucy has a bad night.

An American Werewolf in London

This film has just gone on cinema release, apparently - a good move for Halloween. Radio 4 today (or yesterday) featured a good - if short - interview with director John Landis. It's here. One thing I learned - the silver bullet that an kill a werewolf? It was inserted into the legend simply because, while he was working on a script, writer Curt Siodmak happened to be listening to the Lone Ranger radio serial...

Oh, and in AAWIL, I'd totally overlooked Rik Mayall in this scene, overshadowed as he is by Brian Glover.


Wednesday 21 October 2009

The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus

Review of Terry Gilliam's latest opus have been generally thumbs-down. Notable exceptions include the genre magazine SFX, which was quite thumbs-uppish about it all. And I suspect this is part of the problem. While Gilliam isn't a sci-fi or fantasy director as such, he does have a huge following among us nerds.

The kind of people who can give a detailed synopsis of many Doctor Who stories or Star Trek episodes also tend to like Gilliam. This is both his glory and his curse, I suspect. The serious, arty film crowd don't quite trust Gilliam, for all his top-notch credentials. And perhaps they are right, as he doesn't seem to like them very much. In interviews he has rightly dismissed most CGI movies as boring and gimmicky, and questioned the prevailing habit of simply cobbling together bits of all your favourite movies in a sterile overblown homage. Taxi for Mr Tarantino.

Anyway, what's it all about? One thing everyone knows is that Heath Ledger died in the making of the movie and was cunningly replaced by Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp and Jude Law. The trick works because the Imaginarium of the title is a kind of magic mirror. If people plunge into this mirror Dr Parnassus - played by the ever-reliable Christopher Plummer - lets them live in a world of their own imagination. But when things go wrong, a person's face can change thanks to a trip through the mirror. Well, I found it credible within the bounds of the film's wacky dream logic.

Indeed, it is more of a dream than a plot. There is a plot, involving Mr Nick (Tom Waits) making a series of wagers with Parnassus. When P. wins a bet he gets benefits like, say, immortality and a chance to woo a lovely lady. When he loses, though, he has problems - like sacrificing his beloved daughter Valentina (Lily Cole, rather lovely and acting well) to Mr Nick. For Mr Nick is... Tom Waits. And the Devil, obviously. Same difference. Anyway, the girl has to be handed over on her 16th birthday, which is rapidly approaching when the film begins.

The situation is complicated when the Parnassus travelling-show gang rescue Tony Shepherd, Ledger's character, who is found hanging under London bridge. (Re: being hanged, Tony has a bit for a trick up his sleeve - or rather, down his gullet.) Tony has lost his memory, and at first it seems he may be an innocent victim of nasty gangsters. But as the plot unfolds we find out more and... I'm not telling. Nor am I revealing the details of Mr Nick's final bet with Parnassus.

Those who felt the film was all show and bluster but no real thought might need to watch it a few times. I suspect I missed a great deal. It's certainly about love, morality, power, and the need to constrain our imaginations lest we be consumed by crass yearnings. Scenes in which drunken, stupid or selfish people get involved with Dr P's sideshow are telling. Firstly, do people want 'old-fashioned entertainment'? That's what the film offers, after all. (No CGI here.) Secondly, how responsible are we for the sufferings of others? Tony is rescued by strangers, but does not repay them with good deeds, though at first he seems to.

And Parnassus - well, there's a name that Gilliam may have chosen for the sound. But the Greek mountain of that name was sacred to Apollo and the Muses. This is a film about art as a sacred trust, a gift of the gods, as something that can raise us to godlike status through contemplating it. Oh, and it's also quite funny a lot of the time.

