'Not far to the east of York lies an empty stretch of country known as the Wolds; a region of tiny hamlets, distant farms and meagre population. Yet, within living memory, it was a scene of bustling enterprise. I speak of the deserted railway tracks once connecting with the Great North Eastern Railway. A tiled mural depicting the network prior to nationalisation adorns to this day the concourse at York Station, epitaph to the glory of the Railway Age, grim reminder of the depredations of Dr Beeching.
The Malton-Driffield Railway wove its way through North Grimston, Wharram, Fimber, Sledmere, Wetwang, Garton-on-the-Wolds. It served the long desolate chalk quarries of Wharram and Burdale, supplying the chemical industry of Teesside. During the Second World War the line transported evacuees to country estates and troops to training camps; once carrying General de Gaulle on a visit to French soldiers billeted at Malton. The passage in 1948 of the Royal Train, hauled by ‘Irish Elegance’, en route to the Sykes of Sledmere House, proved, alas, its swan song: soon it had been relegated to goods, axed in 1958—though its value was loudly trumpeted in the great snowfall of 1957 when it was the only link for seven long, hard weeks. Today much of the line has been enclosed by farms, sections made into footpaths and large portions reclaimed by rampant nature. Hidden in this wilderness, not far from the ruins of the old Wharram station, can be found the sealed entrance to Burdale Tunnel.'
From 'The Tunnel' by Peter Bell (ST17, due out next summer)
'The room was huge. All around the walls stood tall black and silver candelabra, as graceful as the antlers of stags, bearing stands of flaming candles. Looking down the room, she saw a vast stove covered in gold and black tiles that rose to the ceiling. Long couches stood around it, their arms terminating in carved animals. Even from here, she could see some grinning faces, a monkey mouth opening wideto expose the teeth, a roaring lion with a gilded mane. To these creatures also, the unstable candlelight gave disturbing impressions of movement, too quick to catch, registering on the eye as barely-seen glimpses, the effect enhanced by flecks ofivory and mother-of pearl which inlaid their gleaming milky eyes. Along the backs of the couches were carved intertwined lizard-like creatures: she had seen these forms before, and was trying to recall them to her memory when she happened to look up and saw one painted in gilt and scarlet which seemed suspended almost above her.'
From 'The Demon Lover' by Jane Jakeman (earmarked for ST18, Winter 2010)
All rather sumptuous, isn't it? Better than Butlins, certainly. But we all know that when a lady - especially a nice British lady tourist - finds herself in a fancy foreign bedchamber, nothing good can come of it. You can find out more about Jane Jakeman and order her books here.
I was re-reading this Blackwood story the other week, and it struck me that it's a perfect example of the author's greatest strengths and weaknesses. If you don't know it, it's here.
The plot is simple. An Englishman called Hibbert who's a bit of a loner, and sensitive to nature in that way Blackwood's characters often are, goes to an Alpine ski resort. He enjoys himself, but always feels a certain detachment both from his fellow skiers and skaters, and the locals.
His nature was too “multiple” to subscribe to the set of shibboleths of any one class. And, since all liked him, and felt that somehow he seemed outside of them—spectator, looker-on—all sought to claim him.
Typical outsider, of a sort very familiar from many ghostly tales. But it's fair to say that Blackwood set the template, here. M.R. James' characters are often loners, too, but they sometimes seem a little dates in their bachelor-scholar status. Blackwood's protagonists seem more complex and 'modern', in some ways.
But to return to TGotS. Hibbert goes skating late at night - another manifestation of his oddball status - and encounters a lovely young lady. This is a clever bit, as the girl is obviously muffled up with gloves, scarves etcetera, so Hibbert doesn't know what she looks like and doesn't touch her hand as they skate. She is of course an entrancing creature:
And she was delicious to skate with —supple, sure, and light, fast as a man yet with the freedom of a child, sinuous and steady at the same time. Her flexibility made him wonder, and when he asked where she had learned she murmured —-he caught the breath against his ear and recalled later that it was singularly cold—that she could hardly tell, for she had been accustomed to the ice ever since she could remember.
I think we all know where this is going. Blackwood as usual deluges us with long sentences, dashes all over the place, and a lot of numinous and sometimes well-crafted prose about the wonders of nature. I can take it or leave it. It's like sinking into a deep, overstuffed comfy chair then finding that want to get up and get a drink. Then, having sunk down again, you want to turn the wireless off. And so on. After a while you begin to wish for something a little more utilitarian.
But some passages remain powerful. When Hibbert sneaks out for a rendezvous at midnight, the beauty of the winter mountains is very well evoked.
“Give me your hand,” he cried, “I’m coming . . . !”
“A little farther on, a little higher,” came her delicious answer. “Here it is too near the village—and the church.”
