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.

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...