Thursday 31 December 2009

Let the Right One In

It’s been snowing, and as I write this the year is dying. A good time, then, to review a film set in a Swedish winter during the second Cold War.
            Let the Right One In is a remarkable, unpretentious and very satisfying retake on the theme of the vampire as lonely outcast, and the fascination such a creature might exert on a certain kind of human. The twist, as you probably know if you’re into that sort of thing, is that the vampire in this case is a child – girl called Eli who has been ‘twelve for a long time’. While child vampires have been around a while, Eli is – I think – the first leading character of this sort.
            Oskar, Eli’s lonely neighbour, has been twelve for just over nine months. He lives with his divorced mother and sometimes visits his (gay) dad. He is being bullied at school and collects newspaper cuttings about grisly crimes; remember, we are in the late Seventies and there are not yet any handy websites for such lads. A strange killing in which the victim is hung upside down in a wood and drained of blood naturally draws Oskar’s attention. Little does he know that the perpetrator is Eli’s minion. (Yes, like James Mason in Salem’s Lot, only not really.)
            Eli’s factotum is, it turns out, getting a bit old and sloppy. Soon he is cornered, leading to a nasty scene with a jar of something corrosive. Eli is forced to fend for herself among the striking if not conventionally Gothic settings of a snowbound concrete housing estate. It’s interesting that there is no vampire-hunting rigmarole here, no van Helsing figure to sort it all out. I think this is a great improvement, because if there’s one thing a modern vampire story doesn’t need its exposition. And another thing is occult paraphernalia.
            This is a supernatural story, though. We see Eli scale the outside of a building in accepted fashion, and she can fly, though we only see indirect evidence of this. Obliquity alternates with grubby realism, in fact. We don’t see the magic, but we see an awful lot of blood. We also see romance, of a sort, as it’s clear from the start that poor baffled Oskar will latch onto anyone who is kind and takes an interest. When Eli warns him early on that she’s ‘not a girl’ it clearly doesn’t bother him much.
            This is a film of simple plot and striking scenes, with some nice ideas and touches of humour. It also shows a considerable grasp of the horror genre, not just famous vampire flicks. At one point Eli’s attempt to feed on a drunken local is thwarted and the semi-drained woman is ‘vampirised’. Her new status leads to all sorts of bother, not least when a friend’s houseful of moggies attack her. The resulting scene is a clever homage toThe Cat Creature, an obscure movie based on a Robert Bloch novel. Bravo, say I. But it’s not a moment to be savoured by your soft-hearted old auntie.
              I’ll be interested to see what happens when Hollywood (devoid of ideas, as usual) remakes this one. No, on second thoughts, I probably won’t be interested, because I suspect the result will be yet another unbalanced, inartistic mess that will be hard to sit through. There is something Old World about the relationship between Eli and Oskar, and I suspect some jerk will try to turn them into the Bonnie and Clyde of the undead realm. Well, the original is out there, and comes highly recommended.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Review of 'Red Christmas'

'Red Christmas' by Jim Steel is an interesting modern-historical ghost story in the latest spiffing issue of ST. Over at the parallel blogiverse of In The Gloaming, it's got the thumbs up! Huzzah! What's more, it's a story about an unusual Christmas gift, so it's seasonal and everything. That's what we editors call planning, y'know.

I don't think Nathaniel Tapley will mind me quoting from his generous review, so here goes:

There isn’t a weak story in this issue. Gary Fry’s ‘Night Watchman’ is suitable M.R. Jamesian; and I enjoyed Jane Jakeman’s nasty little tales. Ray Russell’s nightmarish ‘Company’ (another based on a visit to an elderly person for Christmas) was a highlight, and, although I thought it promised a little more in the way of explanation than it delivered, its waking dream is deliciously disorienting and horrifying. Bill Read (or his character) obviously felt much the same way about his school as I did, and he expresses it wonderfully; and Michael Chislett’s ‘The Coastguard’ has an atmosphere that will hang around the house for days…

Compliments of the Season

Monday 21 December 2009

Ghosts in Spaaace!