And the words seemed wholly right and natural; he did not dream of questioning them; he understood that, with this little touch of civilisation in sight, the familiarity he suggested was impossible. Once out upon the open mountains, ’mid the freedom of huge slopes and towering peaks, the stars and moon to witness and the wilderness of snow to watch, they could taste an innocence of happy intercourse free from the dead conventions that imprison literal minds.
Fortunately there are some literal minds about the place to rescue Hibbert when the 'glamour' of the snow - in the old fashioned sense of the term - nearly does for him.
Throughout the story there is a sense of wonder, but never one of menace. The stranger who tempts Hibbert to what may be his death is not, we feel, evil. She is presumably some kind of spirit of nature, a sort of dryad of the snows, perhaps seeking a mate. The only suggestion of something dodgy is when she shows an aversion to church bells. But Blackwood (who had a horrendous Christian upbringing) never really puts his heart into the old 'religion good, pagan bad' dichotomy. Anyone who's read 'Ancient Sorceries' or even 'Secret Worship', in which a fallen angel appears, might struggle to find a sense of spiritual evil.
So, Algernon Blackwood - not a horror writer as such. But his best stories, 'The Wendigo' and 'The Willows', are all the better for being devoid of conventional gimmickry and ideas. It's a pity but not surprising that, Blackwood having chosen a difficult path to travel, most of us are unable to accompany him very far into the woods.
Blimey, I seem to have lost the year 2009, or a substantial part of it. Never mind, my fiendish plans for 2010 are well under way.
First up, the contents of ST17. This is list is highly provisional, but I thought you might like to have a peep.
'The Tunnel' - Peter Bell
'Mr Nousel's Mirror' - Michael Keyton
T'he Dress' - Elizabeth Brown
'13 Nassau St' - Martin Hayes
'Cabin D' - Ian Rogers
'The Language of the Nameless Region' - Richard Gavin
'Lessons' - Katherine M. Haynes
This list is interesting (to me at least) because it contains so many new names. Not that I think ST has become in any way tired, I just happen to have been getting a lot of submissions from new writers (new to me, that is). This is a good thing.
There's an inevitable 'churning' effect in publishing a tiny little magazine as an amateur editor. A really good writer will stop off along the way to greater things - like getting paid - and may hang around for a year or two. Some writers who are successful, in the sense that their work appears in books, will stick with ST in part because they like it, and perhaps also because it has a reasonable reputation. Indeed some writers who are already established have been known to drop by - Joel Lane, for instance.
Anyway, ST17 does contain two 'old stagers' - my sub-editor Katherine, who appeared in the first issue, and Peter Bell. Katherine's story owes something to Robert Aickman's 'The inner Room', in my humble opinion, and is about nasty girls. Or grrrrrrls. Peter's story is, as the title hints, tunnel-based. It's about a disused railway line, in fact. Always a good central premise for a ghost story, I think. It's also couched in fairly traditional form, as a series of diary extracts and other bits of research.
The other authors are a diverse bunch. Elizabeth Brown's 'The Dress' is a truly weird tale, combining fashion with amnesia to confuse me and possibly the reader - but, I think, to interesting ends. 'Mr Nousel's Mirror' is an elegant supernatural fantasy, as is '13 Nassau St', with its Dublin setting. 'Cabin D' by Canadian author Ian Rogers is slightly redolent of the young Stephen King and indeed Rod Serling. With Richard Gavin I've finally got someone doing an almost-Lovecraftian fantasy-horror, combining a modern setting with a timeless, strange feel.
I can't really write any more about these stories because I'm not a complete idiot and don't want to give all the good bits away. But I can reveal some of the title images, which are bit suggestive, oo-er.
No, he doesn't really have a haunted pen, or at least doesn't admit to it. But there's a good interview with the celebrated author here. I recently read his lesser-known supernatural novel A Stir of Echoes. Recommended. But, unlike Matheson's other early books, ASoE doesn't lend itself to film or TV because it is about a man's internal and highly subjective supernatural experiences.
There's also a good interview with RM in the Dark Dreamers series:
My previous post on this topic was clearly incorrect.
THE new president of the European Union is a Catholic German vampire who craves the blood of your children, experts warned last night.
As the unelected leaders of Europe chose the unelected Belgian prime minister to be your unelected president, vampirologists revealed Herman Van Rompuy's true identity as a 486 year-old blood-sucking monster of the night.
I'm a subscriber to your Supernatural Tales blog, and thought you might be interested in this:
We've just made the first in a monthly series of horror-comedy audio plays starring some of Britain's best young comics, and Celebrity Love Islander, and Beppe from Eastenders, Michael Greco.
