Saturday 31 December 2011

Little Mouse

Apart from being inherently brilliant, this video (from the comedy series Look Around You) was obviously shot at Aldeburgh. The scene is in fact that of the grisly demise of Mr Paxton in 'A Warning to the Curious' - note the Martello Tower.

A few years ago I walked to the tower along with other members of A Ghostly Company. We ignored louring skies, only to discover on the way back that it really can rain in East Anglia. Never were so many ghost story enthusiasts soaked to the skin so quickly. I dried off in the White Lion (which features as The Globe in 'Oh Whistle...') and had some lovely soup. Rambling a bit now...

Monday 26 December 2011

Sunday 25 December 2011


Supernatural horror story from the classic early Seventies series created by Brian (He Also Did The Avengers) Clemens. Among the star-studded cast we find Patrick Troughton, who starred in Doctor Who (1966-9) and later played Father Brennan in The Omen. Then there's Ed Bishop, with his natural hair, who was famously fair-headed as Ed Straker in UFO. Cec Linder, a Canadian playing the US diplomat here, whose first big UK role was as the heroic Dr Roney in the classic TV serial Quatermass and the Pit (1960). Last but not least, the evil nursey is played by Diana Dors, famous as a blonde bombshell in her youth but here showing real talent for insidious menace. Oo-er. Merry Christmas, one and all.

And, if you were wondering why so many American characters feature in this vert British show, it was simply because it was always intended for the US network market.

Saturday 24 December 2011

Christopher Lee IS (or was) M. R. James

While he bears little resemblance to the author, I hope nobody can fault Mr Lee's reading. This is an abridged version of Monty James' darkest tale, and the only 'classic' he wrote after the Great War. The fate of Mr Paxton seems wildly disproportionate to his supposed offence - indeed, if you follow the story it seems as if he is lured to his doom. But that's part of the appeal of MRJ's stories; their refusal to quite make sense, the triumph of imagery and incident over plot logic. Well, that's what I think.

Friday 23 December 2011

The Phantom Coach : A ghost story for Christmas

A good short film based on the Victorian tale by Amelia B. Edwards, who was an Egyptologist of renown as well as a professional author and journalist. Almost forgotten today, she was one of those lady novelists of the 19th century who enjoyed tremendous success. It's remarkable, to say the least, that she pursued a second and equally notaqble career in archaeology.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Carmilla (Surrender into the Roses) - Kate Bush

A little musical oddity, but still a spooky tale of sorts. This is an early demo by Ms Bush. Some people think she's singing 'Coming Up!', but she isn't. Before she did 'Wuthering Heights' the shy songstress was inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu's prototypical tale of posh-girls-in-nighties vampirism.


This song was deemed too controversial for broadcast on British TV tomorrow night (23rd Dec), even though it's very mild stuff. Not that I'd watch Jonathan Ross if you paid me, but I like Tim Minchin.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Saturday 17 December 2011

Stigma 1977 BBC Xmas Ghost Story

This one passed me by at the time, I think. I certainly don't recall it. I do recognise the writer's name - Clive Exton did a lot of sterling work for both BBC and ITV. Among his credits were two episodes of the Terry Nation post-apocalypse series Survivors, plus a slew of Jeeves and Wooster and a ton o' Poirot. He also worked on the script of The Awakening, the rather sluggish 1980 adaptation of Stoker's Jewel of the Seven Stars. I suspect Exton was one of those professional, reliable and highly creative TV writers who flourished in a very different production climate.

The imdb has the following bio:

Took his professional surname from Shakespeare's "Richard II".
Former English teacher at a comprehensive school in Cannock, Staffs.

Sadly, most of Exton's early work (single plays for the BBC) is now lost because the tapes were routinely wiped. It's not just Doctor Who fans who get frustrated by this BBC policy, rational though it may have seemed at the time. They wiped stuff, apparently, because they only paid for the music rights etc for two showings i.e. one repeat. Nobody anticipated a home video market that would reap millions for TV companies.

Monday 5 December 2011

Glorious Nemesis

A beautifully-produced book thudded onto my doormat earlier today. I'm now halfway through it and finding it fascinating, mysterious and at times a tad alarming.

Glorious Nemesis is a novella by Ladislav Klima, a Czech author of whom Vaclav Havel, no less, wrote:

Ladislav Klíma has been an important "voice calling in the wilderness." His antimetaphysical view of the world was not unique at his time, as Europe was full of followers of Friedrich Nietzsche, both good and bad. Yet Klíma's mix of philosophical essay, fiction, poetry, and drama was unique. Often he was too fervent in proclaiming that the only security lies in the awareness of one's will and of one's absolute freedom. In this way he eliminated the border between truth and fiction, between waking and dreaming, and even between life and death. If the world, from Klíma's perspective, was to be some phantasm or phantom, we would need a new way of articulating it, of creating it anew. At the same time, the main purpose of the world would be inherent in the free and unlimited will, life a game for the free individual. The non-conformist work of Ladislav Klíma has almost always shocked, has often incited scandal, but has hardly ever left us indifferent. One need not accept his view of the world to experience it and enjoy it in all its ambiguity, just as one does the stage.

Having read a bit of Nietzsche in my youth (doesn't everybody?) I can see that Klima (whose dates are 1878-1928) was profoundly influenced by the much-misunderstood prophet of the Superman. Klima's protagonist, Sidar, is arguably 'beyond good and evil', but not beyond love and fear. As the story developed the paradox of unlimited free will also becomes apparent, as the greatest happiness, or at least the greatest sense of being alive, comes with obsession and a conviction that fate cannot be avoided.

Indeed, as I made my way through the first chapters of Glorious Nemesis (which can be ordered from Amazon) I was reminded somewhat of Klima's contemporart Algernon Blackwood, especially 'The Glamour of the Snow'. Here we have the same lonely protagonist (Sidar seems to be utterly alone in the world, devoid of family or friends) and the same love of outdoor pursuits, especially walking and climbing. Klima doesn't seem to embrace Blackwood's pantheism, however. Instead Sidar, on visiting the Alpine resort of Cortona, enters a realm that is neither wholly wakeful nor entirely dream-like when he falls in love with a mysterious young woman who seems likely to lure him to destruction.

As I haven't finished this short novel I can't say whether it qualifies as a ghost story or not. I suspect that, as in HG Wells' The Croquet Player, the author's intention goes beyond those of the conventional ghost story, but the ingredients he is using are familiar. What is unusual is the intensity of Klima's focus on one man and his obsessive vision of a nameless woman who may be a ghost, a demon or something even stranger. It is always difficult to judge a translation, but I think Marek Tomin has conveyed much of Klima's strange power. It is also, as I mentioned above, a beautiful book in its own right, with a superb cover and illustrations by Pavel Rut. It is published by Twisted Spoon Press in Prague.

Glorious Nemesis

Tuesday 29 November 2011

The Eclipse

This film passed me by completely last year, and so far as I can tell isn't yet out on DVD. However, I watched it online at Lovefilm last night and enjoyed it. It's not a classic, but it is an interesting and at times moving variation on the theme of the ghost story. Suffice to say that it concerns an apparition of the living, which appears to a man while he is helping to run an Irish literary festival where he meets a ghost story writer. the performances are very good. The co-writer and director is Conor McPherson, and the wonder that is Jim Norton appears in a cameo role.

Monday 28 November 2011

RIP Ken Russell

Bizarre coincidence corner - last week I found myself explaining the old County Durham legend of the Lambton Worm to a bunch of non-natives in the pub. This was because someone mentioned The Lair of the White Worm, and Hugh Grant's role therein. Now comes news that Brit movie legend Ken Russell, who directed a very free adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, has died at the age of 84. Farewell, Mr Russell - you were a truly original artist, and I think your films were a lot of fun. 

Straw Bears and Parallel Universes

The redoubtable and indefatigable Cardinal Cox (Poet Laureate of Peterborough) has sent me two more pamphlets. Both are rather spiffing, so let me try to sum up their appeal.