For me, Christmas will always be linked to the first season of The X-Files, which was shown over the winter of 1994-5 in the UK. The first episode (the pilot) was aired by the BBC on 19th September, the final one – Scully finds the alien in a flask – on 9th March. The period between Halloween and Christmas is of course a time for ghost stories. And oddly enough, for a series that will always be associated in the popular imagination with UFO conspiracy claptrap that made no real sense, TXF really delivered the goods on supernatural fiction.

Rewatching Season 1 over the last week or so served to underline what a mixed bag of ideas Chris Carter introduced. The UFO stuff was rather ponderous and silly from the start, while the standalone episodes were often sprightly and great fun. And what a lot of ghosts there are. There’s the murdered company boss in ‘Shadows’, the haunted computer of ‘Ghost in the Machine’, the maybe-spirit of Scully’s old dad in ‘Beyond the Sea’, a reincarnated killer in ‘Lazarus’, the weird healing powers of ‘Miracle Man’, the Manitou lycanthropes of ‘Shapes’, and a reincarnated cop in ‘Born Again’ - it’s a choice buffet of spookitude.

And then there’s ‘Space’. This one is peculiar in that it comes close to combining the story arc of the alien conspiracy tosh with a standalone ghost story. The story begins with the revelation of the so-called Face on Mars, and an interview in which a NASA spokesman points out that it’s produced by chance, just like one of those images of Mother Theresa that turned up in buns a few years ago.

The spokesman is former Gemini astronaut and now mission controller Colonel Marcus Aurelius Belt. I think I can almost forgive Chris Carter his clunky, infodumpish dialogue for that one inspired name – exactly what a former astronaut should be called. Anyway, it turns out that the Face on Mars has not come as any surprise to Belt. We see him in his hotel room later, lying awake in trepidation. Suddenly the Face appears on the bedroom ceiling and hurtles towards him…
Cue the opening credits and that famous sig tune.

Anyway, the plot revolves around the idea that a kind of alien ghost possessed Belt when he was on a Gemini spacewalk in the Sixties, and ever since has been using him to sabotage the space programme. Mulder and Scully do their wise-cracking bit of poking around, after they’re called in by another member of the mission control team. But in the end it’s Marcus Aurelius Belt (I had to type it again) who thwarts the space spook.
Now the only other show I can think of that’s had a space ghost in it is Scooby-Doo. There is something about the high-tech, cutting edge, sci-fi business of space exploration that makes ghosts seem dodgy and rather absurd. Yes, as ‘Space’ shows, it can be done. Not a brilliant episode of TXF, perhaps, but not by any means a poor one.

And why should ghosts somehow cease to work in a story if it’s all about control panels, flashing lights and people counting backwards? Is it because we assume ghosts are inherently things of the past – the historical past? If so this is somewhat lazy thinking, and I admit I’m as prone to it as anyone else.

I’ve just listened to a fairly decent BBC 7 reading of ‘The Signalman’, a story that’s been anthologised so often that merely mentioning it about true ghost story fans can be guaranteed to raise a groan or two. Yet Dickens’ story is all about the white heat of Victorian technology. The telegraph, the electric bell, the railways itself are all new and innovative. They are as far from the conventional Gothic palaver of ruined abbeys and secret panels as you can get.

There are other examples of supernatural tales involving bits of technology. Haunted cars are common. Keith Roberts’ ‘The Scarlet Lady’ and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Mr Wrong’ are good and very different examples. Then there are planes. Robert Westall’s Wellington bomber in ‘Blackham’s Wimpey’ is the best ghostly aviation story I’ve read. Perhaps you know of some other good ones.

But ships are the ultimate hi-tech haunt. We can now view a stately galleon or a Napoleonic frigate as a quaint old thing, forgetting that all sailing ships were finely crafted instruments of war and trade. To people who’d never seen a ship – such as some Pacific islanders – they were so large as to be almost incomprehensible at first. But of course sailors were always superstitious, and the sea has at least as many legends as the land. So the ghost ships sail on.

If we ever push out into space as Europeans once set sail for new worlds on earth, with we take our ghosts with us? Or will we find ghosts waiting? One Ray Bradbury story (whose title eludes me) concerns an earthman who lands on an asteroid that – rather improbably – has a breathable atmosphere. He settles down to wait for rescue, but then finds himself possessed by the spirits of long-dead warriors who perished ages ago amid general mayhem. (Interestingly, John Carpenter used this same idea in his disappointing film Ghosts of Mars – no idea if Bradbury got a credit or a percentage.)