Called In the Gloaming: Creepy Tales of Now, they are a chilling and darkly comic look at modern life, and are available as a free podcast. The first episode, Dead Skinny, is out now, and has received great reviews from horror masters like Ramsey Campbell, and more than 1,000 downloads. It is available here: http://bit.ly/1uP2Xq
The Vatican has decided that, on balance, all things considered, it's against vampires. Damn. I had a tenner at Ladbrokes that said the Pope would, in his Christmas message, say that demon-possessed bloodsucking corpses in cloaks were more in accord with the tenets of the Council of Nicaea than, say, Methodists. (Thought I was going to type Muslims there, didn't you? So did I, but you've got to be careful these days.)
Anyway, the Pope's propagandists say the Twilight series of books by Stephenie Meyer are a Bad Thing, as is the series of popular feature films currently being produced to - if you read the Daily Mail - DEPRAVE OUR TEENAGE DAUGHTERS! For the Daily Mail, anything that is new and popular must deprave somebody, and if they can get a picture of a nubile young lady in the story, badda bing!
But I digress. This is what the bead-jigglers think, allegedly:
According to the Daily Mail Monsignor Franco Perazzolo, of the Pontifical Council of Culture, said: "Men and women are transformed with horrible masks and it is once again that age-old trick or ideal formula of using extremes to make an impact at the box office.
"This film is nothing more than a moral vacuum with a deviant message and as such should be of concern."
The Mail added that a spokespriest said the film gives a "mixture of excesses aimed at young people and gives a heavy esoteric element."
No, I have no idea what 'gives a heavy esoteric element' means. I very much doubt whether Ms Meyer's popular books contain scenes in which people offer each other containers of transuranic isotopes. That would be a bit of a sci-fi twist, I admit, but rather spoil the Gothic ambience.
As the Register points out, the Vatican needs to get its ducks in a row on supernatural evil, because it will keep chopping and changing in a most un-Catholic way.
The Vatican had long condemned the Harry Potter series, claiming it would corrupt impressionable young children and turn them onto the occult, or at least onto the English boarding school system. Then, it turned around and praised the film version of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince for its sharp delineation of good and evil.
Likewise, the Vatican had a long-running downer on Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code - understandable perhaps given its rather anti-Vatican stance. Then, earlier this year, it faint-praisedly damned Angels and Demons as "quite harmless".
Flip-flopping on works of fiction, eh? And I seem to recall Galileo got an apology a few years back. Dear me. You can't rely on anyone these days.
Re: Twilight, I haven't read it, but Karen at work (who's thirtysomething) is reading the first book and loving it. I suspect this is because its girly slushy gushy kissy kissy heaving bosomy stuff. Or I would like to believe that it is. I have a rich inner life.
But let's consider this Catholics vs. Vampires thing. Isn't there a case to be made for vampires to be a heretical Catholic sect? Consider the evidence.
Vampires emerged in medieval Europe (like the Hussites and Cathars).
They dress stylishly, in flowing clothes, not unlike clergy.
They slake their various lusts on nubile young people - no further comment necessary.
They live in vast, stone edifices and haunt graveyards (I'm still talking about vampires).
Then there's the weirder stuff. Vampires are immortal, and of course one of the main selling points of Catholicism is that it offers you immortality (post-death) if you sign up. Blood - vampires are created by sharing blood, and Catholic immortality is (I'm told) something to do with blood.
Gosh, it's almost as if this vampire stuff was a pop-culture critique of the crazy doctrines of mass religion.
I seem to be banging the drum long and loud for BBC 7 these days. So be it. I've sort of given up on the telly - I can do without it, so I do. Radio I can listen to while I think, type, doze, eat crisps, sew on a button, and still miss nothing. And BBC 7 does usually have a good spooky or weird tale on the go.
One very good reading is of William Hope Hodgson's odd, hard-to-define novel The House on the Borderland. I've never been quite sure of Hodgson. He has many admirers and his best work is powerful. But his style is starchy and his ideas are often maddeningly vague. THotB is probably his most accessible book. The central idea - of a strange house besieged by weird 'swine things' - really stays with you, as does the rather Wellsian cosmic reverie of the unreliable narrator.
Oh, and did I mention this reading is by Jim Norton? Yes, Bishop Brennan himself. Wonderful voice.
Those crazy guys at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society have been filming a new movie for, well, strange aeons and a bit. But they're getting there, and I for one look forward to the finished product. You can read their production blog here. And this is the trailer, which I posted a long time ago. Still good.
I've been reading a short novel by Mike Chislett. It's good. Should I publish it as a Supernatural Tales special issue? How many people reading this would buy a long story by Mike? I suspect quite a few people would be happy to stump up around a tenner, but I'd like a bit of feedback.
Pagan survival? Mediaeval joke? Good or evil or just plain there? Whatever the truth behind the Green Man, he is present in hundreds of English churches. And there's a song about him by one of my fave bands....