Firstly there's Rocket to Ruritania, which lives up to its title. It's the third in a trilogy of collections on the subject of parallel universes, offering the poetic history of a British Empire that embarked upon interplanetary conquest (thanks to Cavorite) but also had some trouble with paranormal doings.

The conclusion of the saga tackles alternate Britain's troubled relations with its rebellious colonies in North America. I particularly liked the defeat of US forces by Tecumseh, legendary chief of the Shawnee, giving the opportunity for the creation of an independent kingdom of Louisiana, 'under the house of Valois'. 'The Grand Orient Lodge of New Orleans' offers a fascinating glimpse of one aspect of this might-have-been nation.

Depths of swamps we raise pyramids of gold
Call spirits from out of abyss of time
Our gods are many and their hearts are cold
Unseen we strike down those who commit crime

If you want to know how the story plays out - with the antics of the Invincible Army and Thomas Edison's atomic bomb very much to the fore - then you can obtain this steampunk collection free by sending a SAE to

58 Pennington
Orton Goldhay

You can also email the Cardinal at

And the same goes for the second pamphlet, When Three Sevens Clash. This special collection produced for the Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival looks at punks (hypothetical ones) in Revolutionary America. As always, I learned a lot from it, not least the story of John Baker. Born near Peterborough in 1733, the poor lad had terrible facial deformities. These came in handy when he was captured by native Americans after emigrating. His odd facial contortions let him become a white medicine man. He escaped, returned to England, and died in the workhouse. The poem about his later life is, I suspect, a tad ironic:

Would that I were with Christian folk who in
A factory would set me to toil
Instead of the fine weather of the west
Where freedom grows tall from the rich soil.

The theme of servitude, slavery and general oppression runs through the collection, notably in 'How Many Slave Owners Signed the Declaration of Independence?' As compromises go, I've always felt that rebelling against a king in the name of freedom while owning human livestock is a tad shoddy.

Perhaps I should add that, while neither of these pamphlets is, strictly speaking, supernatural in theme, they have a distinctly weird feel at times. These poems are passionate, intriguing and at times very funny. What more could you want?

Thursday 24 November 2011

Beyond the Sea

I've got too much time on my hands, and among the various box sets I'm rediscovering is The X-Files.

Many episodes concern ghosts and the supernatural, of course, but some of the best appear in season one (there are nine seasons, plus two feature films). And one of these, 'Beyond the Sea', has enough contents for a feature film, never mind 46 minutes of TV. The basic premise is simple - a condemned serial killer called Boggs (played by the wonderful Brad Dourif, above) offers to cut a deal with the authorities. He has supposedly acquired psychic abilities due to a near-death experience (literally, as he was in the gas chamber when he got a stay of execution). Boggs offers to help save the lives of two students who've been kidnapped by another killer who - we learn - was almost certainly Boggs' accomplice.

This is okay so far as it goes, but the spin put on the story makes it unusually powerful. Instead of beginning with the crime, we first see agent Dana Scully's last meeting with her father at Christmas. He dies later that night, and Scully has a vision of him in which he seems to be trying to tell her something. Predictably, Boggs claims to be channelling the old man and promises to deliver the vital message to Scully - if she helps him escape execution and serve life instead.

Writers James Wong and Glen Morgan introduce another twist by having Fox Mulder - the believer in all things paranormal - reject Boggs' claims outright. Mulder suspects it's all a twisted revenge plot as he produced the psychological profile that helped catch Boggs in the first place. So we get a role reversal in which Scully, the supposed sceptic, is convinced by visions and Boggs' mediumistic voices, while Mulder rejects it all. And that's before they actually have to tackle the second killer.

Without giving too much away, it remains unclear (to me, at any rate) whether Dourif's deeply sinister character is psychic or merely very cunning. But sometimes ambiguity is exactly what you need.

Boggs does his stuff

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Imitation is the sincerest etcetera

All those movies about long-haired girls popping up in a spooky fashion - such imagery is grist to the mill of advertising. Predictably, some people are complaining that this is too scary. Hah!

Check out this public information film, as in made by the UK government, specifically for children. It dates from 1973.

The Orphan Palace

'Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. is a thunderous scribe of dark fiction. His poetry slams into you, cracking through flesh and bone to the real meat beneath.' Simon Strantzas.
The Orphan Palace is an extraordinary novel, or rather a novel-length poem, offering fractured and disturbing glimpses of a dark odyssey across the modern US in search of... something. To be honest, I had a lot of trouble with this one. It reads something like a deranged hybrid of Thomas Ligotti and William Burroughs, and that's tough going for an old gent like myself. However, a few things are clear. 

The protagonist, the intriguingly-named Cardigan (because he's coming unravelled? Because he's leading a charge into the Valley of Death?), sets off on his journey to Zimms, the 'orphan palace' where he was raised to be a far from model citizen. Along the way he encounters various characters, making this a bit of a picaresque adventure. An internal migrant, Cardigan journeys back to confront Dr Archer, the 'Chaos Lord' of the orphanage, whose approach to the care of young minds - we can guess from the start - was distinctly unconventional. Thanks to Archer, Cardigan is a violent nutcase, and he makes for a wildly unreliable narrator. As the blurb puts it:
His odyssey is one of haunting flashbacks and disorientating encounters on the road as he leaves a trail of fire and destruction behind him. In the circles and dead-ends that make the maze of his madness, Cardigan meets bounty hunters, ghosts, ghouls, a talking rat, even a merman, and struggles to decide which will lead him to damnation and which to salvation.
The effect of Pulver's fragmented style is rather like being trapped with a brilliant but aggressive drunk who is in the grip of a fixed idea. Here's a more-or-less typical passage.
Sunday paper. Hadn't looked at one in years. War & Death. Death & War. Shards on the chessboard.
     Altars for PURPOSE.
     Pigeons and vultures.
     Analogue and last year are OUT. Yesterday, top to bottom, too.
     Word of mouth on equal footing with the stock market; GRIM.
     Around the mountain, o'er the plains, down in the valley, BANG, yer DEAD!
     Nightmares by daylight.

If you have a strong head and a stout heart, you can reach the end of Cardigan's journey and find what really lies in Dr Archer's lair, and/or in the dark recesses of Cardigan's mind. I've no doubt that The Orphan Palace is a significant modern horror novel, one that eschews the usual rigmarole of small town horrors, neatly-packaged for undemanding readers, in favour of a portrait of an entire society through the unblinking eyes of a dangerous and damaged individual. Put another way, it's a remarkable book, but not an ideal Christmas gift for your maiden aunt. Longer and much more insightful reviews are here and here.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

The Awakening

I heartily recommend this film. See it if you can. Some critics have been sniffy or dismissive - ignore them and see for yourself. Firstly, it's a very powerful and moving drama that happens to have a supernatural core. Secondly, it's well-acted, visually superb, and genuinely surprising.

The central premise - as you can see from the trailer - is a simple one. After the Great War and the influenza epidemic killed millions, there was an upsurge in Spiritualism. Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is a tenacious debunker of false mediums, hauntings and all things spooky - indeed, by her strictly rationalistic definition, all mediums are false and all ghosts must be hoaxes. And she's got the trip-wire cameras, differential thermometers and EM field detectors to prove it.

The action begins with a good recreation of a seance and shows just how astute Florence is. Enter a history teacher (Dominic West), inviting the brilliant Miss Cathcart to a boarding school in the wilds of Cumbria where, he claims, the boys are being terrorised by a ghost. Indeed, one boy has died... The matron of the school (Imelda Staunton, no less) is a great admirer of Miss Cathcart's books - perhaps she could help?

This is, I suppose, an example of what academics call 'heritage cinema' - the period detail is wonderful, it's set in a big posh house, and of course we get a steam train, vintage cars and all the trappings of the inter-war years. It's not surprising to see BBC Films on the credits. But it is not Downton Abbey with spooks. This is a story of lonely, scarred people who live in fear and pain. Every major character is haunted by more than ghosts, and eventually Florence is compelled to face a truth about herself which is more disturbing than anything the next world can offer. The title is a clue to the revelation, but I suspect few will guess the truth.

