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 cardinalcox1@yahoo.co.uk

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'.

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...