Well, Bradbury was always a bit of a law unto himself. Futuristic settings and ghosts don’t present an appealing combination to most authors, and perhaps that’s just as well. Mixing your genres is rather like mixing your drinks – you can only get away with it so often because you have a nasty mishap. Something to remember over the Yuletide break!

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Spookery and Rudery for the Festive Season!

I have received an electronic mail communication from Mr Tapley, which I will copy in full...

Hi David,

The In The Gloaming Christmas Special went up this afternoon, and it's here: It's a festive ghost story with a terrifying twist. And some jokes about dildoes...

Hope you enjoy it,


Saturday 12 December 2009

Festive Frights, Gorblimey

Those loveable Cockney Sparrers at One Eye Grey have come up with some scary podcasts, all on a London theme. Murder, mayhem, madness, mince pies - that's how it's done round our house, and I trust that's also the case for you, too, dear listener. I'm now going to try and embed this PodcastMachine in my blog, like an idiot.

Update: it didn't work. Blogger seems very hostile to embedding podcasts. Oh well.

Thursday 10 December 2009

In which I am praised

Fanzine Fanatique, a Lancastrian publication, has said very nice things about ST for some years now. The autumn 09 issue is particularly fulsome so - overcoming my natural modesty - I thought I'd quote it in full.

'Well, Steve Jones, Ellen Datlow and Charles Black are keeping the short story alive commercially, but their source material invariably comes from semi-prozines such as this, and it's quality throughout, with a prize for the best story as determined by the readers. Indeed, much as I enjoy those giant anthologies, zines such as ST are not limited to putting 'names' on their covers in order to sell. I've certainly had to endure some trash from established writers (I'll not name names) in those pro anthologies, which is why ST is such a joy. Included also some book reviews. There's a reappraisal of the work of forgotten author Gerald Kersh. I recall the name but...'

Nice, eh? I think we've all had that nasty sinking feeling when we realise that a big-name author has contributed something he tossed off (so to speak) a few years ago and has never placed, or hastily cobbled something together that reads like an inferior version of his early, classic stuff. The biggest 'name' I've published is Joel Lane, and every one of his ST stories has been excellent.

Well, it's nice to have a bit of praise.

If you'd like a sample copy of Fanzine Fanatique, send:
2 stamps in the UK
or 2 IRCs, or 1 US dollar if not in the UK.

Write to:

Keith & Rosemary Walker
6 Vine St
L41 4UF

Incidentally, FF is the longest running fanzine and small press reviewzine in the world - it has been published continuously since June 1972. Blimey.

What was number one in the UK in June, 1972? Well, there were two rather distinctive numbers...

Then, by way of contrast...

In terms of supernatural movies, there was of course Dracula 1972 AD, which I recall was rubbish (I may be wrong). However, there was also this:

Friday 4 December 2009

Audio Fun

This blog isn't an interesting as it could be. I'm well aware that people who stop by on occasion don't always find it's been updated, and even if it has I've often got nothing much to say but 'Ooh, I'm listening to the wireless'. So I'm throwing open the comments section for readers to suggest things I could do. Nice ones, please.

One thought that occurred to me some time ago is this: would you like to hear my dulcet tones, or those of other folk, actually reading extracts from the stories? Or perhaps even reading some shorter stories complete (after they're published in ST, and of course with the author's permission)?

If so, there's a problem. It seems blogger can't sustain simple MP3 files for some reason. Unless you know different? Is there a way to get an audio file here without making it part of a video, which seems a bit mad?

Over to you, gentle reader.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

A Stir of Echoes

Richard Matheson's early novel A Stir of Echoes is about a regular guy who, after being hypnotised at a party, finds he can apparently read minds. Or is it that simple? It's a clever novel that, with typical Matheson precision, builds from one strange incident to another. I recently read the novel and, by coincidence, it's now being serialised on BBC 7. Not a bad reading, though it sounds somewhat abridged.

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...