As the film works logically - albeit very deviously - towards its conclusion, there are plenty of tributes to other haunted house movies, and indeed to literary ghost stories. At times you can almost hear writer Stephen Volk chuckling to himself as he throws in a hint of this, a bit of that. The overall mood is somewhere between The Orphanage and The Innocents, with a touch of Robert Aickman. But the Awakening stands on its own merits - a ghost story that makes you jump, certainly, but also moves you in more subtle ways.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

In the Night - In the Dark

In The Night In The Dark - 9781780920504

The title of Roger Johnson's new collection of ghostly and weird stories is taken from the script of that excellent Robert Wise movie The Haunting. Fans will recall that when Eleanor Lance arrives at Hill House the far-from-jolly housekeeper, Mrs Dudley, emphasises that she will only be present by day. Nobody from town will come out to Hill House in the night - in the dark. And that sums up much of the appeal of these stories, in which the sinister and unearthly is often foreshadowed by the most commonplace remarks and observations.

Roger Johnson is a native of Chelmsford in Essex, and his love for that corner of England (and the wider region of East Anglia) shines through in these stories. It is indeed a lovely part of the world, and one that provided much inspiration to Dr Montague Rhodes James. Roger Johnson is a writer in the Jamesian tradition, certainly in terms of setting - here are village inns, little churches, country houses and the like. But the author is his own man, and in terms of ideas he gives MRJ a run for his money.

The first section of the book, 'Things that Go Bump in the Night' comprises stories from the Sarob volume. They are tales from the The Endeavour, an old-fashioned English pub where various characters pop in to tell their stories to the regulars. This is a framing narrative reminiscent of Margery Lawrence's Nights of the Round Table, and the stories are of a similarly high quality - by turns funny, moving and chilling, and always inventive.

Friday 11 November 2011

On general release - a ghost story

Co-written by Stephen 'Ghostwatch' Volk, this promises to be a good 'un. I'll certainly be going to see it. So there.

For Remembrance Day

Corporal Stare

Back from the line one night in June,
I gave a dinner at Bethune—
Seven courses, the most gorgeous meal
Money could buy or batman steal.
Five hungry lads welcomed the fish
With shouts that nearly cracked the dish;
Asparagus came with tender tops,
Strawberries in cream, and mutton chops.
Said Jenkins, as my hand he shook,
“They’ll put this in the history book.”
We bawled Church anthems in choro
Of Bethlehem and Hermon snow,
With drinking songs, a jolly sound
To help the good red Pommard round.
Stories and laughter interspersed,
We drowned a long La Bassée thirst—
Trenches in June make throats damned dry.
Then through the window suddenly,
Badge, stripes and medals all complete,
We saw him swagger up the street,
Just like a live man—Corporal Stare!
Stare! Killed last May at Festubert.
Caught on patrol near the Boche wire,
Torn horribly by machine-gun fire!
He paused, saluted smartly, grinned,
Then passed away like a puff of wind,
Leaving us blank astonishment.
The song broke, up we started, leant
Out of the window—nothing there,
Not the least shadow of Corporal Stare,
Only a quiver of smoke that showed
A fag-end dropped on the silent road.
Robert Graves 

Monday 7 November 2011

Spooky British magazine covers

An excellent site, Visco, has lots of pulp sf, adventure and mystery magazine covers. Phantom magazine is a new title on me, but it's interesting to note that somebody once tried to produce a British equivalent to Weird Tales, and even used some WT content.
It ran for 16 issues in 1957-8 and was published successively by Vernon Publcations, Dalrow publications and Pennine Publications though, as these were all based in Bolton, Lancs, it is likely that they were connected. It had as sister publications the Creasey Mystery Magazine (later, under different ownership, John Creasey Mystery Magazine) and Combat, bizarrely advertised inside the cover of one issue of Phantom as the GOOD War Story Magazine. It isn't clear whether the wars were good, or the stories.

Friday 4 November 2011

M.R. James again

At the Daily Telegraph site, a good review of the OUP edition of MRJ's Collected Ghost Stories. It's an intelligent appreciation of the Jamesian canon.
Often imitated but never bettered, they have in the ensuing century proved themselves to be some of the most influential supernatural fiction in English. If H P Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe stand at the root of one enduring tradition — the American weird tale, with its madness and horrors, its alien gods, science-fictional conceits and agonised lunatic protagonists — James’s work set the benchmark for that rarer and more haunting form: the English ghost story. 
If the weird tale aims to horrify or astound, the ghost story aims to haunt. Perhaps James’s greatest contribution to the form was to discard the overwrought psycho religious chiaroscuro of the Gothic horror tale and to coax the starkest of supernatural horrors from everyday settings and props. But such writing depends to a great degree on form, and, as subsequent practitioners have found, it is far easier to admire than to imitate: few since James have managed so consistent an output.

Roger Johnson's New Book!

In The Night, In The Dark -Tales of Ghosts and Less Welcome Visitors
I've just received a review copy of the splendid new pb collection of stories (and poems) by Roger Johnson. It's available from MX Publishing. The price is £13.99.

I've met Roger a few times and had the pleasure of hearing him read 'A Vignette' in the church at Great Livermere, when we were among the M.R. James enthusiasts attending the dedication of a plaque to the great ghost story writer.

There are many good ghost story writers, I'm glad to say, but I think Roger has been rather overlooked as a worthy successor and disciple of James. There's a balance of erudition, humour, action and characterisation in a first-rate ghost story. The fact that an editor as distinguished as the late Karl Edward Wagner chose three of Roger's stories for anthologies tells you how good they are.

I ought to add that Roger Johnson is emphatically not an M.R. James pastiche-merchant. There's a whole section of stories here that are very much in the tradition of Lovecraft and other 'weird' authors, including - surprisingly enough - Oscar Wilde. What's more, Roger excels in the very short story of a few telling pages, making this an ideal book to dip into.

In this volume you'll find all the stories that appeared in the 2001 Sarob Press collection A Ghostly Crew, plus many extra tales. There's also the humorous saga of John R. Hero (an idiot whose paranormal investigations are really handled by his lovely assistant), and the aforementioned poems.

So, that's my autumn reading sorted, more or less. I will of course post a review here in due course, and include it in the next issue of the magazine.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Nunkie Fun

Went to Belsay Hall on Saturday, Sunday and Monday evenings to hear Robert Lloyd Parry perform six ghost stories by M.R. James. As a friend remarked when I first attended a Nunkie Theatre production last year at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle, this is as close as you can get to hearing Monty James himself read his stories. Or is it? As another friend remarked last night, James may not have been such a good reader of his own work.

Anyway, the point is that Belsay Hall is, in theory, the ideal place for ghost story readings, but in fact is somewhat deficient as a setting. This is because the hall is a fine old house, but is completely unfurnished, the interior having been gutted a long time ago. So RLP performed in the library before a fireplace, but there were no books, no fire, and indeed no carpet, just a few rows of wooden seats arranged in semicircles. Given this far from ideal atmosphere, he did extremely well.

The whole long weekend was billed as The M.R. James Trilogy, a slight misnomer as in fact six stories were on offer. The first two, 'Canon Alberic's Scrap Book' and 'The Mezzotint' are available on DVD, as are the last two - 'A Warning to the Curious' and 'Lost Hearts'. The middle two stories, performed on Sunday (my birthday, as it happened) were ''Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad'' and 'The Ash-Tree'. The stories are paired up nicely, you'll notice - 'The Mezzotint' is a sort of sequel to 'Canon Alberic...'; 'Warning' and 'Lost Hearts' are both about ancient rituals and the violence in them has a great immediacy; in ''Oh Whistle...' and 'The Ash-Tree' both deal (more or less) with black magic within a traditional framework - that of witchcraft in the latter, and the alleged antics of the Knights Templar in the latter.