Monday 19 October 2009

Voting has already begun

Blimey, I've only just finished sending out ST16 this morning and already I've received two votes for best story. Not for the same story, either. So far comments about the mag have been very positive. Reader 'R' of Chester remarks:

'... many thanks for ST 16, which contains much to enjoy. I liked pretty much all the stories, although I WOULD have been hard put to choose my favourite between Tina Rath's and Jane Jakeman's ("Adoptagrave"). I say WOULD because the decision was more or less taken out of my hands when I read Mike Chislett's tale. It's easily the best story in the issue and one of the best I've read anywhere in a while. I suspect from its placing at the end of the fiction part of ST that you feel the same. Mike is such an original talent (...) Oddly enough, "The Coast Guard" in its own way combines what I like about Tina's and Jane's tales - the slightly spooky whimsicality of the first, and the downright scariness of the second.'

What do you think, avid readers? If the mysterious 'R' (who got her review copy nice and early) correct in her assessment? If you don't tell me what you think, I won't know. And that's logic.

Re: postal problems. All the international copies went out last week and should be arriving soon. Certainly none should be delayed by any strikes in poor old Blighty. Most of the domestic subscribers' copies went mid-week. The last few went today, Monday. They should be arriving in a couple of days or have already arrived. If any subscriber reading this thinks their copy may have gone astray, give it a week or so then get in touch. You just never know...

Now a quick reminder why I'm doing all this. Because when I was a tiny boy I read the works of Mr Poe, and never quite got him out of my system. Did you know there was a 'chamber musical'? Neither did I.

Sunday 18 October 2009

The Winter Ghosts

A part of my rather odd day job is reviewing audio books. One of the latest releases I managed to listen to over the weekend was The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse. The unabridged reading is by Julian Rhind-Tutt, the floppy-haired one from Green Wing. It runs to 5 CDs and makes for quite an absorbing listen.

This is my first encounter with Ms Mosse, but I'm informed that all of her books so far focus on France and its medieval history. The 'official' time period of the narrative, however, is between the two great wars of the last century.

Freddie Watson's life stalled when his beloved older brother George died on the Somme in 1916. Freddie suffered a nervous breakdown, began to see George's 'ghost', and found himself unable to work or indeed do anything much. (He is one of those privately wealthy individuals who don't have to work - a standard 'between the wars' protagonist, in fact.)

The first chapter of TWG is a neat exercise in foreshadowing. Freddie visits a French antiquarian bookseller whose shop window - along with various classics - also have volumes of ghost stories by M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood and J. Sheridan Le Fanu. I'm not sure exactly where the latter fits in - possibly in the account of small-town life in a remote village, and especially the quaint inn. But James and Blackwood are the tutelary spirits of this novel. I wonder how many of Mosse's readers have even heard of them, though?

If you recall James' account of St Bertrand de Comminges in 'Canon Alberic's Scrap-book' you will know the setting - a fairly obscure corner of France, in the shadow of the Pyrenees. If you've read Blackwood's 'Ancient Sorceries' you will know what is going on almost as soon as the main plot gets under way. The latter really provides Mosse with her plot, as Freddie Watson is essentially Arthur Vezin with a twist. Vezin, you may recall, had an ancestral tie to those ancient sorceries. Freddie has no blood connection, but instead contacts the winter ghosts of the title through a shared sense of abandonment  Loneliness calls to loneliness. In this case, Fabrissa -a beautiful young woman - calls to Freddie, taking him by the hand and leading him into a world of terror, persecution and flight.

I'm not quite sure if the novel fits together, well-written though it is. It seems Mosse often uses a 'time-twisting' approach that, presumably, her readers are familiar with. But I'm not at all sure if the general reader is supposed to 'get' the ghost story aspect early on, or be surprised what is essentially a series of non-twists. But never mind, there's much to enjoy here. The winter landscape is beautifully evoked and Freddie - who could have been very wearying company in the wrong hands - is a likeable character. And the novel's climactic scenes are powerful, if rather long delayed.