These are all first-rate stories in their own right - all of them play well because they combine the Jamesian ingredients of gentle humour, telling detail, neat little sketches of place and persons, and some truly nasty revelations. RLP gave it the Full Monty (so to speak) with the death scene in 'The Ash-Tree' and poor Paxton's mental turmoil in 'Warning'. Audience members who didn't know what was coming did indeed jump in their seats at some key moments.

I think my friend Mike and I were the only ones to go to all three shows. Indeed, each night's 'crowd' (at most thirty people, perhaps) was a little different. Thus on Sunday there were a couple of girls in Hallowe'en gear, complete with green make-up. The first show attracted - I think - a more literary gang, while the actual Hallowe'en performance was quite mixed. I wondered, as always, whether people had come expecting horror stories with nice simple shocks, and how many were familiar with the writings of Dr James?

The main problem with a performance in a large-ish unfurnished room is the echo. RLP's approach to the stories is 'chatty' - he takes on the role of the scholarly author who is telling a story to a group of friends, and quite emphatically not reading (as MRJ did). The bookless library's acoustics sometimes made the stories hard to follow - I definitely heard the green-faced girls having the plot of the 'Ash-Tree' explained to them by their mother, and it is quite a straightforward plot.

That said, RLP has a remarkable presence and is tremendously convincing in character. He is a time-traveller from the Edwardian era, offering the modern audience a glimpse of an era that might not have been more civilized as a whole, but which undeniably valued the quiet pleasures of a l;iterate civilization more than we can. But don't take my word for anything - get yourself to a Nunkie production and find out for yourself. Here's a brief sample:

Be told!

Edgar Wright's tribute to the trailers we all recall.

The Monkey Mirror & Other Stories

There's a long tradition of supernatural stories about animals - by which I mean 'real' animals, not unicorns, dragons, basilisks and what have you. Le Fanu did a good job with a monkey in 'The Familiar', and E.F. Benson's 'Caterpillars' has the authentic chill factor. If we expand our scope to include the Gothic tale we have Poe's domestic horror 'The Black Cat'. Out in the wilds there's 'The Green Wildebeest' by John Buchan, and a few others. However, animal ghosts, or ghostly animals, remain a relative rarity. So Elsa Wallace's collection The Monkey Mirror is a distinct curiosity, as all fourteen stories are about animals.

Are animals as scary as people? That's problematic, for me. The traditional ghost story focuses on death and what may survive death. Animals are (again, traditionally) the 'beasts that perish'. But why shouldn't they have souls, or psychic residues, or whatever? The rather facetious answer is that animals simply don't have the kind of motivation to come back and terrify people that motivates dead humans. There's the more sophisticated answer that ghost stories are about the very human perception of, and fearful fascination with, our own mortality, and that animal ghosts distance us from this.

But to hell with it, I'm just going to leap gracefully over all such objections - having noted them - and give you some idea what these stories are like. Firstly, some of them are set in the old colonial days of empire, with tales of Rhodesia, South Africa and other areas that were once pink on the school globe. The title story is one of the most effective tales, because little is really explained about the baleful mirror itself. It is sufficiently ambiguous to be memorable, and this is true of other colonial tales such as 'A View of the Sea', 'Different on the Ground' and 'Kalingwa'.

There are also some enjoyable stories set in Britain, though the settings and characters here are arguably less strongly evoked than those of the African tales. The ideas are just as good, though. 'Horse Power' offers a clever commentary on 'The Turn of the Screw' before offering us evidence of an equine ghost - a bit bonkers, really, but fun. The same could be said for 'Pink Feet' (pigeons) and 'I Can Hear a Cat Cry'.

For me some of the weaker stories are those that beat the animal rights drum very loudly. Yes, I think the fur trade and bullfighting are barbaric, but the stories on those subjects here do little more than state a position I happen to agree with. Altogether better is the nightmarish horror of 'The Other Room', in which someone who has not been nice to animals (or indeed people) gets a comeuppance that involves some rather unusual interior decor.

Overall, The Monkey Mirror is an above-average collection, with a handful of outstanding stories and perhaps one or two duds. That's rather good going, and I look forward to Elsa Wallace's forthcoming collection of 'human ghost stories'.

Monday 31 October 2011

Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindo, 1968)

Almost forgot this ghost/cat/samurai/sexy/martial arts movie. Might watch this now in fact...

Grauniad's Halloween Quiz

(Note - The Guardian was once dubbed The Grauniad because of its notorious proofreading problems. End of historical factoid.)

Anyway, The Grauniad has this Halloween quiz in which you get multiple choice questions, so it's easy to guess a few of 'em. Which is why I got 8 out of 10, hah.

The Raven: Read by Christopher Walken

Spooky Toon for Halloween

Much obliged to Steve Duffy for this one...

Thursday 27 October 2011

Halloween Movie Finale - Best of British

The horror movie is to some extent an American creation, but there are plenty of fine examples from other countries. British horror cinema, at its best, draws on a rich heritage of literary ghost stories, an often bloody popular culture (Spring-Heeled Jack, Sweeney Todd, Jack the Ripper) and a solid tradition of 'serious' mainstream drama. At its best the Brit horror flick is original, disturbing and oddly exhilarating. It's also rather intimate - without a big budget, you can still get a very good actor talking to a dummy and sending shivers up/down/along your spine. Dead of Night (1945) is the first and arguably the best portmanteau spooky movie, and while it creaks in places it's climactic tale is still powerful.

We move on to a Hammer film that's firmly in the science fiction genre - except for the black magic, the demons, the poltergeist activity, and the contact with 'spiritual evil'. Quatermass and the Pit (1967) is arguably the best British sci-fi movie, but it's chock-full of supernatural ingredients that are more-or-less explained (but not made any less potent) by TV legend Nigel Kneale's rather Lovecraftian screenplay. (The film also poses what I like to think of as The Mystery of the Nonexistent Pentacle, but I'd better keep that to myself.)

No mention of supernatural horror in British cinema can omit the only feature film explicitly based on a story by M.R. James. 1957's Night of the Demon (or Curse of the Demon in the US edited version) is controversial because it breaks the golden rule, that you don't reveal your monster straight away. But even if you dislike that aspect of the movie, it's admirable in so many other ways that it's enduring status as a classic seems assured. It is also enlivened by Ealing comedy-style humour that - as in this scene - makes the dark central theme all the more powerful. I defy anyone not to smile during 'Cherry Ripe', but things go quickly from the absurd to the genuinely eerie.

Halloween Movie Ideas 7 - Ringu

The movie that started the Asian horror boom. Genuinely disturbing and owing something - at times - to M.R. James (the central idea of the living picture, plus the 'thing' with long hair, not to mention a scene down a well).

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Halloween Movie Ideas 5 - Blood from the Mummy's Tomb

Halloween is a Hammer-y time of the year, and who doesn't like a bit of Ancient Egyptian folderol, complete with a severed hand that crawls about a bit?

Monday 24 October 2011

Halloween Movie Ideas 4 - The Last Broadcast

This was released before Blair Witch, and is vastly superior to it IMHO. A modern media tale of terror, with found footage of an expedition to find the fabled Jersey Devil. This is, for me, one scary movie, despite a notable lack of gore. 

Sunday 23 October 2011

Halloween Movie Ideas 3 - Tales of Terror

Not just Vincent Price, but also Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre in three Poe stories. It's played for laughs at times and camped up a bit, but is great fun. Not Roger Corman's best, perhaps, but one of the jolliest.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Halloween Movie Ideas 2 - The Fog

John Carpenter's classic, remade recently as forgettable tosh. If you like ghost leper pirates and Jamie Lee Curtis, not to mention Adrienne Barbeau, this is one for you.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Hairy hands...

Just been to see the Mervyn Peake exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle. It's fascinating, and offers quite a rich selection of the artist/author/poet's book illustrations. As well as drawings for the Gormenghast novels and other of his own works, Peake illustrated several classics. The pictures on show are for Treasure Island, The Hunting of the Snark, Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Each illustration is accompanied by the usual little notice telling you something about it, and in the case of the classics they often include quotes from the books. In the case of Jekyll, one is particularly interesting. Peake - after some preliminary attempts - decided not to show Hyde's face, because it's described as pure evil (always tricky to draw, I'd guess) and also because nobody who sees it can remember much else about it. So in the drawings actually used for the book we never see Hyde's face, only his back or his hands. The passage that struck me as familiar is a description of Hyde's hand on the bedclothes, and is taken from Chapter 10. The hand is described as:
...corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor and thickly shaded with a swart growth...
This struck me as familiar. I have of course read Stevenson's story, but it bears a strong resemblance to an even more familiar tale:
Pale, dusky skin, covering nothing but bones and tendons of appalling strength; coarse black hairs, longer than ever grew on a human hand; nails rising from the ends of the fingers and curving sharply down and forward, grey, horny and wrinkled.
From 'Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book', by M.R. James. This has probably been pointed out before. But I'm sure the young Monty James read his fare share of Stevenson, and it would be surprising if some images - especially the scary ones - hadn't taken root.

Here's the famous McBryde illustration for the story.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Review: A Bracelet of Bright Hair

The first collection of ghost stories by Jane Jakeman has just been published by Sarob Press in a fine volume illustrated by the always excellent Paul Lowe. (At time of writing, the book was still available from various dealers listed on the Sarob blog - check the link.)

Two of the eight stories have appeared in ST, three appeared in Ghosts & Scholars, and one in All Hallows. The other two stories consist of one that is wholly new and another that's only appeared on the author's website.

So, what kind of a collection do we have hear? Firstly, these are academic ghost stories by an archaeologist with an Oxford pedigree. Traditionally Oxford is seen as more 'establishment' than the artier Cambridge. Prime ministers come from Oxford, satirists from its great rival. For my money, any establishment that produces leading politicians must have gone over to the dark side a long time ago, and these stories tend to confirm that opinion.

That said, the academic world presented here is not un-cosy, at least at first. In 'Vrykolakas', a young English (in both senses) student with a taste for Webster goes to Greece with his archaeologist girlfriend to work on a dig on an island. The blinding light and black shadows of the region are well-evoked in a story rich in detail. The vrykolakas, we learn, is a reanimated corpse but not a vampire, because it is very unsporting and does not play according to the rules. It is also quite vindictive and remorseless when pursuing those who disturb its resting place.

Another long-ish story, 'Survival of the Fittest', is an unusual historical piece. Set in the mid-Victorian era, its protagonist - an ineffectual but well-meaning man of science - attends the celebrated debate on Darwin's theory between T.H. Huxley and Bishop 'Soapy Sam' Wilberforce. Possessed by the idea of seeing evolution in action in human society, our man takes up residence in a grim tavern in London's Seven Dials. he sees more than he bargained for, of this world and another. The denouement of this story is one of the most unusual I've come across.

It's one thing to re-create a Victorian ambience, quite another to tackle the language of late Elizabethan England, but that's what Jakeman does in 'Neon'. Here she intercuts scenes from modern life with a distinctly nasty narrative from the Oxford of 1602, when a young homeless woman who falls victim to the casual cruelty of her time. In modern Oxford a young man embarks on a quest to find a young homeless woman when he becomes haunted by an odd smell of burning...

Compared to 'Neon', 'Lock Me Out!' is a rather jolly story, set at Christmas in a university library. Admittedly the Yuletide cheer is somewhat vitiated by the focus on leaping buboes and other festering ailments of yesteryear, but it's the thought that counts. Anyone who's ever been alone in an old library will appreciate the lovingly-evoked atmosphere of this one.

'River' is altogether more sombre in tone, a very short story that powerfully evokes an island in the Isis, its embittered resident, and a visitor who will never leave. As a description of the 'Why' of a haunting it is economical and effective. The same can be said for 'The Edge of the Knife', in which an ancient college kitchen is the scene of some unorthodox culinary activity that resonates down the centuries. Students, eh?

'Adoptagrave', the second ST story, is another short and light piece, cast in a familiar mould - unwary woman goes into country church, meets someone a little odd, and finds herself involved with local history in a far from pleasant way. What makes it original is the central idea and the way the pay-off stems naturally from the character's somewhat un-romantic attitude to a former lover.

'The House With No History' is another substantial story, and rings the changes on the haunted house theme very successfully. Most of the story is told by an elderly lady in a tea shop, but there is nothing quaint or traditional about the phenomenon that afflicts visitors to Darkedge House. A very satisfying sense of unease - of things 'not quite right' - comes over the reader. I did guess the 'solution' to the mystery before the end, mind you, but perhaps I have a warped imagination.

In her Afterword, Jane Jakeman remarks that Le Fanu's 'Narrative of the Ghost of a Hand' is her favourite supernatural story. That's a rather quirky choice, but it is a very good story and one that combines the weird with the familiar to great effect. The same came be said of all these stories.

Saturday 15 October 2011

Irish Ghosts on Stage

The Irish playwright Conor McPherson is, I suspect, unique in having written several ghost stories for the stage that have been taken seriously as 'proper' modern theatre. I can recommend Shining City, The Weir, and The Seafarer (I was privileged to see Jim Norton star in the latter). His latest, The Veil, is also ghostly in content, but I've yet to have the opportunity to see it. In the non-supernatural vein I can also recommend Port Authority, a moving triple-stranded tale of Dublin life. Shining City is a particularly interesting example of the sub-genre that goes 'psychiatrist talks to man who claims to see ghost'. The ending is extremely memorable.

Here's another video, which gives some flavour of the playwright's work. You can probably guess who this gentleman is.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Curfew Reviewed!

Having greatly enjoyed Curfew and other Eerie Tales, let me again recommend this fine volume from Swan River Press. It's unusual in that, as well as offering a small selection of short stories, it also contains the author's only play. Lucy M. Boston was obviously interested in the witch mania that beset this country in the 17th century, and 'The Horned Man' is a remarkably economical treatment of the theme. Set in a small rural manor house, it shows how the crazy logic of the persecutors (if there are accusations, there must be witches) plays into the hands of genuine evil.

Not everyone enjoys reading plays, but for me there's something refreshing and direct about a story told almost wholly through dialogue. The script - intended from an amateur company - is straightforward and doesn't mire the reader in flummery-tushery dialogue. Instead Boston employs clean, direct language to show how a culture of suspicion and terror turns people against one another. There's a lot of dark humour in 'The Horned Man', plus a genuinely disturbing climax. It's a great pity that she didn't write more for the stage.

Of the stories, the most famous is 'Curfew' and I think it's success is well-deserved. It has all the ingredients of the classic ghost story - ancient artefacts, a lurking figure, the gradual build-up towards the final horror. But it also has that special charm of the nostalgic story, the tale of childhood remembered, with all its joys and terrors. In this respect it comes close to the M.R. James' model of the ghost story. The conclusion, however, is rather more direct than that of the good provost.

'Pollution', one of the unpublished stories, is altogether different. It's a post-war tale of an undergraduate who takes up the post of tutor to a disabled boy, who lives in a rural area rapidly falling victim to industrialisation. Boston was clearly ahead of the game with regard to what we now call green issues. Her account of strange and rather disgusting creatures turning up in the water supply straddles the bounds between horror and science fiction. Again, the climax is very well handled.'

'Blind Man's Buff' is different again. It's account of unpleasant shenanigans involving an English gentleman and a native mountain guide owe a little to Kipling or Rider Haggard, but the overall tone resembles that of H.R. Wakefield. Again there's a harsh, unforgiving undertone to the story, with the reader left wondering exactly where justice lies in a world where such horrific supernatural retribution is possible.

'Many Coloured Glass' is a bit lighter in tone, at least at first. It's a timely story, too, with its account of somewhat scruffy protesters denouncing the excesses of the wealthy. There is a very good set piece involving one of those mechanical toys that provide writers with so many nightmarish possibilities. This is how Aickman would have written if he'd had slightly more straightforward dreams.