For all that it's enjoyable for most of its length, TWG proves yet again how hard it is to write a ghost novel. The very term sits awkwardly on the page (or screen) and I think it's clunky for a reason. A good ghost story is naturally brief and focuses on one incident involving a small number of people. TWG sprawls more than a bit and at times you feel you are getting research notes thrown at you as ballast, fascinating though the research may have been. But, as the nights draw in and frosty mornings become commonplace, this might just be the right book to curl up with for a week or so.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Supernatural Tales 16 is alive and well...

I am posting magazines out now. I will continue to do so while I have breath in my wizened frame. Contributors' copies may already have arrived, I'm that efficient.

My aim is to have the mag to everyone before Hallowe'en. Need I say why? But I am compelled by family emergency to go away this weekend and there may be a postal strike by the end of next week! Will I get them all posted out in time? Stay tuned to this channel. But don't expect any more blog posts for a while because of the 'going away' thing.

The end. Except for these edited highlights from the forthcoming ST movie:


Tuesday 13 October 2009

Congratulations to the Cardinal

Peterborough's leading poet, Cardinal Cox, has only gone and won the John Clare Trust Poetry Prize! He was awarded this fabulous prize on National Poetry Day, last Thursday. There's even a press release that runs:

'The Cardinal has been having his verse published in the small-press for around twenty-five years. He was the chair of Peterborough SF Club through the nineteen-nineties. He was the Poet Laureate of Peterborough for 2003 and was Poet-in-Residence at Broadway Cemetery, also in Peterborough, from 2005 until 2008. He has twice been a runner-up in the Data Dump Award for Best British Published SF Poem and this year his pamphlets of his work included on given away at the steampunk convivial The Asylum held in Lincoln.

The John Clare Trust manages the John Clare Cottage in Helpston and Cardinal Cox intends to use his year (until the final of the next competition) as a Poetry Ambassador for them.'

Congratulations to the Cardinal. The Nobel beckons...

And here's a bit of Mr Clare:

The Autumn's come again,
And the clouds descend in rain,
And the leaves are fast falling in the wood;
The Summer's voice is still,
Save the clacking of the mill
And the lowly-muttered thunder of the flood.

Thursday 8 October 2009

Le Fanu's 'Ghost of a Hand'

The BBC is running some Classic Tales of Horror this week. Among the authors are Kipling ('My Own True Ghost Story'), E.F. Benson ('Caterpillars') and Le Fanu. The latter crops up now and again on BBC 7. A rather good dramatisation of Uncle Silas has been run a couple of times at least.

'Narrative of the Ghost of a Hand' is not first-rate Le Fanu, but does have his trademark air of oddity coupled with authenticity. It's not clear what the hand is about, or why the house might be haunted. I'm also not clear whether we are supposed to regard the hand as truly supernatural, or might it be he work of a very mortal troublemaker?

*Forgot to add, Friday's story is 'The Mezzotint', read by Robin Bailey.

Wot Larks, Pip

Dearie me. The postal workers union has decided to hold a strike, in addition to the unofficial strikes that have already undermined the system. This is great fun, because the printer has just informed me that ST16 is winging its way to me right now. So, what do I do? Wait for the strike(s) to blow over, if they do? Post stuff out before the strike(s) and hope for the best? I'll have to ponder this one. If a lot of copies go astray I won't be able to replace them all, as I just don't have that many spares - can't afford 'em. But I don't want to lose readers. I suppose I could guarantee that people in the Tyneside area received their copies by hand delivering them. I have an A to Z.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Max Faversham - Demon Puncher

The wacky comedy gang The Penny Dreadfuls do amusing stuff based around Victorian melodrama - a bit like Ripping Yarns for the 21st century. Anyway, their stories of the Brothers Faversham, each of whom has a special talent, continues with Maximilian, Victorian England's greatest writer of horror stories. The extracts from Max's books are hilarious, as are the details of Max's disastrous life. There's also a reference to owls, so be warned if you're phobic.