'The Italian Desk', the third unpublished tale, falls into the fine old tradition of 'somebody went stark-staring bonkers in this house, but we don't talk about it. Well, since you insist...' That said, it's a very good variant on the theme, thanks to Boston's gift for economical description. As in 'Curfew', the growing influence of something ancient and best left undisturbed is conveyed perfectly. Indeed, I much prefer this story to 'The Tiger-Skin Rug', which - while enjoyable enough - has a rather obvious plot. (Or am I alone in thinking that Mr Sathanos is not a very subtle name for a baddie?)

Overall, this handsome volume is a good read and (for me) a good introduction to a writer whose fiction passed me by when I was a wee lad. It's a pity I didn't encounter Lucy M. Boston;s books at a more impressionable age, as she was a first-rate storyteller. As Robert Lloyd Parry observes in his introduction, her 'debt to James runs deep', but she had her own unique voice. It's a pity that voice can only be heard in a handful of ghost stories.

Also survived encounter with yetis...

Thursday 6 October 2011

Remember the competition...

Legendary editor Rosemary Pardoe is holding a competition to write a prequel/sequel to an M.R. James ghost story. Just a reminder that anyone can enter and the story doesn't need to be in the style of MRJ, which is probably just as well for all you trendy modern writers.

Here's what Ro says on her blog:

Following the very satisfying level of interest in the "Merfield Hall/House" and "The Game of Bear" story competitions (for the texts of the winning entries, see recent Newsletters), I'd been considering the possibility of a third competition when Dan McGachey came up with the suggestion that writers might like to produce sequels to MRJ's completed tales. All the people I've sounded out about this agree with me that it's a fine idea, but I want to extend it to include prequels too. Of course, there have already been examples of sequels - David Sutton's "Return to the Runes" in the second issue of G&S, for instance - but there are still plenty of possibilities. What happened to the 'satyr' (or 'satyrs') after the end of "An Episode of Cathedral History"? Are the lanes of Islington still frequented by whatever it was that Dr Abell encountered in "Two Doctors". What is left of the residue of the atrocities in "An Evening's Entertainment"; and do Count Magnus and his little friend still lurk at a certain crossroads in Essex? As for prequels, I for one would like to know what sort of treasure Canon Alberic found, how it was guarded, and the details of his death in bed of a sudden seizure. And what exactly was James Wilson's belief system, which prompted him to have his ashes placed in the globe in the centre of Mr Humphreys' maze: what is the significance of the figures on the globe - was Wilson a member of a Gnostic sect? Need I go on? I'm sure you can think of many more mysteries and questions that demand to be solved and answered.
I must emphasise that any competition entry which is just a revamp or parody of the plot of the chosen story is unlikely to be placed very highly. I'm looking for something more original than that. There is no necessity to confine yourself to Jamesian pastiche or to attempt to write in the James style. But there are no other rules aside from the usual ones: I will not look kindly on entries which have been simultaneously submitted elsewhere; the word count is entirely up to you (within reason!); and you can send your manuscript either in hard-copy or preferably as a Word (pre-Vista) or RichText file on e-mail attachment or CD-Rom. The competition is open to everyone, not just Newsletter readers.
The winning story will be published in the first Newsletter of 2012, and there will be a £40 prize for the author, along with a one-year subscription or extension. If I receive enough good, publishable entries, Robert Morgan of Sarob Press has expressed considerable interest in producing a hardback book containing all the best ones (to be edited and introduced by me). This is exciting news, but it's up to you to make it happen. If there are not enough quality stories to fill a book, then the best runners-up will appear in the Newsletter (and receive a one-year sub extension) as with previous competitions.
The competition deadline is December 31st, 2011.

Monday 3 October 2011

ST20 on the way

The latest issue of Supernatural Tales is being posted out this week, and indeed some subscribers' copies have already been sent. I noted the contents in an earlier post. I hope everyone enjoys the selection of stories - all new, all interesting, and of course all good for my money.

Supernatural Tales 20

Saturday 1 October 2011

Shadows & Tall Trees

Issue 2 of this excellent annual Canadian magazine is selling out rapidly. S&TT is dedicated to 'quiet, literary horror fiction'. The second issue demonstrates that the category is a very broad and interesting one. Excluding the easy cop-out of visceral cruelty requires an author to use their imagination. The result is a very diverse range of stories. Editor Michael Kelly is to be congratulated on attracting such an eclectic group of contributors.

Thus the first story, Richard Harland's 'At the Top of the Stairs', might almost be a gritty realist account of a family in crisis. Two children are left in an apartment at the top of a grim tenement building while mother goes out to work. Father has departed in troubling circumstances. When mother is out a man climbs the stairs and knocks on the door. Will be gain admittance? As with all such stories told from the perspective of children, there is something nightmarish about the timeless simplicity of the tale.

'Back Among the Shy Trees' by Steve Rasnic Tem is even more disturbing. Again, a kind of grubby realism prevails as a man called Tyler returns to his childhood home. This is rural horror, with the careful accumulation of detail suggesting that protagonist Tyler suffered something more than an unhappy childhood. The story earns its final shocks, and is slightly Lovecraftian in theme if not tone. Tyler's father belonged to a strange clan, and we eventually realise that his approach to child rearing was more than a little unorthodox. The power of memory, and memory's deceit, are arguably the most horrific ingredients here.

'Memento Mori' by Sunny Moraine is different again, with a magic realist (or is the narrator bonkers?) approach. Someone finds a skull on a beach. It's their own. Does this mean they are confronted with their mortality, or do they just have a really interesting talking point? It's a nicely-crafted story, but not quite my cup of tea. 'Voices Carry' by Eric Schaller also takes a surreal route. Two couples argue about infidelity and their words are transformed into stinging insects. As a metaphor for the irrational desire people feel to make a bad situation worse it works well enough.

'The Candle' by Ian Rogers is altogether more traditional, at least at first. A couple getting ready for bed argue over who should go downstairs and put out the candle that may have been left burning. Any number of early 20th century stories began in much the same way. What Rogers does is transform a slightly uneasy domestic situation into something darker - in both senses of the term - as Tom goes in search of Peggy, and finds her. Or finds someone.

From darkness to sunlight, with British author Alison J. Littlewood. 'The Pool' is another example of what might be termed 'relationship horror'. The newly-single Joan stays with her brother's family, and awkwardness ensues. But is Joan's sense of dislocation solely responsible for a nightmare about her beloved nephew Harry? One can interpret the pool in this story in any number of clever ways, but in the end it remains a powerful image in an above-average tale of the horrors that loneliness and confusion can inflict on the innocent.

Last but not least is 'The Devil's Music', by Louis Marvick. Here is the traditional ghostly tale, alive and well in the 21st century, and certainly not apologising for its splendid roll-call of traditional ingredients. An ancient, mysterious artefact? Check. Eccentric academics who 'go to far'? Check. A genuinely interesting idea founded on some obscure scholarship? Oh yes. It's a cracking good read, and a reminder that literary horror has deep roots.

As well as the stories, this issue contains some pity film reviews by Tom Goldstein, and Adam Golaski's trenchant critique of a new 'quiet horror' anthology.

Friday 30 September 2011

Curfew and Other Eerie Tales

Swan River Press in Dublin has just published this very elegant volume of stories by Lucy M. Boston, who is best known for her Green Knowe children's books. Boston's work has rather passed me by, but as Robert Lloyd Parry explains in his introduction this is partly because she published few ghost stories. I noted with great interest that, as well as unpublished tales, this volume includes a play - a Jacobean drama of witch-hunting entitled 'The Horned Man' (no relation). You can mosey on over to Swan River and order a copy. You might also care to purchase a CD of Mr Parry reading 'Curfew' and 'The Tiger Skin Rug'. It can be ordered from Nunkie Productions, along with many other interesting things. Now I must settle down to read the rest of the stories, and that intriguing play...

Tuesday 27 September 2011

A Bracelet of Bright Hair

Sarob Press is about to publish a volume of stories by Jane Jakeman. Two of the stories in A Bracelet of Bright Hair - 'Vrykolakas' and 'Adoptagrave' - first appeared in ST. If the others are of the same standard, and I'm sure they are, this will be another winner from Sarob. Find out more here. But if you can't be bothered to click, here's a cut-and-paste description:

Jane Jakeman: A Bracelet of Bright Hair

Eight dark, terror-filled ghostly stories, perfect for the long winter nights to come … someJamesian, some not – all pleasingly traditional. You'll want to sleep with the lights on. If you can sleep … The title is a quotation from “The Relic” by John Donne.
Jane Jakeman is the author of Death in the South of FranceDeath at Versailles and the Lord Ambrose Malfine historical crime novels. She lives in Oxford where some of the stories in A Bracelet of Bright Hair are set.
Jane's ghostly fiction has been previously published in Ghosts & ScholarsAll Hallows &Supernatural Tales. This is her first collection of ghost/supernatural stories.
Stories: “Vrykolakas” “Lock Me Out!” “Neon” “River” “Survival of the Fittest” “The Edge of the Knife” “The House with No History” and “Adoptagrave”.
Afterword by Jane Jakeman. Illustrations by Paul Lowe.
Limited Edition Hardcover. Printed Boards. Edition limited to 150 numbered copies.
Limitation will be reviewed if pre-publication interest suggests a larger print run is appropriate.

UK: UK £22-50    Europe: 27-50 euros    USA & Rest of World: US $39-50

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Ice Age

Ice Age

I've just reviewed Iain Rowan's new Kindle eBook on Amazon, and thought I'd share it here. Iain's story 'The Walker on the Wall' appeared in ST7 and a new story of his will feature in ST21. In the meantime, you could try this excellent collection and give a boost to an author who deserves to be better known. Here's the review:

Iain Rowan is a rising star of what's loosely termed the horror genre, though perhaps 'chiller' would be a more apt term for the stories in this remarkable collection. The collection is arguably linked by a common theme of loss and isolation - Rowan's protagonists are usually lost in some way; to society, to loved ones, to hope, to themselves. 
Thus in the first story, 'Lilies', the protagonists is a solder in a nameless city riven by what may be civil war. It rapidly emerges that the conflict is at least in part about conflicting attitudes to the dead, who in this world can come back to us - but only for a while. A similar war-torn cityscape, suggestive of the break up of Yugoslavia, features in 'Here Comes the New Way', with its bizarre religious cult, and 'Sighted', a tale of a sniper among ghosts. Altogether closer to home (which for Rowan is northern England) 'The Call' focuses tightly on a man wounded by bereavement who moves to the coast to try and forget his wife and child. On a headland path he meets an odd-job man who talks of the call of the sea. Descriptive passages of the fog-bound shore are as good as anything in the traditional English ghost story, but the conclusion is altogether more modern and ambiguous. 
Different again is 'Through the Window', a simple cautionary tale of a man who wonders about a woman who seems to be trapped in a derelict house. 'Driving in circles' has a nice, Twilight Zone feel, with a bickering couple realising that they have driven too far off the beaten track. A darker mood pervades 'The Circular Path', in which a man decides to investigate a childhood trauma and solves a mystery - unfortunately. 
But it's the title story - the last in the book - which stands out as a superbly-crafted tale on the borderlands of social realism. A man's conviction that a new ice age is coming is a powerful metaphor for the bleakness of a disintegrating life. The character's name is Coppard, a reference to one of the unjustly neglected masters of the English short story. I hope Iain Rowan gets the recognition that is his due. 

Tuesday 20 September 2011

ST20 Cover and Contents

The new page has just gone up - this is it, basically.

Out soon (as in, early October), this latest issue contains 99 pages, most of them filled with stories by:

Daniel Mills
Andrew Kolarik
Brian Day
Katherine Haynes
Michael Chislett

Fans of Mike Chislett's work might like to know that his story, 'The Friends of Faustina', features two familiar characters getting involved - yet again - with naughty beings of the feminine persuasion.

Cover: 'Breach' by Stephen J. Clark

Supernatural Tales 20

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Leslie Nielsen and M.R. James

I'm working on ST20 and - with a bit of luck - should be mailing out copies at the end of the month-ish. Certainly be with subscribers in time for Hallowe'en, which is my cunning plan.

Meanwhile, wouldn't you like to see an early TV adaptation of 'The Tractate Middoth' starring Leslie Nielsen? Of course you would. It's just over 20 mins long and should, I feel, be watched in a darkened room at twilight. But each to his or her own...

Wednesday 31 August 2011

Quiet Houses

Shadows gathered around his feet and under the tables nearby, pools of dirty light through which the floor glimmered, the tiles ill-formed and murky. He looked again at the recorder, at the time counter rolling implacably onwards, and thought again of Amy and the way she had of making the world feel brighter, lighter. “Who would I tell?” asked Wisher again, and Nakata couldn't answer him. Instead, he asked another question.

One of the greatest British movies was Dead of Night, which famously employed the portmanteau format for supernatural stories. If you haven't seen it (what's wrong with you?) the basic premise is simple: man arrives at country house, meets bunch of nice people, but gets nagging sensation that he's 'been here before' – in a dream. Guests are prompted by this to tell supposedly true stories of ghostly encounters. The film ends rather cleverly with a plot twist that makes perfect sense but also comes as a genuine surprise.

The portmanteau movie is a clever way to exploit the traditional short story format, which is where the best supernatural fiction tends to thrive. Put another way, how many novel-length ghost stories can you name? The early Seventies saw a veritable rash of portmanteau movies – Tales from the Crypt, Dr Terror's House of Horrors, From Beyond the Grave – and every now and again the format is revived, as in The Eye 10 (2005).

Modern horror writers tend to fight shy of the portmanteau approach. This is odd given that two of the greats produced examples – Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu used his Dr Hesselius as a linking narrator while Algernon Blackwood achieved his first commercial success with the John Silence stories. John Llewellyn Probert has produced a couple of fine portmanteau collections in recent years. But it's arguable that the format is hard to pull of successfully because it combines novelistic elements with what must be strong short stories. Also, what sort of framing narrative do you use to link the various tales? You can't just have some psychic expert careering from one mystery to another. Well, you can, but it might be better to have a well-drawn central character whose motives are more complex than poking about in the ectoplasm.

And this brings me, finally, to Simon Kurt Unsworth's Quiet Houses. The framing narrative seems – at first – fairly straightforward. Richard Nakata, an academic at a northern university, places an advert in a newspaper asking members of the public for examples of real-life hauntings. He then winnows out the hoaxers, time-wasters and general dross to compile a very short list of phenomena he deems worth investigating. Thus the first part of the book is taken up with a series of uncanny tales, some more horrific than others, but all satisfyingly disturbing.

The first ghost Nakata investigates (though to be fair, this probe consists largely of interviewing a haunted man) is that of a mysterious woman who seems to be the spirit of a hotel chambermaid. If that sounds fairly innocuous, think again. The sad female spectre brings with her a pall of unbearable misery, infecting everything around her. This is redolent of the kind of ghosts found in late Victorian and early 20th century stories.

Perhaps it's not entirely a coincidence, then, that that the next haunting takes us into the Lovecraftian era, with an altogether more nightmarish account of a run-down bungalow where Something Lurks. That's followed by a tale set in a seaside hotel which has a more 'modern' feel, not least because of its strong sexual theme. Then we're in a public lavatory, which is better (or worse) than it sounds and offers a commentary on our country's hidden, or underground, histories. It is also – or so I would argue – a very modern setting, because it wouldn't have been used by anyone before about 1970.

Thus Simon Kurt Unsworth takes us through the eras of horror, and he does it in form as well as content. The first story follows the classic pattern of 'live' narrator telling his story to another man in a public place, the second is taken from a thoroughly Lovecraftian handwritten manuscript that survives its author, while the third tale has a standard third-person narrator. The fourth tale sees Nakata himself at the scene of the haunting, using ghost-hunting technology. And that in turn sets up the final story, in which a group of people investigate a farm with a grisly reputation.