More Penny Dreadfuls at their site here.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

More Coffin Nails

I've been a good boy and read some more stories from John L. Probert's excellent collection Coffin Nails. 'The Ossuary' is a variation on that old (and rightly much-used) theme of 'someone visits a somewhat spooky place'. The idea of a house full of decoratively carved human bones is weird enough, and it's a tribute to the author's imagination that he manages to make the finale of his story as strange as its setting.

That's followed by 'Final Act', with its combined themes of the spooky girlfriend - a very popular one, again - and love that endures beyond the grave. There's also a nod to a horror classic. One flaw, for me, is a central incident that leaves a character seriously disabled. It is based on a real-life event, but that is perhaps the problem - it doesn't quite fit and seems less probable, somehow, than the supernatural stuff.

'Between the Pipes' is very strange indeed. The central theme of someone using an evil 'thing' for selfish gain, only to have it backfire on them, if again familiar from M.R. James, among others, but again there are subtle and rather moving variations on the theme.

'The Sacrifices We Make' is a very short story indeed - a mere four pages. It takes a lot of skill to make a short-short memorable, and this one is unusual enough to stick in the mind. Again, though, there's a twist near the end that slightly spoils it, for me at least.

So, pretty good thus far. The nights are drawing in as I prepare to tackle the last few stories. Have the scariest been left till last? Oo-er.

Saturday 3 October 2009

The Swan River Press

If I can work this infernal engine there should be an extra link over to the right, sending you to The Swan River Press. If you can't see it or indeed anything else on this site please let me know. I am using a new editing gizmo and am a bit worried that things may be going out of what. Anyway, there it is. Possibly.

Friday 2 October 2009

My Aunt Margaret's Adventure

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu produced some of the best supernatural stories of the Victorian era. For my money 'Carmilla' is his best, but it is run pretty close by 'Green Tea', 'The Familiar' and 'Schalcken the Painter'. Le Fanu's lesser tales have - to some extent - ridden along on the coattails of these superb efforts. The same might be said of the lesser novels, which might not be available if it weren't for Uncle Silas. And of course there was the M.R. James' edited collection, Madame Crowl's Ghost, which must have brought thousands of new readers to Le Fanu.

James collected stories that were (in his opinion) penned by Le Fanu but published anonymously. He specifically excluded 'My Aunt Margaret's Adventure' because - while Gothic enough - it doesn't have a ghostly theme. It is, however, a fairly Gothic tale of lost travellers, a spooky inn, and sinister doings at night. Brian J. Showers at Swan River Press is to be complimented for putting this rarity within the reach of Le Fanu fans and M.R. James hyper-completists.

I read this short-ish story on a short-ish train journey of about half an hour, and found it quite absorbing. Le Fanu, to modern readers, may seem to take his time, but by mid-Victorian standards he was a rather economical writer, and a master of the telling detail. In this case we are given abundant hints that Something Nasty is going to happen to poor old Aunt Margaret, and sure enough, it does. It's not exactly a whodunnit, though, unless one accepts that the Industrial Revolution is the culprit.

There are some fine moments, and as usual Le Fanu manages to combine the comical, realistic detail with some genuine chills. It's a gift that M.R. James clearly admired and set out to emulate in his own work. Much of the story deals with commonplace things - an old lady and her companion set out to retrieve some of the former's rent from a defaulting shopkeeper. Their driver is a bit of an old layabout who doesn't really know the way. They get lost and the question of where two ladies will spend the night becomes pressing.

All very commonplace - the stuff of myriad Victorian novels. But Le Fanu skilfully introduces ever more peculiar elements - the run-down inn they eventually find; the unpleasant Irishwoman who seems to be in charge; the weeping woman in the downstairs room; the man waiting at the gate for who knows what company?

All in all, this is a pleasant enough read, and the notes by Jim Rockhill and Gary W. Crawford are interesting and informative. I also enjoyed the poem Le Fanu refers to - George Coleman the Younger's mock-Gothic 'The Maiden of the Moor, or The Water-Fiends'. I can imagine Le Fanu - often seen as a rather melancholy character - having a little chuckle to himself over that one.

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...