Each tale of a 'quiet house' (one where everyday quietude means the sounds from elsewhere can be heard) is interspersed with linking narratives that gradually reveal more about Nakata's character and situation. He has suffered a great loss; he is under pressure to get results; his motives are more than purely academic. (The phrase 'tell it to the judge' sprang inevitably to my mind.) We discover that an earlier attempt to probe a haunting went horribly wrong when Nakata's colleague tried to achieve spectacular results by unethical means.

Along the way the author elaborates on various theories of the paranormal, with a respectful nod to Nigel Kneale's Stone Tape concept. But are ghosts mere recordings, imprinted on the structure of some buildings, or is there truly something of us that survives death? Well, if you want to know what Nakata discovers you'll have to read this excellent book. I suspect you won't be disappointed by the conclusion, but whether you'll feel comfortable is another matter.

Quiet Houses will be published by Dark Continents later this year. It can be pre-ordered from their website.

Monday 29 August 2011

ST9 Sold Out

Sorry, folks, the last ever copy of ST9 has officially gone. It was a double-sized 'annual' issue, too, with a rather interesting three-eyed owl on the cover. But now it is sold out. I suppose this makes it a collector's item - there are around 150 or so copies out there. While I'm on the subject, ST8 is looking a mite thin on the ground, too.

Thursday 4 August 2011

Day Terrors

Edited with an introduction by Dru Pagliasotti
pp257; The Harrow Press 2011; ISBN-13 9780615406404

When I receive an unsolicited horror anthology, my heart does not sink. Nor, however, does it leap from my bosom in unrestrained joy and gambol round the living room – dear me, no. Firstly, ST is not a horror magazine, and secondly a lot of modern horror leaves me cold. Not disgusted, not morally outraged, just unmoved by variations on the same old themes and ideas. Recycling is fine for saving the planet, but it can doom a genre. Some horror writers do little more than describe a series of derivative schlocky movies  playing in their heads, and I just can't sit down with my popcorn and sit through the whole feature.

That said, Day Terrors has a fair number of stories that rise above genre cliché and cardboard characters. Of these, a decent number are supernatural. And, though Harrow Press is a California outfit, I was pleased to find that some of the best supernatural tales here came from British writers. Perhaps the most traditional of all, Jack Bowdren's 'No Sin Remains a Secret', is an excellent reworking of that old standard, 'vicar finds something nasty in church cellar'. In this case it's a rather surprising something, and the author deserves credit for genuinely surprising this reader with the direction he chose to take.

Another Brit, E(mma) C. Seaman, rounds off the book with her ghostly 'Sands of Time'. In the author notes she apologises for the low-key nature of the tale, but it is in fact an interesting example of the kind of ghost story that used to be called science fantasy, which – if well done, as it is here – needs no apology.

Lawrence Conquest also offers fantasy of a sort in 'A Day at the Beach'. Here a traditional idea, the discovery of a fabulous being, is ground by a gritty plot, making it a tale of disillusion. As the young girl in the story discovers, growing up often means failing to preserve that which is beautiful and unique.

Meanwhile, in Canada, something more unusual manifests itself in 'The Heat Has Fangs' by Trent Roman. As the title more than hints, in the hands of a skilful writer a supposedly natural phenomenon can be made to seem more sinister than any overtly monstrous entity. Ray Bradbury's classic 'The Wind' is the best example, but the idea of evil elements is under-used. Roman's story is a welcome edition to the sub-genre of 'meteorological horror'.

A goodly number of the authors here have produced what I think of as standard issue horror. But of those who go beyond the 'realistic' or psychological approach, a goodly number achieve interesting results. Harper Hull's 'Daddy Longlegs' is an excellent variation on the theme of childhood suffering embodied in a monstrous intruder. Hull's craftsmanship is first rate, and the same can be said of Adam Walter, whose story 'The Infatuate' is subtle, poetic and eludes simple explanation. This evocation of loneliness in modern urban society would have been spoiled by the intrusion of a monster, human or otherwise.

Overall, this is a pretty good anthology; I enjoyed it more than I expected, and it's always pleasing to come across new names who can really write. It should appeal to more broadminded ST readers; those of us who don't mind dipping our toes into the murky, roiling waters of the modern horror scene to see what comes up for a nibble.

Friday 29 July 2011

Worse Than Myself - Review

A somewhat late review, this, for the second edition of a remarkable book. Adam Golaski is a poet, and while many poets have written short stories relatively few have written tales of the supernatural. Walter de la Mare is generally considered to be the main man in this regard, but he is also deemed rather challenging – perhaps a bit too elliptical, seldom doing the decent thing and saying what he means. Stories like 'Crewe' and 'All Hallows' do not grab you by the throat. Well, here's another poet who shows no interest in writing slick horror stories that you forget as soon as you finish them. They make demands on the reader, and offer no simple pay-offs.

That said, the subject matter in Worse Than Myself is often very straightforward. A diverse bunch of passengers on a Greyhound bus have strange dreams heralding a nightmarish experience; a family stop for a break during a long drive and find a strange museum; someone goes to a party and hears talk of strange cults before making a disturbing discovery. But the style, the execution, the refusal to offer up a warmed-over and simple explanation or denouement – these are marks of quality in my book. (My book may be a rather obscure and dusty one, I admit.)

Reviewing a collection of short stories by a poet makes me feel inadequate. So let me try to construct a poem of sorts from the carefully-weighted phrases the poet has chosen to include. This is not an original idea. I believe it was pioneered by someone called Mo Truvay.

I listened to the radio for three days

Mathilda was on the ceiling

'Snow in December,' she said. 'How perfectly unusual.'

I listened to the radio for three days

People had driven out of Billings to get a better look at the star shower

Hanging from the trees are long, filmy shreds of white cloth

I listened to the radio for three days

'Some of the towns out here are riddled with underground passageways'

When the undergraduate dropped down onto all fours, its blond hair brushed the floor

pp212; Raw Dog Screaming Press 2008; £15.99 (hardcover) £7.99 (paperback)
ISBN 978-1-933293-66-0

Sunday 17 July 2011

Readability issues

Okay, somebody complained  that the blog is hard to read. So far as I can see it's easy to read with Firefox, Chrome and Opera. So maybe it's a problem with Internet Explorer, or perhaps Macs? Please let me know if you have problems with this, gentle reader. Assuming you can read this at all, of course.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Cold Hand in Mine

If I had to pick a favourite book by Robert Aickman, it would be Cold Hand in Mine. I suspect it will sell rather well, even to those of us who bought the original Tartarus two-volume Aickman, back in the day.

CHIM was the first book by Aickman I'd read, and I well remember seeing the Robinson paperback edition on a shelf in WH Smith's. I pondered whether to buy it, because it seemed to be outside the normal horror genre, but not fantasy or sf. I didn't buy it, but later found a library copy and finally encountered Aickman's strange dreams of... Well, what? Life, death, truth, art.

Perhaps the secret of the man's appeal is that his stories defy analysis. That said, some stories are less baffling than others. 'The Swords', with its run-down funfair and fishnet-clad temptress called Madonna, seems to share some DNA with New Wave science fiction of the sort produced in the Seventies by M. John Harrison. 'The Same Dog', 'The Hospice' and 'Meeting Mr Millar' all struck me at the time as brilliant, particularly 'The Hospice'. Almost as impressive are 'Niemandswasser', 'The Real Road to the Church' and 'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal'. 'The Clock Watcher' is oddly memorable, too, perhaps because it seems so simple but leaves this reader baffled as to what - if anything - the reader is supposed to take from it. But that's Aickman, I suppose.

Back in the Seventies, the BBC decided to televise all of Shakespeare's plays. Tartarus Press has set itself a slightly easier task - printing all of Robert Aickman's books. But Aickman does enjoy an almost Bardic status among many modern writers and readers. Love him or resent him, there he is, one of the few writers in the horror genre (or near it) to deserve the over-used accolade 'unique'.

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...